As he lay dying on this day, the great French writer Voltaire noticed that the lamp next to his bed was violently flickering and flaring up. "What? The flames already?" he quipped. They were the last words he spoke. Earlier, when a priest asked him to renounce Satan he refused, allegedly declaring: "This is no time to make any more enemies!"
Both anecdotes are of questionable authenticity but they so fit the personality of this remarkable man that they have been attributed to him in many quarters without hesitation.
He never actually wrote “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – this excellent formulation was, rather, the work of his English biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall (who also used a pseudonym: SG Tallentyre), who used it to describe his “attitude” in her 1906 biography, The Friends of Voltaire.
Noted in an earlier biography is another bon mot, which Voltaire probably did say, in response to the same affair. Hearing that a rival philosopher’s book had been condemned by the authorities to be burned in public, Voltaire quipped: “What a fuss about an omelette!” (A splendidly backhanded defence.) Meanwhile, the instruction “Écrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush what is infamous”), signed on many of his letters, became something of a personal slogan against clerical abuses.
Born in Paris as François-Marie Arouet in 1694, he was to become a novelist, poet, dramatist, philosopher, satirist and historian. Writing under the pen-name Voltaire he was one of the greatest writers that France has produced, but his caustic wit and unconventional ideas on religion, ethics and the State often got him into trouble.
In 1716 he was exiled from Paris for a short term after writing poems that mocked the French Regent's family. His banishment proved to be ineffective, however, because a year later he produced more verse suggesting that the Regent and his daughter enjoyed an incestuous relationship. As a result he was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months.
After a couple more run-ins with the authorities Voltaire went to live in England for three years. But the French Government continued to pursue their troublesome citizen, censoring or suppressing much of his work and ordering some of his books to be burned. In 1734 Voltaire made a decisive break from France by moving to Switzerland where he was to spend much of his later life.
He was able to afford such extravagance and live comfortably thanks to the French lottery. Voltaire had teamed with mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine and other gamblers to exploit a loophole in the way the lottery was run so that their syndicate repeatedly won huge prizes and they all became very rich.
In 1778 he returned to Paris for the first time in nearly 30 years to oversee the production of one of his plays, but within a few months he was dead at the age of 83.
Catholic priests repeatedly visited this lifelong critic of organised religion in the hope of persuading him to retract his opinions and make a deathbed confession. As far as is known, they failed.
An outspoken advocate of civil liberties, Voltaire wrote more than 2,000 books and pamphlets and thousands of letters.
His most famous work remains Candide, a fiction in which the young titular hero is initiated into the mysteries of philosophical optimism. This is a satire on the philosophical theories of the great mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who is immortally caricatured in its pages as one Professor Pangloss – hence our word “Panglossian”. All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, insists Pangloss. By the end of the book, however, Candide himself is not so sure – nor, most probably, are those now reading Voltaire for the first time.
He was one of those writers who was adept at producing memorable one-liners.
"This body which was called, and still is called, the Holy Roman Empire, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."
"Love truth, but pardon error."
"Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! And if one reads profitably, one would realize how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow every day."
"The most important decision you make is to be in a good mood."
"The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor."
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."
"Faith consists in believing what reason cannot."
"Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money."
"Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time."
"It is love; love, the comfort of the human species, the preserver of the universe, the soul of all sentient beings, love, tender love." Candide
"Sensual pleasure passes and vanishes, but the friendship between us, the mutual confidence, the delight of the heart, the enchantment of the soul, these things do not perish and can never be destroyed."
"No opinion is worth burning your neighbour for."
"The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us."
"Men will always be mad, and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all."
"The only way to comprehend what mathematicians mean by Infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity."