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François-Marie Arouet, better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.
Voltaire was a versatile and prolific writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken advocate of civil liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.
For "Voltaire's Life" see under Wiki.
Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1752), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). He broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history and achievements in the arts and sciences. The Essay on customs traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet's Discourse on the Universal history (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Arab civilization, but otherwise was weak on the Middle Ages. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to ridicule the Catholic Church. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed. Although he found evil in the historical record, he fervently believed reason and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.
From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two book-long epic poems, including the first ever written in French, the Henriade, and later, The Maid of Orleans, besides many other smaller pieces.
The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for modern readers but it was a huge success in the 18th and early 19th century, with sixty-five editions and translations into several languages. The epic poem transformed French King Henry IV into a national hero for his attempts at instituting tolerance with his Edict of Nantes. La Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque on the superhuman powers attributed to virginity in the legend of Joan of Arc. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.
Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz's philosophy of optimism; L'Homme aux quarante ecus (The Man of Forty Crowns), certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others, the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy; and some were written to deride the Bible. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style, free of exaggeration, is apparent, particularly the restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Candide in particular is the best example of his style. Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromégas.
In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar works – sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siècles.
Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme," or "crush the infamous". The phrase refers to abuses to the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre. He also stated that (one of his most famous quotes) "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them".
The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire’s attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall's summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Roche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.
Voltaire's first major philosophical work in his battle against "l'infâme" was the Treatise on Tolerance, exposing the Calas affair, along with the tolerance exercised by other faiths and in other eras (for example, by the Jews, the Romans, the Greeks and the Chinese). Then, in his Dictionnaire philosophique, containing such articles as "Abraham", "Genesis", "Church Council", he wrote about what he perceived as the human origins of dogmas and beliefs, as well as inhuman behavior of religious and political institutions in shedding blood over the quarrels of competing sects.
Amongst other targets, Voltaire criticized France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as "a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige").
Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totaling over 20,000 letters. Theodore Besterman's collected edition of these letters, completed only in 1964, fills 102 volumes. One historian called the letters "a feast not only of wit and eloquence but of warm friendship, humane feeling, and incisive thought."
Voltaire did not believe that any single religious text or tradition of revelation was needed to believe in God. Voltaire's focus was rather on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature which reflected the contemporary pantheism.
Like other key thinkers during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a deist, expressing the idea: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."
As for religious texts, Voltaire's opinion of the Bible was mixed. Although influenced by Socinian works such as the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, Voltaire's skeptical attitude to the Bible separated him from Unitarian theologians like Fausto Sozzini or even Biblical-political writers like John Locke.
This did not hinder his religious practice, though it did win for him a bad reputation among religious fundamentalists. The deeply Catholic Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...."
Views of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, can be found in Voltaire's writings. In a letter recommending his play Fanaticism, or Mahomet to Pope Benedict XIV, Voltaire described the founder of Islam as "the founder of a false and barbarous sect" and "a false prophet." Later, his views were more generous, often praising the relative tolerance of Muslim behavior in the lands they conquered (as opposed to the Christian Inquisitions) and the fact that its doctrines were written by its founder himself, not based on hearsay, and had not endured the innumerable changes Christian doctrine had. His Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations, contains much fuller accounts on Muhammad and the founding and spread of his religion as do a number of his polemical works on religion.
From translated works on Confucianism and Legalism, Voltaire drew on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy (which were based on rational principles), to look critically at European organized religion and hereditary aristocracy.
In the Scottish Enlightenment the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation".
In a letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767 he wrote that, “ Le christianisme est la plus ridicule, la religion la plus absurde et sanglante qui ait jamais infecté le monde. (Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that ever infected the world.)”
Attitude toward Jews
Though many books have been written taxing Voltaire with anti-semitism, they do not explain, nor usually even mention, the numerous pamphlets he wrote attacking anti-semitism itself. This apparent contradiction led many to conclude that his remarks were in fact anti-Biblical and not anti-semitic. His "Sermon du rabbin Akib", for example, is a scathing attack on Christian persecution of the Jews, and similar remarks can be found scattered throughout his 200-odd pamphlets and books on religion.
