Voltaire (François Marie Arouet) - Biography

Voltaire (François Marie Arouet) - Biography

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Short biography of Voltaire - Presented as one of the most famous French writers, Voltaire also appears as one of the most important leaders of the Enlightenment philosophical current. Once a spy, he was the greatest "journalist" of his time, his abundant correspondence reflecting a century of events and thoughts. Great stylist of the French language, he participated in The encyclopedia by Diderot. Sometimes considered alongside his rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one of the precursors of the French Revolution, Voltaire nonetheless remains a symbol of the intellectual commitment, tolerance and freedom of thought of the 18th century.


Voltaire: from libertine to polemicist

From his real name François Marie Arouet, Voltaire was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris. Coming from the Parisian bourgeoisie, he was brought up by the Jesuits who gave him a solid training, particularly in rhetoric. Voltaire then acquired a taste for discussion, theater and ancient literature. Curious, the young Voltaire flourished during the Regency, a period favorable to more freedoms. He frequents Parisian salons and libertine circles. Imprisoned for nearly a year in the Bastille for a poem written against the regent, the Duke of Orleans in May 1717, he adopted the pseudonym Voltaire on his release from prison, an anagram of his name. Independent in spirit and insolent, Voltaire was once again in embastation in 1726 following a quarrel with the Chevalier de Rohan.

His salvation came through the path of exile in England, where he stayed for more than two years. This stay has a profound influence on his mind. Voltaire discovered there the English parliamentary and liberal monarchy from which he derived the Philosophical letters (1734), praise of a society in which the progress of the arts and sciences is freely exercised. In the background, it is French society that is criticized, its mores, its customs as well as the privileges of its nobility. Voltaire then takes on the mask of irony through the features of strangers or "tourists" from a distant world. The work is prohibited, and Voltaire, wanted by the police, takes refuge in Cirey in Lorraine with his friend Mme du Châtelet, with whom he will maintain a long liaison. He then devotes himself to reflection and writing.

Like Montesquieu in the Persian letters, Voltaire will use the same process in his tales with the Babylonian Zadig (1747), the Westphalian Candid (1759) or the Heron of The Ingenuous (1767). He pours out his irony, which has become a trademark, in order to expose his critical point of view on mores and institutions. Speaking of institution, he skilfully managed to get himself elected to the Académie française in 1746.

His little-known career as an agent of the King's Secret

Voltaire frequents Baron de Goertz (the one who dreams of remaking the map of Europe) in Paris, approaches Baron de Hogguers who runs a “state secrets” shop, discovers Salomon Levi who was a spy, double or triple agent, meets Cardinal Dubois, Minister of the Regent to whom he offers his services "able to go to Germany having received an invitation from Prince Eugene" and thanks to Levi "knowing the suppliers of the emperor's armies"! Ten years passed in this way until the day Voltaire circulated a letter full of praise and a request for correspondence which he had just received from Frederick, King of Prussia!

We are at the start of the War of the Austrian Succession. Voltaire is then summoned by Fleury, the prime minister of Louis XV, who sends him to Frederick of Prussia, in order to know his intentions. The first meeting took place in September 1740 at the castle of Meuse, the second in November at Rheinsberg. In June 1741, Frederick II and France signed a treaty of alliance. But suddenly the King of Prussia broke the alliance a year later and made peace with Austria!

New mission for Voltaire in Aachen: to find out the reasons for the breaking of the alliance by the King of Prussia. In September, he reported on his mission by mail, but measured his words knowing that his letters would be opened and read "I had plenty of time to speak with a lot of freedom about everything that Your Eminence had prescribed for me ..."; "Frédéric was worried about the reactions in France when he left the alliance, I replied that indeed all French people had felt with indignation ...". His reasons "are so singular that I doubt anyone will know about them in France". In fact the reasons are simple: "France is exhausted of men and money and entirely discouraged, if it had believed you more powerful, it would have been more faithful to you". And Voltaire to reassure the cardinal "Frederic does not give in to the pressing proposals of the English"! Fleury is delighted to read this response "you spoke of gold, Sir, I thank you for your attention in sharing with me your conversation with the King of Prussia. You can count on my esteem, on my friendship and on all the other feelings you deserve so as not to put on ceremony ”.

