Book Summary: The Age of Voltaire | A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756

I’m taking a bit of a different turn on the blog today. Alongside art and the art business, I love reading – from artist biographies and art history to a mix of world history, philosophy, science, and even some science fiction and business books. This diverse reading has always played a part in how I see and understand art and the world more broadly.

I’m excited to introduce a new series of blog posts where I’ll share insights and summaries from the various books I read each year. A special part of my annual reading ritual includes reading from “The Story of Civilization” series by Will and Ariel Durant. Over the last nine years, I’ve been reading one book from this series every year, along with other books. While I’m aware that some consider the series outdated, I inherited these books and have found Durant’s writing to be both engaging and enjoyable. This year, my focus was on the ninth book, “The Age of Voltaire: A History of Civilization in Western Europe from 1715 to 1756,” which offers an insightful look at the interplay between religion and philosophy during this transformative era.


Introduction: “The Age of Voltaire” offers a profound exploration of Western Europe from 1715 to 1756. This period, a cornerstone in the Enlightenment, witnesses a significant clash between established religious dogmas and burgeoning philosophical thought. Central to this narrative is Voltaire, an emblematic figure whose life and works encapsulate the essence of this transformative era.

Voltaire – The Protagonist:

François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, the influential French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and advocate for freedom of speech and religion. His ideas and writings significantly shaped the intellectual landscape of the 18th century.

Early Life and Education: Born François Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, in Paris, Voltaire was the youngest of five children in a middle-class family. He received his early education at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where he was introduced to classic literature and developed a sharp wit and a love for literature and theatre.

First Imprisonments and Exiles: Voltaire’s journey was marked by frequent conflicts with the authorities, leading to numerous imprisonments and exiles. His first stint in the Bastille in 1717 was due to his satirical verses that mocked the French Regent. This imprisonment, however, didn’t dampen his spirit; it was during this time he adopted the name “Voltaire.”

Literary Successes and Philosophical Development: After his release, Voltaire’s literary career blossomed. He wrote plays, poetry, and historical works that gained him fame and controversy. His sharp criticism of the church and state, especially in works like “Letters on the English” (1733), displayed his growing interest in philosophy, politics, and the burgeoning Enlightenment ideals.

Exile in England: Voltaire’s second major exile was to England (1726-1729), a period that profoundly influenced his thinking. He was impressed by England’s constitutional government, its religious tolerance, and the works of Newton and Locke. This experience greatly shaped his later philosophical and political ideas.

Cirey Period and Relationship with Émilie du Châtelet: Returning to France, Voltaire spent much of the 1730s and 1740s in a passionate and intellectual partnership with the brilliant mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet at her estate in Cirey. This period was marked by significant intellectual productivity, including works on science and philosophy.

Philosophical Works and Advocacy: Voltaire’s later years were devoted to writing and advocacy. His most famous work, “Candide” (1759), is a satirical novel that criticizes the optimistic philosophy of the day. He was a staunch defender of civil liberties and spoke against the injustices of the church and state, including the wrongful execution of Jean Calas.

Ferney and Later Life: In 1758, Voltaire moved to Ferney, near the French-Swiss border, where he played a significant role as a farmer, local benefactor, and a patron of the arts. He continued his writing, focusing on history, philosophy, and politics, and became a revered figure among Enlightenment thinkers.

Return to Paris and Death: In 1778, Voltaire returned to Paris, where he was welcomed as a hero. However, his health was failing, and he died on May 30, 1778. His death marked the end of an era and the loss of one of the Enlightenment’s most influential and provocative voices.

Throughout his life, Voltaire’s contributions to literature, philosophy, and the fight for social justice and religious tolerance cemented his legacy as a key figure in shaping modern thought.

Voltaire’s World

Map of Europe during the 18th century, highlighting the key regions of France, England, and Germany. This map provides a geographical context to the era of the Enlightenment, showcasing the lands where significant cultural, scientific, and philosophical developments took place.

