François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), known by his nom de plume Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit, his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state. He was an outspoken advocate of several liberties, despite the risk this placed him in under the strict censorship laws of the time. 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 a versatile writer, producing works in almost every literary form, including plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works. He wrote more than 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets.
The early publication of a satirical poem accusing the Duc d’Orléans of having sex with his own daughter led, not totally unpredictably, to a Voltaire doing a stint in the Bastille. But Voltaire was able to put incarceration to productive use: it was there that he adopted his nom de plume (or perhaps guerre) and wrote his first play, Oedipe, a riff on the Sophoclean tragedy. His most famous work remains Candide, a fiction in which the young titular hero is initiated into the mysteries of philosophical optimism.
Did You Know?
Voltaire had a strained relationship with his father, who discouraged his literary aspirations and tried to force him into a legal career.
Possibly to show his rejection of his father’s values, he dropped his family name and adopted the nom de plume “Voltaire” upon completing his first play in 1718. Voltaire never explained the meaning of his pen name, so scholars can only speculate on its origins.