Philosophical Dictionary (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Philosophical Dictionary was emblematic of the French Enlightenment. The scathing work chipped away at the archaic institutional structures of Old Regime France and the power of the Catholic Church. Bearing little resemblance to a modern-day dictionary, Voltaire's work uses sarcasm and maxims alike to engage the reader.
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Philosophical Dictionary (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

Philosophical Dictionary was emblematic of the French Enlightenment. The scathing work chipped away at the archaic institutional structures of Old Regime France and the power of the Catholic Church. Bearing little resemblance to a modern-day dictionary, Voltaire's work uses sarcasm and maxims alike to engage the reader.
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Introduction

On July 1, 1766, in the French town of Abbeville, the chevalier de La Barre, age nineteen, was ceremonially tortured, beheaded, and burned, his ashes scattered to the winds. In the eighteenth century, his actions-failing to doff his hat in the presence of the Holy Host and singing impious songs-were not normally punished by death. But this young blasphemer was also guilty of owning a book that had been banned immediately upon publication in 1764, and his execution was in part an act of retaliation by the members of the Parisian Parlement against its author. This book, which was burned along with La Barre's body, was Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, one of the most emblematic works of the French Enlightenment. Caustic, witty, and bold, the work was accused by French authorities of undermining the foundations of civil society by rashly applying human reason to matters long considered sacred. The two small volumes of the Philosophical Dictionary did not claim to present a complete or systematic exposition of philosophical ideas. Rather, the articles they contained chipped away at the archaic institutional structures of Old Regime France and the power of the Catholic Church, denouncing the absurdities of traditional dogma and profoundly questioning the existing social and religious order.

In 1764, when the Philosophical Dictionary appeared, Voltaire was an enfeebled seventy-year-old hypochondriac living in virtual exile, far from the French capital. But he was also an extremely prolific writer universally recognized as the leader of the Enlightenment. Based in his château near the Swiss border, he dedicated the last twenty years of his life to an epic struggle, attacking hypocrisy and championing the free exercise of critical reason. In 1759, his Candide, a scandalous philosophical tale, articulated a lesson of constructive engagement in the world by brilliantly satirizing the philosophy of "optimism" and its passive acceptance of evil and human suffering. In 1763, the Treatise on Tolerance powerfully rejected religious fanaticism and promoted the idea that freedom of conscience was a philosophical and political necessity. In 1764, building on the success of his previous works, Voltaire launched his most aggressive attack against superstition and religious prejudice, the Philosophical Dictionary. Like Candide and the Treatise on Tolerance, this work used innovative literary techniques to reshape contemporary debates. The result was the third great masterwork from this most fertile period of Voltaire's life. At the time of his death in 1778, he was hailed as the figurehead of an age that prided itself on its dedication to the idea of progress and the spirit of rational inquiry.

As a younger man, Voltaire had pursued more conventional kinds of success by writing in the most esteemed literary genres. Born in 1694 to a wealthy Parisian family, his given name was François Marie Arouet. He received a humanistic education at Louis-le-Grand, the most prestigious school in France, run by the Jesuits. In this setting, he studied the classics and regularly completed rhetorical exercises including poetic and dramatic composition. In 1718, his version of the Oedipus story-the first of some forty theatrical works he produced-earned him accolades as the next great French tragedian. Also at this time he adopted the name he would use throughout the rest of his life-Voltaire. Soon thereafter, he published the Henriade, an epic poem based on France's sixteenth-century Religious Wars and King Henry IV's ascension to the throne. By 1745, Voltaire's fame as a writer, reinforced by social connections at the court of Louis XV in Versailles, earned him membership in the French Academy, the title of Royal Historiographer, and an honorary position as Gentleman of the Royal Chamber. At the same time, however, while Voltaire was generally admired for the diversity of his talents, his constant challenges to authority were widely recognized. At age twenty-two, in the first of many encounters with censorship and police repression, he was exiled from Paris on suspicion of composing satirical poetry targeting the Regent Philippe d'Orléans. He also took great interest in radical new philosophical ideas. After a period of exile in England where many of these ideas originated, he published a series of religious, political, and literary essays, the Letters Concerning the English Nation (1734), and an introduction to Newtonian physics (1738) that helped revolutionize scientific thinking in France. Even in his seemingly more conventional works, Voltaire worked to promote controversial notions like religious tolerance. The tragedies Zaïre (1732) and Alzire (1736) dramatized the cruelty he associated with prejudice and narrow parochialism.

