The Enlightenment Period

The Philosophes

What was interesting about Voltaire’s life?

Voltaire (1694–1778) led a very dramatic life. After his classical education at a Jesuit school, he chose literature over law, and his subsequent satires resulted in his banishment from Paris as well as exile to Holland. He spent almost a year imprisoned in the Bastille. All of this happened by the time he was 24.

Voltaire was believed to be the best playwright in France for half a century. A disagreement with a chevalier resulted in another sojourn in the Bastille, after which he went to England and learned the language, philosophy, and politics of that country. In 1734 he had to flee Paris again, and for the next 15 years he studied physics, metaphysics, and history with the highly intelligent Marquise Du Châtelet, in Lorraine. During this time he was also at court, protected by Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of King Louis XV.

Voltaire became historiographer of France and a member of the French Academy in 1746. In 1750 he was appointed philosopher-poet to Frederick the Great of Prussia, but they had disagreements after three years; Voltaire then bought a château in Geneva, Switzerland, and then an estate in France. In France he defended Jean Calas, a Protestant who in 1762 was tortured on the rack and executed. Voltaire was by then very rich and he devoted himself to causes against the oppression of the Church. When he returned to Paris at age 83, he was highly acclaimed, but died soon afterwards. He was first buried outside Paris, but then his remains were moved to the Pantheon, only to be again disinterred during the Restoration. (Voltaire’s body was never completely reassembled after that.)


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