VOLTAIRE (the pen name of Fraicois-Marie Arouet, his true name) — one of the most famous of French writers and an early developer of the encyclopedia — was born according to his own accounts, as given in later life, on Feb. 30, 1694, at Chatenay, near Sceaux. The register of his baptism, however, assigns Paris as the place of his birth, and dates it Nov. 21 of that year. As to which of these statements may be really the correct one, his biographers are not yet fully agreed. His father was Francois Arouet, a notary of the Chatelet, ultimately treasurer of the chamber of accounts; his mother, Marguerite D’Aumar, of a noble family of Poitou. Of two sons born to them, Francois was the younger. He received his education at the college of Louis le Grand in Paris; and on completion, he was set to study law by his father. But he found this pursuit too disgusting, and speedily quitted it for the career of a man of letters. By his godfather, the abbe de Chateauneuf, who was very intimate with her, he was introduced to the celebrated Ninon de l'Enclos, and through her to the best French society of the period. In these wicked and witty circles, being himself deficient in neither wickedness nor wit, the young man prospered extremely: and so perfectly unexceptionable was the company in which he found himself, that one day he could exclaim, looking round the table with complacency: “Are we all, then, either princes or poets ?” His father, however, deeply disapproving of the life be led as immoral, and probably not inexpensive, had him sent to Holland with an embassy. Here he became involved in a love-affair of the more respectable kind, which ended, not in marriage, as he seems to have proposed, but in his being sent back to Paris, to resume his gay career. Shortly, it suffered another interruption: on suspicion (unfounded) of his being the author of some satirical verses, reflecting on the government of Louis XIV., then just dead, he was sent to the Bastille (May 17, 1717), where he remained upward of a year. This time of imprisonment he improved by sketching his famous poem, afterward published as the Henriade, and by finishing his tragedy, (Edipe, which was produced on Nov. 18,1718, and had so great a success with the public, as not only to delight the author, but somewhat to mollify his old parent, who began to surmise
that the despised "poetry” of his offspring was not unlikely to come to something. The same success did not, however, attend his next ventures: his tragedy, Artemire, produced in 1720, was hissed off the stage; and his Mariane, which followed in 1724, fared but little better. Meantime he had again visited Holland, making, on the way, the acquaintance of Jean Baptiste Rousseau, a poet of some importance, then living at Brussels. The two geniuses met as friends, only to part as irreconcilable enemies. Their quarrel is said to have originated in a characteristic mot of Voltaire, who, his critical opinion being asked of an Ode d la Posterite, which Rousseau read to him, had the candor to reply thus: "Mon ami, voila une lettre qui n’arrivera jamais a son adresse.”
In the summer of 1725 occurred a misadventure, which, for Voltaire, had important consequences. At the dinner-table of the duke de Sulli, he resented with spirit an affront put upon him by the chevalier de Rohan, who, worsted in the war of wit, as most men were likely to find themselves with Voltaire, avenged himself some days after by having his adversary thrashed in public by footmen. Subjected to so gross an outrage, Voltaire retired for a time into private life, assiduously perfected himself in the small-sword exercise, and then courteously entreated the chevalier to a meeting in the duello. The chevalier, as it proved, had small stomach for the encounter; having immortalized himself sufficiently by his insult to the poet, he considered it unnecessary to aspire to the further immortality of being killed by him. Under superficial pretenses of accepting the challenge, his practical answer to it came in the form of a lettre do cachet, which consigned Voltaire once more to the Bastille, His imprisonment was not on this occasion a long one; but it was only under sentence of exile that he was permitted to issue from durance; and on doing so, he betook himself to England. Some little time previous, the young Arouet had assumed the name of Voltaire, destined to become so famous. As to the origin of this name, considerable perplexity has existed; but there can scarce be a doubt of the correctness of the conjecture thrown out by Mr. Carlyle, in the second volume of his Frederick, that it is simply an anagram of Arouet lj. (lejeune).
Arriving in England in 1726, Voltaire remained there upward of two years. Of this episode of his life, we have only the most meager account. It is certain, in a general way, that he had the entree to the best English society; he knew Bolingbroke, Pope, and we need not doubt, many others of the intellectually distinguished. Of his visit to the famous Mr. Congreve, and the little skirmish of wit between them, we have express record. It was a whim of Congreve to affect dislike of his fame as an author, as to a certain extent a disparagement of his claims as a person of quality. On his signifying to Voltaire that it was simply as this last he desired that his friends should regard him, he was answered to the effect, that had he been nothing more than the elegant gentleman he considered himself, M. de Voltaire would scarce have thought it worth while to solicit the honor of his acquaintance. Next