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Voltaire: Philosophical Dictionary (StudyGuide)

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StudyGuide for Voltaire`s Philosophical Dictionary: (Selections)

The most commonly-taught book by Voltaire is his amusing satire onphilosophical optimism, Candide. It was even made into a delightfulmusical by Leonard Bernstein. However, it does not represent Voltaire at hismost influential. Philosophical optimism is pretty much dead and has to beexplained 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 verylong life of tireless intellectual campaigning he was the most widely-read ofthe Enlightenment spokesmen known as philosophes.
These writers prized clarity and wit, and Voltaire`s writingabounds in both. However, these qualities are somewhat dimmedfor many contemporary readers who don`t have the backgroundto appreciate his jokes or grasp his points without assistance.These notes try to provide some assistance in this regard, anddraw the reader`s attention to the most important issues.
It has been said that "Voltaire criticized the Bible, butnow everyone reads the Bible and no one reads Voltaire."Besides being wildly overstated, this jibe misses the point: weno longer read most of Voltaire`s writings because theideas he fearlessly promoted have mostly become commonplaces whichwe take for granted. The agenda of the Enlightenment is a familiarone to anyone studying classic American values: freedom of speech,press, assembly, and religion, opposition to the cruel capricesof unenlightened monarchs, to militarism and to slavery. (An essay on the relationship of the Enlightenment to the shaping of American thought.)
It is crucial to understand that at his time, organized religionin France (and elsewhere) ranged itself on the opposite side ofevery one of these issues, censoring the press and speech, opposingreligious toleration, supporting the doctrine of the divine rightof kings to rule and often endorsing slavery as well. Voltairerailed against the Catholic Church not because he was a wickedman who wanted freedom to sin, but because he viewed it as a fountainheadand bulwark of evil. He felt that no change of the kind he wantedwas possible without undermining the power of the Church; thatis why he devoted so much of his attention to ridiculing and discreditingit.
Unlike his arch-rival philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he wasnot a democrat. (A comparison of the two.) Despite the stereotype of the Enlightenment asa movement of facile optimism, Voltaire was deeply pessimisticabout the human nature. He never dreamed of creating a perfectworld (despite the utopia depicted in Candide). He onlyargued that the world could be less bad than it is if we replacedignorance and superstition with knowledge and rational thought.
His influence (along with Rousseau) on the French Revolution iswell-known, but Voltaire would have been appalled by the irrational,violent excesses done in the name of enlightenment. Critics eversince have been arguing that the 18th-century crusade againstfaith has fatally wounded the Western World, promoting all sortsof social ills. Whether one sees the world as better or worseafter Voltaire, there is no question that the issues which obsessedhim are still important today. There are few of the questionstreated below which are not still being hotly debated in contemporaryAmerica, and few of his arguments have lost their point in theensuing centuries.
As you read this book, ask yourself to what extent are his viewsthe very foundation stones of our culture and to what extent dothey challenge it? Voltaire`s great ambition was to makehis contemporaries think, and it is a tribute to his wit and hisintellect 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 opposedto ancient ones? What does the threat in the last line of thisarticle mean?
