“Love truth, but pardon error.” – Voltaire, Sept discours en Vers sur l’homme
For generations, men all over the world have learned and bonded through the lessons and traditions of Freemasonry. We have been fortunate enough to have seen some of the world’s most celebrated and influential minds pass through our brotherhood. Some were savvy political leaders, others honest businessmen, but what we all have shared is reverence for our fraternal values.
When considering the great men we have had the privilege to call Brother, we would be remiss to not pause and acknowledge François-Marie d’Arouet, more commonly known by his pen name Voltaire. Although his time as a Freemason was short, this French writer, philosopher, and public activist represented the best of the craft, and the impact of his work can be felt to this day. He was an instrumental figure in Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century and battled ardently throughout his life for the ideals of equality and freedom of speech.
The Young Noble
Voltaire was born to an upper-class family on November 21, 1694, in Paris to Marie Marguerite Daumard and François Arouet. His father worked for the treasury, and his mother’s family was of the French nobility. He was the youngest of five children, but, sadly, only two of his siblings survived infancy: his brother Armand and sister Marguerite-Catherine, who were nine and seven years older, respectively.
As a boy, he was educated at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he learned Latin, theology, and rhetoric. His passion for writing, theater, and socializing developed early despite the protests of his father, who urged him to pursue a career in law. Instead, when he left school, he began his career in literature and never looked back. Voltaire scripted essays and historical studies and was celebrated for his immense wit, finding popularity within certain circles of the aristocracy.
In 1713, his father secured him a job as a secretary to the new French ambassador in the Netherlands. While serving at The Hague, Voltaire struck up a love affair with a French Protestant refugee named Catherine Olympe Dunoyer. The romance, which was considered a scandal, forced Voltaire back to France and began his lifelong struggle with authority.
Arrests, Exile, and the Enlightenment
Having grown up witnessing the cruelty of the French monarchy, which the Catholic Church supported, Voltaire was skeptical of the government and religious institutions. His inability to contain his disdain was met with consequences when he was exiled in 1716 for mocking the Duc d’Orleans. A year later, he returned to Paris only to be arrested for writing libelous poetry and imprisoned in the infamous Bastille for a year.
Just before he was imprisoned, the Comédie-Française agreed to stage his debut play, Œdipe, which was delayed until after his release. The show opened in the fall of 1718 to immediate acclaim, and Voltaire’s popularity was secured. His satirical and witty voice captivated Parisian elites but his willingness to challenge the status quo made for a tumultuous relationship with the government.
Voltaire’s writing career took off, but he was again sent to the Bastille in 1726 after arguing with the Chevalier de Rohan, a notable member of the French elite. He was detained briefly and then exiled to England, where he remained for the next three years. His time in Great Britain was formative; compared to the strict government in France, England’s constitutional monarchy and more relaxed attitude towards freedom of speech and religion captivated him. He was also exposed to new writers and thinkers such as Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton, expanding his creative influences.
The European Tour
While the French authorities ultimately permitted Voltaire’s return home, it would not be the end of his tumultuous relationship with his country. Forever changed by his time abroad, he wrote Lettres philosophiques in 1734, which described what he learned in England while criticizing the French government. This pamphlet was a milestone in Voltaire’s now-famous philosophy, which shunned organized religion and emphasized the importance of arts. The French government and church were furious, and Voltaire was forced into hiding, spending the next 15 years with his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet.
Voltaire wrote copiously, embracing other great minds of the Enlightenment, such as Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Francis Bacon. He was guided by reason and favored religious tolerance. His fame and reputation reached throughout Europe. In the 1730s, he sparked a correspondence and friendship with Frederick the Great (another famous Freemason), visiting Prussia many times and even moving there for several years in 1750 to work for his friend.
Ever honest in his work, Voltaire’s relationship with Frederick deteriorated after the writer composed a piece attacking the head of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Frederick ordered the pamphlet burned, and Voltaire left his court in 1753, saying, “I was enthusiastic about [Frederick] for 16 years, but he has cured me of this long illness.”
He left Prussia and could not return to Paris; instead, he purchased a home in Switzerland, spending his later years in Geneva and Ferney.
As Voltaire reached old age, his reputation and writings earned international fame. When Brother Benjamin Franklin served as minister to France, the two met in 1778 at the Academy of the Sciences. Brother Franklin had already spent 40 years as a Freemason. He was eager to join la Loge des Neuf Sœurs (Lodge of the Nine Sisters) in France to build the relationships necessary to recruit aid for the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.
By this time, Voltaire was widely renowned for his progressive ideals, which meshed well with the freethinkers of the Lodge of Nine Sisters. Upon his induction into the lodge, Franklin managed to convince Voltaire to join as an Entered Apprentice Freemason in Paris in April 1778. Sadly, his Masonic career was not destined to last long, and Voltaire passed to the Celestial Lodge a month later, on May 30, 1778.
Voltaire composed over 20,000 letters and 2,000 books during his long life. It is said, he managed this fantastic feat by writing for 18 hours a day. There is something for lovers of all kinds of literature in his collection of works. His notable poetry includes The Henriade (1723) and The Maid of Orleans, which he quickly followed up with a series of tragedies, including Hérode et Mariamne.
Later in life, he crafted the notable historical works The Age of Louis XIV (1751) and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756). For lovers of philosophy, Voltaire’s popular short stories Micromégas (1752) and Plato’s Dream (1756) continue to delight. However, among his many plays, historical works, scientific papers, and more, his best-known work, Candide is considering his magnum opus. This novella examines and critiques many events, thinkers, and philosophies of his time.
Despite his limited time as a Freemason, Brother Voltaire remains a shining example of the core tenets of the craft, Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Long before his initiation, he was a Mason in his heart. He continues to inspire brethren to this day for his willingness to speak out against intolerance and oppression despite the consequences awaiting him. We should all strive to follow his example and stand up for the right thing, no matter how difficult.