Voltaire’s real name was Francois-Marie Arouet, and he was born at Chatenay, on the 20th of February, 1694. His father was a notary, and had a lucrative situation. His mother was of noble extraction. When a babe, he was so feeble that it was not expected he would live. An abbe in the family educated him, and it is a singular fact, that when he was a boy, a deistical ode was put into his hands. He entered the college of Louis-le-Grand, and his, talents rendered him a general favorite with the teachers. One of his tutors, however, in a religious argument found himself so incompetent to defend the Catholic church, that in his anger he exclaimed, “You will become the Coryphaeus of Deism.”
On leaving college the young man entered into Paris society. Louis XIV. was in his dotage, and at this time paid little attention to men of genius. Arouet soon became popular in the highest circles for his wit and genius. He resolved, much against his father’s will, to devote himself to a literary life. One of the first acts of the young man was to fall in love with a rich but desperate woman’s daughter, and amid much opposition he by stealth kept up an intercourse with her; but he was at last obliged to give way before so much ill will. His father was very angry with him—so much so, that he consented at last to study the law. He entered a law-office in Paris, and pursued his studies with industry. He frequented society, but he could not content himself with the prospect of an attorney’s life. He beseeched his father to release him from his course of study, and he consented that he should return to the country-seat of a friend, and consider the matter. Here Arouet found a large library, and fed upon it. He staid there until the death of the king, when he went up to Paris to witness the joy of the people. Some verses were printed which were attributed to him, and he was instantly thrown into the Bastille. He passed a year in prison, without society, books, or pen and ink.
While imprisoned, the idea occurred to him of writing a great French epic, and he actually composed in his dungeon two cantos of it, which afterwards were not altered. The poem was called “Henriade,” and was regarded with admiration by his contemporaries.
Arouet was finally set free, his innocence being satisfactorily proved. He now issued the tragedy of “Oedipus,” which had a great success. This success was only deserved in part. He still later wrote several letters upon the tragedies of Sophocles, which gave him at once a high position as a man of learning, and as a critic. His life alternated between work and pleasure. He quarreled with Rosseau about this time, and a little later visited England. He remained away from France three years. Upon his return to Paris he again brought out plays, and was everywhere admired and worshiped. But the priesthood hated him.