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Voltaire Flees Paris When His Work Is Condemned: June 10, 1734

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.

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.

Portrait of Voltaire, by Nicholas de Largilliere
Portrait of Voltaire, by Nicholas de Largilliere

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.

The Playwright Becomes a Philosopher

King Louis XV of France, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1748
King Louis XV of France, by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1748

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.

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