Culture and Recreation


Why was Voltaire exiled from France?

The French writer Voltaire (1694–1778), born Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire was an assumed name), was imprisoned twice during his lifetime; he was released the second time on the condition that he leave the country. The prison terms and expulsion were the result of Voltaire’s “expert satire,” which first got him into trouble when he was a young man. After finishing a course of study at the Jesuit school College Louis-leGrand (1704–11), Voltaire joined a group of aristocrats in Paris who valued the young writer’s wit. He wrote and circulated verse criticizing the regent, the Duke d’Orleans. As a result of these offensive works, Voltaire was put into the Bastille (in 1717), where he began writing an epic (the Henriade) about France’s King Henry IV (1553–1610). Full of indictments of religious fanaticism and praise for toleration, the work proved highly controversial in its day. Such antiestablishment protests eventually led the writer to have an argument with the chevalier de Rohan, a member of one of France’s most powerful families. This conflict resulted in Voltaire’s arrest, imprisonment (again in the Bastille), and exile to England in 1726.

He stayed in London until 1729. Returning to France, the writer penned his observations on English social and political beliefs (Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1734), again stirring a controversy—his exaltation of English liberalism was viewed by the authorities as a criticism of French conservatism. He fled the trouble by going into seclusion in Lorraine, where he stayed through 1749. The biting criticism of his works won the writer fame as well as controversy, both of which followed him throughout his life. In 1750 he was invited to visit Prussian King Frederick the Great at court; accepting, he stayed there only two years—he was forced to leave in 1753 after quarreling with the man he called the “Philosopher King.” He spent the last 20 years of his life in Switzerland, returning to Paris to see a performance of one of his plays (Irene) just before his death.


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