François-Marie Arouet


VOLTAIRE (1694-1778), pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet , French writer. His burning desire for social reform and his biting pen made him the most celebrated of the French ‘Philosophes’. Educated by the Paris Jesuits, throughout his life he was violently opposed to the Catholic Church, in whose institutions he saw nothing but deceit, superstition, and fanaticism; on the other hand he undertook the defence of Deism with, as Lanson wrote, ‘determination, warmth and courage’. After a quarrel with the Chevalier de Rohan, Voltaire went into exile in London from 1726 to 1729. His Lettres philosophiques or Lettres sur les Anglais (1734; originally published in England as Letters concerning the English Nation, 1733) held up an idealized picture of England as a land of rationalist philosophy, just social institutions, and religious toleration, as an object-lesson to the French reader. He also praised J. Locke and I. Newton, the authors who, with Samuel Clarke, had the greatest influence on his Deism, although whenever possible he reduced metaphysical problems to matters of ethics. An attack on B. Pascal, whom Voltaire selected as representative of the strain in Christianity most opposed to his own ethical optimism, was added to the letters as an appendix.

When the book was publicly burnt in Paris, he fled to Cirey in Champagne, the country house of Madame du Châtelet, where he wrote his (posthumously pub.) Traité de métaphysique (1734) and Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738), and completed several of his most successful plays, among them Mahomet (1742), as well as the blasphemous epic on St Joan of Arc, La Pucelle (1739; pub. 1755).

From 1750 to 1752 he lived at the court of Frederick II of Prussia, and in 1758 bought the estate of Ferney, on the Swiss frontier, where he led the life of a country gentleman.

The problem of Theodicy always preoccupied him. At first inclined towards the solution of G. Leibniz, he then violently rejected it, delivering its coup de grâce in Candide (1759); after this he attempted to set aside metaphysical inquiry for positive social action, taking up in particular the cause of the victims of religious intolerance, such as the Huguenot Jean Calas.

During the last 15 or so years of his life his views came increasingly into conflict with those of the younger generation of ‘Philosophes’, notably P. H. D. d’Holbach (1723–1789), who were materialists and atheists and considered Voltaire’s Deism retrograde. Voltaire bitterly attacked atheism not, as is sometimes maintained, because he regarded belief in the existence of God and personal immortality as necessary simply for the government of the masses, but out of a pragmatic conviction that without these beliefs human existence would be one of meaningless anarchy. The Irish Catholic writer Alfred Noyes described Voltaire as a true son of the Church ‘whose criticisms, like those of Erasmus, were only letters to the family’. While this view is clearly untenable, it should nevertheless not be overlooked that the belief in absolute moral values which Voltaire’s Deism subserved, his championship of religious toleration, and even the faint stirrings of personal faith which occasionally diversified his scepticism, were qualities often sadly lacking in the official institutions and representatives of Christianity in his day.

Crit. edn. of Voltaire’s Complete Works begun by T. Besterman (Geneva and Toronto, 1968–9; Geneva, 1970–1; Thorpe Mandeville, Banbury, 1971–6; Oxford 1976 ff.), now issued by the Voltaire’s Foundation in Oxford; it is expected to run to some 150 vols., and includes, as vols. 85–135, Besterman’s edn. of Voltaire’s Correspondence and related documents (1968–77). The extensive lit. incl., besides the well-known Life by J. Morley (London, 1872), studies by G. Lanson (Paris, 1906), H. N. Brailsford (London, 1935), N. L. Torrey (New York, 1938), R. Naves (Paris, 1942), P. [J.] Gay (Princeton, NJ, 1959), I. O. Wade (ibid., 1969), T. Besterman (London, 1969; 3rd edn., Oxford, 1976), and H. [T.] Mason (London, 1981). R. Pomeau and others, Voltaire en son temps (5 vols., Oxford, 1985–1994; rev. edn., 2 vols., Paris and Oxford, 1995). Id., La Religion de Voltaire (1956; new edn., 1969), and other works of this author. G. Gargett, Voltaire and Protestantism (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 188; Oxford, 1980). W. H. Trapnell, Voltaire and the Eucharist (ibid., 198; 1981). G. Bengesco, Voltaire: Bibliographie de ses oeuvres (4 vols., 1882–90); M.-M. H. Barr, A Bibliography of Writings on Voltaire, 1825–1925 (New York, 1929); id., Quarante Années d’Études Voltairiennes:… 1926–1965 (1968); F.A. Spear, Bibliographie analytique des écrits relatifs à Voltaire 1966–1990 (Oxford, 1992). C. Constantin in DTC 15 (pt. 2; 1950), cols. 3387–471, s.v.


ff. and following.














BUT that a camel-merchant should stir up insurrection in his village; that in league with some miserable followers he persuades them that he talks with the angel Gabriel; that he boasts of having been carried to heaven, where he received in part this unintelligible book, each page of which makes common sense shudder; that, to pay homage to this book, he delivers his country to iron and flame; that he cuts the throats of fathers and kidnaps daughters; that he gives to the defeated the choice of his religion or death: this is assuredly nothing any man can excuse, at least if he was not born a Turk, or if superstition has not extinguished all natural light in him.

