Houdon: Voltaire, National Gallery, photo by Paul Brians
Using this Guide
List of other study guides
The most commonly taught book by Voltaire is his amusing satire on philosophical optimism, Candide. It was even made into a delightful musical by Leonard Bernstein. However, it does not represent Voltaire at his most influential. Philosophical optimism is pretty much dead and has to be explained to students today so that they can grasp the point of his satire. Voltaire's thought ranged much more widely than this, however. In a very long life of tireless intellectual campaigning he was the most widely-read of the Enlightenment spokesmen known as philosophes.
These writers prized clarity and wit, and Voltaire's writing abounds in both. However, these qualities are somewhat dimmed for many contemporary readers who don't have the background to appreciate his jokes or grasp his points without assistance. These notes try to provide some assistance in this regard, and draw the reader's attention to the most important issues.
It has been said that "Voltaire criticized the Bible, but now everyone reads the Bible and no one reads Voltaire." Besides being wildly overstated, this jibe misses the point: we no longer read most of Voltaire's writings because the ideas he fearlessly promoted have mostly become commonplaces which we take for granted. The agenda of the Enlightenment is a familiar one to anyone studying classic American values: freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and opposition to the cruel caprices of unenlightened monarchs, to militarism and to slavery.
It is crucial to understand that at his time, organized religion in France (and elsewhere) ranged itself on the opposite side of every one of these issues, censoring the press and speech, opposing religious toleration, supporting the doctrine of the divine right of kings to rule and often endorsing slavery as well. Voltaire railed against the Catholic Church not because he was a wicked man who wanted freedom to sin, but because he viewed it as a fountainhead and bulwark of evil. He felt that no change of the kind he wanted was possible without undermining the power of the Church; that is why he devoted so much of his attention to ridiculing and discrediting it.
Unlike his arch-rival philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he was not a democrat. ( A comparison of the two.) Despite the stereotype of the Enlightenment as a movement of facile optimism, Voltaire was deeply pessimistic about the human nature. He never dreamed of creating a perfect world (despite the utopia depicted in Candide). He only argued that the world could be less bad than it is if we replaced ignorance and superstition with knowledge and rational thought.
His influence (along with Rousseau) on the French Revolution is well-known, but Voltaire would have been appalled by the irrational, violent excesses done in the name of enlightenment. Critics ever since have been arguing that the 18th-century crusade against faith has fatally wounded the Western World, promoting all sorts of social ills. Whether one sees the world as better or worse after Voltaire, there is no question that the issues which obsessed him are still important today. There are few of the questions treated below which are not still being hotly debated in contemporary America, and few of his arguments have lost their point in the ensuing centuries.
As you read this book, ask yourself to what extent are his views the very foundation stones of our culture and to what extent do they challenge it? Voltaire's great ambition was to make his contemporaries think, and it is a tribute to his wit and his intellect that his writings can still accomplish that goal.
The following notes refer to the Penguin edition of the Philosophical Dictionary, but there is a different, older translation available on the Web.
Why does Voltaire think it is ironic that priests are called "father?" What does he think is the main fault of modern priests as opposed to ancient ones? What does the threat in the last line of this article mean?
In this article Voltaire ironically examines the concept of the
soul, which had been finely subdivided as he describes by the
ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose definitions were adapted
by the thirteenth century Italian theologian
Thomas Aquinas, and
which became the basis of Roman Catholic teaching on the subject
(see p. 24). Much of this article is spent mocking these teachings.
Focus instead on Voltaire's attitude toward knowledge. Some
of his comments in this article are aimed at particular points
in their philosophy and are of mainly historical interest. Focus
on the points addressed in the following questions. Voltaire does
not believe it is possible to observe what is usually called the
"soul." Notice how he ridicules the idea that there
is a spiritual entity separate from the body by discussing the
nature of flowers and dogs. Voltaire, like most modern scientists,
sees humans as being part of a natural continuum with animals
and plants. In the last sentence on p. 21, Voltaire introduces
the rest of his discussion by suggesting that religious teachers
(by "supernatural help") are the sole source of the
notion of the soul: reason alone does not suggest it. On p. 22,
he uses the newly-announced theory of gravitation (developed
and much admired by Voltaire) to argue that the fact
that human beings are alive does not imply the existence of a
soul separate from the body. Rocks do not have heaviness in them
as something distinguishable from the rest of their nature: rocks
are heavy. Similarly, living beings live not because they have
souls which animate them; they are simply physical beings one
of whose characteristics is life. What do you think of this argument?
