18th century French satirist and philosopher Voltaire was an important influence on those who sought justice, free inquiry, and separation of church and state. He rejected everything irrational and incomprehensible and championed freedom of thought. His rallying cry was“écrasez l’infâme”(“let us crush the evil thing”), referring to religious superstition. (Image via Library of Congress, public domain)
Voltaire was the pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), a French author and philosopher of the Enlightenment period, who served as an inspiration to those on both sides of the Atlantic who were interested in free inquiry and secularism.
Voltaire championed freedom of thought
Voltaire’s prolific biting satire and philosophical writings demonstrated his aversion to Christianity, intolerance, and tyranny. He pleaded for a socially involved type of literature. Meanwhile, he rejected everything irrational and incomprehensible and championed freedom of thought. His rallying cry was“écrasez l’infâme”(“let us crush the evil thing”), referring to religious superstition. Also commonly attributed to Voltaire is the saying “I may disagree with you, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” (Author Evelyn Beatrice Hall attributed the saying to Voltaire in her work The Friends of Voltaire ).
Voltaire's writings resulted in imprisonment and exile
After defying his father’s wishes that he become a lawyer, Voltaire pursued his first love, writing, which quickly sparked difficulties with the authorities because of his sometimes harsh attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. The result was a series of imprisonments and exiles. In 1713 Voltaire was briefly exiled to the Netherlands. In 1717 he was imprisoned in the Bastille for satirical verses that ridiculed the government, and especially the regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans.
Voltaire’s writings won him fame, but in 1726 he feuded with a powerful young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan, and again was thrown into the Bastille. His unjust confinement only strengthened his passion for justice. He upheld the rights of men of letters against the arbitrary power of the king and of the nobles.
When given a choice between continued imprisonment and exile, Voltaire chose exile. He lived in England from 1726 to 1729. His 1728 “Poem of the League,” later retitled “The Henriad,” was an eloquent defense of religious toleration. In 1733 he published in England Letters Concerning the English Nation. The work appeared in France in 1734 in an unauthorized edition, Philosophical Letters. The letters praisedEnglish institutions, thereby constituting an indirect criticism of their French counterparts. French authorities condemned the book, and Voltaire fled from Paris to the independent duchy of Lorraine.
In 1750 Voltaire journeyed to Berlin at the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia, with whom he had corresponded for years. Voltaire condoned enlightened despotism in the belief that a strong but just prince would prevent factions from destroying each other. However, Voltaire’s wit clashed with the king’s autocratic temper and led to frequent disputes. Voltaire left after two years for Geneva.
After five years in Switzerland, Voltaire’s strong opinions forced another move. Later, he chose to live at Ferney, on the Swiss border, which then was not under the jurisdiction of the French king. There he spent the remaining twenty years of his life, able to enjoy security while allowing his writings to become even more outspoken.
Voltaire's writings were progressive
Voltaire’s histories were not impartial; they were propagandistic and debunking, depicting the progressive victory ofenlightenment and fraternity over ignorance, fanaticism, and evil. He contributed to the French Encyclopedie and wrote treatises, pamphlets, and tracts condemning abuse, injustice, greed, and arbitrary power. He advocated the principle that the punishment should fit the crime and criticized capital punishment and recourse to torture. Voltaire favored judges of integrity, chosen on the basis of merit and not by reason of their social origins.
Voltaire died in Paris at the age of 83. Stung by his ongoing criticism, the Roman Catholic Church refused to allow his burial in church ground. However, in 1791 his remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris.
This article was originally published in 2009. Martin Gruberg was President of the Fox Valley Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin.
