Voltaire was the pen-name of the French writer Francois-Marie Arouet, who lived between 1694 and 1778. Born into a moderately wealthy family, the son of a government official, Voltaire received an education in Greek, Latin and law from the Jesuits. He was a free-spirited character even when young: at age 20, while working in Holland, he attempted to elope with a young French emigre (their plot was discovered by Voltaire’s father, who ordered him back to France). After arriving back in Paris he spent a year imprisoned in the Bastille for writing satirical poems about members of the aristocracy. After his release Voltaire continued to write undaunted; in 1726 he was forced into exile after a lettre de cachet was issued against him. During Voltaire’s three years in England he engaged in study of the English political and judicial systems, considering it to be more advanced and respectful of human rights than those of France. In 1729 he published Philosophical Letters on the English which caused considerable controversy in France.
One of Voltaire’s strongest beliefs was also the need for religious tolerance. Throughout his life he was a fierce critic of the endemic corruption present in the Catholic church, particularly among high-ranking clergymen such as canons, bishops and archbishops. He wrote plenty about the disproportionate land-ownership of the church and the large tithes it imposed on the peasantry. He commented on how wealthy aristocrats bought positions in the upper clergy and complained about Papal intervention in local and regional church affairs. He was not anti-religious however; though often accused of being an atheist (an insulting slur at the time) Voltaire often proclaimed belief in a higher being; he was, more correctly, a deist.