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VOLTAIRE François-Marie Arouet 1694-1778. Abbreviated Timeline:. 1694: born to a middle-class family near Paris 1704: attends Jesuit boarding school—develops “passionate opposition to organized religion”

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Abbreviated Timeline:

1694: born to a middle-class family near Paris

1704: attends Jesuit boarding school—develops “passionate opposition to organized religion”

1711: decides to pursue a career in writing (instead of law as his father desired)—writes mostly satirical poetry

1717: Voltaire is sent to the Bastille Prison for writing work that mocked and attacked the current head of state

1718: writes first play, Oedipe, which gained him fame

1719: adapts pen name Voltaire

1726: imprisoned again in the Bastille, allowed to be released but was exiled to England for three years (until 1729),

meets Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, studies Isaac Newton and John Locke, experiences freedom

from censorship and punishment which further cements his issues with French society

1733: publishes Letters Concerning the English Nation, which praises English

religious tolerance, the emphasis on personal liberty and rights, and the ruling policies of English monarchs, implicitly criticizing French society, where it is quickly banned

1750: moves to Potsdam (in Prussia), joins the court of King Frederick the Great

1755: earthquake hit Lisbon, Portugal, killing many people

1756: Seven Years’ War began in the German States (based on colonial rivalry

between France and England, and a struggle for power in Germany between

Austria and Prussia)

1757: English admiral unjustly executed

1758: settles in the village of Ferney (a town on the border between France and

Switzerland) after Frederick proved himself to not be the kind of sensitive rational king Voltaire hoped he was

1759: Voltaire published Candide

1778: returns to Paris, greeted as if he was a hero, dies on May 30, 1778


Voltaire’s Views:


Deism: “faith in a God who created the world and then stands back, allowing nature to follow its own laws and never intervening”

“God as a watchmaker: the world he made was a mechanism, which

then ticked away on its own…God gave humans reason which they were then free to use”

“Voltaire claimed that it was impossible for humans to know anything

beyond their senses—so God’s will must remain mysterious—and he

believed that humans should use their senses and their reason to understand how the world works and, to the best of our abilities, to make it better.”

Quotes on Philosophy/Politics:

“So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.”

“No matter which way we look, we find contradiction, harshness, uncertainty, arbitrary power. In this age we are trying to make everything perfect; let us try, then, to perfect the laws on which our lives and fortunes depend.”

“A Revolutionary Tutor” (James Gillray, 1800): oil sketch of Voltaire, surrounded by a demonic host, as he educates a feral, monster child, Jacobinism (revolutionary democracy).

“The English, as a free people choose their own road to heaven. Here the nobles are great without insolence, and the people share in the government without disorder.”

“Notice that the most superstitious ages have always been those of the most horrible crimes... The superstitious man is ruled by fanatics and he becomes one himself. On the whole, the less superstition, the less fanaticism, and the less fanaticism, the fewer miseries.”


Candide, or Optimism

(pub. 1759, composed in Ferney at age 65)

  • Influence/Aims:
  • November 1, 1755: Lisbon earthquake, over 30,000 people died
    • “how could anyone make a case for an optimistic philosophy in light of such a huge tragedy?”
  • An Essay on Man (1733-4) & Alexander Pope’s notion that “Whatever is is right”:
  • how could anyone actually think a “just and rational God”
  • would create this world and think it truly “the best of all possible worlds”?
  • “Deliberately entertaining”: brief and easy to read
  • Attacks real social issues: military discipline, class hierarchy, greed, religious extremism, slavery, publishing industry
  • Fuel for Satire: absolutism and religious bigotry, unnecessary bloodshed, restrictions on freedom of speech and religion, and the intolerable reality of human suffering
  • **Candide directly influenced both the American Revolution (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin) and the French Revolution

Cover page of the first published edition of Candide (Geneva, 1759)


Candide: like Swift’s Gulliver, a naïve traveler

Cacambo: clever, resourceful, and “very honest fellow”—becomes Candide’s “valet”

Cunégonde: love of Candide’s life, beautiful daughter of Baron, the thing Candide spends the text literally searching for

Dr. Pangloss: Professor of “metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology” and tutor to Candide, he steadfastly espouses the doctrine that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” despite repeated confrontations with natural disasters and human depravity. His “optimism” is modeled on the philosophy of German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), as popularized by Alexander Pope (“Whatever is, is right,” from An Essay on Man, 1732–34).

Martin: A poor but honest man of letters whose life experiences ("robbed by his wife, beaten by his son, and abandoned by his daughter") have given him a rather jaundiced view of human nature.