Ame: Soul
In this article Voltaire ironically examines the concept of thesoul, which had been finely subdivided as he describes by theancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose definitions were adaptedby the thirteenth century Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas, andwhich 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. Someof his comments in this article are aimed at particular pointsin their philosophy and are of mainly historical interest. Focuson the points addressed in the following questions. Voltaire doesnot believe it is possible to observe what is usually called the"soul." Notice how he ridicules the idea that thereis a spiritual entity separate from the body by discussing thenature of flowers and dogs. Voltaire, like most modern scientists,sees humans as being part of a natural continuum with animalsand plants. In the last sentence on p. 21, Voltaire introducesthe rest of his discussion by suggesting that religious teachers(by "supernatural help") are the sole source of thenotion of the soul: reason alone does not suggest it. On p. 22, he uses the newly-announced theory of gravitation (developedby Newton and much admired by Voltaire) to argue that the factthat human beings are alive does not imply the existence of asoul separate from the body. Rocks do not have heaviness in themas something distinguishable from the rest of their nature: rocksare heavy. Similarly, living beings live not because they havesouls which animate them; they are simply physical beings oneof 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 thereforearguing in favor of the concept of an inspired Bible? How canyou tell? On p. 23 he rejects the Greek concept of the animalsoul. 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 examplesdoes he use to ridicule the concept of the existence of a soulexisting after death? What does he say was the attitude towardthe ancient Jewish people about the soul and immortality? "Decalogue"means the Ten Commandments. What kind of portrait does he giveof Jewish law in his paraphrase of laws from Deuteronomy on p.25? Why does he single out the passage on false prophets? Whatrelationship does the last full paragraph on p. 25 have to thequestion of whether the Jews believed in immortality? Throughouthis discussion of Deuteronomy Voltaire follows the common interpretationof his time that Moses was the author of the first five booksof the Bible, though he elsewhere rejects this notion. He stateson p. 26 that "several illustrious commentators"argue that when Jacob, mourning Joseph, said he would descendin infernum (orig. sheol) it is thereby proven that the ancientJews believed in an afterlife; but he does not bother to answerthis argument. Why is it an embarrassing argument even for thosewho use it? Since the Sadducees were the most conservative, traditionalbranch of Judaism, it is particularly significant that they didnot accept the concept of immortality. According to Voltaire Josephussays that the Pharisees believed in "metempsychosis"(reincarnation), while the Sadducees rejected life after deathaltogether. The Essenes were the least orthodox of all, yet theirbeliefs best match those of later Jews and Christians. On p.27, "He who alone was to teach all men" is of courseChrist. Why does Voltaire say that we`ve only been certainof the existence of the soul for 1,700 years? Note how Voltaireslips in a sarcastic comment on the Bible`s inconsistencyin stating in one place that Moses saw God face to face and inanother that he saw him only from the rear. What, for Voltaire,is the purpose of the mind, or "understanding?" Onp. 28 he rejects the accusation that he supports belief in a materialsoul by repeating that knowledge of any kind of soul is impossible.How does he use the arguments of religious people in favor ofdivine revelation against them? How does he contrast the attitudeof Philosophy (Enlightenment philosophy, of course) with thatof religious thinkers in the last sentence of this essay?
Amour: Love
For Voltaire love equals sex. What quality of sexuality does hesay is unique to human beings, denied to the lower animals? Whatdo you think of his argument? What is the point of the quotationfrom the Earl of Rochester (a notorious skeptic) on p. 30? Howdoes he argue on p. 31 that syphilis is not the result of God`sdispleasure 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 sexualexcesses. "The pox" is syphilis.
Amour-propre: Self-love
What Christian traditions might Voltaire have had in mind in tellingthe story of the Indian fakir on p. 35? What is his position onself-love and self-sacrifice?
Athée, athéisme: Atheist, atheism
You can skim most of this article up to p. 55. Voltaire beginshis discussion of atheism with a long list of distinguished peoplefrom the past who have been unjustly accused of atheism. On p.50, why does Voltaire call the Romans wiser than the Greeks? Notehow he calls modern Europeans "the barbarian peoples whichsucceeded the Roman empire." Voltaire cites Vannini as apredecessor of the Enlightenment figures like himself who arguedin favor of deism but who were attacked for atheism. How doeshe argue on pp. 54 and 55 that a whole society can exist composedof atheists? "Gentiles" are non-Jews--in thiscase ancient Greeks and Romans, many of whom he argues were inessence atheists. This was a strong argument since the Frenchof his time particularly admired Classical thought. Which, onp. 56, does he argue is more dangerous: atheism or fanaticism?Do you agree or disagree with him? Why? What is the point of hisreference to the "massacres of Saint Bartholomew?"Despite his arguments than one can have a just society composedof atheists, why does he argue on p. 57 that belief in God isdesirable in a monarchy? What is the sole reason he puts forwardthat learned men should not be atheists? Can you see any problemswith this argument? The final sentence in the last full paragraphon p. 57 is a subtle rejection of Christian belief in creationex nihilo (from nothing), considered disproved by 18th-centuryscience, and leading perhaps to belief in an orderly Deistic universebut not to a conventionally God-dominated one. Something is saidto have had a final cause if it has been called into being forsome 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 commonin France and most of Western Europe, rare in the U.S. Why doyou 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, satirizesthe 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 doeshe say Leibnitz has fatally weakened by adopting his thesis? Hesummarizes Lactantius` devastating statement of the classic"problem of evil" on p. 69, delighting in drawinghis arguments from an unimpeachably Catholic source. What is hisbasic point here? What is the point of his argument about a Lucullus(a famously wealthy Roman)who can easily believe that all is forthe best? He goes on to recount mockingly the attempts of variousfaiths to deal with the problem of evil, none of which works forChristians or Jews. What is the point of his fanciful tale ofa supposed Syrian creation story? He says that "all isgood" simply means "everything is as it has to be."How does the central paragraph on p. 72 seek to refute the argumentthat the orderliness of the universe is evidence of a divine,benevolent will? Note his sarcasm at the end. How does he argueagainst Pope`s statement that particular evils form thecommon good? On p. 73, how does he react to those who find thistheory consoling? What kind of a God does he say the theory implies?What is his final statement as to the problem of evil? What areyour 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 lastparagraph of the previous one? What is his attitude toward thosewho claim to have absolute knowledge? Why is he so opposed tosuch attitudes?
