Voltaire

Voltaire

Famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.

François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire was born in Paris in 1694, in a bourgeois family. His father was a lawyer. As a teenager, Voltaire studied at the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Then, he studiedlaw for a while, but gave up pretty quickly. In Paris he was noted early in his life as a spiritual man, able to compose satirical verses. However, during the old regime of France, his talents could have been dangerous, as it happened in fact.Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille because of his political lyrics. He spent nearly a year in prison, during which time he wrote an epic poem “Henriade”, which has subsequently enjoyed a great success. In 1718, shortly after being released from prison, he witnessed the premiere of his opera “Oedipus”, which took place in Paris and recorded a resounding success. At the age of 24 years old Voltaire was already famous, and in the next 60 years he has become a great figure of French literature.

The English democracy and the individual freedoms contrasted sharply with the political conditions of his time in France. No English lord could issue a “lettre de cachet” to throw Voltaire in prison, and if he was imprisoned unjustly, an immediate “habeas corpus” was to be issued for his release.When he returned to France, Voltaire wrote his first important philosophical opera, “Lettresphilosophiques”, known as “The Letters on the English”. That book was published in 1734 and marked the true beginning of the French Enlightenment. In “Lettresphilosophiques“, Voltaire presented a generally favorable description of the English political system and the ideas of John Locke and other English thinkers of the time. The publication of the book rose the anger of the French authorities, so that Voltaire was forced again to leave Paris.

He spent the next 15 years in eastern France, atCirey, where he was the lover of Ms du Châtelet, the intelligent and emancipated wife of a marquis. In 1750, a year after her death, Voltaire went to Germany at the personal invitation of Frederick the Great of Prussia. He spent 3 years at the court of Frederick at Potsdam. In the beginning he was understood by the intelligent and intellectual Frederick, but eventually the two quarreled, and Voltaire left Germany in 1753.After he left Germany, he established in a small estate near Geneva, where he was sheltered from both the French king and from the Prussian one. But because of his liberal ideas, even Switzerland has become unsafe for him. Therefore, in 1758 he moved to Ferney, the French-Swiss border, where he had two opportunities to escape in case of a conflict with the authorities. He remained there for 20 years, during which he composed literary and philosophical correspondence with the leading intellectuals of Europe and received various visits.In all these years, Voltaire’s literary output hasn’t stagnated for a moment. His writings comprise over thirty thousand pages, including prose poems, lyrics, personal letters, pamphlets, novels, short stories, plays and books documented of history and philosophy.

Voltaire’s writings are so numerous that even the most important works would be hard to list in one short article. But his books are even more valuable than the basic ideas that he promoted throughout his career. Voltaire believed strongly in the freedom of speech and of the press.

Voltaire was not a philosopher as original as many of the personalities of his time. He took a large extent from the ideas of people like John Locke and Francis Bacon, which he will implement and popularize them. However, the writings of Voltaire, more than others, have spread the ideas of democracy, religious tolerance and intellectual freedom in France and throughout Europe. Although there were other important writers such as Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, Montesquieu and others within the French Enlightenment, we must admit that Voltaire was a prominent personality of the movement.

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