Voltaire repeatedly argues that the soul cannot be known without
"revelation" or "faith;" is he therefore
arguing in favor of the concept of an inspired Bible? How can
you tell? On p. 23 he rejects the Greek concept of the animal
soul. On p. 24, how can you tell that the sentence which begins
"Saint Thomas wrote two thousand pages" is sarcastic?
"Schoolmen" are the traditional theologians known as "
scholastics." What examples
does he use to ridicule the concept of the existence of a soul
existing after death? What does he say was the attitude toward
the ancient Jewish people about the soul and immortality? "Decalogue"
means the Ten Commandments. What kind of portrait does he give
of Jewish law in his paraphrase of laws from Deuteronomy on p.
25? Why does he single out the passage on false prophets? What
relationship does the last full paragraph on p. 25 have to the
question of whether the Jews believed in immortality? Throughout
his discussion of Deuteronomy Voltaire follows the common interpretation
of his time that Moses was the author of the first five books
of the Bible, though he elsewhere rejects this notion. He states
on p. 26 that "several illustrious commentators"
argue that when Jacob, mourning Joseph, said he would descend
in infernum (orig. sheol) it is thereby proven that the ancient
Jews believed in an afterlife; but he does not bother to answer
this argument. Why is it an embarrassing argument even for those
who use it? Since the Sadducees were the most conservative, traditional
branch of Judaism, it is particularly significant that they did
not accept the concept of immortality. According to Voltaire Josephus
says that the Pharisees believed in "metempsychosis"
(reincarnation), while the Sadducees rejected life after death
altogether. The Essenes were the least orthodox of all, yet their
beliefs best match those of later Jews and Christians. On p.
27, "He who alone was to teach all men" is of course
Christ. Why does Voltaire say that we've only been certain
of the existence of the soul for 1,700 years? Note how Voltaire
slips in a sarcastic comment on the Bible's inconsistency
in stating in one place that Moses saw God face to face and in
another that he saw him only from the rear. What, for Voltaire,
is the purpose of the mind, or "understanding?" On
p. 28 he rejects the accusation that he supports belief in a material
soul by repeating that knowledge of any kind of soul is impossible.
How does he use the arguments of religious people in favor of
divine revelation against them? How does he contrast the attitude
of Philosophy (Enlightenment philosophy, of course) with that
of religious thinkers in the last sentence of this essay?
For Voltaire love equals sex. What quality of sexuality does he say is unique to human beings, denied to the lower animals? What do you think of his argument? What is the point of the quotation from the Earl of Rochester (a notorious skeptic) on p. 30? How does he argue on p. 31 that syphilis is not the result of God's displeasure with human immorality, as many priests had argued? Can you apply this argument to the AIDS epidemic? Phryne, Lais, Flora and Messalina were all women notorious for their sexual excesses. "The pox" is syphilis.
What Christian traditions might Voltaire have had in mind in telling the story of the Indian fakir on p. 35? What is his position on self-love and self-sacrifice?
Athée, athéisme: Atheist, atheism
You can skim most of this article up to p. 55. Voltaire begins his discussion of atheism with a long list of distinguished people from the past who have been unjustly accused of atheism. On p. 50, why does Voltaire call the Romans wiser than the Greeks? Note how he calls modern Europeans "the barbarian peoples which succeeded the Roman empire." Voltaire cites Vannini as a predecessor of the Enlightenment figures like himself who argued in favor of deism but who were attacked for atheism. How does he argue on pp. 54 and 55 that a whole society can exist composed of atheists? "Gentiles" are non-Jews--in this case ancient Greeks and Romans, many of whom he argues were in essence atheists. This was a strong argument since the French of his time particularly admired Classical thought. Which, on p. 56, does he argue is more dangerous: atheism or fanaticism? Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? What is the point of his reference to the " massacres of Saint Bartholomew?" Despite his arguments than one can have a just society composed of atheists, why does he argue on p. 57 that belief in God is desirable in a monarchy? What is the sole reason he puts forward that learned men should not be atheists? Can you see any problems with this argument? The final sentence in the last full paragraph on p. 57 is a subtle rejection of Christian belief in creation ex nihilo (from nothing), considered disproved by 18th-century science, and leading perhaps to belief in an orderly Deistic universe but not to a conventionally God-dominated one. Something is said to have had a final cause if it has been called into being for some purpose. What is Voltaire's opinion of final causes? In section II, what does Voltaire say are the main causes of atheism? What are your own reactions to his argument here? Atheism is common in France and most of Western Europe, rare in the U.S. Why do you suppose so few Americans are atheists?
Beau, Beauté: Beautiful, beauty
What is the main point of this article? Do you agree with it?