Philosophical and Cultural Backdrop: The Enlightenment era was a time of significant intellectual transformation. It saw the rise of deism, a rationalist religious philosophy, and a concurrent weakening of orthodox Christian beliefs. Thinkers of this age, with Voltaire at the forefront, emphasized reason and empirical evidence, reshaping societal norms and challenging traditional dogmas.

Key Historical Figures and Events: This period was marked by influential figures like Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, whose regency was characterized by financial chaos and moral laxity. The financial schemes of John Law, although initially causing economic turmoil, eventually contributed to France’s recovery. These events and personalities reflect the complex interplay of political, economic, and social upheavals of the time.

England’s Parallel Journey: In parallel to France, England was experiencing its own rise to prominence in science and philosophy. Notable were the agricultural advancements of Charles Townsend and Jethro Tull, laying the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. The condition of the English peasantry, in stark contrast to France’s, highlighted the diverse developmental paths of European nations.

German Contributions: Germany’s influence during this era was particularly evident in its contributions to music and philosophy. Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance, emerged as a prominent figure, his compositions reflecting the era’s artistic and cultural richness.

Cover page from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a pivotal work of the Enlightenment era. This comprehensive encyclopedia embodied the period’s revolutionary ideas and commitment to knowledge, rational thought, and intellectual freedom.

The Encyclopédie – A Beacon of Enlightenment: A significant hallmark of this era was the creation of the Encyclopédie, led by Denis Diderot. This comprehensive work, encapsulating the era’s expanding knowledge and rationalist thought, played a key role in spreading Enlightenment ideas, challenging the established norms, and promoting intellectual freedom.

Impact on Western History: This period was a crucible for modern Western society, marked by intellectual ferment and a clash between old and new worldviews. The Enlightenment, spearheaded by figures like Voltaire, laid the foundations for contemporary political and social structures, emphasizing individual rights, secular governance, and the primacy of reason and empirical evidence.

Conclusion: The Age of Voltaire represents more than just a historical epoch; it epitomizes a transformative period that fundamentally altered the course of Western history. It’s a testament to the power of ideas in challenging and changing the world, as demonstrated through the lives and works of Voltaire and his contemporaries. The legacy of the Enlightenment’s ideals continues to shape our modern world.

Share Your Thoughts

Durant’s series presents a captivating blend of detailed history and engaging storytelling. It’s been an insightful experience, traversing different eras and discovering their connections to our present day. I’m eager to hear from you – have you explored any of the Durant’s works or books that cover this period? What book are you currently enjoying? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. Fascinating! Such a timely commentary on freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of church and state. I just read an article this morning in that address Voltaire and his influence on todays western world anyway. Great. Thank you for sharing!!!

  2. Thank you Jason, I would be willing to bet that the majority of folks reading this had never heard of Voltaire or any of the history of the time that you so capably synopsized. Unless of course they majored in literature in college. I have always loved history and am grateful that growing up as a young man I lived in England as a young boy, then spent eight years in Canada, before we finally immigrated to the US and to southern California in my teens. I received a much more rounded history and education that way, before going on to college. Thanks for stepping out and providing a different and educational read.

    1. I have to admit that prior to reading this volume, I was among those unaware of Voltaire – pretty amazing, considering he has to be one of the most influential authors/philosophers who have ever lived.

  3. Perhaps we need a Voltaire.2.0.?! Reason? Empirical evidence? Rational thought? These concepts seem to be often absent or obscured. While we are no longer subjected to royal tyrants, one wonders if corporations have become our new rulers, and societal rights, freedoms, safety and privacies have been sacrificed. Vigilance is key. Or maybe there’s many more voices now at the table, and it’s harder to make sense of it all. Or perhaps it’s always difficult to ‘code’ the world we live in. And heavens knows a little humour always helps.

  4. My husband has been reading to me from these volumes for many years. He first discovered them (40 years ago?) when a history book club gave them as a gift when you joined their club. The are many used full sets available online because of this.
    “Enlightenment ideas were highly embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The major enlightenment ideas highlighted that each and every citizen has the right to reason, autonomy, and the notion that all human beings are equal by nature”, (my comment) although ironically slavery was ignored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *