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Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet, was a French philosopher and writer during the 18th century Enlightenment. Voltaire was known for his criticism of organized religion and traditional institutions and for his outspoken support of free speech and other civil liberties.

Voltaire

Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet, was a French philosopher and writer during the 18th century Enlightenment. Voltaire was known for his criticism of organized religion and traditional institutions and for his outspoken support of free speech and other civil liberties. His contemporaries included John Locke, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Voltaire was born in 1694 to a middle class family in Paris, France. He received a classical education as a youth, but broke away from his family by young adulthood, preferring instead the influence of his godfather, the Abbé de Châteauneuf, who promoted free thinking and sensual living. Although Voltaire was expected to become a lawyer, he focused his efforts instead on writing plays, poems, philosophical treatises, and historical works. His sharp wit and pithy epigrams soon won him acclaim in French circles. His bold comments, however, often cost him his comfort and safety. Voltaire was strongly critical of the Bible, the Catholic Church, the French government, and a number of personal enemies. His offensive remarks landed him in the Bastille prison twice and sent him into exile several times throughout his life.

During his exile to England from 1726-1729, Voltaire came to appreciate the comparative freedom of speech enjoyed by the intellectuals under England’s constitutional monarchy. Upon his return to France, he published Lettres Philosophiques sur les Anglais, praising the English system and earning him further exile. He moved from Prussia, to Switzerland, to several regions of France throughout the rest of his long career. Everywhere he went, he welcomed visits from the leading intellectuals of the day and continued to publish new literature. Today, his most famous short work is the 1759 novella Candide, which relies heavily on irony and satire to criticize the philosophy of Optimism, promoted by his contemporary Gottfried Leibniz.

Voltaire’s general philosophy was one that promoted reason above tradition or superstition. Like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, Voltaire was a deist; he believed in a higher power, but criticized traditional religious practices. He encouraged progress in the sciences and arts, and used his literature and cultural standing to attempt social reform, promoting fair trials, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Ultimately, Voltaire argued for enlightened monarchies over democracy, but his philosophical contributions strongly influenced the leaders of both the American and the French Revolutions in the late 18th century.


Voltaire Quotes

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Every abuse ought to be reformed, unless the reform is more dangerous than the abuse itself.

All people are equal, it is not birth, it is virtue alone that makes the difference.

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