Bien (tout est) All is good
Voltaire's most famous work, Candide, satirizes the arguments of Leibnitz [here spelled Leibniz] and Pope that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." On the bottom of p. 68, what basic element of Christianity does he say Leibnitz has fatally weakened by adopting his thesis? He summarizes Lactantius' devastating statement of the classic "problem of evil" on p. 69, delighting in drawing his arguments from an unimpeachably Catholic source.
To help you work through the "Problem of Evil" which he is here exploring, I've created a Web site that considers various options. Visit it now by clicking here. This should make clearer the philosophical context in which Voltaire is making his argument. See whether you can come up with additional arguments or replies to these arguments, and post them online.
What is his basic point here? What is the point of his argument about a Lucullus (a famously wealthy Roman)who can easily believe that all is for the best? He goes on to recount mockingly the attempts of various faiths to deal with the problem of evil, none of which works for Christians or Jews. What is the point of his fanciful tale of a supposed Syrian creation story? He says that "all is good" simply means "everything is as it has to be." How does the central paragraph on p. 72 seek to refute the argument that the orderliness of the universe is evidence of a divine, benevolent will? Note his sarcasm at the end. How does he argue against Pope's statement that particular evils form the common good? On p. 73, how does he react to those who find this theory consoling? What kind of a God does he say the theory implies? What is his final statement as to the problem of evil? What are your personal reactions to these arguments?
Bornes de l'esprit humain: Limits of the human mind
As elsewhere in Voltaire, "doctor" means "theologian." In what way is the subject of this article related to the last paragraph of the previous one? What is his attitude toward those who claim to have absolute knowledge? Why is he so opposed to such attitudes?
Catéchisme chinois: Chinese catechism
Like most of Voltaire's writings on Asian religions, this bears slight relation to real Asian thought. It is instead a vehicle for the expression of some of his more daring criticisms of Christian theology. By using the dialogue format, he can offer two disputants, one more skeptical than the other. What is his attitude toward the concept of Heaven on p. 79? Does he reject the concept that Earth is unique in the universe? In ridiculing the myth of Fo he is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. With what objection does Koo meet the traditional argument that the marvel of the eye implies a creator? What attitude toward belief in God does his story of the crickets imply? Why does he quote Confucius on p. 81? What is he trying to imply about the ethics of Christianity? (Confucius lived several centuries before Christ.) Notice that Koo argues that humanity is more diligent in suppressing evil than is God. Wht do you think of this argument? What attitude toward immortality does Ku-Su express at the end of the Second Conversation? The Third Conversation offers familiar arguments against the existence of the soul (see Ame, Soul above). with some original twists. One of the most important passages occurs on p. 83, where Koo says "What impression do you want to give me of the architect of so many millions of worlds were he obliged to carry out so many repairs to keep his creation going?" What is the point of this question? Notice that on p. 85 he argues that at least half of the Ten Commandments (the laws of the Sinoos) are necessarily universal, thus implying that morality need not be based on any particular religious revelation. What arguments does he bring against the idea of divine judgment after death on p. 86? Koo seems to give in to faith grudgingly on p. 86: why does he do so? What are his arguments against prayer and sacrifice in the Fourth Conversation? What does Koo claim are the real motives of the bonzes (priests) in preaching as they do? What does Ku-Su argue on p. 88 is natural law? Why does Voltaire like King Daon? In the Fifth Conversation, what sorts of virtues are admired in a king? The king being ridiculed on p. 90 in Koo's statement about those with 300 wives, etc. is Solomon. What relationship does the last paragraph on p. 90 have to the article Abbé, which you read earlier? Why does Ku-Su argue that friendship should not be made a religious teaching? Why does he claim that Confucius recommends to his followers to love their enemies? (In fact he does not.) On p. 92, the "impertinent peoples" referred to are of course the Europeans (see footnote). Voltaire's criticisms of "taverns" reflect the low state of commercial hospitality in his day. Commodious hotels and restaurants were founded only after the French Revolution, when the wealthy could no longer automatically stay as guests in aristocratic mansions. Voltaire himself was a perennial house guest for many years. What criticisms does he make of the Christian concept of humility on p. 94? What do you think of these criticisms? What are the basic religious beliefs that Koo endorses at the end of the essay?
Certain, certitude: Certain, certainty
What is Voltaire's basic attitude toward human certainty? What does he argue are the only kinds of "immutable and eternal" certainty? What Christian belief is he satirizing in his example about the Marshal of Saxe on p. 107? Why do you think this question of certainty and uncertainty is so important to Voltaire? How is it reflected in other articles in the Dictionary?
