Your pocket-sized Guide to French philosophy: Voltaire

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How well do you know your French philosophers? Test yourself and learn something new with our pocket-sized guide to French philosophers. You’ll be sure to impress at your next dinner party…

Voltaire was a French philosopher and writer who challenged the status quo of 18th century France.

French upbringing

  • Birth name: François-Marie d’Arouet
  • Born: 21 November, 1694, Paris, France
  • Studied at Collège Louis-le-Grand, Paris
  • Imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717
  • Exiled to England in 1726
  • Died: May 30, 1778, Paris, France

French philosophy

According to Voltaire, babies are not born with the ideas and principles that they live by. These ideas and principles are a result of one’s upbringing and experiences. As no ideas are known from birth, no ideas are necessarily correct and therefore every idea can be challenged.

While Voltaire said “doubt is not a pleasant condition”, he believed it was better to be dubious than to automatically obey authoritative institutions – such as the Church – without thinking for yourself. This belief can be seen in his writing, particularly in the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’.

French Philosophical Dictionary

In 1764, Voltaire published ‘The Philosophical Dictionary‘ in which he alphabetically defines a wide range of philosophical concepts including atheism, beauty, love, nature and truth.

One concept Voltaire explores in ‘The Philosophical Dictionary’ is nakedness where Voltaire writes “Why should one lock up a man or a woman who walked stark naked in the street? And why is no one shocked by absolutely nude statues, by pictures of the Madonna and of Jesus that may be seen in some churches?” Here Voltaire questions society’s attitude towards nakedness by highlighting contradictions between the law and the Church.

Which parts of daily life do you question? Let us know in the comments.

Read more from our pocket-sized guide to French philosophy:
1. Jean-Paul Sartre
2. Simone de Beauvoir
3. René Descartes
4. Voltaire (this page)

1.Voltaire’s biography 
2.Project Gutenberg’s Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, e-book
3.‘The Philosophy Book’ by DK Publishing
4.‘Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers’ by Philip Stokes
Image credit:
Atelier de Nicolas de Largillière, portrait de Voltaire, détail (musée Carnavalet) via Wikipedia

About the Contributor

Selina Parmar

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  1. Alex Mealey Jul 23, 2013 at 10:52 AM - Reply

    Everything! I like to question everything from whether what we see, touch, smell, hear and see is real to how can I know that I am not plugged into some machine like the Matrix. I also love to question science – its validity – do empirical truths/facts exist or is everything subjective?

    What do you like to question the most in life Salina?

    • Selina Parmar Aug 10, 2013 at 12:07 AM - Reply

      Hi Alex,

      Thank you for your comment. I too like to question everything, but most recently I’ve been questioning our ability to question things and whether this ability will ever gives us any real clues about the meaning of life- if there even is one!

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