Open main menu

The New Student's Reference Work/Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet

< The New Student's Reference Work


Voltaire ( vol-târ' ), Francois Marie Arouet, a famous French writer, was born at Chatenay, France, Nov. 21, 1694. His father's name was Arouet. After studying at Paris and in his father's law office, he began his career as a literary man. He spent a year in the Bastile imprisoned on suspicion of having written some verses which reflected on the government, and there finished his Œdipe. On leaving prison he changed his name to Voltaire, which is probably an anagram on his original name. His tragedy was successfully brought out in 1718, but Artémire was hissed off the stage. On a visit to Holland he met Rousseau, of whom he made an enemy by a sarcastic reply to Rousseau's question: "What is your opinion of my Ode to Posterity?" "It is a letter that will never reach its address" was the answer. His visit to England, which was an exile, introduced him to the literary men and the literature of England. Through the favor of Queen Caroline, who headed the list of subscribers, his Henriade brought him nearly $40,000, making him independent of the great men in France whose patronage had been so injurious to him. In 1729 he was allowed to return to France where Brutus, Ériphile and his best play, Zaïre, were produced at intervals. His English Letters, reflecting on everything in church or state in France, under the pretense of praising England, brought out in 1733, was condemned and burned, he himself being safely out of the way in Lorraine, where he lived for 15 years with Madame du Châtelet, writing and studying Newton's Principia. His Mérope and Mahomet, among his best plays, belong to this period, as does his Age of Louis XIV.

His life at the Prussian court, as the friend of Frederick the Great lasted three years, with the jealousies, squabbles and court-quarrels which Voltaire always succeeded in falling into. Being refused permission to return to France, he bought Ferney, an estate four miles from Geneva, which was his home for the last 20 years of his life. Here he was visited by many of the most celebrated men of Europe, carried on an immense correspondence, rescued from want and educated a niece of Corneille, interfered in several cases of oppression and injustice, and adopted a young girl whom he had rescued from a convent. After the death of Louis XV he was permitted to return to Paris, and on Feb. 10, 1778, he entered the city after 28 years of exile. He was received with enthusiasm, and crowned with laurel at the theater where his new play Irene was produced. He died at Paris, soon after, on May 30, 1778. His works fill about 90 volumes, including the tragedies Zaïre, Mérope and Mahomet, which give him a place with the best French dramatists; historical works, which embrace Charles XII, Louis XIV and Peter the Great; and philosophical works, poems, criticisms and miscellaneous writings. See Life by John Morley.