In 1736, Voltaire's brilliant reputation brought him into contact with another of the period's most remarkable individuals, the crown prince of Prussia, later known as Frederick the Great. An aspiring poet and fervent admirer of the Enlightenment, the young prince wrote to Voltaire as a disciple eager to receive advice from the greatest writer of the day. When Frederick assumed the throne in 1740, he urged Voltaire to accept a position in his court at Potsdam where several radical writers had already taken refuge. In 1750, frustrated by his experience at Versailles and mourning the death of his longtime lover, the marquise Du Châtelet, Voltaire finally yielded to Frederick's invitation. Although the philosophe abandoned Potsdam in 1753, after a fall-out with the "Philosopher King," it was on Prussian soil that the Philosophical Dictionary first took shape.

At Frederick's court, Voltaire found some of the boldest thinkers of his day. Dinners at the palace of Sans-Souci were typically animated by irreverent discussion of philosophical and religious questions. According to Voltaire's secretary, Collini, one of these discussions gave birth to the idea of a "philosophical dictionary," a collective enterprise that would attack the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, Voltaire's correspondence reflects the rapid evolution of this concept. The philosophe immediately sent to his royal patron articles dealing with religious subjects that would later reappear in the Philosophical Dictionary-"Atheist," "Baptism," etc. Voltaire's departure from Prussia effectively put an end to the project as it was originally conceived, since it was clearly intended to be a collaborative undertaking developed under Frederick's direction. But the seed of the work had been planted, waiting only for a time when Voltaire would enjoy sufficient personal freedom to give full rein to his ideas.

Voltaire eventually took up residence near Geneva in 1755. His arrival there coincided with the heroic era of the French Enlightenment, the years marked by the movement's most ambitious publications. Chief among these was the Encyclopedia, directed by Diderot and d'Alembert, with the collaboration of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and d'Holbach, among others. This massive work aspired to integrate all current knowledge in the arts, sciences, and literature. Its seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of images highlighted the Enlightenment's spirit of philosophical and technical progress. Published in Paris, however, and therefore subject to royal oversight, the Encyclopedia ran afoul of civil and religious authorities. In 1752 and again in 1759, official decrees interrupted the publication of the Encyclopedia, reflecting the constant threat of censorship that hung over all French works.

Partly as a response to the difficulties encountered by the Encyclopedia, Voltaire modified his writing strategies in order to evade censorship. He particularly advocated short works, claiming that cheap, portable books were the most effective means of communicating with a broader audience. Often, as with Candide, Voltaire hid behind a thin veil of anonymity and refused to acknowledge authorship of works that were quickly suppressed by censors in France. In other cases, he signed his works openly and used massive epistolary campaigns to generate public support for his ideas. In 1762, when religious fanaticism resulted in the torture and execution of Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant falsely convicted of murdering his own son, Voltaire used both techniques as he worked to obtain a revised judgment. In 1765, these efforts were finally rewarded when a decree from Versailles reestablished Calas' innocence.

Using diverse strategies, Voltaire thus assailed with increasing frequency the intolerance and hypocrisy he observed around him, imperiously calling for destruction of l'Infâme. (The term might be rendered in English as "The Unspeakable," "The Vile," or "Infamy.") It was in this spirit that he resurrected the idea of a philosophical dictionary. With respect to the earlier formulation of this project, two important things had changed. Voltaire now felt an even greater sense of urgency, brought on by repressive measures in France that jeopardized the progress of the preceding decades. The Calas affair, in particular, had served as a bloody reminder that religious fanaticism was alive and well, capable of eliminating its victims in the most horrifying manner. In addition, Voltaire had achieved a degree of personal independence that enabled him to act more boldly than in 1752. His isolation on the Swiss border and his immense fortune gave him a certain feeling of invulnerability. His "dictionary of heresies," as he now called it, was, therefore, no longer designed simply for the amusement of a liberal-minded monarch. As it evolved during the early 1760s, the work targeted a wide European public.