Chaîne des événements: Chain of events
Voltaire takes it as given that all events have causes, that the world operates like an "immense machine" (p. 110), but argues that not all actions have results. It may seem strange that someone so passionately attached to freedom should argue for determinism (the belief that everything happens by necessity). Why do you think this argument attracted Voltaire?
Voltaire begins this declaration of his personal theology with a joke in which Mlle Duclos is so ignorant of her religion that she has the Credo confused with the Pater Noster (the Lord's Prayer). The point of the paragraph at the bottom of p. 159 and the top of p. 160 is that the Christian Credo probably evolved some time after Jesus, and does not reflect the beliefs of his early followers. The paragraph about the belief that Christ descended into Hell is based on a now-obscure doctrine called in English " the Harrowing of Hell," which at one time was very prominent and is often depicted in Medieval art and literature. The so-called "Credo of Saint-Pierre" is, of course, Voltaire's own composition. What does its strong insistence on monotheism imply about Christianity? What is the point of the long third paragraph of the "Credo," and of the two paragraphs that follow? What is the evil that he most strenuously attacks? How does he say priests should be treated?
What, according to Voltaire, is humanity's greatest divine gift? And what is the result of not using this gift properly? He is echoing Rousseau's famous statement that "Man is born free and is everywhere in chains," and to some degree replying to the latter philosopher's theories of human equality in The Social Contract. What does he argue is the cause of inequality on p. 182? What common human characteristics lead to inequality (p. 183)? Note his sly dig at the rivalries of theologians in the middle of the page. What does he say is the implied meaning of laws which forbid people to leave a country (as he was forbidden to leave Prussia by his former friend and supporter Frederick the Great)? To what basic principle does he reduce human equality? When Voltaire says that anyone who feels unjustly treated in a particular state should leave, he is not speaking lightly. He lived in exile from France for much of his life. Note that his attitudes are far removed from the extreme egalitarianism during the French Revolution.
Why does Voltaire label enthusiasm a disease? (Note that the 18th-century French use of this term is not identical with contemporary English usage.) His story about the young man so carried away by a tragedy that he decides to write one himself is a self-mocking comment: he wrote many tragedies. Ovid's The Art of Love and The Loves are cynical observations on love affairs, whereas Sappho's poetry is filled with passion. She was said in ancient times to have committed suicide for love. How does he contrast reason with religion? What sort of people are said to unite reason with enthusiasm?
États, gouvernements: quel est le meilleur? States, governments: which is the best?
Voltaire begins this article by mocking those who claim to be able to reform government based on an imperfect understanding of the world. The article really begins on p. 192 when he raises the question of what sort of government a "wise man, free, of modest wealth, and without prejudices" would prefer to live in. Typically, he sets this dangerous debate (remember that Voltaire lived in an absolute monarchy endorsed by the Church) by placing it in the mouths of two Indians. He begins by satirizing the republic of ancient Israel (on the top of p. 193). What does he say is the reason there are so few republics (states in which the citizens govern themselves)? The republic discussed by the councilor which lasted more than 500 years is the ancient Roman republic. What moral advantage is it argued a republic has over a monarchy? Voltaire amusedly alludes to Montesquieu's theory that different laws are caused by different climactic conditions, but excludes religion from this variability. What does it mean to say that the best government is that "in which only the laws are obeyed?" (Hint: there is a common phrase in American constitutional law that states "We are a government of laws, not of men," which means the same thing.) What does this last sentence of the article mean? Why do you think self-government has been so rare in human history?
What do Voltaire's examples of detestable fanaticism have in common? What is the remedy he suggests on p. 203? What does he dislike about the stories from the Old Testament to which he alludes? What does he say is the basic problem with people who appeal to a higher divine law when they behave violently? By the way, he is quite wrong in his description of Confucianism as being free from fanaticism; Buddhism comes closer. Although Confucianism is based on rational principles, Confucianists could be quite fanatical in their opposition to Buddhism.
The story with which this article begins is loosely based on historical fact and allows Voltaire to remind his readers of some of the more unsavory aspects of the history of the papacy. What is his definition of faith? What criticisms does he make of it? Can you provide a different definition of faith which is not open to these criticisms? Why does he say faith brings no merit? He is parodying in the statement of the bonze toward the bottom of p. 209 the Christian doctrine that one can receive the grace to believe what one does not readily accept through prayer.
In one of his most bitterly sarcastic passages, Voltaire "praises" war as a divine gift which unites all the worst evils, causing those who create it to be adored as gods on earth. The whole article drips with irony. When he comments on p. 232 that people today do not fight wars for such stupid causes as the ancient Romans, he is being ironic. What does he say on p. 232 is a common cause for princes going to war (hint: see Shakespeare's Henry V)? What does he say should happen before a king should be allowed to become the ruler over a people? What relationship does he say the Church has to war (p. 233)? What distinction does he make between natural and artificial religion? When he contrasts "love" with war, he of course means sex. Does he believe war can be abolished?
