One of the giants of French literature, François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was born in Paris in 1694 and was perhaps one of the most versatile poets, wits and writers of his time. Fond of criticizing the establishment around him, he was known for his forward thinking views on the rights of the individual to express their views, long before it became fashionable.
Despite the fact that his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Voltaire knew from an early age that he needed to write. Though he began life as a notary, he was already writing poetry and essays, imbibing his work with a certain wit that made him popular with his contemporaries. Even in his youth he was criticizing the local authorities of Paris, something that got him into trouble on several occasions, including a period of imprisonment for his poem Régent which satirized Phillipe II.
Never a man to hold back on what he thought, Voltaire had a dispute with a nobleman that led to him being imprisoned in the Bastille. Because he was afraid that this would end up with a longer prison sentence, he opted to be exiled to England. He spent 3 years in London and it was a major influence on the way that he thought in later life and the poetry that he produced in subsequent years.
At the time, England was seen as more libertarian than France, and, when Voltaire returned to Paris, he made a point of publishing essays on the matter. His collection Philosophical Letters on the English caused a scandal in France and later the book was banned. He moved to Château de Cirey and formed a long lasting relationship with Émilie du Châtelet and they collected many thousands of books and studied literature and science together.
Volataire became interested in researching science and history, influenced by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, but also continued to write, including plays such as Mérope. He also wrote the epic poetic work La Henriade that helped mark a period when he was openly critical of the intolerant nature of religion. Voltaire stayed at the Château de Cirey until 1744 when, after the death of the Marquise, he began to find its atmosphere too confining and decided to leave.
Voltaire went back to Paris for a while, then moved to Potsdam where he stayed with Frederick the Great before falling out with him when he wrote The Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, a satire of the abuse of power, something that led to his eventual arrest. After a short time in Geneva, Voltaire moved to Ferney on the border of France where he would spend most of the rest of his days.
In 1764, he published Dictionnaire Philosophique which would become perhaps one of his best known works. He became involved in fighting for the cause of various people who had been wrongly persecuted, notably Jean Calas who was the subject of a one sided trial because he happened to be a protestant.
At the age of 83, Voltaire, after spending almost 20 years in Ferney, decided to return to Paris for the opening of his latest play. He became ill during the journey and died in 1778. He is entombed in Pantheon in Paris.