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A tribute to Voltaire

Wed 27th Oct 2021

Voltaire hated the immorality of the Catholic Church, but he certainly had a buck each way when it came to the existence of God.
Voltaire hated the immorality of the Catholic Church, but he certainly had a buck each way when it came to the existence of God.

Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet on 21 November 1694, was a French writer,  historian and philosopher during the 18th century Enlightenment period.

Voltaire was a prolific writer well known for his wit and civil rights advocacy. One of the first authors to gain international success, he wrote in many different forms including plays, poems, novels, histories, essays and scientific expositions.

 

Born in Paris, Voltaire came from a well educated family and attended the prestigious Collège Louis-le-Grand from 1704 to 1711, where he was taught Latin, theology, and rhetoric. Against his lawyer father's wishes, Voltaire followed his writing interests, often in secret, for his father had aspirations for him to follow in his footsteps. When his father found out about this, he sent him away to study law. Voltaire however continued writing historical studies and essays and became popular amongst the aristocratic families he mixed with.

 Known to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime, he adopted Voltaire from the anagram of the latin spelling of his surname, AROVET LI, which he changed to after he was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months. Fearing he would be there indefinitely, he asked to be exiled to Britain where he resided for the next three years. Here he published his views on British attitudes to government, literature and religion and gained a great interest in English literature, in particular William Shakespeare.

These works became very controversial in France and when he returned there, he was forced to flee again and spent his time traveling around Europe writing works on the teachings of Isaac Newton, history and philosophy. These works were instrumental in bringing greater understanding of Newton's theories.

 In the frontispiece to Voltaire's interpretation of Isaac Newton's work, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton.
In the frontispiece to Voltaire's interpretation of Isaac Newton's work, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton (1738), the philosopher sits translating the inspired work of Newton.

 

Often imprisoned for his controversies, in particular his ideas related to religion and criticism of the Catholic Church, Voltaire perceived 'the middle and upper class to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious and the Church as a static force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance of the rapacity of Kings, which all too often, even more rapacious itself.' He thought the only path to social change would be by an enlightened monarch.

In late 1758, Voltaire bought a large estate at Ferney, France where he wrote his signature works, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759). The novel of sarcasm, is based around a young man who is forced to face the harsh realities of the real world.

"Candide, terrified, amazed, desperate, all bloody, all palpitating, said to himself: "If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others? Well,"  Voltaire, Candide.

Elsewhere he criticises nobility, cruelty, philosophy and the Church. The novel closes off with his ideals on 'quietism'. "It is up to us to cultivate our garden."

He resided in Ferney for the remaining 20 years of his life and entertained distinguished guests regularly. In 1764, he published his greatest philosophical works, the Dictionnaire philosophique, a series of articles about Christian history and dogmas.

Château de Voltaire à Ferney
Château de Voltaire à Ferney

At the age of 83, Voltaire returned to Paris after 25 years absent, to watch his latest tragedy, Irene. The five day journey ended up being too much for him and he fell ill. Believing he was on his last days he wrote: "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition."  He did however recover and viewed the performance of Irene where audiences treated him like a returning hero.

Shortly after he fell ill once again, passing away on 30 May 1778.

Infamous for his criticism of the Church, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial in Paris. Friends however banded together and managed to bury him secretly at the Abbey Of Scellières in Champagne.

The National Assembly of France regarded Voltaire as a forerunner of the French Revolution, and had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in Pantheon. A million people were said to have attended the procession which stretched the streets of Paris.

Despite his criticisms relating to the government, his fight for civil rights and freedom of religion, his literary influences have extended across the world and today are  known to be the underlying cause of the French and English revolutions.

Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735
Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735

Voltaire, thank you for your enlightenment in scientific and literary books to help explain the underlying nature of life. At a time when people in power misused their position, you had the courage to think for yourself and encouraged others to always use reason and have an open mind.

"I do not have to agree with what you believe and what you say, but I will make sure that you are allowed to say what you want."

Rest in peace, Voltaire.

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire
  • http://www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk/about-voltaire/ 
  • https://www.sparknotes.com/author/voltaire/