This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
In the Paris salon of the Duchess of Maine, François-Marie Arouet began the literary career that would make him the most famous philosophe in Europe. The year was 1715, and Arouet had just returned to Paris from The Hague in the Netherlands. Arouet had mixed with aristocratic freethinkers before going to The Hague; for though he belonged to the middle class, his mother had friends among the nobility.
The duchess of Maine’s salon was a distinguished one, but also quite dangerous for a young man like Arouet. The Duchess was a bitter enemy of the Duke of Orléans (the regent of King Louis XV, who in 1715 was still only a boy). Under the duchess’s influence, Arouet wrote poems mocking the regent—a dangerous thing to do, as Arouet soon learned. Because of his lampoons, Arouet was forced to leave Paris in May 1716. Shortly afterward, he was allowed to return; but in 1717 he was arrested and sent to the Bastille. Some anonymous lampoons had surfaced, and the government thought Arouet had written them.
Arouet might have gotten on better if he had followed his father’s advice and become a lawyer. But the young man loved literature, especially stage plays, and he was eager to earn fame as a writer. While in the Bastille, he spent his time working on two plays that he hoped to publish under a pen name he had chosen for himself— Arouet de Voltaire.
Voltaire saw the first of his plays performed at the Théatre Français after his release from the Bastille in April 1718. The play was a great success. Other plays followed; some successful, others not. But Voltaire did not just rely on his plays and other literary works to make a living. Throughout his life, he engaged in financial speculation and investments. He courted aristocrats and used flattery to gain their favor. Voltaire eventually became a wealthy man—wealthier than many a nobleman whose favor he had sought in his younger days. Indeed, many of these noblemen, under heavy debt, would take loans from Voltaire to pay off their creditors.
Yet Voltaire, it seems, could not control his often bitter, sarcastic tongue. In 1725, he insulted an important noble, the Chevalier de Rohan, who had insulted him. Shortly afterward, several men attacked Voltaire and beat him with sticks while Rohan stood by, watching. This was an affront Voltaire could not ignore. He challenged Rohan to a duel, and the chevalier accepted. But on the morning of the duel, police arrested Voltaire and placed him in the Bastille. He remained there two weeks until, at his own request, he was sent from France to England.
During his stay in England (1726–1729), Voltaire discovered that English society differed in many ways from that of his native France. Unlike France, England offered freedom of religion, at least to Protestants, and the English government was far more tolerant of freethinking than was the government of Louis XV. And the government of England itself, in Voltaire’s mind, offered a superb model of how to keep order and preserve freedom at the same time. England’s king was not all-powerful, as was the French king; Parliament, a government by representatives of at least some of the people, severely limited the power of the then reigning King George II. In England, Voltaire discovered the work of the English scientist Isaac Newton and the English philosopher John Locke. Voltaire came to think that Locke showed the way to remedy France’s political and religious “tyranny.”
Though Voltaire left France as a playwright, he returned as a philosopher. He continued to write poems and plays, but along with these he wrote commentaries on politics and, especially, works against religion. The first of these was Philosophical Letters on the English, published in 1732. In this work, Voltaire used his sharp wit to praise England’s government and toleration of religion while he attacked the French Church and state. When on June 10, 1734, the government of Louis XV condemned the Philosophical Letters and ordered its author arrested, Voltaire fled Paris to the independent duchy of Lorraine, where he would be safe from French authorities.
Inspired by Newton’s example, Voltaire set up a laboratory at Cirey, his estate in Lorraine, and performed experiments. He continued to write dramas and poetry, but turned more and more to works on science, philosophy, and politics. None of these works offered any original ideas, but they made Liberal ideas more popular and spread Locke’s political ideas among the philosophes in France. Voltaire’s clear, witty, and refined style could capture a reader’s attention, and his cruel satire could make the ideas of his opponents appear ridiculous. Voltaire would stop at almost nothing—even outright lies (and he told many of them)—to promote his ideas and destroy those of others. He stopped at nothing to destroy what he called l’infame— “the infamous one.”
What was the so-called infamous one? It was what we call religion; Voltaire called it superstition. Voltaire rejected all traditional religion as foolish. Himself a Deist, Voltaire thought everything, including the human soul, was composed of matter; and so he denied the immortality of the soul. Moreover, Voltaire was a rationalist and a proponent of free thought and moral libertinism. Voltaire’s chief enemy, however (the most infamous of all the infamous ones in his mind) was the Catholic Church. The Church, he said, pretended it was the one, true religion just to fool the masses and keep them under the clergy’s control.
Voltaire thought religion might be fine for ignorant, common people. But, he said, educated men—and especially rulers—should look to science and reason, not “superstition,” for guidance on how to live in and govern society. A rational and scientific society, according to Voltaire, would not try to crush religion, but it would not promote one religion over another.
So it was that Voltaire became perhaps the greatest advocate of religious tolerance in the 18th century. And he proposed other “rational” reforms—abolishing torture, for instance, and ending the death penalty, at least for offenses such as forgery, theft, and smuggling. Yet Voltaire was not a revolutionary. He opposed democracy, for, he thought, the common man (whom he called canaille—“the rabble, riffraff”) could never be enlightened. His ideal government was an absolute monarch, rather like Louis XIV, but without that king’s attachment to “superstition” and persecution of those who did not agree with him.
Music from the Age of Voltaire
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is remembered as a great music theorist but also as a composer of operas. For some of his operatic works, Rameau collaborated with Voltaire. This performance of Rameau’s works features Jordi Savall conducting the Orchestra of Louis XV.