Francois Marie Arouet (he would later take the name Voltaire) was born November 21, 1694 as a sickly child who was not expected to live. His father was a rather prosperous lawyer, and was determined that, should he live, his son ought to study law. Thus Voltaire was enrolled in 1704 in the Jesuit College of Louis-Le-Grande.
Remaining at the College until his seventeenth year, Voltaire excelled in academics and won much acclaim, while simultaneously receiving a sound liberal education and developing his ability to write. The Jesuits were well known for their production of theatre in Latin, and Voltaire received a great deal of theatrical education that would serve him later in life. Voltaire began moving in aristocratic circles and writing; this was wholly unacceptable to his father, who feared he was neglecting his legal studies and becoming increasingly liberal, forced him to leave Paris for Holland. However, there Voltaire fell for a young Protestant woman. His father, taking issue with her religion, forced him to return to Paris in 1713. His reputation as a writer of satire and prose was already forming, and so when two offensive and libelous works (Puerto Regnanto and J’ai vu) appeared, he was accused of being the author and imprisoned in 1716 for 11 months. While in prison, Voltaire completed his play dipe, based upon the great work by Sophocles, and also begin his L’ Hernriade, an epic poem celebrating the works of Henry IV of France. It is around this time that he took the name de Voltaire, the aristocratic de believed by many to indicate his ambitious desires.
This ambition was well-founded: dipe enjoyed a 45-day run and brought Voltaire great acclaim. Believed by many to be jealous of Voltaire’s success, the arrogant Chevalier de Rohan verbally attacked Voltaire. Voltaire challenged him to a duel, and in response the Chevalier had him imprisoned in the Bastille for two weeks.
Upon his release, he was exiled to England. Welcomed by both Whigs and Tories alike, the England from 1726-29 was particularly well-enjoyed by Voltaire. Here he enjoyed the company of such grates as Swift and Thomson, and befriended Alexander Pope. Becoming proficient in English, Voltaire read Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Newton, and Locke. To test his English literary ability, Voltaire published an English version of La Henriade (The Henriad), an eloquent defense of religions toleration, and dedicated it to the Queen. Always a Parisian at heart, Voltaire found himself back in France, but this time two of his works were to again get him into trouble. His attack on the French government, the church, and some of his contemporaries resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest. He managed to avoid imprisonment, however, in the company of Emile de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet, and became quite close to her for the next sixteen years.
This period was one of intense writing for Voltaire, and he wrote six plays, two poems, and a universal history. After 1743, he was again in favor of the French court, and after his production of Poeme de Fontenay, his success earned him a position as official Historiographer. By 1746, he was elected to the French Academy. After the death of Marquise du Chatelet, Voltaire accepted an invitation from Frederick the Great to become a member of the Prussian court. Frederick and Voltaire’s friendship was quickly strained, however, with Voltaire finding Frederick arrogant and Frederick not appreciating Voltaire’s attack on his cherished Academy of Science. Voltaire was thus arrested in Frankfurt, he eventually moved to Geneva. Now quite a wealthy man (his plays had been successful and he had always been skilled at speculation), Voltaire purchased a chateau near Genevy and another residence at Monrion, where he would later write Candide.
He led a moderately migratory existence, writing his most ambitious work, the Essai sur l’historie generale et sur le moeurs et l’esprit de nations (Essay on General History and on the Customs and the Character of Nations, 1956) , finally settling in 1758 in Ferney, where he would remain for his last 20 years. Still writing occasionally on literary subjects, his attention turned mainly to philosophical and moral issues. Voltaire had always felt that literature ought to teach, and many of his remaining works were created to educate. He wrote his Traite sur la Tolerance in 1763 in which he defended John Calais, the executed victim of religious strife. Voltaire would also succeed in arguing for those whom he felt had suffered intolerant injustice, and several times make his case so eloquently that the verdicts were overturned. Voltaire died May 30, 1778, and was (12 years after his death) buried in the Pantheon.