Mais qu’un marchand de chameaux excite une sédition dans sa bourgade; qu’associé à quelques malheureux coracites il leur persuade qu’il s’entretient avec l’ange Gabriel; qu’il se vante d’avoir été ravi au ciel, et d’y avoir reçu une partie de ce livre inintelligible qui fait frémir le sens commun à chaque page; que, pour faire respecter ce livre, il porte dans sa patrie le fer et la flamme; qu’il égorge les pères, qu’il ravisse les filles, qu’il donne aux vaincus le choix de sa religion ou de la mort, c’est assurément ce que nul homme ne peut excuser, à moins qu’il ne soit né Turc, et que la superstition n’étouffe en lui toute lumière naturelle.

Referring to Muhammad, in a letter to Frederick II of Prussia (December 1740), published in Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, Vol. 7 (1869), edited by Georges Avenel, p. 105






















THE Jewish nation dares to display an irreconcilable hatred toward all nations, and revolts against all masters; always superstitious, always greedy for the well-being enjoyed by others, always barbarous — cringing in misfortune and insolent in prosperity.

Elle [la nation juive] ose étaler une haine irréconciliable contre toutes les nations; elle se révolte contre tous ses maîtres. Toujours superstitieuse, toujours avide du bien d’autrui, toujours barbare, rampante dans le malheur, et insolente dans la prospérité.

Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations (1753), Introduction, XLII: Des Juifs depuis Saü











ALL of the other people have committed crimes, the Jews are the only ones who have boasted about committing them. They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.

Tous les autres peuples ont commis des crimes, les Juifs sont les seuls qui s'en soient vantés. Ils sont tous nés avec la rage du fanatisme dans le cœur, comme les Bretons et les Germains naissent avec des cheveux blonds. Je ne serais point étonné que cette nation ne fût un jour funeste au genre humain.

Lettres de Memmius a Cicéron (1771)






















OURS [i.e. our religion – Catholicism] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.

La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.

YOUR Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think. ... My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.

Votre Majesté rendra un service éternel au genre humain en détruisant cette infâme superstition, je ne dis pas chez la canaille, qui n’est pas digne d’être éclairée, et à laquelle tous les jougs sont propres; je dis chez les honnêtes gens, chez les hommes qui pensent, chez ceux qui veulent penser... Je ne m’afflige de toucher à la mort que par mon profond regret de ne vous pas seconder dans cette noble entreprise, la plus belle et la plus respectable qui puisse signaler l’esprit humain.

Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great (New York: Brentano's, 1927), transl. Richard Aldington, letter 156 from Voltaire to Frederick II of Prussia, 5 January 1767 [5]











ONCE your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life. In days gone by, there were people who said to us: "You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so." Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.

Mais, monsieur, en étant persuadés par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c'est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie. Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

(Translation from Norman Lewis Torrey: Les Philosophes. The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy. Capricorn Books, 1961, pp. 277-8)











THE Eternal has his designs from all eternity. If prayer is in accord with his immutable wishes, it is quite useless to ask of him what he has resolved to do. If one prays to him to do the contrary of what he has resolved, it is praying that he be weak, frivolous, inconstant; it is believing that he is thus, it is to mock him. Either you ask him a just thing, in which case he must do it, the thing being done without your praying to him for it, and so to entreat him is then to distrust him; or the thing is unjust, and then you insult him. You are worthy or unworthy of the grace you implore: if worthy, he knows it better than you; if unworthy, you commit another crime by requesting what is undeserved.

L’Éternel a ses desseins de toute éternité. Si la prière est d’accord avec ses volontés immuables, il est très inutile de lui demander ce qu’il a résolu de faire. Si on le prie de faire le contraire de ce qu’il a résolu, c’est le prier d’être faible, léger, inconstant; c’est croire qu’il soit tel, c’est se moquer de lui. Ou vous lui demandez une chose juste; en ce cas il la doit, et elle se fera sans qu’on l’en prie; c’est même se défier de lui que lui faire instance ou la chose est injuste, et alors on l’outrage. Vous êtes digne ou indigne de la grâce que vous implorez: si digne, il le sait mieux que vous; si indigne, on commet un crime de plus en demandant ce qu’on ne mérite pas.

In a word, we only pray to God because we have made him in our image. We treat him like a pasha, like a sultan whom one may provoke or appease. En un mot, nous ne faisons des prières à Dieu que parce que nous l’avons fait à notre image. Nous le traitons comme un bacha, comme un sultan qu’on peut irriter ou apaiser.

Prayers (1770)





















IF God did not exist, he would have to be invented. But all nature cries aloud that he does exist: that there is a supreme intelligence, an immense power, an admirable order, and everything teaches us our own dependence on it.

"Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer." Mais toute la nature nous crie qu'il existe; qu'il y a une intelligence suprême, un pouvoir immense, un ordre admirable, et tout nous instruit de notre dépendance.

Voltaire quoting himself in his Letter to Prince Frederick William of Prussia (28 November 1770), translated by S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire in His Letters (1919)









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