May 30, 1778 — As he lay dying on this day, the great French writer Voltaire noticed that the lamp next to his bed was violently flickering and flaring up. "What? The flames already?" he quipped. They were the last words he spoke. Earlier, when a priest asked him to renounce Satan he refused, allegedly declaring: "This is no time to make any more enemies!"
Both anecdotes are of questionable authenticity but they so fit the personality of this remarkable man that they have been attributed to him in many quarters without hesitation.
Born in Paris as François-Marie Arouet in 1694, he was to become a novelist, poet, dramatist, philosopher, satirist and historian. Writing under the pen-name Voltaire he was one of the greatest writers that France has produced, but his caustic wit and unconventional ideas on religion, ethics and the State often got him into trouble.
In 1716 he was exiled from Paris for a short term after writing poems that mocked the French Regent's family. His banishment proved to be ineffective, however, because a year later he produced more verse suggesting that the Regent and his daughter enjoyed an incestuous relationship. As a result he was imprisoned in the Bastille for 11 months.
After a couple more run-ins with the authorities Voltaire went to live in England for three years. But the French Government continued to pursue their troublesome citizen, censoring or suppressing much of his work and ordering some of his books to be burned. In 1734 Voltaire made a decisive break from France by moving to Switzerland where he was to spend much of his later life.
He was able to afford such extravagance and live comfortably thanks to the French lottery. Voltaire had teamed with mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine and other gamblers to exploit a loophole in the way the lottery was run so that their syndicate repeatedly won huge prizes and they all became very rich.
In 1778 he returned to Paris for the first time in nearly 30 years to oversee the production of one of his plays, but within a few months he was dead at the age of 83.
Catholic priests repeatedly visited this lifelong critic of organised religion in the hope of persuading him to retract his opinions and make a deathbed confession. As far as is known, they failed.
An outspoken advocate of civil liberties, Voltaire wrote more than 2,000 books and pamphlets and thousands of letters. He was one of those writers who was adept at producing memorable one-liners.
"I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
"This body which was called, and still is called, the Holy Roman Empire, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire."
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."
Published: April 30, 2018