Voltaire’s  'Candide”. 
Student Notes


.  He was born in 1694, Francois-Marie Arouet, into an old middle-class Parisian family.( “Voltaire” was the name that he adopted in his early twenties.)  His father was a lawyer and Conseiller du Roi –.  This meant that in his early years he made the acquaintance of important people and lived in a world where people where concerned with public affairs and business.  From this background stemmed Voltaire’s own sense of business and his ambition to make himself an equal to the nobility. 

1704: Voltaire started his education at the Collège Louis-le-Grand. Here he was taught by the Jesuits and was an outstandingly bright pupil stimulated by their classical education and encouraged towards poetry. His gratitude to them was lifelong.  Another important influence was that of his godfather, the Abbé de Châteauneuf, a clever freethinker who died in 1708. The latter introduced him to a society of independent minded people.


1711 Voltaire left the Collège Louis-le-Grand and enrolled at the Faculté de Droit-(Law college), but soon preferred the company of his libertine friends to his law studies.  His family was very displeased and as a last chance found him a placement with a state prosecutor. 

1715—In this year Louis XIV died.  He had been king for over seventy years.  His successor, Louis XV, was his great-grandson, who was only five years old.  Philippe II, duc d'Orléans, governed as regent until Louis reached his legal majority in 1723.

1717- Voltaire’s first imprisonment in the Bastille.  He had become famous in Paris society for his brilliant, satirical wit.  However an epigram that he wrote in mockery of the Regent, led to his first imprisonment in the Bastille (May 1717-April 1718),.  He used this time to write, and with ambitions to become a great dramatist in the footsteps of Racine, completed his first tragedy: “Oedipe” and began his poem “La Ligue”

1718 -1726 A free man again, he was able to enjoy the social fame that the success of his tragedy and his poem brought him. He changed his name to Voltaire.  He was welcome in the salons of high society, in the châteaux of the nobility, and in 1725, he wrote three plays to performed at the royal palace for the marriage of Louis XV

During these years also, Voltaire inherited quite a lot of money and he revealed his business skills in his wise investments.  However, Voltaire’s independent mind continued to lead him into controversy.

He offended an important nobleman,the chevalier de Rohan- who later has him beaten up by his servants. Voltaire insisted on a duel and was put into the Bastille but was released a fortnight later on condition that he went into exile in England (1726).

The Lessons that Voltaire learnt from his Years in England 1726-1728

Welcomed with open arms by British political and literary society, Voltaire soon got to know many, important people 
( eg. Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift).  In these two years he did a prodigious amount of writing.
He found England progressive, enlightened, democratic, tolerant, free and dynamic and conceived the 'Lettres sur les Anglais' in which he was to praise these qualities at the expense of his own country, which was still very autocratic and intolerant.

Voltaire returned to France in 1728. During the next few years he lived in Paris.  He built up his personal wealth.. He continued to attack all forms of prejudice, injustice and superstition, but he was careful to have the works that would cause him problems with the authorities printed in secret.  He wrote the 'Histoire de Charles XII)” and an examination of the Christian Church, expressing highly independent, provocative and unorthodox ideas including a diatribe against Christianity.
He wrote and published the Lettres sur les Anglais (1734), and he republished the book in the same year, with the addition of a letter on the 17th-century religious writer Blaise Pascal under the title of Lettres Philosophiques. These provided the French reader with object lessons on how intellectual, religious, and political matters should be conducted, and contained an eloquent defence of civil liberty and religious toleration. This book has been described as the first bomb launched against the existing French political system.  As a result of a misunderstanding, the book was published without Voltaire’s authorisation and this caused him new trouble.

The problems caused by the publication of the Lettres Philosophiques
The French parliament, angered by the letters, ordered that Voltaire be imprisoned. In May of 1734, Voltaire received a message from the office of one of the king's ministers that said: the author of the "English Letters" would do well to "absent himself."  This was a royal letter de cachet- an arbitrary decree that had to be obeyed. Having served two previous sentences in the Bastille, Voltaire accepted the need to take flight. 

