“Common sense is not so common.” — Voltaire
“Voltaire left France a poet, and returned a sage.” — Lord Morley
Voltaire’s name derives from an anagram of Arovet Li and Le Jeune. In a letter to Rosseau he explained how unhappy he was carrying his real name Francois-Marie Arouet. He used multiple pen names, but today he ist known to everyone as Voltaire.
Voltaire joined the ranks of philosophers late in life. It was only in 1934 at the age of forty, when he published the Letters on the English, a series of essays recounting his experiences living in England. It was only then that his career as a philosopher turned.
Voltaire was born rather wealthy and privileged. His family was well established within the elite society in France. His father was a public official, and his mother an aristocratic wife. He was born as the fourth of five children.
He received a first-class education. He was educated by Jesuits early in life, at the prestiguous College Louis Le Grand in Paris. His father was active in the literary culture in Paris. His introduction to modern letters came through his father, who was active in the literary culture in Paris.
Voltaire wanted to be a playwright but his father opposed it and wanted for him to work in a public office. At first, Voltaire obliged and tried to fulfill his father’s wish. He was a law student, later a lawyer’s apprentice, and still later secretary to a French diplomat.
He strived to be an independent man of letters. He retreated into libertine sociability of Paris and established himself as a popular figure through his wit and popularity. He was able to make some artfully beautiful composed writings. He made a couple of well-made contacts and was even successful as an investor. Eventually Oedipe, a tragedy that first performed in 1718, elevated him to the elite literary circle.
His early influence and mentor Lord Bolingbrake was an aristocrat, freethinker and Jacobite, who lived in exile in France. Voltaire paid him many visits at his estate. And it was probably there that he was first introduced to natural philosophy, including John Locke and English Newtonians.
Voltaire was accused of defamation and subsequently left Paris for England in 1926. It was there that he build a new identity. He was influenced by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which had political criticism embedded in its work. He met Newtonians and Newton’s sister, who would tell him the myth of Newton’s apple analogy. Voltaire did not meet Newton himself until his death. During his time in England, he also visited Holland. He became a very astute student of English natural philosophy.
While the quote was probably exaggerated, he indeed transformed as a writer. His identity as a poet and philosopher never separated. Through speculation and his father’s inheritance, he had reached financial independence. That freed him from the patronage system. Unlike other writers he did not need to appeal to rich patrons for his work.
When Voltaire returned from England in 1629, he was banned from the Royal Court. Only three years later, after slowly regaining his public stature through his writings, he was again residing at the Royal Court.
His relationship with Émilie du Châtelet turned out to be of great benefit to Voltaire. Du Châtelet, too, had received a first class education. She had translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French. Between 1734 and 1749, Voltaire spend most of his time at her family estate. The influence that the two had on each other is undeniable. Montesquieu and Swift were the other two great influences for Voltaire from the Lettres philosophique.
When Voltaire published without official permission from the royal censors, he turned into an intellectual outlaw. The family estate of du Châtelet turned into a safe haven for Voltaire and a platform for his subsequent writings. He did not really enjoy being an outlaw but decided to endorse his role.
As the legitimacy of Newtonian science was under siege in France, Voltaire positioned himself in support of Newton. He used Newtonian science as a vehicle for transformation. His Elements de la Philosophie de Newton was written in a way to make Newton accessible to ignorant Frenchman. Only with the final version of Elements in 1750 occured a change in perception from backward Cartesians to enlightened Newtonians.
He briefly rehabilitated his status as an outlaw when he reestablished his old identity in the Old Regime. He was a Royal Historiographer of France. He received an invitation to join the court of the young Frederick the Great. But his dispute with Pierre Louis Maupertuis about Leipnizian rationalism and metaphysics made him a rebel yet again.
His biggest contribution was his social criticism and reformist political action. He defended Diderot’s Encyclopédie and opposed the Jesuits. His most famous work, Candide, published in 1759, a French satire was yet to arrive.