HISTORY OF IDEAS: Ian Davidson on Voltaire's "English Exile"


HISTORY OF IDEAS: Ian Davidson on Voltaire's "English Exile"
by Darius Kadivar

Francois Marie Arouet (aka Voltaire) is seen by many as the embodiment of the French Enlightenment. Some of his ideas paved the way to the French Revolution, yet he admired England’s Constitutional Monarchy for the freedom of speech and the religious tolerance he found there as opposed to France's Absolute Monarchy. 

The aptitude for quick, perceptive, cutting and witty critical repartee for which Voltaire is known today made him highly unpopular with some of his contemporaries, including certain members of the French aristocracy. These sharp-tongued retorts were responsible for Voltaire's exile from France, during which he resided in Great Britain.

After Voltaire retorted to an insult given him by the young French nobleman Chevalier de Rohan in late 1725, the aristocratic Rohan family obtained a royal lettre de cachet, an irrevocable and often arbitrary penal decree signed by the French King (Louis XV, in the time of Voltaire) that was often bought by members of the wealthy nobility to dispose of undesirables. They then used this warrant to force Voltaire into imprisonment in the Bastille without holding a trial or giving him an opportunity to defend himself.Fearing an indefinite prison sentence, Voltaire suggested his own exile to England as an alternative punishment, an idea the French authorities accepted.This incident marked the beginning of Voltaire's attempts to improve the French judicial system. 

Voltaire's exile in Great Britain lasted nearly three years, and his experiences there greatly influenced many of his ideas. The young man was impressed by Britain's constitutional monarchy in contrast to the French absolute monarchy, as well as the country's relative support of the freedoms of speech and religion. Voltaire was impressed by a number of things that stood in stark contrast to how things were in France at that time, in particular the respect for freedom of speech and the religious tolerance he found there.

After almost three years in exile, Voltaire returned to Paris and published his views on British attitudes towards government, literature, and religion in a collection of essays in letter form entitled the Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais (Philosophical Letters on the English). Because he regarded the British constitutional monarchy as more developed and more respectful of human rights (particularly religious tolerance) than its French counterpart, these letters met great controversy in France, to the point where the book was burnt and Voltaire was forced again to flee.

He was also quite taken with England’s constitutional monarchy and remained a monarchist for the remainder of his days despite the actions of the kings of France against himself and the people during his lifetime.   More On Voltaire Here

'Voltaire in Exile', Ian Davidson  

With his 2004 publication 'Voltaire in Exile', Ian Davidson looked specifically at the last 25 years of the French playwright, poet and philosopher's life following his exile at the hands of King Louis XV. Now, with 'Voltaire: A Life', Davidson presents an account of Voltaire's whole life, utilising the vast cache of written correspondence still in existence to paint a vivid portrait of the extraordinary man.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Most Controversial Authors - Voltaire:

Voltaire still popular, 250 years after Candide:

(NOTE: If You cannot see Video Click Here)

Dr. Paul LeClerc on Voltaire's Candide:

Voltaires tale of the youth Candides trials, travels, and misadventures as he searches for his beloved Cunegonde was a publishing sensation in Europe in 1759. The satirical treatments of religion, sexuality, and authority made Candide both a target of censorship by the Vatican as well as a hugely popular underground success. Dr. Paul LeClerc, president of The New York Public Library, talks about his love of the book in this video highlighting an upcoming library exhibition "Candide at 250: Scandal and Success."

France's King Louis XV (Jean Marais) in presence of Voltaire and painter Fragonard in Sacha Guitry's movie "Si Versailles M'était Conté" (1953):

Trailer of Voltaire and "The Callas Affaire" ARTE:


Age of Absolute Monarchs in Europe:


Age of Enlightment in Europe: 

Montesquieu also an Enlightment philosopher concluded that the British Constitutional Monarchy was the ideal form of government in that it had achieved a separation of Powers: executive, legislative and Judicial ( each division checks and balances the other)

L'Affaire Callas (In French) in which Voltaire took the defence of protestant family subject to catholic prejudice of the time:

Candide Overture: Leonard Bernstein conducting -London Symphony Orchestra (London, December 13, 1989):

Voltaire's Mansion Chateau de Cirey:

Voltaire Naked Statue discovered:

Voltaire's Bio: 

Francois Marie Arouet (pen name Voltaire) was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris. Voltaire’s intelligence, wit and style made him one of France’s greatest writers and philosophers.

Young Francois Marie received his education at “Louis-le-Grand,” a Jesuit college in Paris where he said he learned nothing but “Latin and the Stupidities.” He left school at 17 and soon made friends among the Parisian aristocrats. His humorous verses made him a favorite in society circles. In 1717, his sharp wit got him into trouble with the authorities. He was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months for writing a scathing satire of the French government. During his time in prison Francois Marie wrote “Oedipe” which was to become his first theatrical success, and also adopted his pen name “Voltaire.”

In 1726, Voltaire insulted the powerful young nobleman, “Chevalier De Rohan,” and was given two options: imprisonment or exile. He chose exile and from 1726 to 1729 lived in England. While in England Voltaire was attracted to the philosophy of John Locke and ideas of mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. He studied England's Constitutional Monarchy and its religious tolerance. Voltaire was particularly interested in the philosophical rationalism of the time, and in the study of the natural sciences. After returning to Paris he wrote a book praising English customs and institutions. It was interpreted as criticism of the French government, and in 1734 Voltaire was forced to leave Paris again.

At the invitation of a highly-intelligent woman friend, “Marquise du Chatelet,” Voltaire moved into her “Chateau de Cirey” near Luneville in eastern France. They studied the natural sciences together for several years. In 1746, Voltaire was voted into the “Academie Francaise.” In 1749, after the death of “Marquise du Chatelet” and at the invitation of the King of Prussia, “Frederick the Great,” he moved to Potsdam (near Berlin in Germany). In 1753, Voltaire left Potsdam to return to France.

In 1759, Voltaire purchased an estate called “Ferney” near the French-Swiss border where he lived until just before of his death. Ferney soon became the intellectual capital of Europe. Voltaire worked continuously throughout the years, producing a constant flow of books, plays and other publications. He wrote hundreds of letters to his circle of friends. He was always a voice of reason. Voltaire was often an outspoken critic of religious intolerance and persecution.

Voltaire returned to a hero’s welcome in Paris at age 83. The excitement of the trip was too much for him and he died in Paris. Because of his criticism of the church Voltaire was denied burial in church ground. He was finally buried at an abbey in Champagne. In 1791, his remains were moved to a resting place at the Pantheon in Paris.

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more from Darius Kadivar
Darius Kadivar

Voltaire's letters reveal funding from British royals

by Darius Kadivar on

Voltaire's letters reveal funding from British royals (bbc)



An Oxford academic has uncovered letters by Voltaire which reveal how much this icon of French writing profited financially and intellectually from a stay in England.

They include a signed acceptance from the 18th Century writer for a £200 grant from the Royal Family.

The writer abandoned the French spelling of his first name, Francois, styling himself "Francis".

Professor Nicholas Cronk says Voltaire was "hugely opportunistic".

There are 14 newly-discovered letters which are being studied by the Oxford-based Voltaire Foundation, which is carrying out a mammoth work of scholarship, which will have taken 50 years to produce a definitive collected work of all Voltaire's writing.

It is expected to be completed by 2018.