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pseudonym of Fran?ois Marie Arouet. 1694--1778, French writer, whose outspoken belief in religious, political, and social liberty made him the embodiment of the 18th-century Enlightenment. His major works include Lettres philosophiques (1734) and the satire Candide (1759). He also wrote plays, such as Za?re (1732), poems, and scientific studies. He suffered several periods of banishment for his radical views
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet). Born Nov. 21, 1694, in Paris; died there May 30, 1778. French writer, philosopher, and historian. Member of the Academic Fransaise (1746).

Voltaire was the son of a notary, and he graduated from a Jesuit college. In 1717 he was imprisoned in the Bastille for writing epigrams against the regent, and in 1726 he was exiled to England. Voltaire’s impressions of England were reflected in his Philosophical Letters (1733), in which he demonstrated that the British social structure was superior to that of France, where absolutism prevailed. The French parliament condemned the work to be burned (1734). Over a period of ten years Voltaire lived in the home of the Marquise du Chatelet. In 1745 he was close to the court of Louis XV and during the years 1750-53, to that of the Prussian king Frederick II. In 1754, Voltaire settled near Geneva but could not find a place for himself even in the progressive Calvinist republic. Beginning in 1758 he established himself on his estate at Ferney on the border between France and Switzerland. The words “crush the loathsome thing,” that is, the Catholic Church, were Voltaire’s watchword during those years. His creative work was subordinated to the struggle against religious intolerance and obscurantism. He came out in defense of victims of religious fanaticism, for example, the Galas Case in 1762. During the 1760’s, along with the ideal of enlightened monarchy, Voltaire set forth the ideal of a republic as the most rational state system (Republican Ideas, 1762). Voltaire was the most brilliant spokesman for progressive European public opinion, and Ferney became a place of pilgrimage. European monarchs were compelled to reckon with Voltaire—Catherine II, Frederick II, Gustave III, and others sought his friendship. Voltaire’s return to Paris in February 1778 became a triumph for the writer.

In his philosophical views Voltaire was a deist, a follower of J. Locke and I. Newton. Although he adhered to a materialist explanation of nature, Voltaire did not reject the idea of god as the primary cause, endowing matter with movement and the capacity to feel and think. Voltaire also saw in religion a moral and social restraint, necessary for the preservation of private property and public order. Although he sympathized with the people, Voltaire was afraid of a lower-class movement, and he thought of social change as “revolution from above,” brought about by an “enlightened” monarch in the interests of the nation. His historical works—The Age of Louis XIV (published 1751 and 1768), Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations (published 1756), and History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great (1759-63)—constituted an important landmark in European historiography. Voltaire’s principal attention was devoted not to kings and generals but, rather, to the history of the peoples themselves, their mores, customs, and culture. Although he rejected the idea of providence, Voltaire set forth the principle of mankind’s progressive evolution. For Voltaire, however, progress was an abstract and idealistic concept.

In his aesthetics and dramaturgy Voltaire continued the traditions of 17th-century classicism, imbuing his tragedies with current political and philosophical thought. Indicative of this is his tragedy Fanaticism, or Mahomet (1742; Russian translation, 1798), in which the characters and the plot are subordinated to the idea of unmasking the criminal role of the church and religious fanaticism. Permeated with opposition to tyrants and with republican feelings, the tragedies Brutus (staged 1730; published 1731; Russian translation, 1783), Death of Caesar (1735; Russian translation, 1777), and others anticipated the theater of the Great French Revolution. Another trend in Voltaire’s dramas—his defense of the natural rights of the human personality—was connected with his interest in Shakespeare, for example, Zare (staged 1732; Russian translation, 1779), Alzire, or the Americans (1736; Russian translation, 1786), and Tancrede (staged 1760; Russian translation 1816). Voltaire was attracted to Shakespeare’s principle of “nature” and “freedom,” but he could not entirely accept Shakespeare, considering him to be a “genius without rules” and a “savage” who violated artistic taste and sense of proportion.

In Voltaire’s narrative poem Henriade (1728), devoted to the French king Henry IV, the condemnation of feudal anarchy and the assertion of the ideal of enlightened absolutism were expressed in the form of an epic poem. The classical gods are here replaced by artificial allegorical figures— Fanaticism, Discord, and Love. In his mock-heroic poem The Virgin of Orleans (1735; anonymous edition, 1755; slightly revised edition, 1762), devoted to Joan of Arc, Voltaire debunks the religious legend about the holy savior of France and spitefully ridicules religion and the clergy. Voltaire’s lyric poems were written in the vein of the so-called light poetry. They are characterized by a refined elegance and are permeated with Epicurean and, at times, anti-clerical motifs. The following works were devoted to abstract philosophical themes: Discourses on Man in Verse (1738; Russian translation, 1788), Poem on Natural Law (1756; Russian translation, 1786), and Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756; Russian translation, 1763), in which he disputed Leibniz’ doctrine of predestined harmony.