Catéchisme chinois: Chinese catechism
Like most of Voltaire`s writings on Asian religions, thisbears slight relation to real Asian thought. It is instead a vehiclefor the expression of some of his more daring criticisms of Christiantheology. By using the dialogue format, he can offer two disputants,one more skeptical than the other. What is his attitude towardthe concept of Heaven on p. 79? Does he reject the concept thatEarth is unique in the universe? In ridiculing the myth of Fohe is of course mocking the Christian doctrine of the Incarnationof Christ. With what objection does Koo meet the traditional argumentthat the marvel of the eye implies a creator? What attitude towardbelief in God does his story of the crickets imply? Why does hequote Confucius on p. 81? What is he trying to imply about theethics of Christianity? (Confucius lived several centuries beforeChrist.) Notice that Koo argues that humanity is more diligentin suppressing evil than is God. Wht do you think of this argument?What attitude toward immortality does Ku-Su express at the endof the Second Conversation? The Third Conversation offers familiararguments against the existence of the soul (see Ame, Soulabove). with some original twists. One of the most importantpassages occurs on p. 83, where Koo says "What impressiondo you want to give me of the architect of so many millions ofworlds were he obliged to carry out so many repairs to keep hiscreation going?" What is the point of this question? Noticethat on p. 85 he argues that at least half of the Ten Commandments(the laws of the Sinoos) are necessarily universal, thus implyingthat morality need not be based on any particular religious revelation.What arguments does he bring against the idea of divine judgmentafter death on p. 86? Koo seems to give in to faith grudginglyon p. 86: why does he do so? What are his arguments against prayerand sacrifice in the Fourth Conversation? What does Koo claimare the real motives of the bonzes (priests) in preaching as theydo? What does Ku-Su argue on p. 88 is natural law? Why does Voltairelike King Daon? In the Fifth Conversation, what sorts of virtuesare admired in a king? The king being ridiculed on p. 90 in Koo`sstatement about those with 300 wives, etc. is Solomon. What relationshipdoes the last paragraph on p. 90 have to the article Abbé,which you read earlier? Why does Ku-Su argue that friendship shouldnot be made a religious teaching? Why does he claim that Confuciusrecommends to his followers to love their enemies? (In fact hedoes not.) On p. 92, the "impertinent peoples" referredto are of course the Europeans (see footnote). Voltaire`scriticisms of "taverns" reflect the low state ofcommercial hospitality in his day. Commodious hotels and restaurantswere founded only after the French Revolution, when the wealthycould no longer automatically stay as guests in aristocratic mansions.Voltaire himself was a perennial house guest for many years. Whatcriticisms does he make of the Christian concept of humility onp. 94? What do you think of these criticisms? What are the basicreligious 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 andeternal" certainty? What Christian belief is he satirizingin his example about the Marshal of Saxe on p. 107? Why do youthink this question of certainty and uncertainty is so importantto Voltaire? How is it reflected in other articles in the Dictionary?
Cha"ne des événements: Chain of events
Voltaire takes it as given that all events have causes, that theworld operates like an "immense machine" (p. 110),but argues that not all actions have results. It may seem strangethat someone so passionately attached to freedom should arguefor determinism (the belief that everything happens by necessity).Why do you think this argument attracted Voltaire?
