Voltaire

françois-marie arouet) (1694-1778. French Enlightenment philosopher and littérateur. He was an extremely versatile figure and the greatest formulator of the new Enlightenment* vision of secular and rationalist regeneration. Educated by the Jesuits, he was introduced early to Descartes,* Montaigne, and Pierre Bayle.* Exile in England (1726-29), where he learned from the English Deists* and especially Locke,* permanently transformed his world-view. His commitments were published in Lettres philosophiques (1734). Throughout most of his life he was out of favor in official France because of his biting and penetrating critique of the Establishment. He did serve Frederick II as philosopher-poet (1750-52), but his most productive years came under the patronage of Mme. de Chatelet in provincial Lorraine (1734-49), and his country estate at Ferney near Switzerland where as a kind of patriarch he implemented his social ideals (1758-78). Ferney became a model Enlightenment village of 1,200 people with a watch factory, a silk-stocking mill, and social contentment under paternalistic Voltaire. During his final year (1778) he was treated in Paris as virtually a living human deity. The devotees of the Revolution gave him a grand burial in the Pantheon (1792).

Voltaire's gifts were especially literary. In over twenty plays, beginning with Oedipe (1718), he forcefully presented his ideals; theater was one of his chief means of “evangelizing” the French social élites during fifty years. He was a master of wit and devastating ridicule. His satire Candide (1759) summarized his critique against prevailing notions of the ultimate goodness of evil. As historian he reversed traditional historiography with its emphasis on Divine Providence by recasting human history immanentistically, as in his Essai sur les moeurs et l'ésprit des nations (1769) and Philosophie de l'histoire (1765). His heroes were philosophers, scientists, and poets, not kings and generals.

He called himself a Theist,* but his god was, as Torrey puts it, “a vague impersonal being with no particular concern for the affairs of men.” The organized Christian Church was an abomination to him. Christ he admired as a great man, and Christian ethics he considered correct insofar as they concurred with elements found in other religions. He had an intense commitment to humanistic justice, which he believed would be achieved by enlightened amelioration of society which he called “progress.” His many articles in the Dictionnaire Philosophique summarized his religious and cultural ethic. He conducted an immense correspondence with kings, philosophers, poets, merchants, and ordinary people throughout the world-more than 20,000 letters to over 1,200 correspondents. Thirty-nine of his works were placed on the Index. A Voltairian outlook typified a large sector of the educated classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was the supreme example of the proud, self-sufficient humanist.

Oeuvres complètes (ed. L. Moland, 52 vols., 1877-85); Voltaire's correspondence (ed. T. Besterman, over 100 vols., 1953ff.); R. Pomeau, La religion de Voltaire (1956); R. Waldinger, Voltaire and reform in the light of the French Revolution (1959); N.L. Torrey, The Spirit of Voltaire (1963); J.H. Brumfitt, Voltaire, historian (1970).