Voltaire Anecdotes and Tales of His Life

Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) was a French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian who became well-known for being outspoken and for his witty satirical writings. In his writings, he attacked the Catholic Church, advocated for civil liberties, and criticized French institutions. Voltaire also produced a variety of works that included everything from plays and poems to novels and historical works. To better understand Voltaire, it is helpful to know something about his personality, which can best be explained by his contemporaries and associates, who, over the years, shared many stories about his temperament and character. Here are some of the best Voltaire anecdotes.

Voltaire Anecdotes

Pastel of Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Duke of Orleans was the French regent to young Louis XV from 1715 to 1723. During this period, one satirical verse that Voltaire wrote accused the Duke of incest with his own daughter. The Duke became so angry with Voltaire, he ordered him imprisoned at the Bastille. However, after the Duke saw Voltaire’s tragedy Oedipus (Œdipe), he was so moved, he ordered his immediate release. Upon Voltaire’s release the Duke was waiting and said, “Be more prudent for the future, Voltaire … and I’ll watch over your fortune.”[1] As Voltaire was quick-witted and quick-tongued, he could not resist and replied:

“I humbly thank your royal highness … but I shall consider myself greatly honoured by your generosity, provided you don’t furnish me with the same board and lodging again.”[2]

Another of the famous Voltaire anecdotes involves his quick wit that he demonstrated when a stranger called on him. The stranger hoped to make Voltaire’s acquaintance, but he was in no mood to receive him. He told his servant, “Say I am not at home.”[3] When the stranger heard the excuse, he replied, “Why, I heard your master speak!”[4] The servant want back and told Voltaire and this time he said, “Then tell him I am ill.”[5] Hearing the servant’s second excuse, the stranger replied, “Very good … I am a physician and will come and feel his pulse.”[6] Returning to Voltaire again, he exclaimed, “Say I am dead!”[7] This time the stranger coolly remarked: “In that case I will see him to his grave; he is not the first.”[8] Realizing the stranger would not leave, Voltaire admitted him to his room. He then addressed him as follows: “I suppose you take me for some foreign wild beast? But you must know that the charge of admission is twelve sous.”[9] The stranger handed over twenty-four sous and remarked, “I intend calling again tomorrovw.”[10]

Voltaire anecdotes painting by Gardelle

Painting by Théodore Gardelle of Voltaire. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Another anecdote involves a Jesuit priest. After the order of Jesuits was dissolved and its members banished from France, many of them sought refuge in Ferney, the same commune where Voltaire lived. Among the Jesuits who arrived was one named Pére Adam. He possessed extraordinary skill when it came to chess, and Voltaire was as enthusiastic about the game as Adam was skilled. However, Voltaire also possessed the unfortunate habit of losing his temper when he found himself in difficulty or when checkmated. He would become so enraged, he would throw chess pieces at his opponents. Fortunately, however, one person noted:

“Generally things did not come to this pitch, for as the rattlesnake gives timely warning of its approach by its ominous rattle, so Voltaire, some time before his fits of passion came on, would begin gently to sing and hum, ‘tourlontonton.'”[11]

Voltaire’s Château at Ferney. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It did not take long for Adam to realize “tourlontonton” was a warning sign. Thus, once the warning song began Adam would hastily depart or “fall into a swoon, remaining rigid and motionless so long, until Voltaire’s anger turned to anxiety, and he exclaimed, ‘Adam, where art thou?'”[12]

Another of the Voltaire anecdotes demonstrates that besides losing his temper, he was also petulant. It begins in 778 while he was living in Paris at the home of Charles Michel, Marquis de Villette. At the time, Voltaire had a certain cup he used every day. One day the Marquis had a dinner party, and when Voltaire appeared, he discovered his prized cup missing. He inquired of the staff and when they could not explain where his cup was, he exclaimed, “go, seek for my cup; I must have my cup, or I shall not dine to-day.”[13] The servants made a thorough search, but they could not find the cup, and Voltaire stormed off and shut himself up in his room. At length, the Marquis decided to soothe him and went to his room. The Marquis told him, he had come in the name of all his friends, who wanted him present. Voltaire replied:

“I see very well you are anxious to excuse me. Let us rather allow frankly that every one has his weaknesses; I blush at mine. Do … go down first, and I shall follow.”[14]

That was exactly what happened because a few minutes later with the awkward timidity of a child, Voltaire seated himself at the Marquis’s dinner table.

Charles Michel, Marquis de Villette, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles Michel, Marquis de Villette. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Voltaire had permitted 17-year-old Madame Tussaud to make her first wax model using him, he was actually a curmudgeon. That is perhaps why the most humorous of the Voltaire anecdotes is a story that demonstrates his crusty impatience shortly after his return to Paris some twenty-five years after Louis XV had banished him from that city. Because the venerable 83-year-old Voltaire had been absent so long, hundreds of people wanted to pay their respects. Among those who called was an excessively vain author known for his “moderate abilities.” As soon as the young man was introduced to Voltaire a stream of compliments poured out:

“Great man! to-day I have come to salute Homer; — to-morrow I will salute Sophocles; — the day after to-morrow Plato …”[15]

The young man attempted to continue with his steams of praises, but Voltaire impatiently interrupted. “‘Little man!’ Voltaire exclaimed, ‘I am very old, and should be glad if you would pay all your visits in one day.'”[16]


  • [1] Oxberry, William, The Flowers of Literature, or Encyclopaedia of Anecdote, 1821, p. 320.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Tit-bits from All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Contributors in the World, Volume 4, 1883, p. 148.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 100.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Keddie, William, Cyclopaedia of Literary and Scientific Anecdote, 1859, p. 299.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Adams, John Rev., Anecdotes, Bons-mots, and Characteristic Traits of the Greatest Princes Politicians, Philosophers, Orators, and Wits of Modern Times, 1789. p. 176.
  • [16] Ibid.

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