November 21, 2012
Though not strictly a philosopher, Voltaire, the name that the 23-year-old François-Marie Arouet adopted after eleven months imprisonment in the Bastille for a 1717 poem satirizing Philippe II, the Regent of France until Louis XV came of age, became the voice of the Enlightenment, an intense period of time during which liberal ideas, the ideas that formed the foundation of the United States, flourished.
Voltaire was born in Paris on Nov. 21, 1694. He was born into an affluent family; his mother was a noblewoman from the province of Poitou, whose father was a trader in silk and other luxury items, and his father was a lawyer who sold his practice for the more lucrative position as tax collector on spices in the King’s Court of Public Accounts.
The Arouets were a rapidly rising upper middle class family with powerful clients. Young Arouet was expected to follow in the footsteps, become a lawyer and acquire an important position in Paris society. But that was not to his liking.
Young Arouet wanted to become a writer, and, being an ambitious man, he wanted to become a noted writer. He started in law school in Caen, Normandy, but that did not last long. To his father’s consternation, he spent his time writing poetry, partying in witty society, and trying to become noticed as an up and coming writer. His father tried to buy him a position as a king’s advocate and then a more expensive position as a counselor to parliament. Young Arouet was not cooperative. Finally, his father arranged for him to go to The Hague as private secretary to his godfather, who had just become Ambassador. Instead of toeing the family line, Arouet carried on a scandalous affair with Pimpette, who had been abandoned by two men and had a child. The family forced him to return to Paris, and start practicing law.
In 1714, he returned to Paris, but was not diligent in his law practice. He fell in love the beautiful 44-year-old star of the Comédie-Française, the state theater of France started by Louis XIV in 1680, but his efforts were rebuffed, just as his early writings made no dent on Parisian society. His first major work was an epic poem, “Henriade,” based on the story of King Henry IV, who ended the wars between Catholics and Protestants in France, a work that revealed Arouet’s fundamental liberalism, of tolerance, of pluralism, and of individual freedom. And, to gain notoriety, Arouet pushed the bounds of satire too far in some of his other works, he was exiled to Sully in 1716 by the Regent, and upon his return to Paris he resumed his inflammatory, and often quoted, verses on the Regent’s rumored incestuous relationship with his daughter. On May 16, 1717, an un-amused Regent threw him into the Bastille.
While jailed, Arouet finished his play, “Oedipus.” When released from jail, the Comédie-Française accepted the play, and it was a hit. Penned under the name Voltaire, a play on the Latin version of his name, the author became famous at age 24, and though his writing often vexed the crown and kept in frequent trouble, his growing celebrity allowed him to a freedom few other Frenchman enjoyed.
He was a prolific writer, both for publication and in private correspondence. The number of letters he wrote rivaled the output of Thomas Jefferson, who became a great admirer of Voltaire. Voltaire never thought of himself as a philosopher, and wrote only two works that would be considered philosophies. His most famous, “Candide” attacks the complacency of intellectual society and its institutions, and solidified Voltaire as the voice of the Enlightenment.
Voltaire’s goal was to write histories, plays, poems and stories that society would buy. He became one of the most celebrated and controversial people in Europe in that process, both of which allowed him to be a popular philosopher, and a rich man.
He died on May 30, 1778, in Paris.