Voltaire’s Effect in Defining the Enlightenment Era


François-Marie d’Arouet was a French writer, public activist, philosopher and humanitarian who pointed philosophy down a number of new paths, in which it responded to successfully. François-Marie was born in 1694, amidst the Enlightenment era, in which people were using their ability to reason rationally. His writings often reflected themes of religion, politics, science, history and philosophy, usually written with a unique satiric tone, in which he was famous for. Many of his works were published anonymously in pamphlets and essays, in order to avoid prosecution by the government, Catholic Church, and the aristocracy, all of which he was a forthright critic of. His writings allowed people to see a contrasting side of what they had known as true for so long.

His literary debut transpired in 1718 with the publishing of Oedipe, in which he declared his pen name, Voltaire, a name that held to the end of his days. His early works were a mixture of libertinism and deistic ideas, which he had been initially introduced to at the estate of Lord Bolingbroke, who was an English aristocrat and freethinker. Voltaire moved about in Bolingbroke’s circle of writers who experimented with the blending of writing with political criticism. John Locke was of greatest influence on him, and he retained knowledge of his literature throughout his career. He did not keep to this circle alone however, moving about other groups of intellectuals, even meeting Sir Isaac Newton’s sister. From her, he learned the myth of Newton’s apple theory. During this time, Voltaire’s encounters throughout England escalated him to an exceptionally knowledgeable student of English natural philosophy.

In 1734, Voltaire published Lettres philsophiques, which “…included letters on Bacon, Locke, Newton and the details of Newtonian natural philosophy…” (J.B. Locke). However, he had not gained permission from the royal censors before publishing it, therefore causing an unexplainable controversy throughout France, thus causing Voltaire to be a “…widely known intellectual outlaw” (Locke). His books were publicly burned and he consequently fled to Cirey with a companion and took up a new identity as a philosophical rebel and exiled writer. Following this, he began fighting from afar to establish the philosophies of Newton as modern truth. The ensuing controversies became known as the Newton Wars. By 1750, France’s perception had been converted to Enlightened Newtonianism, due to persistent figures like Voltaire.

Voltaire’s works of literature directly prompted a thirst for knowledge, understanding and truth to all who read his work. He was one of many who directed influenced the French Revolution because his work influenced people to begin asking, “Why?” His views on social and political reform worked as a voice of the people in public. In 1759 he purchased a chateau which acted as a safe-haven from police that were often after him for his writings. During these years, Voltaire bear witness to his philosophies unfolding throughout society. He used this notoriety to “…speak out on anything and everything—especially the Church—and he fought vigorously for religious tolerance, material prosperity, respect for the rights of all humans, and the abolition of torture and useless punishments” (Dennis J. Sporre).

Voltaire’s Enlightenment philosophy was a collection of orientations and intellectual stances, in which each category had a particular philosophy attached to it. These philosophies allowed people to easily understand the new knowledge that was arising at the time. The categories of his philosophy were: the notion of liberty, hedonistic morality, skepticism, empirical science and science without metaphysics. His philosophies were directly influential at the time, as these categories reflected issues that all people were facing. The Enlightenment era brought on an extreme amount of new reasoning, methods, and philosophies and Voltaire made sense of them all by writing in a way that everyone could understand.

To conclude, Voltaire played an important role in blossoming the Enlightenment period with his controversial philosophies and radical literature. His loathing of the abuse of human rights drove him to become a fearless writer. He believed everyone should be a skeptic of what they are told, in order to know the truth of the world. Voltaire’s writings helped bring the Enlightenment into an even greater period of knowledge and understanding. He fought vigorously to bring the world into a heightened period of learning and in doing so he earned himself a home in The Pantheon, as one of the greatest French public figures to have lived.

Works Cited and References

Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to the Arts. New Jersey. Prentice Hall. 2009. Print.

Merriman, C. D.  “François-Marie d’Arouet Voltaire”. The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. 2008. Web. 27 March 2013.

Shank, J.B. “Voltaire”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta. 2009. Web. 27 March, 2013.

Rahn, Josh. The Enlightenment. The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. 2011. Web. 27 March, 2013.


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