Second official mission for the spy Voltaire

The war continues, sadly for France in 1743. Voltaire went into exile "voluntarily" in The Hague: one of his plays has just been banned from the Comédie-Française the day before the premiere, his accession to the Academy. French is refused. He therefore left first for Holland, then he will finish with Frederick II with the cover of a man "disgusted with Paris, disgusted with Versailles, who has no other way out than to throw himself into his arms. adorable monarch ”: the Secret worked well, the first phase of the mission was successful. This time, it is an official mission, approved by Louis XV: "to go and see up close what is happening in Holland, a country which had promised its alliance to England, which was afraid of an offensive from France." against the Austrian Netherlands ”. The costs will be reimbursed, a secret code is given to him to allow him to write freely ...

Voltaire moved to the Prussian Embassy in The Hague and while waiting to be received by Frederick, let his eyes and ears hang out everywhere. In the space of three months, he brings back so much information that he proves to be a "brilliant intelligence agent": speed in detecting sources, diversity in information, meticulous research into detail. He begins by obtaining copies of government decisions that he sends to Versailles "I am in close contact with a few foreigners (the mistress of a Dutch statesman) who inform me of all affairs and who will put me in touch. state of embroiling Frederick II with England ”.

In July, he sent to d'Argenson, secretary to the Minister of War, the state of the Dutch military forces: 84,000 men divided into cavalry, infantry, dragoons, Swiss and artillerymen, as well as the ordinary and extraordinary budget for the war. from this country. He adds the amount of the Dutch debt as well as the annual interest and announces that The Hague has decided to send 14,600 men to the coalition against France and concludes "you can be sure that the Dutch will not do you much harm. . It is 8 o'clock in the evening on July 15, at 7 o'clock the general who was waiting for the order to leave, received a new order to put the horses to pasture for the next 15 days. The foot guards will receive orders on July 24. It is obvious that we are trying to stop obeying the English, without openly breaking their word ". On July 18, he sent another letter, "Yesterday in my presence they said to the Count of Nassau, general of the infantry: you won't be there for two months! ".

A talented diplomat

A very good diplomat, he succeeded in pushing d'Argenson to pay for "feeding the horses and clothing the men", to be in permanent contact with the ambassadors of England and the envoy from Hanover, as well as the commander of the army. English Lord Stairs, all representatives of the enemy forces, who did not mistrust Voltaire at all "I am spoken to familiarly, so little is thought to me, by my character and my situation, of taking advantage of this frankness". He informed the Secret du Roi “the coalition's objective is to wrest Alsace and Lorraine from France; the King of Prussia borrows 400,000 guilders from Amsterdam "while expressing the possibility of offering some subsidies to Frederick, in order to provide supplies in Germany and thus starve the armies of the allies.

On August 1, he announced the departure of the mounted guards "the best heads of Holland admit that they would not be a little embarrassed if you send a body to the Meuse" and adds "one of the best educated men tells me that the English make the strongest proposals to the King of Prussia. He promised to give me a copy ... ". Fifteen days later, he is happy to announce to d'Argenson, “Frederick refuses the defensive treaty proposed by England and Russia; the ammunition business continues to go well as transport is not moving "and he attaches the full list!

Applied to his work, he did not have his head in the air, on the contrary his feet on the ground and does not harbor illusions as he wrote on August 27, leaving for Berlin to join the King of Prussia "I believe up to now have not given false advice. I don't want to give false expectations either ”.

He arouses jealousy, like the French ambassador in The Hague, who in revenge writes "I must not hide from you that the reason for his trip (Voltaire) to the King of Prussia is no longer a secret"! “No big deal,” says d'Argenson, “Voltaire has given us some excellent information; at the same time we hope that he will bring the King of Prussia back into alliance with France ".

In Berlin, the mission is stale, Frédéric informs "as he had a few protectors at Versailles, he believed that this was enough to give himself the air of a negotiator, he had no credit and his mission became a game, a simple joke. ". Things go further, the ambassador in Berlin receives letters warning him that his embassy "is shrinking because of the influence of Voltaire", reassured him by affirming that he "only aspired to be his secretary ”, and vis-à-vis Frédéric, Voltaire admitted that he had been“ suggested to cultivate the feelings of reciprocal esteem which subsisted between the two monarchs ”.

