François-Marie Arouet ( 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher 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.
Voltaire was a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.
He was an outspoken advocate of several liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time.
As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma, and the French institutions of his day.
François-Marie Arouet was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children (three of whom survived) of François Arouet (1650 – 1 January 1722), a lawyer who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite d’Aumart (ca. 1660 – 13 July 1701), from a noble family of the province of Poitou. Some speculation surrounds his date of birth, which Voltaire always claimed to be 20 February 1694.
Voltaire was educated by the Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English.
By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen, Normandy. Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies.
Voltaire’s wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. His father then obtained a job for him as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer.
Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire’s father and he was forced to return to France.
Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for critiques of the government and religious intolerance.
These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Régent, in which Voltaire accused the Régent of incest with his own daughter, led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation.
He mainly argued for religious tolerance and freedom of thought. He campaigned to eradicate priestly and aristo-monarchical authority, and supported a constitutional monarchy that protects people’s rights.
The name “Voltaire”, which the author adopted in 1718, is an anagram of “AROVET LI,” the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of “le jeune” (“the young”).
The name also echoes in reverse order the syllables of the name of a family château in the Poitou region: “Airvault”. The adoption of the name “Voltaire” following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire’s formal separation from his family and his past.
Richard Holmes supports this derivation of the name, but adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended it to also convey its connotations of speed and daring.
These come from associations with words such as “voltige” (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), “volte-face” (a spinning about to face one’s enemies), and “volatile” (originally, any winged creature). “Arouet” was not a noble name fit for his growing reputation, especially given that name’s resonance with “à rouer” (“to be broken on the wheel” – a form of torture then still prevalent) and “roué” (a “débauché”).
In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that, if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire.
A postscript explains: “J’ai été si malheureux sous le nom d’Arouet que j’en ai pris un autre surtout pour n’être plus confondu avec le poète Roi”, (I was so unhappy under the name of Arouet that I have taken another, primarily so as to cease to be confused with the poet Roi.)
This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the ‘oi’ diphthong was then pronounced like modern ‘ouai’, so the similarity to ‘Arouet’ is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Indeed, Voltaire is known also to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime.
In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in 20 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene.
The five-day journey was too much for the 83-year-old, and he believed he was about to die on 28 February, writing “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene, where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero.
He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. The accounts of his deathbed have been numerous and varying, and it has not been possible to establish the details of what precisely occurred. His enemies related that he repented and accepted the last rites given by a Catholic priest, or that he died under great torment, while his adherents told how he was defiant to his last breath.
According to one story, his last words were, “Now is not the time for making new enemies.” It was his response to a priest at the side of his deathbed, asking Voltaire to renounce Satan.
Because of his well-known criticism of the Church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial, but friends managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne before this prohibition had been announced. His heart and brain were embalmed separately.
On 11 July 1791, the National Assembly of France, which regarded him as a forerunner of the French Revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris to enshrine him in the Panthéon.
It is estimated that a million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, complete with an orchestra, and the music included a piece that André Grétry had composed specially for the event, which included a part for the “tuba curva” (an instrument that originated in Roman times as the cornu but had recently been revived under a new name).