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Voltaire’s cynical view of Admiral Byng’s controversial execution

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, War on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about Voltaire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 273 published on 8 April 1967.

Admiral Byng, picture, image, illustration

Admiral Byng is taken from his cell in Portsmouth by Paul Rainer

Who said, “In this country it is thought necessary to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others”?

The answer is Voltaire, in his book ‘Candide’, about the execution of Admiral Byng at Portsmouth in 1757.


Voltaire (1694-1778) was one of the most influential Frenchmen of the 18th century. His views helped bring about the French Revolution, which started 11 years after his death. He was a poet, playwright, philosopher and wit – a champion of the oppressed, and one who hated intolerance and cruelty. His real name was Francois-Marie Arouet.

Voltaire’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he preferred writing. He was packed off to the French Embassy in Holland for a while, but on his return he rashly wrote satirical verses about the all-powerful Regent of France – Philip, Duke of Orleans – and was thrown into the dreaded Bastille prison in Paris. He was then 23 years of age. He was released a year later, having written numerous verses in prison between the lines of a book, as he had no paper.

Once free, Voltaire triumphed as a dramatist with his play Oedipus, but it was not long before he was in trouble again. He offended a great nobleman who had him beaten up. Determined to avenge himself, Voltaire took fencing lessons, but the nobleman refused to fight a duel with a mere commoner. Poor Voltaire, not his oppressor, was sent (again) to the Bastille, but this time for only two weeks. After this he was exiled from Paris and spent the next three years (1726-29), in England, where he was delighted to find far more freedom of speech and religion than in France.

For the next 20 years, Voltaire lived in eastern France, carrying out scientific experiments and never ceasing to write. He was now famous. He spent two years at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia as a sort of resident philosopher, but fell out with the brilliant but despotic monarch and left. Paris was still barred to him, so he lived for a time in Switzerland – and France – crossing the border when things got too hot for him in either country.

He ran a pottery and a clock and watch-making business, bred cattle and horses, and continued to fight injustice everywhere. In 1778, he at last returned to Paris and was hailed as a hero. He died in the same year.

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