This Day In Literary History
On November 21st, 1694, the legendary French writer and philosopher Voltaire was born. He was born François-Marie Arouet in Paris, France. He came from an upper class family; his father was a treasury official, his mother a noblewoman.
As a boy, Voltaire received his education at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit private school. There, he learned Latin and Greek. Later, he would become fluent in Italian, Spanish, and English.
Voltaire's father intended for him to become a lawyer, so after he completed his schooling he was sent to study law. But Voltaire wanted to be a writer. While pretending that he was apprenticed to a notary public, he had taken up the life of a bohemian poet.
His father found out what he was up to, and he was sent away to Normandy to study law, but he continued writing. When Voltaire's father arranged for him to work as secretary to the French ambassador to the Netherlands, he took the job.
In the Netherlands, he fell in love with a girl named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer, a French Protestant refugee. The couple planned to elope, but were foiled by Voltaire's father, who would not be scandalized by having a Protestant marry into his family.
This planted the seeds for Voltaire's seething lifelong hatred of not only the Catholic Church, but religion in general, as well as the aristocracy and bourgeois mores. Taking his famous pen name, he became one of France's greatest and most controversial writers.
Voltaire's poetry and prose works were of a polemic nature, and he possessed a rapacious wit. He wrote many polemic tracts, pamphlets, and books - over 2,000 during his lifetime. A leading figure of the French Enlightenment, his writings, radical for their time, often got him in trouble.
He was not an atheist; he believed in the existence of a higher power, but disputed the validity of the Bible and other religious books, considering them to be collections of fairy tales written by men that inspired ignorance, intolerance, cruelty, and violence.
Voltaire loathed religious institutions like the Catholic Church. In a letter to Frederick II, the King of Prussia, he wrote, "[Catholicism] is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most blood-thirsty [religion] ever to infect the world."
He didn't single out the Church or Christianity in general for criticism. He also blasted Judaism (which gave the world the Old Testament) for the same reasons, and also Islam, which he called "a false and barbarous sect" founded by a "false prophet."
Rejecting the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Voltaire believed that each race had its own distinct origin, and that no one race was superior to the others. For this reason, and because he had always championed civil liberties and human rights, he denounced slavery, adding to his reputation as a radical.
In 1717, the publication of Voltaire's epic poem La Henriade, a satirical attack on the French monarchy and the Catholic Church, resulted in his arrest. He served almost a year in the Bastille. Imprisonment failed to temper his poison pen, and by 1726, he found himself in trouble again.
Outraged by Voltaire's retort to his insult, Chevalier de Rohan, a young aristocrat, obtained a royal lettre de cachet from King Louis XV - a warrant for Voltaire's arrest and imprisonment without trial.
To avoid serving more time at the Bastille, Voltaire fled to England. He returned to Paris nearly three years later. He continued to write and publish polemical essays, poetry, and prose. Though banned in France, his works were circulated secretly and remained popular.
Voltaire's essay collection Philosophical Letters on the English praised the constitutional monarchy of England for its respect for human rights while condemning the French monarchy for violating them.
The outrage over his writings would escalate. He would flee arrest again, then return. Eventually, King Louis XV banned Voltaire entirely from France. He moved first to Germany, then settled in Switzerland, where he wrote his classic philosophical comic novel Candide and lived for 28 years.
When Voltaire finally returned to Paris in February of 1778, he was met with a hero's welcome. Around three hundred people came to visit him. He died three months later at the age of 83.
Quote Of The Day
"It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere." - Voltaire
Today's video features a complete reading of Voltaire's classic philosophical comic novel, Candide. Enjoy!