Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)

Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778) French poet, playwright, and satirist

A complex critic and writer, Voltaire turned the weapons of SATIRE against barbarity and tyranny in his masterwork Candide (1759). An aristocrat born Frangois-Marie Arouet, he was educated by Jesuits and profited from training in Greek, Latin, and modern languages, but he rejected religion for its hypocrisy and lip service to human suffering. From reading the enlightened writers of his time, including the satires of JONATHAN SWIFT, Voltaire developed libertarian ideals. He traveled Europe, served the French foreign office in Holland, and crusaded for civil rights under the slogan Ecrasez i’infame (Crush infamy). His biographical play Mahomet (1736) expressed his distaste for religious fanaticism.

Early in his career, Voltaire’s lampoons of the French monarchy cost him nearly a year in the Bastille (1717-18), two years of exile in England, and the confiscation of his library and private correspondence. At the Prussian court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, the satirist enjoyed a handsome stipend and three years of leisure to write verse and drama (1750-53). The respite ended after Frederick disapproved of Voltaire’s political satires. The author exiled himself to Ferney, on the French border with Switzerland, and from there he continued to fight injustice, ignorance, and tyranny. After his death in Paris in 1778, fans lionized him during the French Revolution.

Civility and the subjugation of nations dominated Voltaire’s stage drama and nonfiction. In 1736, he produced a tragedy, Alzire, popular with Paris playgoers for its triangulation of the Peruvian governor Gusman, the Inca princess Alzire, and her lover, the Inca sovereign Zamore of Potosi. The retrospect on the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire and the religious conversion and enslavement of Peruvians in Lima idealizes the Incan empire as a model government. The text advocates tolerance and political alliance rather than violent seizure of the South American natives and the extermination of indigenous worship. In 1756, Voltaire published the first of 27 versions of Essai sur les moeurs et I’esprit des nations (Essay on customs and the spirit of nations), an ambitious survey of world history that literary historians call the first work on comparative civilization. His topics ranged from the Chinese and Roman empires to European expansionism. Of imperialism in Peru, he condemned the dehumanization of first peoples and the transportation of African slaves, who worked Spanish mines. He declared, “Neither these Negroes nor the inhabitants of the New World were treated like a human species” (as quoted by Miller, 2008, 73).

The amalgamation of absurdity, cliff-hangers, didacticism, invective, and parody energized Voltaire’s picaresque novel Candide, which won an immediate wide readership after the City Council of Geneva condemned it for vulgarity. By word of mouth, readers spread the fame of the title figure, a naif from Westphalia educated in the philosophy of optimism. Ousted by the priggish Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, Candide travels about Europe, from Holland to Portugal, in search of his adored Cunegonde, later the love object of the lustful governor of Buenos Aires. In Lisbon, he witnesses an auto-da-fe (burning of a heretic), strangulation, and hanging, and he suffers a flogging before traveling to Paraguay. The narrative pities victims of the Inquisition, including “a Basque, convicted of marrying his godmother, and two Portuguese Jews who had refused to eat bacon” (Voltaire 1981, 36), a test of their adherence to Levitican dietary laws. In addition to demonizing Catholic methods of tormenting Jews, Voltaire tweaks the papacy for hypocrisy by adding to his cast “the daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina” (49). To avoid a Vatican lawsuit, the author defames a nonexistent pope for violating vows of celibacy.

Candide’s harrowing adventures include a false charge of murder and threats by South American cannibals. He enjoys the bliss of Eldorado, Peru, an Incan utopia, and witnesses a contrast to the good life in the black slavery of Suriname. The extremes of VIOLENCE force his valet Cacambo to confide that “The new world, you see, is no better than the old” (52). In Italy, the hero encounters Pococurante, a Venetian sybarite who attains to artistic merit without appreciating books or music. The odyssey concludes in the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople, where the wanderer reflects on vice and suffering committed by men who “were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves” (24). He chooses to withdraw from religious wars and imperialism on the advice of an old Turk, who asserts, “Work keeps away three great evils: boredom, vice, and need” (100). Candide retires to personal serenity by cultivating his garden, which becomes the best of all possible worlds.


Fleming, Thomas. The Morality of Everyday Life:

Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Miller, Christopher L. The French Atlantic Triangle.

Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008.

Poole, Deborah. Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual

Economy of the Andean Image World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Voltaire. Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York: New American Library, 1981.