Voltaire was born in Paris under the name of Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694 of a middle-class Paris Notary. His early education was at the Jesuit school College Louis le Grand. He began studying law at the request of his father, but turned away from the law and began writing. By the time he was 20 years old, he was exiled for writing lampoons against the Regency. He returned the following year but was imprisoned in the Bastille for further libelous writings. During his stay, he adopted the pseudonym Voltaire. He also wrote his first tragedy Œdipe.
In 1723, Voltaire finished La Henriade, which was a tribute to the rational and liberal Henri IV, which also happened to be taken as an open indictment of Christianity. The poem was banned, but it was still hailed as one of the greatest French language works written. Voltaire was the victim of some injustice at the hands of a nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, in 1726. The nobleman did not like some of Voltaire’s comments and had him roughed up. Voltaire was actually thrown into the Bastille again and was given the choice of either exile or imprisonment, and went to England as a result.
Voltaire wrote some of his impressions of the liberal English government in Letters Concerning the English Nation in which he praised their toleration. The French government became outraged because they felt Voltaire was insulting them. The French government banned this work too, and had it burned. Voltaire had to flee Paris again, and went to Lorraine, where he spent the next 15 years. During these years in Lorraine, Voltaire was very prolific as a writer.
In 1750, Voltaire went to Potsdam to serve Frederick the Great as a court poet and philosopher. He spent three years there, writing and antagonizing the king, and again left on poor terms. By this time, Voltaire was extremely rich, through speculation and bought a chateau in Geneva. It was at the chateau he named “Les Delices” that he wrote the work he is most famous for, Candide. The local government did not like his presence, so in 1759 he purchased a huge estate close to the French border called Ferney.
Voltaire could now afford to write and concentrate on his passion, attacking Christianity. He considered Christianity to be very detrimental, and wrote many treatises, books, poems, and plays to that effect. He also wrote what many consider to be his best work Philosophical Dictionary. This work, like many of his others, was publicly burned and banned in many areas.
Voltaire returned briefly to Paris in 1778, but due to the trip he died at the age of 84 on May 30. There were the usual unsubstantiated rumors that on his deathbed he recanted all his attacks on Christianity. Subsequently, he was denied a church burial, but his remains were eventually placed at the Pantheon in Paris.
Voltaire is considered by many to be one of the greatest Rationalists that ever lived. He fought continually against injustice and religious bigotry, and attacked Christianity because of the bigotry and injustices caused by the collusion between church and state. While he was never an atheist as was alleged, he was a Deist throughout his life.
"The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning"
Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary, 1764.
Director, Center for Inquiry Libraries