Of the greatest importance in Voltaire’s artistic heritage are his philosophical novellas,Z0d/g, or Fate (1748; Russian translation, 1765), Memnon, or Human Wisdom (1747; Russian translation, 1782), Micromegas (1752; Russian translation, 1788), Candide, or Optimism (1759), The Ingenuous (1767; Russian translation, 1775), andThe Princess of Babylon (1768). The novellas deal not with the private lives of the heroes but with philosophical ideas concerning the world as a whole, including the problem of “universal evil.” The chief place in these works is given to criticism of the social order and to satirical ridicule of the church, courts, and royal power. While debunking the philosophy of optimism (especially in Candide), in which he came to see a justification of existing social evils, Voltaire did not lose faith in the possibility of changing the world. His formula “we must cultivate our own garden” is a philosophical conclusion, a summons to activity on the part of all and each. In criticizing the vices of civilization from the viewpoint of the natural man (particularly in the novella The Ingenuous), Voltaire did not call for a lost simplicity as did J.-J. Rousseau. Instead he continued to rest his hopes on the progress of society. Using adventure plots, oriental exoticism, and the fantastic, Voltaire created a unique art of ideas, where behind the conflict of characters lay the conflict of ideas and where the development of plot was subordinated to the logic of philosophical positions. Voltaire’s influence on the development of Enlightenment thought was very important. The term “Voltairean” has become a common noun.


Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1-52. Paris, 1877-85.
Voltaire’s Correspondence, vols. 1-107. Edited by T. Besterman. Geneva, 1953-65.
In Russian translation:
Soch. St. Petersburg, 1913.
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1947.
Pis’ma. Moscow-Leningrad, 1956.
Filosofskie povesti i rasskazy, memuary i dialogi, vols. 1-2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Orleanskaia devstvennitsa. Magomet. Filosofskie povesti. Moscow, 1971.
Filosofskie povesti. Moscow, 1954.


Morley, J. Vol’ter. Moscow, 1889. (Translated from English.)
Shakhov, A. Vol’ter i ego vremia. St. Petersburg, 1912.
Derzhavin, K. N. Vol’ter [Moscow] 1946.
Vol’ter: Stat’i i materialy. Edited by M. P. Alekseev. Leningrad, 1947.
Vol’ter: Stat’i i materialy. Edited by V. P. Volgin. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Artamonov, S. Vol’ter. Moscow, 1954.
Sokolov, V. V. Vol’ter: Obshchestvenno-politicheskie, filosofskie i sotsial’nye vozzreniia. Moscow, 1956.
Sigal, N. Vol’ter. Leningrad-Moscow, 1959.
Oblomievskii, D. Frantsuzskii klassitsism. Moscow, 1968.
Akimova, A. A. Vol’ter. Moscow, 1970.
Desnoiresterres, G. Voltaire et la société au XVIII siècle, vols. 1-8. Paris, 1871-76.
Lion, H. Les Tragédies et les théories dramatiques de Voltaire. Paris, 1895.
Lanson, G. Voltaire. Paris, 1906.
Naves, R. Le Goût de Voltaire. Paris, 1938.
Naves, R. Voltaire, 7th ed. Paris, 1962.
Bellesort, A. Essai sur Voltaire. Paris, 1950.
Lancaster, H. C. French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XV and Voltaire (1715-1774), vols. 1-2. Baltimore, 1950.
Diaz, F. Voltaire Storico. Turin, 1958.
Charpentier, J. Voltaire. Paris, 1955.
Studies on Voltaire and the 18th Century, vols. 1-12. Edited by T. Besterman. Geneva, 1955-60. (This publication is a continuing one.)
Pomeau, R. La Religion de Voltaire. Paris, 1956.
Pomeau, R. Voltaire par lui-même. Paris, 1963.
Besterman, T. Voltaire Essays, and Another. London, 1962.
Besterman, T. Voltaire. [London- Harlow, 1969.]
Brailsford, H. N. Voltaire. London, 1963.
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Iazykov, D. Vol’ter v russkoi literature, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1902.
Derzhavin, K. N. “Iz russkoi bibliografii Vol’tera.” In the collection Vol’ter. Leningrad, 1948.
Biblioteka Vol’tera: Katalog knig. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Quérard, J. M. Bibliographie voltairienne. Paris, 1824.
Bengesco, G. Bibliographie des oeuvresde Voltaire, vols. 1-4. Paris, 1882-90.
Barr, M. A. A Bibliography of Writings on Voltaire: 1825-1925. New York, 1929.
Barr, M. A. Quarante Années d’ études voltairienne s: Bibliographie analytique des livres et articles sur Voltaire, 1926-1965. Paris [1969].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.