Portrait: Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
Reading Time:  6 minutes

Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière © Musée national du Château de Versailles

Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière © Musée national du Château de Versailles

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, 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.

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). A widely repeated story, that the remains of Voltaire were stolen by religious fanatics in 1814 or 1821 during the Panthéon restoration and thrown into a garbage heap, is false. Such rumours resulted in the coffin being opened in 1897, which confirmed that his remains were still present.

Quai Voltaire 27, where Voltaire died © Hermann Junghans/cc-by-sa-3.0-de Sarcophagus of Voltaire in the Pantheon © Hermann Junghans/cc-by-sa-3.0-de Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière © Musée national du Château de Versailles Château de Voltaire © Brücke-Osteuropa Boulevard Voltaire © FLLL/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière © Musée national du Château de Versailles
Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the Church as a static and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, even more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Voltaire long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king’s rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy somewhat, and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which ends with a new conclusion: “It is up to us to cultivate our garden.” His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Candide was also burned and Voltaire jokingly claimed the actual author was a certain ‘Demad’ in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.

He is remembered and honoured in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights (as the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion) and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime. The Ancien Régime – according to common opinion – involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the three Estates: clergy and nobles on one side, the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes, on the other. He particularly had admiration for the ethics and government as exemplified by Confucius. The town of Ferney, where Voltaire lived out the last 20 years of his life, is now named Ferney-Voltaire in honour of its most famous resident. His château is a museum. Voltaire’s library is preserved intact in the National Library of Russia at Saint Petersburg. Besides, Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was reported to have drunk it 50–72 times per day. It has been suggested that high amounts of caffeine acted as a mental stimulant to his creativity.

Read more on Institut et Musée Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation and Wikipedia Voltaire (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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