All this subsides after a short trip to the family of the King of Prussia in Germany. Voltaire resumed his mail for Versailles in September and then in October and mentions "the King of Prussia wants the King of England a lot of harm" and returns to France with an oral note from Frederick II for Louis XV "that France declares war on England and I walk ”! Voltaire left Berlin on October 12, 1743, France declared war on England on March 15, 1744, Frederick took the offensive with 80,000 men! Mission successful!

From the court of Versailles to the retreat of Ferney

Voltaire is rewarded: Versailles places an order for entertainment for the marriage of the Dauphin with the Infanta of Spain, is appointed a month later to the king's historiographer, the following year he is welcomed to the French Academy and is made an ordinary gentleman from the room. However, Voltaire took to the game of being a man of the court, first with Louis XV in Versailles, then with Frederick II of Prussia in Berlin. However, he dislikes his status and falls out with the enlightened bully.

He left Germany in 1753 to settle with Mme Denis, his niece and partner, in Ferney, near Geneva. France refused him asylum, Louis XV hardly appreciating his sarcasm and his school of thought. His return to Paris, applauded by the people, had to await the dawn of his death on May 30, 1778. Supreme honor, his remains were transferred to the pantheon on July 11, 1791, consecrating his place in the Age of Enlightenment.

Voltaire, man of letters

If today Voltaire has passed down to posterity mainly with his philosophical tales, his life as a man of letters began above all with poetry and the theater. A huge playwright for whom he wanted to be known, Voltaire wrote a great many plays in the line of Boileau and Racine, among more than fifty: Oedipus (1718), Zaire (1732), Muhammad or Fanaticism (1741). Let us also remember his formidable epistolary correspondence, more than 20,000 letters.

Gladly historian with The Century of Louis XIV (1751) and a Essay on the Mores and Spirit of Nations (1756), Voltaire also expresses his ideas, from the English philosopher John Locke, on liberalism in his philosophical poems: Speech about man (1738), Poem on the Lisbon disaster (1756). However, more than his work as a playwright or poet philosopher, it was above all his fight for reason, humanity and tolerance that made him famous.

Voltaire's fight for tolerance

For the philosophers of the Enlightenment, literature is conceived as a struggle. Enlightenment thought necessarily presents itself as reformist and it generally develops in a controversial context. And it is indeed the controversy that feeds the different genres of literature, and Voltaire’s work is no exception: essays, letters, tales and even dictionary articles (think of his Philosophical Dictionary). Moreover, Enlightenment thought was rational and this attachment to reason in the France of the Ancien Régime can only be fully expressed here in controversy. And it is with this thought that Voltaire becomes one of the fiercest representatives against obscurantism and religious fanaticism.

In his desire to systematically want to crush the "infamous" that the Catholic Church represents, he forges a solid reputation and uses his notoriety to defend causes or to attack injustice. He thus becomes a true model of public engagement, not in the intellectual domain of the Enlightenment but in his thinking. The writer notably intervenes in the Calas and Sirven cases as well as that of the Chevalier de La Barre, which have become symbols of religious intolerance and political arbitrariness.

Nevertheless, he remains a deist and the virulent atheist of some of his colleagues like Baron d'Holbach frightens him. Voltaire seeks to go beyond simple anticlerical discourse and is interested in the nature of man as we can read in Candide as well as in relations with God in his Treatise on Tolerance (1763) where despite a global pessimism - nothing is going for the best on earth - there remains a note of hope, that of mutual tolerance between men.

Main works

- Philosophical letters (1734)

- Zadig or Destiny (1747)

- The Century of Louis XIV (1751)

- Candide (1759)

- Treatise on Tolerance (1763)


- Voltaire in his time, by René Pomeau. Fayard, 1995.

- Voltaire, biography of Pierre Milza. Perrin, 2007.

Voltaire the Conqueror. Birth of intellectuals in the Age of Enlightenment, by Pierre Lepape. Threshold, 1994.

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