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Martí Domínguez

The century of Voltaire URL:

Voltaire represents the 17th century better than any other figure of the Enlightenment period. This explains why, after all, the Century of Lights is also known as the Century of Voltaire, something that was already done during the life of philosopher. But, why not the Century of Diderot or the Century of Rosseau? What substantial differences can we find between Voltaire and the rest of philosophers? Philosophers, by the way, that were decisive in the Enlightenment movement and whose absence would modify for sure our perception of that period. The key difference is probably based in the fame, in the unprecedented speaker that the philosopher from Verney managed to obtain. Voltaire is indeed one of the first media phenomenons; before his conquers no writer had reached with their work such a prodigious echo, so influential, rich and fearsome. This is the result from the perfection the printing press, the technical advances that allowed for cheaper publication costs that fostered the politic and cultural take-off culminating in the French Revolution. 

It is commonly said that he was the first author being able to live from his work, the first professional writer (the first one being enforced by the pen, as Eugenio d’Ors would say). But this is only partially true because Voltaire was always skilled in obtaining the best revenue from all of his enterprises, many of them in fields completely separated from the world of literature. Nevertheless, what cannot be argued is that it was thanks to him that for the first time in history people became aware that you could make a life out of literature, not needing to depend on some Enlightenment noble. Being able to subsist from the rent of the intellectual effort, from the book sales and the contracts with publishers that assumed the risk of the enterprises and content of the works. Works which in order to be good, needed to be new, and everything new normally causes problems. Voltaire was indeed the first one to meet this dreamed goal, and consequently the first totally free writer. He himself mentioned it in his memories: "I hear speeches about freedom, but I don't think in all of Europe there is anyone else with a freedoms such as mine. My example will be followed by those wanting, and being able, to do it".

Within these two conferences, we will study the influence of Voltaire over the Century of Lights. The first conference, with the title of "The Century of Voltaire", will focus on a fast review of the works from his contemporaries and the relationship they had with the philosopher, always complicated and tricky. The second conference with the title of "The legacy of Voltaire" will address the works and life if Voltaire, his controversies and confrontations with power (his love-hate relationship with Frederick II of Prussia), and his retirement to the French Alps until his glorious return to Paris, prior to his death. This way, with these two sessions we hope to draw a multifaceted picture of the 17th century in France, of the Enlightenment movement, and of its brightest intellectual lighthouse, François-Marie Arouet, alias Voltaire.

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