Voltaire's real name was Francois Marie Arouet. He was a person who did not fear authority and openly ridiculed the ruling class, which often landed him in prison. The injustices he faced had such a deep impact on his life, that he devoted the final years of his life fighting for the rights of the oppressed.
Family and Early Life
Voltaire was born on November 21st, 1694 in Paris, France to Francois Arouet, a minor treasury official, and Marie Marguerite Daumand. He was the youngest of their three surviving children.
At the age of seven, he lost his mother and thereon established a close relationship with his godfather, Chateauneuf, a freethinker, who later had a great influence on his life. Chateauneuf not only taught his godson about deism and literature, but also encouraged him to renounce superstitions that were prevalent at that time.
Since his family belonged to the upper middle class, he was given a good education. In 1704, he was sent to Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit college in Paris, where he studied for seven years.
Voltaire was never interested in games and sports; instead he preferred to spend his time talking to his teachers. It was during this time that his poetic and literary talents blossomed, and by the time he finished college at the age of 17 years, he knew he wanted to become a writer.
Blossoming of his Literary Talent
However, Voltaire's aspirations were opposed by his father, who wanted to see his son pursue a law degree. According to his father, literature was for those who added no value to society and eventually ended up as failures in life. He forced his son to take up a job as a lawyer's assistant.
However, he didn't let his passion die out and devoted his time and energy to writing satirical poems. When his father found out what he was up to, he wasted no time in sending him to the provinces to study law.
Voltaire continued to follow his heart and wrote several poems, essays and historical papers. The consequence of this was that he fared poorly in the law papers. But if Voltaire was adamant, his father was even more adamant and got him to work as the secretary to the French Ambassador in Holland (Netherlands).
At work, Voltaire's heart tugged him once more; however, this time, it was towards a young girl, Catherine Olympe Dunoyer.
Sadly, their parents were against the relationship and Voltaire's father even went to the extent of issuing a lettre de cachet. A lettre de cachet was a sealed warrant issued by the King to imprison the person in question without any trial.
The nasty warrant was not used as Olympe backed out of the relationship, saying that their future together was uncertain. Heartbroken, Voltaire returned to his poetry and literature with an even more vigorous attitude.
Trips to the Prison
Voltaire's father got him to work at another lawyer's office after the break-up. But this job did not last long as he got himself into trouble by writing poems that were scandalous in tone.
His father had no choice but to send him to the country to live with Louis de Caumartin, the marquis de Saint-Ange, where Voltaire continued to pursue writing behind his father's back. After a year of stay in the country, he returned to Paris in 1715, and entered the Paris Literary Society.
By this time, he had become famous for his bold and aggressive writings and attitude. In 1716, he got himself exiled from Paris for a year, for writing satirical poems about the Prince Regent of France.
His life after the exile was also not smooth sailing. His satirical poems were quite popular by then and Voltaire was accused of writing two anonymous poems which were not his works. He was imprisoned for eleven months for a crime he did not do; an injustice he could not tolerate.
During those eleven months in prison, he composed the tragedy Oedipe, which went on to become his first theatrical achievement. He also wrote the epic poem about Henry IV, La Henriade, and also changed his name from Francois Marie Arouet to Voltaire, with the hope that his new name would bring him some success in life.
When he was released from prison in 1718, he got the Oedipe to be played in the theaters. Oedipe was an instant hit and flooded the 23-year-old Voltaire's life with fame and money.
Voltaire was a person who openly criticized the church, the state, and the rich and famous. He ridiculed them in his writings and poems and made trouble for himself. In 1725, he came across Chevalier de Rohan, the young nobleman who insulted him.
Voltaire responded to the insult, the result of which was that he was beaten up by the latter's men. He had to get even, so he challenged Chevalier de Rohan to a duel three months later. However, the latter obtained a lettre de cachet and had him thrown into the prison for a second time.
Period of Exile
Voltaire had two options, either to spend another term in prison or go into exile. He chose exile and went to England. Since Queen Caroline was passionate about poetry, he received a warm welcome there. He knew he had to 'make hay while the sun shines' and published the English version of his epic poem La Henriade, and dedicated it to the queen.
During his time in England, he learned the English language and also got associated with lots of famous people like Alexander Pope (poet), William Congreve (playwright), Sir Robert Walpole (Prime Minister) and many others.
One of the milestone's in his life was when he came across two of the greatest thinkers of the 17th century; scientist Sir Isaac Newton and philosopher John Locke, and was greatly influenced by them. He also devoted time to study the constitutional monarchy in England and religious tolerance.
In 1731, he published the biography of Charles XII of Sweden; in which he mentioned about how he believed that no divine intervention controlled man's destiny, instead man had control over his own life. That was the first sign indicating his shift from belief in religion.
In 1729, Voltaire filled with new ideas, returned to France and in 1733 published the Letters Concerning the English Nation in English. In this publication, he openly praised the English monarchy (stating how it was better than the government of France) and the tolerant society he had found in England.
Knowing that this book would create a storm in Paris, he refrained himself from publishing it in French. But somehow, the book got published and as he had feared, it created havoc. Voltaire was asked to leave Paris once again.
In 1733, he met an intelligent woman Madame du Chatelet, who invited him to stay with her in Eastern France. Together, they studied natural sciences and performed their own experiments. In 1736, he received an invitation from Frederick, the Crown Prince of Prussia to come and live there.
However, Voltaire accepted this invitation only in 1749, after the death of Madame du Chatelet. Voltaire was quite impressed by the hospitality he received in Prussia. However, as time passed he got irritable and bored. His audacity clashed with that of Frederick's, which led to a lot of disputes, and in 1753, he left Prussia.
In 1759, he purchased an estate near the French-Swiss border and named it Ferney, and continued to bring out his literary works.
The Last years
Voltaire devoted the last years of his life fighting for injustice and the rights of the oppressed. The injustice he had experienced in his life caused him to fight even more strongly for this cause.
Of all his campaigns, the 'Calas Affair' was the most popular in which he fought against the government. He fought for justice and paid no heed to his own safety, thus emerging as a brave man who stood up to help others.
However, as the years passed by, his heart longed to go back to Paris, and so in 1778, he headed back to Paris. He planned to begin a new life in Paris, bought a house and began working on another tragedy. However, he fell seriously ill and died on May 30, 1778.
Voltaire died at the age of 83 years, leaving behind volumes of literary work. This renowned playwright was a person who argued for civil rights and freedom of thought. He is considered by some as an eccentric and complex character, who spent his life disrespecting authority and trying to end oppression and injustice.