Voltaire’s Ten Year Refuge with The Marquise Du Châtelet 1734-1744

Voltaire’s had had a passionate relationship with the Marquise du Châtelet, since the previous year, (he was 39, she 27). After Voltaire received the letter de cachet, Émilie du Châtelet offered him asylum with her and her husband at their property in Cirey in Champagne. The chateau was located near the border with Lorraine which was an independent province at the time. It was an ideal refuge for Voltaire who could cross the border if he was pursued by the authorities.

In spite of the threats that he faced, he continued to stir up quarrels, disputes and debates and he wrote many insulting and often crude pamphlets against his enemies. In 1736, he caused a furore by attacking bourgeois morals. 

Voltaire’s stay at Cirey was a period of intense literary activity. As well as plays, stories, satires, and light verse, Voltaire wrote the Eléments de la Philosophie de Newton (1737).  This was written in collaboration with the Marquise, who was a lady of impressive intellect, very interested in the sciences. Voltaire regarded her as more gifted than him in these studies.

Both Voltaire and the Marquise represent typical “philosophes” of the Enlightenment in 18th Century France.  This is shown in their zest for knowledge, their intelligent, critical outlook, their open-mindedness, their faith in the new ideas and their enthusiasm for the new scientific research.

Even after the Marquise turned her attentions to another lover in 1746, she and Voltaire remained friends and he was shattered when she died in childbirth in 1749. at the age of forty-three.)

Voltaire’s Disillusioning Experiences in the Royal Courts of Europe 1744-1755

While at Céry, Voltaire had not been out of contact with the outside world.  He had a copious correspondence with his friends in Paris.  He risked some visits to Paris.  He visited Belgium, Holland and Prussia, whose ruler, Frederick the Great, saw himself as a man of the Enlightenment, a disciple of Voltaire and wanted him to remain at his court in Potsdam.

His Experience at The French Court 1744 -1747

In 1743, the French government asked Voltaire to help them in their negotiations with Frederick of Prussia. After this, he frequented the court of Louis XV more and more, having the patronage of the king’s mistress, Mme de Pompadour. He became popular with everyone at court and had honours showered upon him. He was appointed historiographer of France, then a gentleman of the king’s bedchamber; finally, in 1746, he was elected to the Académie Française. However he was very displeased to see that he would never be appointed court poet.  The king turns against him and Mme de Pompadour finds him over familiar. He makes social blunders and is ostracised.

1748-9 He is ill and unpopular, and finally he is lonely and depressed at the death of Émilie du Châtelet

His Experience at the Prussian Court 1750 -1753

In 1750 he finally accepted Frederick II's offer to live in Prussia, where he was promised favour and fortune. He was thoroughly spoilt for 3 months in the little court of  Potsdam, then he and Frederick began to tire of each other. 1751

Though sick of Prussia, Voltaire stayed there and got on with his writing. He wrote “Le siècle de Louis XIV”.

1753 Angered by Frederick's surveillance of him and his high­handed actions, he left Berlin on a pretext; but he got held up for over a month by Frederick's men in Frankfurt. This was a very disturbing experience. People were hostile to him everywhere he went. He needed a new refuge..

The Shelter he found in his last 23 years

His Stay at Les Delices (1755- 1760)
In I755 a new chapter opened for him. Voltaire went to live in Switzerland, near Geneva on an estate known as Les Délices.  He grew to enjoy the country life and was looked after by the affectionate care of his niece, Mme Denis.  He made a theatre and received his friends. 

It was in 1755 that Voltaire was shocked by the news of the great Lisbon Earthquake. He wrote the poem   'Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne' (1756), to refute the claim of the Catholic Church that this horror was an expression of God’s anger in the face of the immorality of the citizens. 

Another major historical event in the following year increased Voltaire’s depression further.  In 1756 the Seven-Year War broke out and France was at war with both England and Prussia  This was a bitter blow to both Voltaire and the whole movement of Enlightenment, which pinned its hopes on human progress and perfection, gained through knowledge, lucidity and free expression.