Send Feedback on this article
What is Voltaire's famous quote? ›
Did you know that the famous quote "Common sense is not so common" is attributed to Voltaire? By India Today Web Desk: Francois-Marie d'Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, was known for his intelligence, wit and style is still commended by many making him one of France's greatest writers and philosophers.What was Voltaire's motto? ›
In this way, Enlightenment philosophie became associated through Voltaire with the cultural and political program encapsulated in his famous motto, “Écrasez l'infâme!” (“Crush the infamy!”).What is Voltaire's main philosophy? ›
What was Voltaire's philosophy? Voltaire believed above all in the efficacy of reason. He believed social progress could be achieved through reason and that no authority—religious or political or otherwise—should be immune to challenge by reason.What are the 3 main ideas that Voltaire is most famous? ›
Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, who attacked the Catholic Church and advocated freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.Did Voltaire say everything you say should be true? ›
“Everything you say should be true, but not everything true should be said.”What is Voltaire's message? ›
Voltaire championed freedom of thought
He pleaded for a socially involved type of literature. Meanwhile, he rejected everything irrational and incomprehensible and championed freedom of thought. His rallying cry was “écrasez l'infâme” (“let us crush the evil thing”), referring to religious superstition.
He was an extraordinary prolific writer.
Voltaire wrote more than 50 plays, dozens of treatises on science, politics and philosophy, and several books of history on everything from the Russian Empire to the French Parliament.
"Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it."What did Voltaire think about human nature? ›
He felt that both reason and civilization destroyed the best in human beings. Therefore, he did not believe society was improving. On the contrary, he thought that people had been better off when they had lived in a state of nature alone or in small, agricultural communities.How does Voltaire affect us today? ›
Voltaire's beliefs on freedom and reason is what ultimately led to the French Revolution, the United States Bill of Rights, and the decrease in the power of the Catholic Church, which have all affected modern western society.
What did Voltaire believe about human rights? ›
Voltaire was known for his sharp wit, philosophical writings, and defence of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform despite strict censorship laws in France and harsh penalties for those who broke them.Why is Voltaire important in history? ›
Voltaire's failure to produce an original philosophy was, in a sense, counterbalanced by his deliberate cultivation of a philosophy of action; his 'common sense' crusade against superstition and prejudice and in favour of religious toleration was his single greatest contribution to the progress of Enlightenment.What did Voltaire think about religion? ›
One must remember that Voltaire was vehemently opposed to all established religions. His attacks against Roman Catholics, for example, were much more frequent, systematic, violent and blasphemous than his attacks against Jews.What did Nietzsche think of Voltaire? ›
Nietzsche admires Voltaire insofar as Voltaire impresses him as noble and as a free spirit: Voltaire appears to have succeeded in combining nobility of mind with freedom of thought, to be, in short, a "grandseigneur of the spirit," and thus a unique exception among intellectuals.Did Voltaire say every man is guilty of all the good he did not do? ›
Voltaire: "Everyone is guilty of all the good they did not do." François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known by his pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, known as one of the greatest French writers of all time.What is Voltaire's famous quote about freedom of speech? ›
Back before the Constitution enshrined the principle of free speech in the very First Amendment, the French writer, wit, and philosopher Voltaire said, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”How did Voltaire influence the world? ›
Voltaire opened a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices in our world today. In our constitution we are granted the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, etcetera. Voltaire contributed to this by fighting for what he believed in no matter the consequence.What did Voltaire disapprove of? ›
|Evelyn Beatrice Hall|
Voltaire believed that a meaningful life should be based on reason, compassion and tolerance. He argued that people should think for themselves, learn from their mistakes and treat others with respect. Voltaire had a knack for cutting through pretentiousness with his biting wit and razor-sharp observations.What does Voltaire believe about God? ›
Voltaire was a deist who believed God created the world but did not intervene in it. And Voltaire wrote Candide to ridicule the idea that God is somehow a source of consolation and hope in the face of terrible suffering.
Did Voltaire believe people were born good? ›
It would be much more reasonable, much nobler, to say to me: “You were all born good; see how frightful it would be to corrupt the purity of your being.” We should treat mankind as we should treat all men individually…. Man is not born evil; he becomes evil, as he becomes sick….What did Voltaire think about government? ›
Voltaire believed that the best form of government was a constitutional monarchy that relied on the advice of philosophers and men of enlightened thinking.What is Voltaire famous for quizlet? ›
He was a great french philosopher, writer that lived through 1694 - 1778. He was a supporter of social reform, he also defended freedom of religion and free trade.