For other uses, see Voltaire (disambiguation).
Voltaire at 24, by Catherine Lusurier after Nicolas de Largillière's painting
||21 November 1694
||30 May 1778
||Writer, philosopher, playwright
John Locke, Isaac Newton
French Revolution, Victor Hugo, Founding Fathers of the United States, Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Juan José Castelli, Jean-Paul Sartre
François-Marie Arouet (French pronunciation: [fʁɑ̃swa maʁi aʁuˈwe]; 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire (pronounced: [volˈtɛʁ]), was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade. Voltaire was a prolific writer and produced works in almost every literary form including plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform, despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. As a satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize intolerance, religious dogma and the French institutions of his day.
Voltaire was one of several Enlightenment figures (along with Montesquieu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Émilie du Châtelet) whose works and ideas influenced important thinkers of both the American and French Revolutions.
François Marie Arouet was born in Paris, the youngest of the five children (only three of whom survived) of François Arouet (1650 – 1 January 1722), a notary who was a minor treasury official, and his wife, Marie Marguerite d'Aumart (ca. 1660 – 13 July 1701), from a noble family of the province of Poitou. Voltaire was educated by Jesuits at the Collège Louis-le-Grand (1704–1711), where he learned Latin and Greek; later in life he became fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.
By the time he left school, Voltaire had decided he wanted to be a writer, against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a notary. Voltaire, pretending to work in Paris as an assistant to a notary, spent much of his time writing poetry. When his father found him out, he sent Voltaire to study law, this time in Caen (Normandy). Nevertheless, he continued to write, producing essays and historical studies. Voltaire's wit made him popular among some of the aristocratic families with whom he mixed. His father then obtained a job for him as a secretary to the French ambassador in the Netherlands, where Voltaire fell in love with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. Their scandalous elopement was foiled by Voltaire's father and he was forced to return to France.
Most of Voltaire's early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for even mild critiques of the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. One satirical verse about the Régent thought to be by him led to his imprisonment in the Bastille for eleven months, until the real author came forward. While there, he wrote his debut play, Œdipe. Its success established his reputation.
The name "Voltaire"
The name "Voltaire", which the author adopted in 1718, is an anagram of "AROVET LI," the Latinized spelling of his surname, Arouet, and the initial letters of "le jeune" ("the younger"). The name also echoes in reverse order the syllables of the name of a family château in the Poitou region: "Airvault". The adoption of the name "Voltaire" following his incarceration at the Bastille is seen by many to mark Voltaire's formal separation from his family and his past.
Richard Holmes supports this derivation of the name, but adds that a writer such as Voltaire would have intended it to also convey its connotations of speed and daring. These come from associations with words such as "voltige" (acrobatics on a trapeze or horse), "volte-face" (a spinning about to face one's enemies), and "volatile" (originally, any winged creature). "Arouet" was not a noble name fit for his growing reputation, especially given that name's resonance with "à rouer" ("for thrashing") and "roué" (a "débauché").
In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (not to be confused with Jean-Jacques Rousseau) in March 1719, Voltaire concludes by asking that if Rousseau wishes to send him a return letter, he do so by addressing it to Monsieur de Voltaire. A post-scriptum explains: "J'ai été si malheureux sous le nom d'Arouet que j'en ai pris un autre surtout pour n'être plus confondu avec le poète Roi", which translates as, "I was so unhappy under the name d'Arouet that I took another, primarily so that I would cease to be confused with the poet Roi." This probably refers to Adenes le Roi, and the 'oi' diphthong was then pronounced as modern French pronounces 'ai', so the similarity to 'Arouet' is clear, and thus, it could well have been part of his rationale. Indeed, Voltaire is additionally known to have used at least 178 separate pen names during his lifetime.
The aptitude for quick, perceptive, cutting and witty critical repartee for which Voltaire is known today made him highly unpopular with some of his contemporaries, including certain members of the French aristocracy. These sharp-tongued retorts were responsible for Voltaire's exile from France, during which he resided in Great Britain.
After Voltaire retorted to an insult given to him by the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan in late 1725, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an irrevocable and often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King (Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. They then used this warrant to force Voltaire into imprisonment in the Bastille without holding a trial or giving him an opportunity to defend himself. Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested his own exile to England as an alternative punishment, an idea the French authorities accepted. This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempts to improve the French judicial system.
