12 Fun Facts About Voltaire, The Jon Stewart of 18th Century France

Voltaire was an intellectual superstar. True, this 18th-century French writer, philosopher, and rabble-rouser does not seem like an obvious candidate for inclusion on a list of dur à cuire Frenchmen. But the author of Candide was actually one of many badass French writers who let his conscience be his guide, and in the process influenced generations of literary and political figures, starting with Victor Hugo and Napoleon. Badass Voltaire stories define and color the life of this freethinking marvel.

What makes him a badass? Voltaire stood up for his beliefs in the face of opposition and did not go silent when officials sought to shut him up. He paid no mind to censors or edicts when he sharply critiqued revered French institutions, ranging from the monarchy to the Catholic Church and French government. Voltaire was at the vanguard of the Enlightenment, an era that encouraged critical thinking, human rights, religious tolerance, and rationality. His fearless and brave writings exploded into the public sphere and challenged the world to be kinder, better, and more thoughtful.

But that doesn't mean Voltaire was a saint. Like Mozart and Beethoven - other complex intellectuals from the 18th century - Voltaire had a wild, complicated life. An examination of Voltaire's beliefs and some of the finer points about his fascinating life paints a more nuanced picture of this titan of the Enlightenment. Some crazy Voltaire facts prove he was far from perfect. Yet, his imperfections only enhanced his humanity. 


  • He Joked About The French Regent's Penchant For Incest And Paid For It With Jail Time

    One of Voltaire's first brushes with notoriety occurred in 1717, when the French government was run by the Duc d'Orléans. At the time, Orléans was ruling as a regent for his kinsman, the very young child-king Louis XV. Voltaire penned verses that tried the government's patience, but he things took a step too far when he mocked the Duc and accused him of engaging in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Needless to say, the Duc did not respond well to Voltaire's jabs, and the satirist was banished from Paris and imprisoned in the Bastille. The first of two stints in prison for the philosopher poet.

  • He Was A Man Of Many Love Affairs, Including One With His Own Niece

    He Was A Man Of Many Love Affairs, Including One With His Own Niece
    Photo: William Hogarth / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Voltaire - notorious for his passionate and scandalous love affairs - once fell head over heels for a young widow. Notably, this bereaved lass also happened to be his niece, Marie Louise Denis (née Mignot). Madame Denis was the daughter of Voltaire's older sister, Catherine. She was pretty, full of life, and bright, even harboring her own writerly ambitions. Voltaire claimed a not-so-platonic love for the young woman - he even wrote amorous letters to her in Italian, so that prying servants could not be privy to his physical attraction to her. Their romance lasted for decades. Denis even moved in with Voltaire, serving as his housekeeper and companion. Whether or not their love was ever consummated, it's clear from his letters that Voltaire wanted it to be.

  • He Wrote A Book So Controversial That Copies Had To Be Smuggled Into Paris

    In the early 1720s, Voltaire was at work on an audacious project: an epic historical poem about Henry VI. Henry VI was a French king who had succeeded the throne as a Protestant outsider from Navarre. Voltaire's poem was a brilliantly veiled critique of the Catholic Church and the problems of fanatic religion (which he obviously detested). 

    However, due to censors, Voltaire couldn't find a publisher in Paris for his poem. So he found other means. He published it in Rouen and then smuggled copies into the city. It became successful, even attracting the admiration of Queen Marie herself. 

  • He Counted Catherine The Great Among His Many Fangirls

    He Counted Catherine The Great Among His Many Fangirls
    Photo: Ivan Argunov / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Voltaire maintained strings of correspondence with some of the most important figures of 18th-century Europe - letters passed between Voltaire and Rousseau, Frederick the Great, and even Madame du Barry, the chief royal mistress of Louis XV. 

    Perhaps none was as fascinating as his correspondence with Catherine the Great of Russia. Catherine had a sharp mind and was fascinated with the Enlightenment, like many rulers in the 18th century. From 1768 to 1777, the Empress of Russia exchanged around 26 letters with the French philosopher. 

    For his part, Voltaire praised Catherine routinely, and it seems as if he had a little bit of a crush on her. He even teased her that he was "jilted" by her attachment to Diderot, another French philosopher. Not only did he curiously commend his "Star of the North" on her autocratic style, he actually had a portrait of her hanging in front of his bed