Voltaire: a literary genius


Why is Malawi one of the poorest countries in the world? Several reasons may be given, but we must be humble enough to acknowledge the fact that in industriousness, we compare poorly with nationalities of the countries which have made it from third world to first.

The development of a country mostly depends on the quality of its elites — managers, lawyers, doctors, writers, philosophers et cetera. Are the elites of this country comparable in industriousness and commitment to elites in countries that are richer than ours? In this essay we will look at the profile of Voltaire, an 18th century French philosopher, novelist, historian and dramatist.

Voltaire was born in Paris on November 24, 1694. He attended college run by Jesuits. We do not know if he came out with a degree, let alone a PhD. At first, it seemed he was going to live a worthless life but in his early 20s he developed the ambition to be a writer in several fields.


In 1718, he wrote a classical tragedy called

Oedipe, which met great success at the Comedie Francaise theatre. The public compared him favourably with some of the greatest Greek playwrights. A year earlier, he had been thrown into the Bastille, the notorious prison in Paris for writing satirical verses concerning the Duke of Orleans.

A stay in prison and a sojourn in England turned him into a champion for freedom and tolerance in politics and religion. In England, he saw that even if a person offended the monarchy he was not just thrown into prison, but was tried in court. Following the glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, the monarch in England no longer had absolute powers as was the case on the European continent.


In religion, he found many seats in England besides the church. He wrote: ‘This is a country of sects. An English citizen, like a free man, goes to heaven by road that pleases him.” He added to this the memorable phrase ‘Ecrasez l’infame’ (stamp out the infamous thing). By this he meant intolerance in religion. He was persecuted for defending the rights of Protestants and Jews to practise their religions.

Those who assess Voltaire’s religious beliefs contradict each other on accent of his contradictory views. At one time he seems to lampoon Christianity when he wrote “Christianity must be divine since 17 centuries of rascality and imbecility had failed to destroy it.”

He wrote 15 hours a day — novels, poems, plays, historical and philosophical books. He was an obsessive reviser of what he wrote. In the course of reading and writing history he concluded that “Man must be free, freedom depends on law, hence the best government is that which guarantees to all, without distinction, the utmost liberty he can enjoy without harm to other.”Another memorable phrase attributed to him is “I do not approve of what you say, but I will defend to death your rights to say it.”

His numerous writings made him one of the wealthiest men in his country. He was one of the leading members of the period known as Enlightenment and was often in and out of prison. He was forced to leave France and live alternatively in Russia and Switzerland.

From the year 1758 to 1775, Voltaire was engaged in non-literary activities at Ferneu in Switzerland to develop a watch making industry. He founded a pottery, experimented, with the breeding of cattle and horses, tried new methods of farming. All this time he never relaxed his literary output.

His writing have proved less enduring than those of his rival and contemporary Jean Jacques Rosseau. But his philosophical novel Canaide is still popular worldwide in which he disputed the conception that whatever happens is for the best. Surely earthquakes and tornadoes do not happen for the best, the novel points out.

Voltaire’s writing are famous for lucidity. W. Somersat Maugham, one of the great English novelist of the 20th century, said he always read Candide before starting on a new novel just to remind himself the need to be readable.

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