Voltaire's exile in Great Britain lasted nearly three years, and his experiences there greatly influenced many of his ideas. The young man was intrigued by Britain's constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, as well as the country's relative support of the freedoms of speech and religion. He was also influenced by several of the neoclassical writers of the age, and developed an interest in earlier English literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, still little known in continental Europe at the time. Despite pointing out his deviations from neoclassical standards, Voltaire saw Shakespeare as an example French writers might look up to, since drama in France, despite being more polished, lacked on-stage action. Later, however, as Shakespeare's influence was being increasingly felt in France, Voltaire would endeavour to set a contrary example with his own plays, decrying what he considered Shakespeare's barbarities.
After almost three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views on British attitudes towards government, literature, and religion in a collection of essays in letter form entitled the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical Letters on the English). Because he regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where the book was burnt and Voltaire was forced again to flee.
Château de Cirey
In the frontispiece to their translation of Newton, Émilie du Châtelet appears as Voltaire's muse, reflecting Newton's heavenly insights down to Voltaire.
Voltaire's next destination was the Château de Cirey, located on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine. The building was renovated with his money, and here he began a relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, Gabrielle Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil (famous in her own right as Émilie du Châtelet). Cirey was owned by the Marquise's husband, Marquis Florent-Claude du Chatelet, who sometimes visited his wife and her lover at the chateau. The relationship, which lasted for fifteen years, had a significant intellectual element. Voltaire and the Marquise collected over 21,000 books, an enormous number for the time. Together, they studied these books and performed experiments in the "natural sciences" in his laboratory. Voltaire's experiments included an attempt to determine the elements of fire.
Having learned from his previous brushes with the authorities, Voltaire began his future habit of keeping out of personal harm's way, and denying any awkward responsibility. He continued to write many plays, such as Mérope (or "La Mérope française") and began his long researches into science and history. Again, a main source of inspiration for Voltaire were the years of his British exile, during which he had been strongly influenced by the works of Sir Isaac Newton. Voltaire strongly believed in Newton's theories, especially concerning optics (Newton’s discovery that white light is composed of all the colours in the spectrum led to many experiments at Cirey), and gravity (Voltaire is the source of the famous story of Newton and the apple falling from the tree, which he had learned from Newton's niece in London and first mentioned in his Essai sur la poésie épique, or Essay on Epic Poetry). Although both Voltaire and the Marquise were curious about the philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz, a contemporary and rival of Newton, they remained essentially "Newtonians", despite the Marquise's adoption of certain aspects of Leibniz's arguments against Newton. She translated Newton's Latin Principia in full, adjusting a few errors along the way, and hers remained the definitive French translation well into the 20th century. Voltaire's book Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton's Philosophy), which was probably co-written with the Marquise, made Newton accessible to a far greater public. It is often considered the work that finally brought about general acceptance of Newton's optical and gravitational theories.
Voltaire and the Marquise also studied history—particularly those persons who had contributed to civilization. Voltaire's second essay in English had been Essay upon the Civil Wars in France. It was followed by La Henriade, an epic poem on the French king Henri IV, glorifying his attempt to end the Catholic-Protestant massacres with the Edict of Nantes, and by a historical novel on King Charles XII of Sweden. These, along with his Letters on England mark the beginning of Voltaire's open criticism of intolerance and established religions. Voltaire and the Marquise also worked with philosophy, particularly with metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with being, and what is beyond the material realm such as whether or not there is a God or souls, etc. Voltaire and the Marquise analyzed the Bible, trying to discover its validity in their time. Voltaire's critical views on religion are reflected in his belief in separation of church and state and religious freedom, ideas that he had formed after his stay in England.
Though deeply committed to the Marquise, Voltaire by 1744 found life at the château confining. On a visit to Paris that year, he found a new love: his niece. At first, his attraction to Marie Louise Mignot was clearly sexual, as evidenced by his letters to her (only discovered in 1937). Much later, they lived together, perhaps platonically, and remained together until Voltaire's death. Meanwhile, the Marquise also took a lover, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert.
by Adolph von Menzel. Guests of Frederick the Great, in Marble Hall at Sanssouci, include members of the Prussian Academy of Sciences and Voltaire (seated, third from left).
After the death of the Marquise in childbirth in September 1749, Voltaire briefly returned to Paris and in 1750 moved to Potsdam to join Frederick the Great, a close friend and admirer of his. The king had repeatedly invited him to his palace, and now gave him a salary of 20,000 francs a year. Though life went well at first—in 1752 he wrote Micromégas, perhaps the first piece of science fiction involving ambassadors from another planet witnessing the follies of humankind—his relationship with Frederick the Great began to deteriorate and he encountered other difficulties. An argument with Maupertuis, the president of the Berlin Academy of Science, provoked Voltaire's Diatribe du docteur Akakia (Diatribe of Doctor Akakia), which satirized some of Maupertuis' theories and his abuse of power in his persecutions of a mutual acquaintance, Samuel Koënig. This greatly angered Frederick, who had all copies of the document burned and arrested Voltaire at an inn where he was staying along his journey home.
