Voltaire – Libertarian and Philosopher

Voltaire (1694 – 1778)

On November 21, 1694, François-Marie Arouet was born, known by his nom de plume Voltaire, French philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment, re-known by his wits, prolific writer of novels, poems, essays, and letters, and dear friend of Prussian king Frederick the Great.

Voltaire was born in Paris to a son of a lawyer and began studying first Latin and Greek and later on Italian and Spanish. The decision to become a writer was made by Voltaire early and without the support of his father who always planned Voltaire to follow his footsteps. Against Voltaire’s wishes, he was sent to law school, but continued writing poetry secretly.

The young thinker Voltaire was known to have difficult character traits and opinions, wherefore he often had trouble with governmental officials and the church due to his opposing views towards religion. These difficulties with the society and the French political system increased more than ever after Voltaire insulted the nobleman Chevalier de Rohan and was sent to Great Britain, where he was exiled for three years. Great Britain highly influenced his ways of thinking and his thoughts of different political systems. He also began to admire the creative works of Shakespeare and the scientific achievements of Isaac Newton. After returning to Paris, he published his new ideas wherefore the French government felt attacked by Voltaire and he was again forced to leave Paris.

Voltair moved to Potsdam to live with his friend Frederick the Great, until again getting in trouble and being arrested once more for distributing his controversial opinions. He moved to Geneva, where he wrote some of his best known works and was able to return to his hometown Paris, where he passed away in 1778.

Voltaire’s creative writings were at first dominated by poems. One of his most famous was the ‘Henriade‘, which was a great success in the 18th century and was translated numerous times. His poetry and prose was characterized by his unique style of writing very ironically and criticizing political systems clearly without unnecessary exaggerations. Most typical for his style was the satire ‘Candide‘, which opposes Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz‘ optimism, the aristocracy in general, the Inquitision, as well as slavery and war.

Voltaire’s philosophical works were highly influenced by his views on religion. Contrary to most philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment, he saw himself as a deist and spread his ideas not only concerning Christianity, but also about the Islam. This evolving religion’s leader was called “the founder of a false and barbarous sect” by Voltaire. Still, he supported religious tolerance in general and requested all Christians to do the same.

Even though Voltaire’s views on society, religion, and politics were highly discussed and counted as controversial all his lifetime and beyond, he was one of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment period, along with Montesquieu, Rousseau, and John Locke who critically affected the thoughts of the French and American Revolution.

At yovisto you can learn more about the exceptional character of Voltaire in the Fall 2010 lecture of MIT Prof. James Paradis about ‘Voltaire and the Accidental World‘.

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