1757 was an equally black year for Voltaire. The European war was becoming bloodier.  The "philosophes" were blamed for the attempted assassination of Louis.XV and were persecuted across France.  In addition, Voltaire lost the sympathy of his Swiss Protestants neighbours on account of remarks that he made about Calvin.  Afterwards, his plays were banned in Geneva.

It was in the mood, created by these trying times that Voltaire wrote in 1759 his masterpiece , the philosophical tale, “Candide”, in which he rejects the attempts of the Optimist School of philosophy, led by the German philosopher, Leibniz, to explain away the existence of evil in the world.  Immediately, the book became immensely popular, even though it was censured by the French authorities. For his own good, Voltaire consistently denied having anything to do with it

His Stay at Ferney (1760- 1778)

At the age of 64, now endowed with a tremendous fortune, Voltaire moved back over the French border to build his château in Ferney.  He was near enough to the Swiss border to escape if in danger. 

The final moral of “Candide” had been: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”.  At Les Délices and Verney, Voltaire did this literally and gardening gave him great pleasure as he enjoyed the peaceful tranquillity of the country life.

Perhaps, momentarily, Voltaire, in disillusionment, had been tempted to withdraw from the fray.  However in “Les Délices he had already begun to take up the fight for the ideals of the Enlightenment once again. He produced hundreds of pamphlets to defend his cause and to attack those with whom he did not agree.  It was while still at les Delices that his ideological quarrel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another famous French reformer became very embittered.

With each year that passed Voltaire's home became more and more a refuge for the persecuted and a bastion of free thought.  He stood up for the rights of individuals against prejudice, superstition, and tyrannical authority.

One of Voltaire’s notable successes was the case of Jean Calas, 1762. Calas was a French Protestant who was executed for the alleged murder of his son. In France at that time, Protestants were persecuted.  The trial had been conducted amid an atmosphere of intolerance, and sectarian passion that denied Calas any hope of a fair hearing. Voltaire made endless efforts to reveal the truth, until he was able finally get Calas's name rehabilitated in1765.

In 1763 Voltaire had written his 'Traité sur la Tolerance'.  He led a virulent campaign against the Catholic Church and advocated a new deist religion, for which he built a chapel in the grounds of his estate, where he conducted his own services.

In 1764, Voltaire published his very successful 'Dictionnaire Philosophique'. 

A very practical man, he became the patriarch of the whole region around Ferney, taking much of
the local administration into his own hands. To the people of the neighbourhood he was the grand old man and his efforts on behalf of oppressed individuals give him great popularity in the whole of France.

Voltaire’s Triumphal Return To Paris In 1778

At the age of 84, Voltaire made a triumphal return to Paris.  He attended a performance of his latest play and saw his bust crowned on stage.  He was not in good health and the excitement was too much for him and he died shortly afterwards on the 30th may 1778.  Thanks to the intrigue of his friends, he was buried in consecrated soil.  In 1791, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon.

In February of his final year, he had written his own epitaph:

« Je meurs en adorant Dieu, en aimant mes amis, en ne haïssant pas mes ennemis, en détestant la superstition”



Voltaire was a practical man, always active, always trying to attain some goal. Enormously energetic and resourceful, he loved independence. Highly sensitive to all human emotions, he was never cold, or indifferent. He had a perpetual interest in men, their beliefs, attitudes, history, and fate.

Voltaire discusses serious ideas and issues but his language is typically playful and his descriptions are often very humorous and at times extremely bawdy.

He was generally optimistic about man, the new empirical sciences, the decline of superstition, prejudice, intolerance. However, in the book 'Candide' he comes as near as  he ever does to a defeatist .attitude. The fundamental pessimism in 'Candide' is explained by the mood of Voltaire in 1754 when, persecuted by everyone, he established his solitary retreat.  However this pessimism is expressed with a mocking light-heartedness, which was perhaps made possible by the spiritual repose that he found at Vernay. The moral reassurance he gained from this was to allow Voltaire to re-enter the fray of controversy later, fighting as vigorously as ever.