In the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire capitalized on a recent publishing trend. During the 1750s and 1760s, dictionaries abounded on the shelves of French booksellers. The tremendous vogue of alphabetical works responded to the period's fondness for the orderly classification of knowledge. This phenomenon was also the product of a burgeoning trade in printed matter that made books an increasingly common part of life for reasonably well-to-do members of European society. Among the available titles, dozens of specialized dictionaries dealing with topics ranging from language to horsemanship led one critic to call this the "century of the dictionary." Some of these were voluminous works of erudition, presenting knowledge in an easily accessible form. Others assumed the dimensions of a "pocket" volume, providing a succinct overview of a particular subject and allowing readers to peruse articles as their whims might dictate. In the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire adopted the second of these two models. The work's original title-Portable Philosophical Dictionary-amply demonstrates this filiation, as does the author's preface: "Individuals of all conditions will find something both instructive and amusing. This book does not require continuous reading; but at whatever page it is opened, it will furnish matter for reflection." For eighteenth-century readers, the general form of Voltaire's dictionary was thus quite familiar. Indeed, some may have been acquainted with an earlier work bearing exactly the same title, published in 1751.

Familiarity with the "pocket dictionary" format would not, however, have prepared eighteenth-century readers for the Philosophical Dictionary's polemical verve and rhetorical pyrotechnics. From the opening of the article "Abbé"-which quotes a popular eighteenth-century song-to the conclusion of the article "Virtue"-where the author responds to critics of the Emperor Antoninus by wishing for other "such knaves"-Voltaire constantly surprises his reader. Occasionally, as in the article "Enthusiasm," he begins in conventional fashion, providing a definition. More frequently, he seeks to intrigue and provoke, beginning with a query ("Metamorphosis"), an enigma ("Fanaticism"), or a response to an imaginary interlocutor ("Limits of the human mind"). He frames some of the articles as found documents ("Civil and ecclesiastical laws"), others as short stories ("Glory") or dialogues ("Papism"), and others still as historical inquests ("Salomon"). His tone ranges from serious ("Atheism") to gay ("Job"), from respectful ("Julian the Philosopher") to indignant ("Torture"). He uses irony, sarcasm, enumerations, maxims, and quotations to engage the reader, creating an eminently readable work that bears little resemblance to what we today expect from a "dictionary."

The explanation for this astonishing variety of textual procedures resides in the fact that Voltaire's "dictionary" is anything but a collection of objective definitions. On the contrary, it is a keenly polemical work, designed to refute, persuade, and convince. To this end, the text seeks to create a sort of complicity, forcing the reader to draw larger conclusions from Voltaire's examples and arguments. As the preface explains, "The most useful books are those to which the readers themselves contribute half; they elaborate on the thoughts that are presented to them in embryonic form; they correct that which seems defective to them, and they strengthen by their reflections that which to them seems weak." To the modern reader, the Philosophical Dictionary sometimes proves disconcerting, particularly because of its emphatic use of insignificant, albeit humorous, details and absurd anecdotes taken from the Bible ("On Ezekiel") or hagiographic literature ("Martyr"). But, as Voltaire's preface suggests, these details are not supposed to constitute, in themselves, a substantive refutation of Christian theology. Rather, they lead the reader to extrapolate and to ask whether any religion (or any religious institution, like the Catholic Church) that includes such foolishness in its teachings deserves the adherence of rational beings. The response Voltaire seeks from his reader is, of course, one that rejects religious orthodoxy and prejudice in order to embrace more essential principles, like reason, moderation, and kindness. Accordingly, the articles dealing with specific texts and points of dogma are reinforced by others that confront larger ideas and challenge us to cultivate the better portion of our nature, that is, those qualities that can improve life on earth for all, regardless of differences in creed or custom. This aspect of the Philosophical Dictionary emerges gradually, as some articles destroy preconceptions and others equip the reader with new analytical tools. Thus, despite the fragmentation of the alphabetical form, the work ultimately communicates a powerful message of generosity, justice, and tolerance. In tandem with the infectious corrosiveness of Voltaire's wit, this positive content grants the Dictionary an eloquence that still speaks today.

