Voltaire is the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, a French writer of the Enlightenment. He was a prolific writer and philosopher, penning essays, plays, poems, novels, and nonfiction works. He was also known for his wit and outspoken political views. Voltaire criticized most of the institutions of his day, including the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, and fought for reforms such as freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial.
Born in Paris on 21 November 1694, he was the last of five children of a notary. Voltaire's mother was from a noble family. He attended Lycee Louis-le-Grand, a Jesuit school, for seven years beginning at the age of ten. Though his father wanted him to pursue a career in law, Voltaire was more interested in literature. He worked briefly for a lawyer in Paris, but soon became known for his witty poetry and aphorisms.
Voltaire began moving in the aristocratic circles of Paris in his early twenties. When the Duc D'Orleans became the target of his satire, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his first play, Oedipe, successfully staged in 1718. He also began using his pen name during this period.
The writer was arrested a second time in 1726, again after insulting a nobleman. He spent two weeks in the Bastille, but was released on the condition that he leave France. He spent an exile of nearly three years in London, where he was impressed by the English Constitution and the writings of political philosopher John Locke and scientist Sir Isaac Newton.
Voltaire returned to Paris in 1728. Inspired by the knowledge he had gained abroad, he soon developed his own political philosophy. He was in favor of extending civil rights, though he did not trust the majority of people to make responsible decisions. Therefore, Voltaire held that an enlightened absolute ruler was the ideal form of government. In his 1734 work, English or Philosophical Letters, the writer outlined his political beliefs, heavily criticizing the major institutions of France in the process. Once again, he faced exile, this time in the Duchy of Lorraine.
His fortune began to change in 1735. Voltaire became friends with Madame du Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, and was a frequent visitor to Versailles. He was appointed Royal Historiographer of France and elected to the French Academy. In 1750, he spent time in the court of another "enlightened monarch," Frederick II of Prussia. The writer was no longer welcome in France two years later, when he was ready to leave Berlin, so he traveled throughout Europe and continued to write.
Voltaire settled down in the town of Ferney, France in 1758. During the 20 years he lived there, he wrote many of his most famous and important works, including Candide in 1758. He developed his philosophies, including that of Deism, the belief in God based on a rational observation of the natural world rather than on blind faith. The writer's Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764), dealing with his Deist beliefs, was extremely controversial for its rejection of organized religion.
When Voltaire returned to Paris shortly before his death on 30 May 1778, he was welcomed as a national hero. His writings were influential in the French Revolution of the following year, which rejected both the aristocracy and the clergy and fought for increased personal freedoms. The writer is still revered as one of France's and the world's greatest thinkers. Ferney has been renamed Ferney-Voltaire, and the writer's home there has become a museum. Voltaire was interred in the Pantheon, though his brain is in the Bibliotheque National in Paris.