Voltaire was a prominent figure of the French Enlightenment - he managed to amass a large body of work as a writer, despite spending much of his life rebelling against his father, avoiding imprisonment, and living in exile.
It is said that the present is pregnant with the future.
Francois-Marie Arouet - who later changed his name to Voltaire - was born in Paris, France, on November 21, 1694, though he was known to assert that his actual date of birth was February 20. He was the youngest of five children in an upper-middle-class family. His father, Francois Arouet, was a lawyer who worked for the treasury.
When Arouet was seven, his mother passed away. He never saw eye to eye with his own father, but he formed a close bond with his free-thinking godfather, the Abbe de Chateauneuf, who introduced him to liberal aristocrats.
From 1704 to 1711, Arouet attended the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit secondary school, where he received a classical education. He already showed a talent for writing.
Arouet made an attempt to study law, to please his father, even pretending to work as a notary's assistant in Paris, but he focused his attention on writing poetry.
When his father learned the truth, he sent Arouet to study law in Caen, Normandy, but Arouet continued to write and socialize. His father sent him to work as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, but here too, Arouet rebelled. He fell in love and tried to elope with a French refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer.
Ultimately, Arouet returned to France. Before long, in 1717, he was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months, for writing a verse claiming that the Regent had committed incest with his own daughter. During his imprisonment, Arouet wrote his first play, "Oedipus."
Following his release from the Bastille, in 1718, young Arouet changed his name to Voltaire. It may be an anagram of a variant spelling of Voltaire, or simply a name that echoes French words for acrobatics or standing up to one's enemies.
Most importantly, the name change signified a break with his past and his family. Voltaire's father died in 1722, knowing that his son was destined to follow his own path. Voltaire later wrote, "Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game."
Exile and Financial Freedom
In 1726, Voltaire was sentenced once again to the Bastille, after an enemy obtained a lettre de cachet against him for disorderly conduct and threats to fight in a duel. Voltaire proposed that he be exiled to England instead, and French authorities agreed.
While in England, Voltaire came to appreciate Britain's constitutional monarchy, as opposed to France's absolute monarchy, and he admired their freedom of speech and religion. In addition, he was introduced to the plays of William Shakespeare, which were not yet well-known outside of Britain.
When Voltaire returned to Paris at last, in 1729, he joined with French mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine and others to participate in the French lottery. He won a nice sum and invested it well, then he convinced the French court to grant him his inheritance - denied while he had been in exile - from the estate of his father.
With his new-found wealth, Voltaire was free to write and conduct himself as he pleased. He lived by the philosophy, "Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world."
He soon entered into a long-term affair with the brilliant Emilie du Chatelet, the Marquise du Chatelet. He also wrote "Philosophical Letters on the English" and released it without approval from the royal censor. Because the book contained praise of the British monarchy and criticism of the French, the book was banned and Voltaire was forced to leave Paris.
He joined Emilie du Chatelet - as well as her husband, on occasion - at her chateau near Champagne and Lorraine. They performed scientific experiments to determine the nature of fire, properties of gravity, and more. Voltaire was an admirer of Isaac Newton and was responsible for spreading the story about an apple dropping from a tree, thus inspiring Newton's theory of gravity. Voltaire and his mistress, the Marquise, also studied philosophy, religion, and history; in the process they collected a huge number of books.
By 1744, Voltaire grew restless with his life at the chateau with the Marquise. As he once wrote, "Friendship is the marriage of the soul, and this marriage is liable to divorce." He took a trip to Paris and fell in love with his niece, Marie Louise Mignot. They would later live together as a couple, until Voltaire's death.
In 1750, Voltaire became a patron of Frederick the Great, with a salary of 20,000 francs a year. This relationship ended badly a few years later, with another banned book and another arrest of Voltaire. He was always willing to risk the disapproval of authorities, in order to present his version of truth. He wrote, "To hold a pen is to be at war."
After a brief stay in Geneva, Switzerland, Voltaire moved to Ferney, France. He spent the last 20 years of his life there, building up the village with pottery shops, a watchmaking industry, and theaters in which he presented his plays. He became known as "the patriarch of Ferney"; the town was renamed Ferney-Voltaire after the French Revolution.
In 1759, while living in Ferney, Voltaire wrote his most famous work, "Candide, or Optimism," a satire of the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Voltaire was a true celebrity by this time, attracting well-known literati, scientists, and members of the upper class to his property, along with tourists. In 1768, he remarked, "For 14 years now I have been the innkeeper of Europe."
Voltaire wrote more than 2,000 books and pamphlets, and it is estimated that he wrote over 20,000 letters. In order to create this extensive body of work and correspondence, Voltaire sometimes spent 18 hours a day writing. At times he dictated to secretaries while relaxing in his bed.
Voltaire was wealthy by his mid 30s, from a combination of income earned from writing and wise investments.
Perhaps to spark his creativity, Voltaire drank up to 50 cups of coffee per day, often mixed with chocolate.
Voltaire was a deist - publicly, at least - but he may have been an atheist in private. Atheism was illegal in his time. He wrote, "Such is the feebleness of humanity, such is its perversity, that doubtless it is better for it to be subject to all possible superstitions, as long as they are not murderous, than to live without religion."
One of many civil reforms Voltaire supported was a ban on capital punishment. He wrote, "Let the punishments of criminals be useful. A hanged man is good for nothing; a man condemned to public works still serves the country, and is a living lesson."
Voltaire became a Freemason in 1778, at the urging of his friend, Benjamin Franklin.
Although Voltaire opposed slavery, he did not necessarily see different races as equals. He was a polygenist - he believed each race came from different origins, not from Adam and Eve as depicted in the Bible.
Voltaire was conversant in many languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and English, in addition to his native French.
Although Voltaire never married, he enjoyed the company of women. He spent his final years living with his niece as if they were a married couple. They even adopted a young woman, Marie-Francoise Corneille, and referred to themselves as her parents. They eventually paid the dowry for Corneille's marriage.
Voltaire used at least 178 pen names.
Late in life, Voltaire wrote, "I have lived eighty years of life and know nothing for it, but to be resigned and tell myself that flies are born to be eaten by spiders and man to be devoured by sorrow." He was still active in his final years, writing and producing plays.
Voltaire left Ferney for Paris in February of 1778, to oversee the opening of his tragic play, "Irene." The five-day trip was nearly too much for Voltaire, who was then 83 years old. He thought his life was coming to an end, so he wrote, "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." Voltaire lived, however, and saw a performance of his play in March.
His health declined again shortly thereafter, and he died on May 30, 1778.
Because he had criticized the Church frequently during his writing career, he was not granted a Christian burial. Friends secretly arranged for his burial at the abbey of Scellieres in Champagne, in spite of the Church's refusal.
In 1791, Voltaire's remains were moved to Paris and laid to rest in the Pantheon. An elaborate ceremony and procession were held, celebrating his role in the events which led to the French Revolution.
As an Enlightenment writer and philosopher, Voltaire was a revolutionary of sorts, a scientist on occasion, and a free spirit at all times. He created his unique persona and his own name. Even when he was imprisoned or exiled, his thoughts roamed free. He wrote, "The safest course is to do nothing against one's conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death."