Born Francois Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694 in Paris, Voltaireís extraordinary intelligence, talent, wit and style made him one of Europeís most famous thinkers. Much has been written about his contribution to the Renaissance in Europe, but there has not until now existed a detailed documentation of his last years. With Voltaire in Exile, Ian Davidson, a former Paris correspondent for the Financial Times, gives us a portrait of Voltaire's final years spent in exile.
These years are particularly significant, as it was during this time that his writings championed the causes of equality, justice and democracy. Voltaire published most of these inflammatory writings anonymously, prompting castigation from many of his critics. But it is easy to see that the harsh punitive measured adoptive by the French monarchy toward dissidents may have been the cause for his silence. What is less known about Voltaire is that he was also a prolific litterateur, but his dramatic works, plays and volumes on history have been overshadowed by his treatises on justice and equality and his passion, later in life, to see justice delivered to ordinary Frenchmen.
Davidson's narrative begins with Voltaire's birth and his ascent to wealth, riches and fame in Parisian society. In 1734, his Lettres Philosophiques caused a furor in Paris as his praise of English tolerance was construed as an attack on French absolutism. Voltaire fled Paris and from thence on would spend his time in Versailles or in eastern France, returning but intermittently to the French capital. In 1754, after several years in Prussia, he left for Geneva. It would be here that he would live out the last twenty-five years of his life.
Davidsonís description of these years is based largely on the enormous correspondence that Voltaire maintained with other famous figures of the time. One of his masterpieces, Candide, written in his Geneva years, reveals his commitment toward justice, his concern for the oppressed, and his fight to reform the penal system. To ordinary Frenchmen, Voltaireís name became synonymous with the struggle against the absolutism of the French monarchy. Later, revolutionaries saw him as the harbinger of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, the slogan that marked one of the most bloody and tumultuous periods of European history. Through Davidsonís prose, we ultimately see Voltaire not just as a great thinker and intellectual but also as immensely compassionate and practical, one who used his years in exile to launch a vociferous attack on injustice.
It is no coincidence that the French revolution followed his death (in 1778). His principles became the guiding force behind the Revolution and eventually behind the dawn of enlightenment in Europe and the rest of the world.