Voltaire's readers proved to be adept interpreters of the Philosophical Dictionary. In particular, those in positions of privilege-those most threatened by its relentless jibes-quickly condemned it as a work of dangerous impiety. The censor's report submitted to the Magnificent Council of Geneva in June 1764 insightfully indicated that the haphazard order of the alphabetical articles actually increased their critical impact by dissolving the overarching coherence of Christian theology. It also spoke pertinently of Voltaire's ability to desacralize religious matters and thus undermine the moral underpinnings of civil society. In thus emphasizing the destructive force of the Philosophical Dictionary, the report to the Genevan Council anticipated numerous other hostile assessments. (As an example, the appendix contains excerpts from the Anti-Philosophical Dictionary by Louis Mayeul Chaudon.)

After Voltaire's death in 1778, the two-volume work from the 1760s disappeared as later editors indiscriminately combined its articles with hundreds of other short texts. Nevertheless, the original Philosophical Dictionary continued to shape attitudes toward Voltaire. Throughout the nineteenth century, particularly when relations between Church and State turned sour, both admirers and critics of Voltaire focused on the negative power of his anti-religious writings. Defenders of religion demonized the philosophe and his sardonic smile, while freethinkers lionized him as a brilliant iconoclast. Nevertheless, the affirmative humanism of Voltaire's struggles was not lost on readers like the great novelist and poet Victor Hugo. In a speech commemorating Voltaire's death in 1878, Hugo drew an intentionally provocative parallel, "Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled." His point was not that Voltaire was a new Messiah; rather, he presented both figures as champions of humanity who made the lives of their fellow human beings better. While Jesus, according to Hugo, accomplished this by showing compassion and by helping the downtrodden, Voltaire achieved similar results by using the mocking power of his pen to correct the inequities of the age in which he lived. Indeed, still today, this idea of the engaged intellectual is the strongest element of the Voltairean legacy.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2003

    Brilliant

    Voltaire had an understanding which others could barely comprehend. His thoughts and ideas spectacular, I'd reccomend this to anyone who is very open to new ideas.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    Unreadable OCR scan full of nonsense characters

    OCR conversion so inaccurate that text is virtually unusable.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2002

    Still mostly relevent today

    Some may say this is outdated and can only be read for historical context, that voltaire's fight has been won, but this is not true. This book not only debunks the myths of religions and the corruption of the church but speaks on liberty and injustices as well as more frivolous subjects like love and history. no matter who you are, voltaire never goes out of style.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2012

    voltair is a must for anyone interested in history and philosophy

    time of delivery, packaging, and condition perfect. i am already half way through and will read again. any voltair is good voltair and this is the best as it is also a compilation of other philosophers of the time. the 18th century was the century of enlightenment and the philosophical dictionary is the best example of thought in the salons of paris populated by the who's who of philosophers of the era. pay close attention to the witticisms used to fool the censers of paris influenced by the catholic church. this book could still get you burned at the stake which makes it all the more a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2011

    Amazing!

    An example of incites that we could ll benefit from. Well translated into modern English.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2014

    Cool

    I've never sen one beter you.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2013

    Shd

    Ebdbdbf.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 8, 2012

    ordered online arrived smeared in ink, not pleased! probably won

    ordered online arrived smeared in ink, not pleased! probably wont order anything from b&n again.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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