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On this day in 1694, François-Marie Arouet, later known as Voltaire, was born in Paris. He re-named himself Voltaire because he needed a pen name – he was always getting into trouble due to the scurrilous nature of his writings.
Years later, in his novel Candide, Voltaire, in a reference to the real life execution of British Admiral Byng, for dereliction of duty, wrote “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” He would never have dared write anything similar in France. He lived in such fear of a backlash over his writings that he ended up living in Switzerland, just to be safe.
He certainly played a part in starting the tidal wave of opinion that, 20 years after his death, became the French Revolution. He wrote some delightful poetry. Here is a sample written at the age of 80, to a beautiful woman, To Madame Lullin:
Hey, what! You are amazed
That after eighty winters
My weak and antiquated muse
Can still hum too?
A bird may be heard
After the season of sunny days;
But his voice has nothing to reach;
He no longer sings his love.
So I touch my lyre again
Which does not obey my fingers
We are born, we live, shepherdess
We die without knowing how:
Everyone came out of nothing:
Where does it go?
God knows, my dear.
Today I ask that I shall retain the ability to laugh and to keep trying, no matter what my age.