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Poetry Tribute to Voltaire
France's Greatest Writer
In the 18th century, at a time when French culture dominated Europe, Voltaire dominated French culture. His writing includes a vast amount of work in almost every literary form, including 56 plays, dialogues, historical writing, stories and novels, poetry and epic poems, essays, scientific and learned papers, pamphlets, book reviews, and more than 20,000 letters.
Voltaire was born November 21, 1694 and lived to age 83. He chose a career as a writer against the wishes of his father who said he couldn't earn a living as a writer. However, by the time he was forty years old, Voltaire was both a well-known writer and a wealthy man.
A Writer for Social Reform
Voltaire is known for his philosophical writing, his great wit, and as a crusader against injustice, intolerance, cruelty, and war. In France, in the 1700's, he was the most outspoken writer who supported political and social reform. Because his writing criticized the King and the Church, he lived most of his life in constant fear of being jailed. Thus, he spent comparatively few years of his life in Paris, where his stay was either forbidden or too dangerous.
Voltaire was the son of a notary. He attended the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand from age 9 to age 17. After leaving school, his father found employment for him working in a law office, but Voltaire wished to devote himself to literature. He spent much of his time in Paris salons and became the wit of Parisian society.
11 Months in the Bastille
In 1717, Voltaire was arrested and sent to the Bastille for insults to the regent, Philippe II D'Orleans. He was freed eleven months later when it was found that he was wrongly accused. While in prison, he wrote his first play, "Oedipe," which won him great recognition when it was staged following his release from prison. Voltaire continued to write for the theater and believed he would be able to gain both fame and wealth in his chosen career.
2nd Time in Bastille Prison
In 1726, while at the theater, Voltaire made a clever remark to the Chevalier de Rohan, a young nobleman, who resented that Voltaire made him look like a fool. To get even, Rohan had several men give Voltaire a beating, while he watched the assault from his carriage. Though he was not the athletic type, Voltaire took fencing lessons and planned to challenge Rohan to a duel. To avoid a problem, the powerful Rohan family had a lettre de cachet issued and Voltaire was arrested and taken to the Bastille. He was released from prison by promising that he would leave the country and go to England.
Greater Freedom in England
The Rohan incident left an indelible impression on Voltaire and from that point onward he became an advocate for judicial and social reform. While in England for more than two years, Voltaire met the important literary men of the country. He was impressed by the greater freedom of thought in England, and was deeply influenced by Isaac Newton and John Locke. When he was allowed to return to France, Voltaire established himself financially, and then continued his literary career with the goal of seeking truth and writing about it, and in promoting social reform.
The Divine Right of Kings
Through his writing, Voltaire attempted to bring about reform of the social and legal structure that existed at the time. In 18th century France, all power lay in the hands of the King and the Church. The Church taught that all authority to determine what was right and wrong was given to the King by God. The law did not affect the King in any way; his will was law. In return for establishing the divine right of kings in the minds of the people, the King supported the authority of the Catholic Church in France. Thus, it was a system of mind control, and as long as the masses believed in the divine right of kings, the King and the Church, and those who held positions in their service (the nobles and upper clergy) maintained their privileged position over the general population.
The Judicial System in France
In the 18th century there were 350 different bodies of law in the different regions of France. It was difficult for a citizen to discover what the law was in his particular place and case. Judiciary appointments were for sale and no prior experience was necessary. Judges passed sentence based on existing laws because the King had delegated to them the power that was divinely his. An arrested person could be held in jail for months before a trial was held. There was no trial by jury, torture could be used to get a confession and, if found guilty, the person's property was confiscated by the king. The penal laws were in chaos. New laws passed revoked old laws, and they were often contradictory. Almost any decision made by a judge could be enforced and justified under some law. Thus, a judge's power was unlimited.
