So here’s another one of the great Francophones of history you are like to hear about whilst you are studying French in France; Voltaire. A name synonymous with rebellion and anti-establishment sentiment that I have seen manifested in many ways during my language stay in Montpellier. This 18th century literary giant was a true rebel and a very effective one at that. As you learn more about the man and his connection to French culture it’s hard not to be impressed how in the face of the wrath of every authority of his day he has left such a big legacy that can be seen in the daily lives of people all over Europe. You will probably discuss him in your French classes at some point or with your French host families and I hope this summary will give you a head start.
Who was Voltaire?
- Real name François-Marie Arouet, born in Paris (1694-1778).
- French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher.
- He was famous for his criticism of the Christian church and his support of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of the church and state.
- He produced work in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, historical and scientific works.
- He was very vocal in support of civil liberties in spite of the harsh censorship that those in power tried to impose on him at the time.
- He criticized intolerance, religious dogma and the French establishment of the 18th century.
A Brief History of Voltaire; Show Off During Your Immersion Course
If you want to impress your teacher on your DELF exam course or your French host families at dinner keep reading. Voltaire started writing from an early age and quickly started work on the French religious wars of the 16th century between Protestants and Catholics. This was to become a central subject throughout his life’s work. A work on this theme he did called ‘La Henriade’ glorified Henry IV of France as the King that brought peace by changing to Catholicism from Protestantism. The Catholic Church didn’t want this poem published and it was banned throughout the country so Voltaire decided to go to London to publish it secretly.
He ended up staying in England for a couple of years and became deeply involved in British society and culture, he began to admire the British way of life and wrote a book about his experience; Letters Concerning the English Nation 1733. The French authorities were outraged, censored the book and tried to throw Voltaire in prison mostly because of the way he described the British/Protestant culture with such a tone that indirectly criticised French/Catholic culture. In particular he describes the multi-religious environment with a positive outlook as compared to the deeply Catholic France.
He was a master of popularising difficult concepts. For example, what most people know about Isaac Newton is the story about the apple falling on his head. The reason we are all so aware of this now is thanks to Voltaire who heard the anecdote from one of Newton’s nieces and saw immediately how simply it explained the scientist’s complex theory. He wrote the anecdote in Letters Concerning the English Nation and the legend was born. My teachers embody this spirit for me every day on my French immersion course!
He concerned himself with the question of good and evil which was the central subject of his best-known work; Candide, which is often labelled as his greatest masterpiece. It is the most widely read work of the European Enlightenment and has given many expressions to the English language as well: ‘we must cultivate our garden’, ‘in the best of all possible worlds’. Candide is a satire of the human condition that also deals with profound philosophical subjects such as Optimism. In this context Optimism is the concept of believing that ‘evil is part of some greater pattern of good’ and this was advocated by the German philosopher Leibniz. The central character Candide, is brought face-to-face with almost every type of evil imaginable both man-made and natural and eventually begins to think his highly Leibnizian teacher was completely wrong.
In his later years Voltaire took up many public causes including fighting against the Catholic authorities of Toulouse who he believed had condemned an innocent man out of religious bigotry. This showcased how change could be brought about by the pressure of public opinion; an idea very important today. Voltaire is now forever associated with a set of liberal values: freedom of speech, rejection of bigotry and superstition and a belief in reason and tolerance.
Voltaire is a name you will hear not only during your French immersion stay but also throughout the world for the rest of your life. His impact is hard to measure but it is safe to say it was big. One of the excursions you can do whilst studying French at the ILA Language Immersion School in Montpellier is a trip to Chateau de Flaugergues; a historic mansion on the outskirts of Montpellier. If you are lucky you might get to hear some of the personal letters Voltaire wrote to the owners’ ancestor and you will get a taste of how beautifully this rebel wrote. It makes the man behind the name seem much more real and deepens your connection to French culture; after all you are on an immersion course!