It has been pointed out that thirty of the 118 articles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique described the ancient Jews in consistently negative ways, as barbarous, absurd and deeply superstitious; however, this ignores his qualifiers, in which he points out that "all of antiquity was", as a rule.
Peter Gay, the best known contemporary authority on the Enlightenment, wrote that "Voltaire struck at the Jews to strike at Christianity," a view shared by certain leading Jewish Voltairians—indeed, the point usually is, if the Jews were cruel and absurd, what can be made of other faiths that declare their histories sacred, yet persecute them? "When I see Christians cursing Jews," he wrote in his English Notebook, "methinks I see children beating their fathers." And posing as a freshly minted Spanish priest in Les Questions de Zapata, he asks his superiors how he should go about explaining that the Jews, whom they burn by the hundreds, were the chosen people of God for four thousand years, and why we chant their prayers while burning them. Voltaire grew exceedingly vocal against the Church during the campaign for tolerance of his later years, openly writing that it had been the "consistently implacable enemy of progress, decency, humanity and rationality" and that it had been the Church's interest to "keep people as ignorant and submissive as children".
Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry one month before his death. On April 4, 1778 Voltaire accompanied his close friend Benjamin Franklin into Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, France and became an Entered Apprentice Freemason, perhaps only to please Franklin.
Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Voltaire long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king's rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy somewhat, and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which ends with a new conclusion: "It is up to us to cultivate our garden". His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Candide was also subject to censorship and Voltaire jokingly claimed the actual author was a certain "Demad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.
Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer" ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, "The Three Impostors." But far from being the cynical remark it is often taken for, it was meant as a retort to the atheistic clique of d'Holbach, Grimm, and others.
Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights—the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion—and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).
Voltaire has had his detractors among his later colleagues. The Scottish Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle argued that, while Voltaire was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works were of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own. Nietzsche, however, called Carlyle a muddlehead who had not even understood the Enlightenment values he thought he was promoting.
He often used China, Siam and Japan as examples of brilliant non-European civilizations and harshly criticized slavery.
The town of Ferney, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life, is now named Ferney-Voltaire in honor of its most famous resident. His château is a museum.
Voltaire's library is preserved intact in the National Library of Russia at St. Petersburg, Russia.
In Zurich 1916, the theater and performance group who would become the early avant-garde movement Dada named their theater The Cabaret Voltaire. A late-20th-century industrial music group then named themselves after the theater.
A character based on Voltaire plays an important role in The Age of Unreason, a series of four alternative history novels written by American science fiction and fantasy author Gregory Keyes.
Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was purported to have drunk the beverage at least 30 times per day. It has been suggested that high amounts of caffeine acted as a mental stimulant to his creativity.
His great grand-niece was the mother of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a famous writer and Jesuit priest.
- Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (1733), revised as Letters on the English (circa 1778)
- Le Mondain (1736)
- Sept Discours en Vers sur l'Homme (1738)
- Zadig (1747)
- Micromégas (1752)
- Candide (1759)
- Treatise on Tolerance (1763)
- Ce qui plaît aux dames (1764)
- Dictionnaire philosophique (1764)
- L'Ingénu (1767)
- La Princesse de Babylone (1768)
Voltaire wrote between fifty and sixty plays, including a few unfinished ones. Among them are these:
- Œdipe (1718), * Zaïre (1732), * Eriphile (1732), * Irène, * Socrates, * Mahomet, * Mérope, * Nanine, * The Orphan of China (1755)
- History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731)
- The Age of Louis XIV (1751)
- The Age of Louis XV (1746–1752)
- Annals of the Empire - Charlemagne, A.D. 742 - Henry VII 1313, Vol. I (1754)
- Annals of the Empire - Louis of Bavaria, 1315 to Ferdinand II 1631 Vol. II (1754)
- Essay on the Manners of Nations (or 'Universal History') (1756)
- History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (Vol. I 1759; Vol. II 1763)
- History of the Parliament of Paris (1769)
- Hogg, Bruce; Freemasons and the Royal Society ed 2; Library and Museum of Freemasonry; January 2012; page 118