Statue of Voltaire in Ferney-Voltaire, eastern France, where the writer spent most of the last twenty years of his life.

Francois-Marie Arouet (November 21, 1694 - May 30, 1778), better known by the pseudonym Voltaire, was a prolific French author whose works included novels, plays, poems, essays and non-fiction works on philosiophy, history and science. He is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his 1759 novel Candide, which satirizes the philosophy of optimism.

Voltaire advocated social reform and the separation of church and state. His works are highly critical of the French government of his day and the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. He is one of several 18th century philosophers whose ideas influenced the French and American Revolutions.


Voltaire was the youngest of five children of the lawyer and minor treasury official Francois Arouet and Marie Marguerite d'Aumart. There is some dispute about his date of birth, which Voltaire always claimed was February 20, 1694. Between 1704 and 1711 he attended a Jesuit school. Voltaire had already decided to become a writer by the time he left school, against the wishes of his father who wanted him to become a lawyer. After having moved to Paris, Voltaire deceived his father for a while by claiming that he had a non-existent job as a lawyer's assistant, while really spending most of his time writing poetry. When his father discovered the truth, he was sent to study law in Normandy, although he continued to write essays and historical studies. Voltaire's father found him a secretarial position at the French embassy in the Netherlands but he was forced by his family to return to France when it was discovered that he was in a relationship with a Protestant woman named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer.

In 1717, Voltaire was sentenced to eleven months in the Bastille prison because of a satirical poem which he wrote about a member of the French royal family. During his time in prison, he wrote his first play Oedipe.

D'après Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Portrait de Voltaire, détail du visage (château de Ferney)

1735 portrait of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin del Tour.

In 1726, Voltaire was beaten by some servants of the nobleman Chevalier de Rohan. Voltaire sought compensation from him but the Rohan family persuaded the king to order the imprisonment of the trouble-making Voltaire instead. As an alternative to being sent to prison, Voltaire suggested that he go into exile in England. The authorities agreed.

Voltaire lived in London for nearly three years, returning to France in 1728. He developed an interest in English literature and became a great admirer of William Shakespeare, whose works were still relatively unknown in France. Voltaire later modified his opinions as Shakespeare's reputation grew in France. Voltaire expressed his opinions on British literature and government and attitudes towards religion in Britain in a work published in London in 1733 as Letters Concerning the English Nation and in Paris in 1734 as Lettres philosophique sur les Anglais. The work proved highly controversial on its publication in France because of Voltaire's claim that the British government was more respectful of human rights, especially religious freedom, than the French one. The book was publicly burnt and Voltaire was forced to flee Paris.

Taking up residence in the Chateau de Cirey in eastern France, Voltaire began a relationship with the physicist and mathematician Marquise Emilie de Chatelet. He acquired a vast library of books and continued to write poetry and works on history and philosophy, as well as carrying out scientific experiments and making a study of the Bible.

Voltaire old

Portrait of Voltaire as an old man by an unknown artist.

In 1750, Voltaire moved to Germany, having accepted the invitation of King Frederick II of Prussia to take up a position at his court. He was forced to leave after the publication of Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, a work which satirized the president of the Berlin Academy of Science.

After having spent some time in Geneva, Voltaire settled in Ferney (now known as Ferney-Voltaire) in eastern France, near the Swiss border. He bought a large estate where he received several of the best known thinkers of the time. It was in Ferney that Voltaire wrote his most famous works, the satirical novel Candide and the Dictionnaire philosophique.

Voltaire died in Paris in 1778, having gone there from Ferney to attend the premiere of his play Irene. As an outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church, he was denied a Christian burial, although some of his friends secretly buried him at an abbey in eastern France. After the French Revolution, the new government paid tribute to Voltaire by having his remains moved to the Pantheon in Paris. More than a million people witnessed his funeral procession on July 11, 1791.

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