(21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778)
Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet) was a French writer of essays, plays, stories, poetry, history, science.
Voltaire was much impressed by the toleration he saw on a visit to England, and campaigned for religious tolerance, constitutionalism, and judicial reform in France. Attributed to him are the famous words on free speech:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
His writings include Candide (1759), a Dictionnaire Philosophique, Lettres Philosophiques (1734), and We Must Take Sides (1772).
Religious wars and an earthquake that destroyed Lisbon contributed to Voltaire’s doubts about a personal benevolent god. In Candide he ridiculed religious optimism by putting his naive main character through a series of dreadful misfortunes, always comforted by his tutor’s maxim: “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire was a deist, and condemned superstition and the bad effects of revealed religion, though he also saw the usefulness of religion: ”If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”
He suffered from the censorship common in the period, and spent time in prison and in exile because of his outspokenness.
A bust of Voltaire can be found on the front of Leicester Secular Hall.