Arrest Without Trial
When an arrest was desired, and no law had been violated, a person of influence could obtain a secret warrant called a lettre de cachet that was countersigned by the secretary of state and stamped with the royal seal. The person named in the lettre de cachet was ordered to go to a certain prison or into exile, either abroad or in a certain town within France. The victim stayed in prison or exile for an undetermined amount of time. The person could not clear himself since he had not been accused and there had been no trial.
It wasn't easy to be a social reform writer in 18th century France. All written work had to pass the official censors before it could be published. An edict of 1723 stated: "No publishers or others may print or reprint, anywhere in the kingdom, any books without having obtained permission in advance by letters sealed with the Great Seal." In 1741 there were seventy-six official censors. Before a book was given the "permission and privilege du roi," the censor was required to testify that the book contained nothing contrary to religion, public order, or sound morality. A book that was published without the permission of the government might be burned by the public executioner, and the printer and writer arrested and sent to prison. Much of Voltaire's work was burned by the public executioner.
More Severe Censorship
In 1757, a man named Damiens attempted to assassinate Louis XV. In response to this threat to the King, a new edict decreed death for "all those who shall be convicted of having written or printed any works intended to attack religion, to assail the royal authority, or to disturb the order and tranquility of the realm." In 1764 another decree forbade the publication of works on the finances of the state. Books, pamphlets, even prefaces to plays, were subjected to the most detailed scrutiny and control. Sentences varying from the pillory to flogging to nine years in the galleys were imposed for selling or buying published work that criticized the establishment. During most of his life Voltaire found it necessary to have an escape route planned should he receive word that the police were looking for him.
Most of Voltaire's Writing was Banned
Due to the censorship laws, Voltaire frequently wrote anonymously, and the sale of most of his writing was forbidden. However, due to his writing talent and great wit, a work written by Voltaire that was banned was in great demand.
Voltaire and other French writers who wanted to elude censorship, had their work printed in Amsterdam, The Hague, or Geneva, and then had it smuggled into France. Voltaire denied being the author of much of his writing, and at times wrote criticisms and denunciations of his own work. He also used other means to disguise his statements that promoted social reform. Plays and stories (with examples of social injustice that were similar to what was happening in France) were often set in ancient times, or in foreign or fictional countries. Another technique he used was to present an issue, make no judgment, and let the reader decide how he or she felt about the issue. Voltaire was often called the Genius of Mockery. He used logic and humor to show that opposition to his viewpoint was totally ridiculous -- and in this technique Voltaire was the master.
Copyright did not exist at the time and it was standard for printers to print anything they could get their hands on and not share their profit with the writer. Thus, Voltaire made very little of his income from his writing. He determined early on that it was necessary to have an independent means of support if he intended to encourage social reform in his writing.
Voltaire was a millionaire by the time he was 40 years old. While in his twenties, he cultivated the friendship of wealthy bankers, particularly the Paris brothers. It was through them that he learned how to invest in bonds and speculate in currency and other commodities. The Paris brothers had a contract to supply the French army with food and munitions, and they invited Voltaire to participate with them in this extremely profitable enterprise. While in England, he observed that great wealth could be gained in foreign trade and he invested in ships that sailed all over the world. He also invested in art and made loans to people and charged interest on the loans.
Voltaire's secretary, Longchamp, reports that Voltaire's income in 1749 was 80,000 francs, which is approximately $600,000 in today's money. Voltaire maintained investments that earned a yearly income of 45,000 francs in each of several foreign countries. This was done to ensure he had a means of support should he have to leave France at a moment's notice.
Samples of Voltaire's Writing
Voltaire's writing spoke out against war, religious intolerance, and political and social injustice. His writing had a great influence on the French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution of 1776.
One must read Voltaire's work to understand why he was considered the greatest writer in Europe during his time, and why he still has a following today.
You are invited to visit the menu title, "Voltaire's writing" on this web site to review examples of his writing.
Emilie du Chatelet
Château de Cirey
Copyright 2001 Jane M. Birkenstock
Last Updated: January 7, 2009