Voltaire begins this declaration of his personal theology witha joke in which Mlle Duclos is so ignorant of her religion thatshe has the Credo confused with the Pater Noster (theLord`s Prayer). The point of the paragraph at the bottomof p. 159 and the top of p. 160 is that the Christian Credo probablyevolved some time after Jesus, and does not reflect the beliefsof his early followers. The paragraph about the belief that Christdescended into Hell is based on a now-obscure doctrine calledin English "the Harrowing of Hell," which at onetime was very prominent and is often depicted in Medieval artand literature. The so-called "Credo of Saint-Pierre"is, of course, Voltaire`s own composition. What does itsstrong insistence on monotheism imply about Christianity? Whatis the point of the long third paragraph of the "Credo,"and of the two paragraphs that follow? What is the evil that hemost strenuously attacks? How does he say priests should be treated?
Égalité: Equality
What, according to Voltaire, is humanity`s greatest divinegift? And what is the result of not using this gift properly?He is echoing Rousseau`s famous statement that "Manis born free and is everywhere in chains," and to some degreereplying to the latter philosopher`s theories of humanequality in The Social Contract. What does he argue isthe cause of inequality on p. 182? What common human characteristicslead to inequality (p. 183)? Note his sly dig at the rivalriesof theologians in the middle of the page. What does he say isthe implied meaning of laws which forbid people to leave a country(as he was forbidden to leave Prussia by his former friend andsupporter Frederick the Great)? To what basic principle does hereduce human equality? When Voltaire says that anyone who feelsunjustly treated in a particular state should leave, he is notspeaking lightly. He lived in exile from France for much of hislife. Note that his attitudes are far removed from the extremeegalitarianism during the French Revolution.
Enthousiasme: Enthusiasm
Why does Voltaire label enthusiasm a disease? (Note that the 18th-centuryFrench use of this term is not identical with contemporary Englishusage.) His story about the young man so carried away by a tragedythat he decides to write one himself is a self-mocking comment:he wrote many tragedies. Ovid`s The Art of Love and TheLoves are cynical observations on love affairs, whereas Sappho`spoetry is filled with passion. She was said in ancient times tohave committed suicide for love. How does he contrast reason withreligion? 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 beable to reform government based on an imperfect understandingof the world. The article really begins on p. 192 when he raisesthe question of what sort of government a "wise man, free,of modest wealth, and without prejudices" would prefer tolive in. Typically, he sets this dangerous debate (remember thatVoltaire lived in an absolute monarchy endorsed by the Church)by placing it in the mouths of two Indians. He begins by satirizingthe republic of ancient Israel (on the top of p. 193). What doeshe say is the reason there are so few republics (states in whichthe citizens govern themselves)? The republic discussed by thecouncilor which lasted more than 500 years is the ancient Romanrepublic. What moral advantage is it argued a republic has overa monarchy? Voltaire amusedly alludes to Montesquieu`stheory that different laws are caused by different climactic conditions,but excludes religion from this variability. What does it meanto say that the best government is that "in which onlythe laws are obeyed?" (Hint: there is a common phrase inAmerican constitutional law that states "We are a governmentof laws, not of men," which means the same thing.) Whatdoes this last sentence of the article mean? Why do you thinkself-government has been so rare in human history?
Fanatisme: Fanaticism
What do Voltaire`s examples of detestable fanaticism havein common? What is the remedy he suggests on p. 203? What doeshe dislike about the stories from the Old Testament to which healludes? What does he say is the basic problem with people whoappeal to a higher divine law when they behave violently? By theway, he is quite wrong in his description of Confucianism as beingfree from fanaticism; Buddhism comes closer. Although Confucianismis based on rational principles, Confucianists could be quitefanatical in their opposition to Buddhism.
Foi: Faith
The story with which this article begins is loosely based on historicalfact and allows Voltaire to remind his readers of some of themore unsavory aspects of the history of the papacy. What is hisdefinition of faith? What criticisms does he make of it? Can youprovide a different definition of faith which is not open to thesecriticisms? Why does he say faith brings no merit? He is parodyingin the statement of the bonze toward the bottom of p. 209 theChristian doctrine that one can receive the grace to believe whatone does not readily accept through prayer.
