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Francois Marie Arouet -- "that consuming fire called Voltaire," as Will Durant dubbed him -- helped bring human rights and democratic freedoms to the world.
His name is synonymous with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the tumultuous era when Western people gained the right to think independently, to follow the revelations of science, and to question religious dogmas without being executed or jailed for it.
After attaining fame and wealth as a witty writer, Voltaire became a fierce crusader against cruelties of the church and the aristocracy. He roused international outcries in behalf of victims killed or jailed for their religious beliefs. In a sense, Voltaire was the modern world's first civil rights activist. His demands for freedom of speech and of worship spread across the Atlantic and helped formulate America's budding democracy.
Born in Paris, son of a lawyer, Voltaire was sent to Jesuit schools with children of the aristocracy. His sparkling wit and clever writing made him popular among the fashionable set. But when he wrote a poem mocking a dissolute regent, he was thrown into the Bastille for a year.
While in prison, he adopted the pen name Voltaire and finished his first play, which became a success after his release. He poured forth writings, including an epic poem honoring King Henry IV, who decreed religious tolerance and temporarily ended France's Wars of Religion, until he was assassinated by a fanatic. The poem was banned because it was seen as an attack on Christianity.
In 1726, Voltaire insulted an aristocrat, who had him beaten and thrown into the Bastille again. To gain release, the writer agreed to go to England. While there, he was impressed by England's growing personal freedoms. It is sometimes said that Voltaire went into exile a poet and came back a philosopher.
He returned to Paris, only to encounter trouble a third time. His writings in praise of England's freedoms were taken as condemnation of France's lack thereof. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, and he fled to Cirey, where he became the lover of a sophisticated noblewoman.
Voltaire's plays, poems, novels, essays -- and especially his Philosophical Dictionary -- jabbed church dogmas and aristocratic tyranny. His works were condemned and occasionally he was forced to flee. After the death of his mistress, Voltaire went to Berlin as a guest of Frederick the Great, and eventually settled on a large estate on the Swiss border -- from where he could escape into France if pursued by Swiss Calvinists, or into Switzerland if menaced by French Catholics.
As he aged, Voltaire grew increasingly hostile to Christianity, and sought justice for victims of religious bigotry. Here is a famous case:
A teenage youth, Chevalier de La Barre, was convicted of marring a crucifix, singing irreverent songs, and wearing his hat while a religious procession passed. He was sentenced to have his tongue torn out and be burned to death. Horrified, Voltaire helped appeal the sentence to Parliament. The clergy clamored for a painful death, but Parliament showed "mercy" by giving the youth a swift execution by beheading. His body was burned, along with a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary.
Voltaire was infuriated and sickened by this outrage and others. From his mountain estate, he bombarded Europe with letters and essays denouncing the injustices. He roused public ferment and won reversals in a few cases. Voltaire freed Jean Espinas, who had spent 23 years on a penal galley ship because he gave lodging to a Protestant minister for one night. He likewise freed Claude Chaumont from a galley bench, where he had been sentenced for attending a Protestant worship service.
From his crusades and literary works, Voltaire's fame spread worldwide. Renowned thinkers, scientists and other luminaries visited his estate. He remained a provocateur until his death in 1778.
Thomas Paine wrote of Voltaire in The Rights of Man: "His forte lay in exposing and ridiculing the superstitions which priestcraft, united with statecraft, had interwoven with governments."
English writer Thomas Carlyle said of Voltaire: "He gave the death-stab to modern superstition. That horrid incubus, which dwelt in darkness, shunning the light, is passing away.... It was a most weighty service."
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