The Absolutely, Positively True Adventures of Voltaire, Part I


“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” — Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet — aka Voltaire — was one of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. He advocated tolerance, equality, and separation of church and state, in a time when these were still radical ideas. In his best-known work — the satirical novel, Candide, ou l’Optimisme ( “Candide, or optimism”) – Voltaire challenged the assertion by German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz  that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

What is less known about Voltaire is that in his youth he was considered a royal pain in the ass. As a result, he was beaten on numerous occasions. He was exiled from France several times, and imprisoned for almost a year in the Bastille.

Our plucky hero was born François-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694. At the age of ten, he was sent to study with the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”). His godfather – the free-thinking Abbé de Châteauneuf – hoped that Voltaire would one day study law. But Voltaire was more interested in poking fun at the ruling class. Fearing that young François-Marie had become a libertine, the Abbé  “exiled” his godson to Holland. But after Voltaire’s affair with a — *gasp* — Protestant woman, the Abbé  summoned Voltaire back to Paris.

Voltaire soon got himself into trouble by writing libelous poems mocking the aristocracy. A second “exile” followed, but did little to change Voltaire’s ways. No soon had Voltaire returned to Paris, than he fell in with the temperamental Duchess of Maine, Louise Bénédicte de Bourbon.

The Duchess loathed Philippe II, the Duke of Orléans. As regent for the child king, Louis XV, Orléans had stripped the Duchess of her designation as a royal princess. The Duchesss retaliated by persuading the 22-year old Voltaire to write poems making fun of the Duke. One of these alleged that the Duke of Orléans had impregnated his own daughter.

Although Voltaire published many of his poems anonymously, their authorship was an open secret. Eventually Voltaire either boasted about his authorship in front of one of the king’s spies, or was simply coerced by the spy into confessing.

Either way, the confession was enough to land Voltaire an all-expenses paid 11-month stay in the Bastille. To his credit, Voltaire was extremely cooperative during his arrest. He helpfully told the police he had hidden more incriminating poems in his latrine. Alas, although the police searched for two full days, in the end they found nothing more than “water and floating objects.”

Voltaire made good use of his “free” time while in the Bastille. Voltaire finalized his tragedy, Œdipe. He also began his epic poem L’ Henriade, which had as its themes the twin evils of religious fanaticism and civil discord.

It was after his release from prison that François-Marie Arouet began using the nom de plume, Aurot de Voltaire. The origin of the name “Voltaire” is unknown. But most scholars agree that it was anagram of “Arouet le jeune” (the “young) —  “Arouet l.j.” — with the ‘u’ being changed to ‘v’ and the ‘j’ to ‘i’ according to convention.

But the real-turning point in Voltaire’s life was soon to follow. Voltaire was insulted by an arrogant, young nobleman, the Chevalier de Rohan. The non-aristocratic Voltaire dared to respond with a witty comeback. Rohan got the last laugh a few days later when he had his servants beat Voltaire bloody as he watched. When Voltaire foolishly challenged Rohan to a duel, the latter’s family obtained a lettre de cachet – a document signed by Louis XV, ordering Voltaire’s imprisonment, without trial.

Fearing indefinite confinement in the Bastille, Voltaire proposed an alternative —  exile to England. The French regime – which had had enough of Voltaire and his wit – accepted Voltaire’s offer.

Voltaire spent the next three years in England – three years that would forever change him.

To be continued…


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