Liberté de pensée: Freedom of thought
Voltaire places the debate over freedom of thought in the mouths of representatives of England (which he admired) and Portugal (which he detested). Medroso (the name means "fearful") is a religious fanatic, ignorant of the most famous names from antiquity. What does he say at the top of p. 280 is the main danger of freedom of thought? The "holy office" referred to here is the Inquisition run by the Dominican Order which imprisoned, tortured, and executed those who failed to conform to Catholic orthodoxy. Banned from France, it still flourished in Spain and Portugal in Voltaire's time. Why does he argue Christians should support freedom of thought? Hidden in the paragraph beginning "When some business matter . . ." is his answer to Pascal's famous wager which argued that it makes sense to believe in God since if there is one, one will avoid going to Hell for disbelieving, and if there is none, one will have nevertheless led a good life. What is Voltaire's objection to this logic? What is your own reaction to this argument? What are the respective virtues of the English and the Portuguese, stated on p. 281?
Note: Readers attracted by the nearby article on Free Will should be cautious in connecting it with this article. Voltaire argues against the Catholic doctrine of free will and in favor of a form of determinism. The reader should not assume that because Voltaire advocates freedom he accepts the philosophical concept called "free will."
Under this heading Voltaire groups a wide variety of ideas--all of them various sorts of irrational opinions. What are good prejudices, according to him? (Compare with "natural law.") What common European attitudes is he satirizing in the paragraph that begins at the bottom of p. 343? "Prejudices of the Senses" are simply sensory illusions, and "physical prejudices" are irrational beliefs handed on by tradition. He debunks a pious story about how Clovis converted to Christianity by pointing out that it is not natural to pray to a God in whom one does not yet believe. Note that most of his examples of religion avoid Christianity but can easily be paralleled with it. What does he say should be the final result of overcoming religious prejudices?
Why does Voltaire argue that the very existence of disputing sects within a religion disproves its truth? How does he contrast science with religion? Scientists also disagree among themselves; does this make them the same as religious people? Explain. What distinctions does he make between religious beliefs that everyone shares and those which are unique (and therefore false)? Pascal was not the only one to argue that there is special merit in believing difficult-to-believe Christian dogmas.
Voltaire consistently uses the term "theist" where we would use " Deist:" a believer in a minimal religion which reveres a creator but omits most of the elements of traditional religion: prayers of petition, miracles, divine revelation, incarnation, salvation, damnation, etc. What are the main characteristics of the theist, according to Voltaire?
What does Voltaire say is the first law of nature? Voltaire is intent on showing that the Romans were unusually tolerant of foreign religions because the usual stereotype of their culture is that it was intolerant in its attitude toward Christianity. According to him, why did the Romans finally become hostile to Christianity? What does he say was the attitude of various groups within original Christianity? On p. 389 he engages in one of his periodic assaults on Jewish belief, but with the aim of maintaining that they were at least more open-minded than Christians. What seem at first to be antisemetic passages in his work are often simply ruses to attack Christianity. He depicts the religious conversion of leaders in Europe as having produced a series of catastrophes. In section II, what does he say is the attitude of Christianity toward other religions? The second paragraph, assuming a detailed familiarity with the Bible, is designed to demonstrate that Christians did not at first distinguish themselves from Jews, and that their subsequent intolerance was an unfortunate late development. On p. 391 he refers to the numerous sects into which Christianity has always been divided to refute the claims of the Catholic Church to universal authority. What does he say is the remedy for religious dissension? How does the argument on p. 292 relate to the article entitled "Secte: Sect?" What religious sect does he most admire and compare to the beliefs of the earliest Christians? What arguments does he give to show that Jesus was not a Christian? What is the point of the parable of the reed at the end of the article? Americans, like Voltaire, value toleration, particularly in religious matters, very highly; but they also tend to value faith, which he rejects. How do you reconcile these two values? Is it possible to believe profoundly in a religious faith without being tempted to coerce others into accepting it? Explain.
Voltaire is of course being sarcastic when he says "there are no such tyrants in Europe." What does he say is the advantage of living under one tyrant rather than under many?
Background to the Enlightenment, by Richard Hooker
Back to on-campus syllabus
Back to off-campus syllabus
Version of July 21, 1997. Last revised January 12, 2005.
You can take this course on-line.
Paul Brians' Home Page
This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997.