On this day in literary history, on February 10, 1778, Voltaire returned to Paris to great acclaim after being gone for 28 years. Voltaire’s departure from Paris was a defining moment in his life. He left a life of comfort and privilege and moved to a small village in England, where he wrote some of his greatest works.
Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer and philosopher best known for his wit and satirical works. He is particularly famous for his novel Candide, which is known as one of the most influential works of the 18th century. Voltaire’s works were concerned mainly with advancing civil liberties, and his writings often sought to challenge and criticize the political and social structures of the day.
His most famous essay, Philosophical Dictionary, explored several topics, including religion, government, censorship, and science. He was an outspoken advocate for freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and social reform. Voltaire was a prolific writer; his estimated output amounted to nearly 50 books and pamphlets over 60 years. His voluminous contributions have been praised both then and now for their wit and intellectual power.
When Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778, he received an enthusiastic welcome from the French public, and an estimated 300 people were there to greet him. Throughout his life, Voltaire was a fierce opponent of tyranny and intolerance. In addition to his writing and philosophical contributions, Voltaire also made an impact in the political arena. He campaigned tirelessly for the emancipation of slaves, freedom of worship, and human rights.
After his exile from France, Voltaire wrote that the cause of his departure was due to certain “unfortunate circumstances that obliged him to leave Paris.” The renowned philosopher and writer had been critical of the French monarchy and was forced to flee the country after his works were deemed too controversial by the authorities. Voltaire was arrested in 1717 because of his satirical poem La Henriade, which attacked politics and religion. As a result, he spent nearly a year in the Bastille as punishment.
He had fled the country other times before. Government condemnation of his work forced him to flee to England in 1726. He returned several years later, continuing to write plays. He fled Paris again in 1734, retreating to Champagne, where he lived with his mistress. He moved to Berlin in 1750 after an invitation from Frederick II of Prussia, then settled in Switzerland, where he wrote his most famous work, Candide.
He returned to Paris partly to see the opening of his latest tragic play, Irene. By then, he was 83 years old and near the end of his life. He was worn out from the five-day journey to Paris when he arrived in February, but he survived long enough to see a performance of Irene, where the audience treated him as a returning hero. He soon became sick again and died on May 30, 1778.
Because of his criticisms of the Church, which he refused to detract before dying, he was denied a Christian burial in Paris. However, his friends managed to bury his body secretly at the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne. The National Assembly of France regarded him as a forerunner of the French Revolution, and in July 1791, they had his remains brought back to Paris and enshrined in the Panthéon. It’s estimated that a million people attended the procession, which stretched around and filled the streets of Paris. There was an elaborate ceremony, including music composed specifically for the event by André Grétry.
Voltaire’s departure from Paris was a watershed moment in his life and ultimately enabled him to write some of his greatest works. It can be argued that without leaving Paris and the oppressive environment it represented, Voltaire would never have written the masterpieces he did later in his life. His move to England empowered him to write freely and explore topics he otherwise would not have been able to. It is a testament to the power of taking risks and leaving one’s comfort zone for greater gain.