Geneva and Ferney
Voltaire headed toward Paris, but Louis XV banned him from the city, so instead he turned to Geneva, near which he bought a large estate (Les Délices). Though he was received openly at first, the law in Geneva which banned theatrical performances and the publication of The Maid of Orleans against his will made him move at the end of 1758 out of Geneva across the French border to Ferney, where he had bought an even larger estate, and led to Voltaire's writing of Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism) in 1759. This satire on Leibniz's philosophy of optimistic determinism remains the work for which Voltaire is perhaps best known. He would stay in Ferney for most of the remaining 20 years of his life, frequently entertaining distinguished guests, like James Boswell, Giacomo Casanova, and Edward Gibbon. In 1764 he published his most important philosophical work, the Dictionnaire Philosophique, a series of articles mainly on Christian history and dogmas, a few of which were originally written in Berlin.
at Ferney, France.
From 1762 he began to champion unjustly persecuted people, the case of Jean Calas being the most celebrated. This Huguenot merchant had been tortured to death in 1763, supposedly because he had murdered his son for wanting to convert to Catholicism. His possessions were confiscated and his remaining children were taken from his widow and were forced to become members of a monastery. Voltaire, seeing this as a clear case of religious persecution, managed to overturn the conviction in 1765.
Death and burial
The Paris house in which Voltaire died
In February 1778, Voltaire returned for the first time in 20 years to Paris, among other reasons to see the opening of his latest tragedy, Irene. The 5-day journey was too much for the 83-year old, and he believed he was about to die on February 28, writing "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition." However, he recovered, and in March saw a performance of Irene where he was treated by the audience as a returning hero. He soon became ill again and died on 30 May 1778. His last words were: "For God's sake, let me die in peace."
Voltaire's tomb in Paris' Pantheon
Because of his well-known criticism of the church, which he had refused to retract before his death, Voltaire was denied a Christian burial, but friends managed to bury his body secretly at the abbey of Scellières in Champagne before this prohibition had been announced. His heart and brain were embalmed separately. On 11 July 1791, the National Assembly, which regarded him as a forerunner of the French revolution, had his remains brought back to Paris to enshrine him in the Panthéon. It is estimated that a million people attended the procession, which stretched throughout Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, complete with an orchestra, and the music included a piece that André Grétry composed specially for the event, which included a part for the "tuba curva". This was an instrument that originated in Roman times as the cornu but had been recently revived under a new name.
A widely repeated story that the remains of Voltaire were stolen by religious fanatics in 1814 or 1821 during the Pantheon restoration and thrown into a garbage heap is false. Such rumours resulted in the coffin being opened in 1897, which confirmed that his remains were still present.
Voltaire had an enormous influence on the development of historiography through his demonstration of fresh new ways to look at the past. His best-known histories are The Age of Louis XIV (1752), and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). He broke from the tradition of narrating diplomatic and military events, and emphasized customs, social history and achievements in the arts and sciences. The Essay on customs traced the progress of world civilization in a universal context, thereby rejecting both nationalism and the traditional Christian frame of reference. Influenced by Bossuet's Discourse on the Universal history (1682), he was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture and political history. He treated Europe as a whole, rather than a collection of nations. He was the first to emphasize the debt of medieval culture to Arab civilization, but otherwise was weak on the Middle Ages. Although he repeatedly warned against political bias on the part of the historian, he did not miss many opportunities to ridicule the Catholic Church. Voltaire advised scholars that anything contradicting the normal course of nature was not to be believed. Although he found evil in the historical record, he fervently believed reason and educating the illiterate masses would lead to progress.
Voltaire explains his view of historiography in his article on "History" in Diderot's Encyclopédie :
- "One demands of modern historians more details, better ascertained facts, precise dates, more attention to customs, laws, mores, commerce, finance, agriculture, population."
Voltaire's histories imposed the values of the Enlightenment on the past, but he helped free historiography from antiquarianism, Eurocentrism, and a concentration on great men, diplomacy, and warfare.
From an early age, Voltaire displayed a talent for writing verse and his first published work was poetry. He wrote two book-long epic poems, including the first ever written in French, the Henriade, and later, The Maid of Orleans, besides many other smaller pieces.
