Awesome Men Throughout History: Voltaire

This week’s Awesome Men Throughout History focuses on Voltaire, and not the goth guy who sings about atheism at nerd conventions. Screw him. The real Voltaire, born Fran?ois-Marie Arouet in 1694, was one of the cleverest, angriest, ballsiest Enlightenment thinkers, and wrote polemic satires in nearly every literary form available at the time (you probably remember Candide from 11th grade English class).


Voltaire was trouble from the beginning. His father was a notary and wanted very much for his son to follow in his footsteps, but Voltaire rebelled in the most scandalous way one could rebel in those days: writing poetry and eloping with a Protestant.

Voltaire’s dad managed to stop the marriage, but he couldn’t reign in his son’s poison pen. Voltaire developed such a fierce reputation as a critic of the French monarchy (especially its lack of religious tolerance) that he suffered an 11-month sentence in the Bastille for a satirical poem he didn’t even write. It was during this time that he took up the pen name Voltaire, and never mentioned or responded to his birth name again.

Voltaire was almost thrown in the Bastille again for responding to an insult from a nobleman, but fled to England to avoid what he thought would be an indefinite sentence. Leaving, or being thrown out of, Paris would a reoccurring theme in Voltaire’s life from that moment forward.

Voltaire would stay in England for three years, then return to Paris full of ideas about how to reform the country’s judicial system. So of course he was immediately exiled again after writing a book, called Lettres Philosophique, that praised England’s constitutional monarchy over its French counterpart. Voltaire went to Lorraine, where he procured both a chateau and a friends-with-serious-benefits relationship with Emelie du Chatelet. Then as now, chicks dig rebels.

When Emelie died in childbirth, Voltaire moved on to Prussia, where he exchanged ideas and possibly bro fistbumps with Frederick the Great. That lasted until he got into an argument with the head of the Berlin Academy of Science, which inspired his Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, a satire that pissed Frederick off enough to the point where he burned every copy of it and had Voltaire arrested. He’d been paying Voltaire a salary up until that point, but I imagine that stopped too.

Wow, that’s a lot of information spewing out all at once. Sorry about that. Luckily, it can be easily summed up with the pattern of Voltaire speaking truth to power wherever he lived until he was kicked out. There are touring Broadway shows that don’t cover as much ground as Voltaire did, and he probably had more fun.

What it really boils down to is that no one enjoyed being a jerk more than Voltaire. He was an outspoken supporter of individual rights and religious freedom back when that was a significant risk to one’s own personal safety, and he didn’t care who he offended in the process. Maybe it didn’t make him the most pleasant guy to be around all the time, but there are more important things in this world than being liked, and anyone in contention for an Awesome Men profile understands that. As a man who was willing to back up his bluster and fight for what he believed in, Voltaire was in a class by himself.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at