Voltaire Essay, Research Paper
Matt Herring AP European History, Set 5
1/18/00 Extra Credit Assignment – Voltaire
Francois Marie Arouet was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris. He was the son of a notary. The name most people know Francois by is his pen name, Voltaire. Voltaire was a French author, philosopher, and apostle of free thought, he was also one of the most influential figures during the French age of Enlightenment. Voltaire received an excellent education at a Jesuit school called Louis-le-Grand. At age 16 he left school and became friends with Parisian aristocrats. The aristocrats admired his cleverness, humor, and remarkable writing ability. [Voltaire Foundation, Oxford]
In 1717 Voltaire was arrested for writing a series of satirical verses ridiculing the French government. He was imprisoned in the infamous French prison, the Bastille. During imprisonment he adopted the name Voltaire. He used this pen name because he could not be blamed for writing subversive literature if the government could not identify the author. During his eleven months in prison he wrote his first major play. The play was named Oedipe , which achieved great success in 1718. Ironically, only weeks out of prison Voltaire got in an argument with a nobleman and was arrested. He was given two options, imprisonment or exile. So, from 1726 to 1729 Voltaire was exiled to England. While in England he learned of the philosophies of John Locke and the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton. He absorbed the British liberties, deism, and literature. Still unwelcome in his homeland, Paris, Voltaire lived at Cirey in Lorraine from 1734 to 1744 with Madame du Chatelet. After 1744 they moved to Versailles, Sceaux, and Luneville. Madame du Chatelet died during childbirth in 1749. After the death of Madame du Chatelet Voltaire became the honored guest of Fredrick the Great at Potsdam. However, increasing acrimony led to their abrupt separation in 1753. (Grolier, pg.1) After three years of wandering around Europe Voltaire went to live on the French-Swiss border, in a town called Ferney. Ferney soon became the intellectual capital of Europe. During his years in Ferney, Voltaire produced many books, plays, pamphlets, and letters. Many of these works spoke against religious intolerance and persecution. Voltaire remained in Ferney until his triumphant return to Paris. Voltaire was 83 at the time of his return. The excitement of his trip was too much for him and he died in Paris. He died May 30, 1778. Voltaire was denied burial in church ground because of his criticism of the church. He was finally buried in an abbey in Champagne. In 1791 his remains were transferred to his final resting-place at the Pantheon in Paris. (Encyclopedia Americana, pg.228) He made his way to fame by writing: Oedipe, (1718) his first story and Zaire, (1732) one of his best tragedies. Voltaire also wrote historical works such as: History of Charles XII (1731), Age of Louis XIV (1751) and Essay on Manners (1753-56). Most importantly Voltaire was, and remains, famous as a philosopher and a fighter for reform. (Grolier, pg2) Voltaire was the leader, chief organizer, and propagandist of the reformist group called philosophes. (Microsoft Encarta, pg2) He worked with Diderot and d Holbach, famous encyclopedists, on The Encyclopedia.
During the time of the enlightenment, the philosophes were people who brought “the light of knowledge to their ignorant fellow creatures”(McKay, 601). The prevalent ideals of these thinkers were progress, reason, and the search for natural law. Francois Marie Arouet, or Voltaire was undoubtedly the most famous. One of the more interesting of the enlightenment figures, Voltaire used wit and clever satire to convey his messages. In some cases, he shared the same view as other philosophes, but in others his opinion was very different.
Voltaire said that it didn’t matter what people said, he believed they had freedom of speech and he would defend that right(16). Like the other Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire talked about how wonderful freedom of speech would be, and despised those that did not give it. He himself had been imprisoned because of something he said. Voltaire did not believe there were accidents, there has to be a reason for everything.(18) This goes along with the new way of thinking. Nothing happened “by accident”, everything had a reason or law which could explain it. He also says the same thing when he says there are no chances, everything has a cause.(19) Again, he displays his agreement with Enlightenment ideals. One of the main goals of these thinkers is progress, and to them that meant a break from harsh absolutism and the censorship of the church. “Liberty can only be achieved when the last king is strangled by the entrails of the last priest”(23). Voltaire was not a democrat, but he felt King’s should act as they do in England, not France. The thinkers wanted an “enlightened absolutist”, not a sun king. Philosophes generally criticized the Christian Church and Voltaire was very venomous to the priest class. In saying that he didn’t want to be a martyr(15), Voltaire was a philosophe, who although they criticize people and suggest new ways, they are not revolutionaries, and do not want to die for their cause.
What is the ideal situation in life? The question often arises, for what purpose was man placed upon the earth? It seems, in this satirical work, that Voltaire is focusing mainly on remodeling the mental limitations of man’s outlook on life. It quickly becomes evident that the target of his satire, as the title suggests, is the concept of philosophical optimism. His exaggerated tales of the horrors which his characters endure, attack the idea that “everything always happens for the best.” These attacks on the pleasantness of life are accompanied by the absolute extremes of existence and government.