The Henriade was written in imitation of Virgil, using the Alexandrine couplet reformed and rendered monotonous for modern readers but it was a huge success in the 18th and early 19th century, with sixty-five editions and translations into several languages. The epic poem transformed French King Henry IV into a national hero for his attempts at instituting tolerance with his Edict of Nantes. La Pucelle, on the other hand, is a burlesque on the superhuman powers attributed to virginity in the legend of Joan of Arc. Voltaire's minor poems are generally considered superior to either of these two works.
Opening of Voltaire's grave, 1899
Frontispiece and first page of chapter one of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al. of Voltaire's "Candide" , printed by J. Newbery, 1762
Many of Voltaire's prose works and romances, usually composed as pamphlets, were written as polemics. Candide attacks the passivity inspired by Leibniz's philosophy of optimism; L'Homme aux quarante ecus (The Man of Forty Crowns), certain social and political ways of the time; Zadig and others, the received forms of moral and metaphysical orthodoxy; and some were written to deride the Bible. In these works, Voltaire's ironic style, free of exaggeration, is apparent, particularly the restraint and simplicity of the verbal treatment. Candide in particular is the best example of his style. Voltaire also has, in common with Jonathan Swift, the distinction of paving the way for science fiction's philosophical irony, particularly in his Micromégas.
Voltaire at Frederick the Great's Sanssouci
. Engraving by Pierre Charles Baquoy.
In general criticism and miscellaneous writing, Voltaire's writing was comparable to his other works. Almost all of his more substantive works, whether in verse or prose, are preceded by prefaces of one sort or another, which are models of his caustic yet conversational tone. In a vast variety of nondescript pamphlets and writings, he displays his skills at journalism. In pure literary criticism his principal work is the Commentaire sur Corneille, although he wrote many more similar works – sometimes (as in his Life and notices of Molière) independently and sometimes as part of his Siècles.
Voltaire's works, especially his private letters, frequently contain the word "l'infâme" and the expression "écrasez l'infâme," or "crush the infamous". The phrase refers to abuses to the people by royalty and the clergy that Voltaire saw around him, and the superstition and intolerance that the clergy bred within the people. He had felt these effects in his own exiles, in the confiscations of his books, and the hideous sufferings of Calas and La Barre. He also stated that (one of his most famous quotes) "Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them".
The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire’s attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall's summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Roche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.
Voltaire's first major philosophical work in his battle against "l'infâme" was the Treatise on Tolerance, exposing the Calas affair, along with the tolerance exercised by other faiths and in other eras (for example, by the Jews, the Romans, the Greeks and the Chinese). Then, in his Dictionnaire philosophique, containing such articles as "Abraham", "Genesis", "Church Council", he wrote about what he perceived as the human origins of dogmas and beliefs, as well as inhuman behavior of religious and political institutions in shedding blood over the quarrels of competing sects.
Amongst other targets, Voltaire criticized France's colonial policy in North America, dismissing the vast territory of New France as "a few acres of snow" ("quelques arpents de neige").
Voltaire also engaged in an enormous amount of private correspondence during his life, totaling over 20,000 letters. Theodore Besterman's collected edition of these letters, completed only in 1964, fills 102 volumes. One historian called the letters "a feast not only of wit and eloquence but of warm friendship, humane feeling, and incisive thought."
Voltaire at 70. Engraving from 1843 edition of his Philosophical Dictionary
Voltaire did not believe that any single religious text or tradition of revelation was needed to believe in God. Voltaire's focus was rather on the idea of a universe based on reason and a respect for nature which reflected the contemporary pantheism.
Like other key thinkers during the European Enlightenment, Voltaire considered himself a deist, expressing the idea: "What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."
As for religious texts, Voltaire's opinion of the Bible was mixed. Although influenced by Socinian works such as the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum, Voltaire's skeptical attitude to the Bible separated him from Unitarian theologians like Fausto Sozzini or even Biblical-political writers like John Locke.
This did not hinder his religious practice, though it did win for him a bad reputation among religious fundamentalists. The deeply Catholic Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father the year of Voltaire's death, saying, "The arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket...."
Views of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, can be found in Voltaire's writings. In a letter recommending his play Fanaticism, or Mahomet to Pope Benedict XIV, Voltaire described the founder of Islam as "the founder of a false and barbarous sect" and "a false prophet." Later, his views were more generous, often praising the relative tolerance of Muslim behavior in the lands they conquered (as opposed to the Christian Inquisitions) and the fact that its doctrines were written by its founder himself, not based on hearsay, and had not endured the innumerable changes Christian doctrine had. His Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations, contains much fuller accounts on Muhammad and the founding and spread of his religion as do a number of his polemical works on religion.