Guerre: War
In one of his most bitterly sarcastic passages, Voltaire "praises"war as a divine gift which unites all the worst evils, causingthose who create it to be adored as gods on earth. The whole articledrips with irony. When he comments on p. 232 that people todaydo 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 causefor princes going to war (hint: see Shakespeare`s Henry V)? What does he say should happen before a king should beallowed to become the ruler over a people? What relationship doeshe say the Church has to war (p. 233)? What distinction does hemake between natural and artificial religion? When he contrasts"love" with war, he of course means sex. Does hebelieve war can be abolished?
Liberté de pensée: Freedom of thought
Voltaire places the debate over freedom of thought in the mouthsof 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 fromantiquity. What does he say at the top of p. 280 is the main dangerof freedom of thought? The "holy office" referredto here is the Inquisition run by the Dominican Order which imprisoned,tortured, and executed those who failed to conform to Catholicorthodoxy. Banned from France, it still flourished in Spain andPortugal in Voltaire`s time. Why does he argue Christiansshould support freedom of thought? Hidden in the paragraph beginning"When some business matter . . ." is his answer toPascal`s famous wager which argued that it makes senseto believe in God since if there is one, one will avoid goingto Hell for disbelieving, and if there is none, one will havenevertheless led a good life. What is Voltaire`s objectionto this logic? What is your own reaction to this argument? Whatare the respective virtues of the English and the Portuguese,stated on p. 281?
Préjugés: Prejudices
Under this heading Voltaire groups a wide variety of ideas--allof them various sorts of irrational opinions. What are good prejudices,according to him? (Compare with "natural law.") Whatcommon European attitudes is he satirizing in the paragraph thatbegins 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 piousstory about how Clovis converted to Christianity by pointing outthat it is not natural to pray to a God in whom one does not yetbelieve. Note that most of his examples of religion avoid Christianitybut can easily be paralleled with it. What does he say shouldbe the final result of overcoming religious prejudices?
Secte: Sect
Why does Voltaire argue that the very existence of disputing sectswithin a religion disproves its truth? How does he contrast sciencewith religion? Scientists also disagree among themselves; doesthis make them the same as religious people? Explain. What distinctionsdoes he make between religious beliefs that everyone shares andthose which are unique (and therefore false)? Pascal was not theonly one to argue that there is special merit in believing difficult-to-believeChristian dogmas.
Théiste: Theist
Voltaire consistently uses the term "theist" wherewe would use "Deist:" a believer in a minimal religionwhich reveres a creator but omits most of the elements of traditionalreligion: prayers of petition, miracles, divine revelation, incarnation,salvation, damnation, etc. What are the main characteristics ofthe theist, according to Voltaire?
Tolérance: Toleration
What does Voltaire say is the first law of nature? Voltaire isintent on showing that the Romans were unusually tolerant of foreignreligions because the usual stereotype of their culture is thatit was intolerant in its attitude toward Christianity. Accordingto him, why did the Romans finally become hostile to Christianity?What does he say was the attitude of various groups within originalChristianity? On p. 389 he engages in one of his periodic assaultson Jewish belief, but with the aim of maintaining that they wereat least more open-minded than Christians. What seem at firstto be antisemetic passages in his work are often simply rusesto attack Christianity. He depicts the religious conversion ofleaders in Europe as having produced a series of catastrophes.In section II, what does he say is the attitude of Christianitytoward other religions? The second paragraph, assuming a detailedfamiliarity with the Bible, is designed to demonstrate that Christiansdid not at first distinguish themselves from Jews, and that theirsubsequent intolerance was an unfortunate late development. Onp. 391 he refers to the numerous sects into which Christianityhas always been divided to refute the claims of the Catholic Churchto universal authority. What does he say is the remedy for religiousdissension? How does the argument on p. 292 relate to the articleentitled "Secte: Sect?" What religious sectdoes he most admire and compare to the beliefs of the earliestChristians? What arguments does he give to show that Jesus wasnot a Christian? What is the point of the parable of the reedat the end of the article? Americans, like Voltaire, value toleration,particularly in religious matters, very highly; but they alsotend to value faith, which he rejects. How do you reconcile thesetwo values? Is it possible to believe profoundly in a religiousfaith without being tempted to coerce others into accepting it?Explain.
Tyrannie: Tyranny
Voltaire is of course being sarcastic when he says "thereare no such tyrants in Europe." What does he say is theadvantage of living under one tyrant rather than under many?

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, WashingtonState University, Pullman 99164-5020.
Version of July 21, 1997.

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