François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and separation of church and state.
If Voltaire may be considered the father of modern history, it is because he was the first to conceive of history as the total interpretation of the customs and manners of past civilizations. His history was evaluative as well as descriptive; in his judgment of ancient times his highest praise was for China and India, and in the west, for Greece and Rome. In modern times he held that the apogee of civilization was reached in the age of Louis XIV. Voltaire's history is in large part propaganda for a way of life, an attempt to educate his reader to the ways of the most refined and cultivated of modern civilizations, seen not in its political and military triumphs, but in the achievement of its arts and institutions.
In a very long life of tireless intellectual campaigning he was the most widely-read of the Enlightenment spokesmen known as philosophes. These writers prized clarity and wit, and Voltaire's writing abounds in both. However, these qualities are somewhat dimmed for many contemporary readers who don't have the background to appreciate his jokes or grasp his points without assistance.
For nearly 50 years Voltaire preached freedom of thought and denounced cruelty and oppression in all its forms. Voltaire was bourgeois, not a democrat. He believed in reasonable dissent. He believed in natural religion and praised French artistic and cultural achievement during the Age of Louis XIV. Politically he advocated the concept of Enlightened Despotism. Above all others Voltaire stood as the champion of reason and tolerance.
From his earliest youth [Voltaire] seems to have been imbued with a spirit of skepticism and rebellion against intolerance. This characteristic which he was at no pains to hide, twice brought him imprisonment in the Bastille, and at a later date, periods of exile from France.
Although they are two of the most famous of the great French philosophes, Rousseau and Voltaire hated each other. In fact, it would be hard to ever envision the urbane and suave Voltaire and the radically democratic Rousseau ever seeing eye to eye on much: Voltaire believed that through education and reason man could separate himself from the beasts while Rousseau thought that it was precisely all this which made men "unnatural" and corrupted.
His satirical story Candide, published in 1759, is one of his best loved and most widely read works. Full of his usual wit this ‘philosophical romance’ is an outright attack on the religious and philosophical optimism popular at the time. The protagonist, Candide, is young, innocent and naïve and goes through a bizarre set of adventures plagued by bad luck, preyed on by a rich cast of characters full of hypocrisy, greed and treachery, while throughout he attempts to reconcile his experiences with the philosophy he was taught by his friend and teacher ‘the best philosopher in the world’ Doctor Pangloss.
His entire life was a parodox. He despised mankind and yet he was passionately fond of men. He ridiculed the clergy and dedicated one of his books to the pope. He made fun of royalty and he accepted a pension from King Frederick the Great. He hated bigotry and he was bigoted in his attitude toward the Jews. He sneered at the vanity of riches and he acquired a vast fortune (by means that were not always honest). He disbelieved in God and he tried all his life to find Him.
This anemic and cynically-faces individual made the time in which he lived momentous. The period might be called the "Age of Voltaire." In fact Victor Hugo said to name Voltaire was to characterize the entire eighteenth century. For just as surely as at the geological periods in the earth's history have left their stratified imprint in the earth's formation, so the work and influence of Voltaire are unmistakably impressed upon the progress and intellectual development of mankind.
But Voltaire was always intolerant of Christianity. For this all Christians should be thankful. Religion, after all, is never more alive than when under attack. Voltaire did more than his part. And if he could never conceive of the stuff of which faith is made and so never grasp the fascination which religion held and holds, he could allow that others must have their faith. "If God did not exist, we should have to invent Him," he argued.
Today we might think of him as a pioneer of a peculiarly French Enlightenment, yet he himself never sought to be a leader of the Enlightenment , or indeed of anything. On the contrary, so intense was his personal ambition for literary success, and so great his fear of rivals, or of persecution by the authorities, that his career was marked at every step by feuds and crises; despite his celebrity, he never managed to take a philosophical view of his own ups and downs; and he certainly never took a detached interest in the works of other writers.
Voltaire was a key figure in advancing Enlightenment ideals. His poetry, dramas, historical and philosophical works, and his fiction all contributed to shape the world we live in today.
…Voltaire was mainly famous during his lifetime as the leading French author of neoclassical verse dramas, including twenty-seven tragedies and a dozen comedies. […] Voltaire's second claim to fame in his lifetime was as a poet: in 1723, when he was only twenty-nine, he achieved an international literary reputation with the publication of La Henriade […] The third strand of Voltaire's literary fan in the eighteenth century was as the author of half a dozen weighty volumes of history.
[Voltaire] won a reputation as a writer of satires and odes - a not altogether enviable reputation., for the suspicion of having written a satire on the Regent procured him a term of six months' imprisonment in the Bastille. […] After a second term of imprisonment in the Bastille, Voltaire spent three years (1726-9) in England, and returned to France full of enthusiasm for the intellectual activity and the more tolerant form of government he had found there.