From translated works on Confucianism and Legalism, Voltaire drew on Chinese concepts of politics and philosophy (which were based on rational principles), to look critically at European organized religion and hereditary aristocracy.
There is an apocryphal story that his home at Ferney was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and used for printing Bibles, but this appears to be due to a misunderstanding of the 1849 annual report of the American Bible Society. Voltaire's chateau is now owned and administered by the French Ministry of Culture.
In the Scottish Enlightenment the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation".
In a letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767 he wrote that,
||Le christianisme est la plus ridicule, la religion la plus absurde et sanglante qui ait jamais infecté le monde.
(Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that ever infected the world.)
Attitude toward Jews
Though many books have been written taxing Voltaire with anti-semitism, they do not explain, nor usually even mention, the numerous pamphlets he wrote attacking anti-semitism itself. This apparent contradiction led many to conclude that his remarks were in fact anti-Biblical and not anti-semitic. His "Sermon du rabbin Akib", for example, is a scathing attack on Christian persecution of the Jews, and similar remarks can be found scattered throughout his 200-odd pamphlets and books on religion.
It has been pointed out that thirty of the 118 articles in his Dictionnaire Philosophique described the ancient Jews in consistently negative ways, as barbarous, absurd and deeply superstitious; however, this ignores his qualifiers, in which he points out that "all of antiquity was", as a rule.
Peter Gay, the best known contemporary authority on the Enlightenment, wrote that "Voltaire struck at the Jews to strike at Christianity," a view shared by certain leading Jewish Voltairians—indeed, the point usually is, if the Jews were cruel and absurd, what can be made of other faiths that declare their histories sacred, yet persecute them? "When I see Christians cursing Jews," he wrote in his English Notebook, "methinks I see children beating their fathers." And posing as a freshly minted Spanish priest in Les Questions de Zapata, he asks his superiors how he should go about explaining that the Jews, whom they burn by the hundreds, were the chosen people of God for four thousand years, and why we chant their prayers while burning them. Voltaire grew exceedingly vocal against the Church during the campaign for tolerance of his later years, openly writing that it had been the "consistently implacable enemy of progress, decency, humanity and rationality" and that it had been the Church's interest to "keep people as ignorant and submissive as children".
Voltaire was initiated into Freemasonry one month before his death. On April 4, 1778 Voltaire accompanied his close friend Benjamin Franklin into Loge des Neuf Soeurs in Paris, France and became an Entered Apprentice Freemason, perhaps only to please Franklin.
Bust of Voltaire by Houdon.
Voltaire perceived the French bourgeoisie to be too small and ineffective, the aristocracy to be parasitic and corrupt, the commoners as ignorant and superstitious, and the church as a static and oppressive force useful only on occasion as a counterbalance to the rapacity of kings, although all too often, more rapacious itself. Voltaire distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Voltaire long thought only an enlightened monarch could bring about change, given the social structures of the time and the extremely high rates of illiteracy, and that it was in the king's rational interest to improve the education and welfare of his subjects. But his disappointments and disillusions with Frederick the Great changed his philosophy somewhat, and soon gave birth to one of his most enduring works, his novella, Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Candide, or Optimism, 1759), which ends with a new conclusion: "It is up to us to cultivate our garden". His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Candide was also subject to censorship and Voltaire jokingly claimed the actual author was a certain "Demad" in a letter, where he reaffirmed the main polemical stances of the text.
Voltaire also believed that Africans were a separate species inferior to the white Europeans and closer to monkeys.
Voltaire is also known for many memorable aphorisms, such as: "Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer" ("If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him"), contained in a verse epistle from 1768, addressed to the anonymous author of a controversial work, "The Three Impostors." But far from being the cynical remark it is often taken for, it was meant as a retort to the atheistic clique of d'Holbach, Grimm, and others.
Voltaire is remembered and honored in France as a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights—the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion—and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the ancien régime. The ancien régime involved an unfair balance of power and taxes between the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobles), and the Third Estate (the commoners and middle class, who were burdened with most of the taxes).
Voltaire has had his detractors among his later colleagues. The Scottish Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle argued that, while Voltaire was unsurpassed in literary form, not even the most elaborate of his works were of much value for matter and that he never uttered an original idea of his own.