In this lesson we examine the literary contributions of Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), a prominent writer and thinker of the French Enlightenment.

Who Was Voltaire?

Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) was a writer and philosopher in France in the 1700s. At this time in Europe, popular thought was undergoing drastic changes. For centuries, our understandings of science, social laws, morality, etc. had been governed almost exclusively by tradition and superstition, and by powerful institutions, such as governments and organized religion. But with exciting scientific breakthroughs and rapid technological progress, people were starting to question that. Instead of believing what governments and churches told them, they started thinking empirically, meaning that they relied on observation, experimentation, reason, etc. The result was a widespread challenge to establishment authority, which led to revolutions in government, religion, education, and other facets of society, a movement which we call the Enlightenment. Voltaire, whom you’ll read about in this lesson, was both shaped by the Enlightenment and was himself an Enlightenment force, molding with his writings how others of his day understood the world around them.

Voltaire the Skeptic

One of the hallmarks of Voltaire’s thinking was skepticism. Like other Enlightenment thinkers, he distrusted anything that couldn’t be supported with firm, reasoned evidence. As a result, his writings often attacked institutions and assumptions that lacked logical authority. Some, but not all, of the targets of Voltaire’s skepticism were:

Governments

Many of the governments of Voltaire’s time were monarchies based entirely on long tradition. Political power was handed down through families, and ruling individuals could rule as they pleased. Voltaire considered this style of rule silly and harmful, and believed governments should protect the liberties of their constituents.

Organized Religion

Voltaire believed organized religion was an instrument used by religious officials to protect their own wealth and power and to persecute practitioners of other beliefs. He did not think any single church was a true religious authority.

Traditional Economics

Like many of his contemporaries, Voltaire believed the comfort of the rich depended on the discomfort of the poor, and so was skeptical of traditional economic systems. Karl Marx, one of history’s most famous economic skeptics, was deeply influenced by Voltaire’s work.

Conventional Gender Roles

Voltaire rejected the assumption that men and women should be confined to specific types of work and lifestyles based simply on their gender.

Voltaire’s Works

Voltaire wrote prolifically. From his works of philosophy and reflection to his works of fiction, drama, and poetry he is credited with literally thousands of volumes. Here, we will focus only on several of his most famous works:

Oedipus, or Oedipe in French (1718)

In his first play, Voltaire retells the Greek story of Oedipus, a king who tries to escape the tragic fate of killing his father and marrying his mother. In true Voltaire fashion, the play treats the Oedipus story skeptically, though. It questions plot inconsistencies and character motivations, the result being a play that both embraces a traditional work and rejects it. This work established Voltaire as a sharp literary voice with a questioning mind.

Letters Concerning the English Nation, or Lettres Anglaises in French (1734)

In this collection of essays, Voltaire studies English society, and through this study, suggests certain shortcomings of French society. The book considers all aspects of English culture, from art and systems of government, to religion, economics, and scientific progress.

Candide: or, Optimism, or Candide, ou l’Optimisme in French (1759)

In Voltaire’s most famous work, we find the story of Candide, a naïve young hero who travels the Earth in search of Cunegonde, his first true love. Over the course of his travels, Candide’s optimism is tested by the brutal forces of human cruelty and society; Voltaire’s chance to criticize human cruelty and society by means of irony and humor, a tactic known as satire. As a book, Candide: or, Optimism is an encyclopedia of Voltaire’s lifetime of cultural skepticism. No institution, from governments to religion, escapes his critical eye.

Lesson Summary

Voltaire, born Fran;ois-Marie Arouet, was a writer who influenced, and was influenced by, Enlightenment thinking. Born in France in the 18th Century, he went on to write drama, fiction, and poetry that, like many works, doubted the authority of traditional institutions during the Enlightenment, which was a widespread challenge to establishment authority, which led to revolutions in government, religion, education, and other facets of society. This was done through the lens of looking at things empirically, meaning people like Voltaire relied on observation, experimentation, reason, etc. Voltaire distrusted traditional political institutions, organized religions, economic systems, and gender roles. While he wrote a vast number of volumes, he is best known for Candide, a story about a naive hero who travels the world encountering all of mankind’s cruelty and foolishness, allowing Voltaire to use satire, meaning to criticize human cruelty and society by means of irony and humor.