I have recently been getting quite a bit of traffic to the article I wrote comparing Voltaire’s Candide with Leibniz
. As such, I’ve decided to publish another paper I’ve written on Voltaire. Enjoy.
Worldly and Personal Influences on Voltaire’s Writing
Voltaire’s satirical style of writing is greatly influenced by worldly events occurring during the eighteenth century, in addition to personal afflictions encountered throughout the course of his life. Evident in the majority his philosophical volumes, his personal life and opinions of the world around him manifests itself throughout his work, usually presented with scientific reasoning and logical backing to either contradict or confirm the viewpoints of other published philosophers during his time.
Voltaire’s plays are “mainly classical, embodying the unities and dealing with highborn heroes” (Critical Survey 3305). This can be attributed to Voltaire’s home life, raised by his father who was a successful notary. From this, “Young Voltaire grew up surrounded by wealthy, influential people” (UXL 1). He was always interested in social classes higher than his own, often writing about nobility, such as in “LeSiecle de Louis XIV”- a piece demonstrating his dedication through immense research. From this one paper alone, Voltaire can be classified as a major historian (Critical Survey 3305). Voltaire’s Godfather, Abbe de Chateauneuf, also played a major roll in Voltaire’s exposure to the wealthy and successful. At the age of twelve, Abbe took Voltaire to visit the Society of the Temple, which stood for all that was proper and worldly. “Voltaire’s taste for witty irreverence and for luxurious living was definitely encouraged by his company” (3307).
Voltaire, very outspoken and bold, was imprisoned at the Bastille for aiming satirical writing at Regent and Poet Antoine Houdar de la Motte (Critical Survey 3307). While in prison, he finished reading Oedipus
, and promptly began writing La Ligue
, pulling in Socratic philosophies (3307). He left prison in exile to go live in England for what would become three of the most malleable years of his life.
In England, Voltaire became friends with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope (World Literature Criticism 3767). He respected them and studied their work, “[drawing] on his extensive reading as well as his experience of life” (Aldington 3773) in writing Letters Concerning the English Nation
in 1773 (World Literature Criticism 3767). This piece showed a rare, impressionable side of Voltaire, as he painted a “highly sympathetic portrait of the English” (3767), something unusual for the satirical sharp-tongue. Also in England, he became very familiar with William Shakespeare’s work, which is evident in “Brutus”- a play he produced upon returning to France (Critical Survey 3307). In reading Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
, Voltaire was so intrigued by it’s structure and layout (even though it was modeled after Montesquieu’s story, Persian Letters
[Critical Survey 3311]), he used it as a skeleton for his philosophical imitation, Micromegas
, the protagonist is exiled from his planet by the courts for writing about something as negligible as insects (Critical Survey 3311). This parallels his own personal experiences of getting exiled from France for his satirical attack on Regent Antoine Houdar de la Motte (3307). When the protagonist reaches his destination planet, Saturn, he finds a small dwarf, maliciously symbolizing Voltaire’s personal enemy Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (3311), though borrowed almost exactly from the Brobdingnagians in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
(Aldington 3775). There is speculation that the entire work Micromegas
was entirely malevolent against Fontenelle, despite the other small pieces of philosophical discussions that is sprinkled throughout it (Critical Survey 3311).
From 1734 to 1744 Voltaire lived in the Du Chatelet Castle with his mistress Madame du Chatelet (Critical Survey 3307). She was very interested in physics, chemistry, and astronomy, which eventually led to Voltaire’s writing The Elements of Sir Issac’s Philosophy
(3307). Around then, Voltaire started to get into more trouble with the courts for his controversial publishings. The king and queen distrusted him, and in rebuttal Voltaire begins work on Zadig
, one of his most famous pieces that satirized the courts (Critical Survey 3307). Zadig
is a very optimistic work, with Madame du Chatelet by his side, he pulls from the philosophical studies of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Friendrich August Wolf saying “this is the best of all possible worlds” (3310).
“I was sent to execution because I had written verse in praise of the king; I was on the point of being strangled because the queen had yellow ribbons; and here I am a slave to you because a brute beat his mistress. Come, let’s not lose heart, perhaps all this will end” (Voltaire 162). This quote from Zadig summarizes Voltaire’s reserve against the legal system and feeling of outward injustice from prejudice courts. The last sentence of the quote emphasizes the philosophical optimism this story carries with it, however that’s all about to change. In 1747, Madame de Chatelet died during childbirth (Critical Survey 3307).
After Madame de Chatelet died, Voltaire felt there was no purpose in staying in France anymore, so he moved to Prussia, then Les Delices (near the Swiss border)(3307). Just three years after he wrote the optimistic philosophy Zadig
, he began work on his famous story Candide
(3307). The theme of Candide
, losing hope for a perfect solution (3307). The philosophical question regarding the Lisbon Earthquake of 1756 as to why innocent and guilty people are simultaneously killed without cause greatly influenced Candide
(World Literature Criticism 3767). Voltaire even went as far as writing a separate paper on the earthquake alone entitled “Poeme sur le Desastre de Lisbonne” (3767). The deadly earthquake and the “atrocities” recorded in the Seven Years War greatly influenced Candide
(3767), leaving it with pessimistic underlying messages.
In the final 18 years of Voltaire’s life following the creation of Candide
, he was very active, “writing as many 6,000 letters, pamphlets, and plays” (Critical Survey 3308). Most of them were “directed against Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church, and the priests,” due to Voltaire’s disagreements with the church operations (Aldington 3778). The poem “Henriade” analyzes Henry IV’s struggle against the Catholic League… also paralleling his personal beliefs (Critical Survey 3305). A large percentage of his writings around this time were in the aid of a few large scale court cases going on (Calas and Sirven families, and La Barne), trying to free them from injustice or religious persecution (3308). Voltaire had many run-ins with French courts, causing him to form a prejudice against injustice which worked as motivation in these legal works (World Literature Criticism 3767).
Voltaire was one of the most influential philosophers of the eighteenth century. His works are still celebrated today, including Candide
, which is often considered “one of the most entertaining prose satires ever penned” (World Literature Criticism 3774). Living in a world with the Seven Year War raging, the Lisbon Earthquake killing, and the French courts ruling against him… Voltaire stepped out in front of all other authors of his time and described the world as he saw it.
Richard Aldington. “Voltaire.” World Literature Criticism: 1500 to the Present
. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 3772-3778.
“Voltaire.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction
. Ed. Carl Rollyson. Vol. 7. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2000. 3304-3314.
“Voltaire.” U*X*L Biographies
. U*X*L, 2003. Student Resource Center. Thomson Gale. 29 April 2005
Voltaire. Voltaire, Candide, Zadig, and selected stories
. New York: New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1961. 102-172.
“Voltaire.” World Literature Criticism: 1500 to the Present
. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 3766-3768.