Voltaire's Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion

Voltaire's Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion

by G.K. Noyer (Editor)


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Voltaire's Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion by G.K. Noyer

Voltaire, the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), was one of the most influential leaders of the French Enlightenment. His defense of individual freedom of conscience and his criticisms of religious fanaticism and oppressive orthodoxy had a telling effect on Western history, inspiring several leading founders of America's new laws.

This is the first English translation of many of his key texts from his famous pamphlet war for tolerance, written from 1750 to 1768, originally published under pseudonyms to avoid imprisonment and to educate the average citizen. Included are “The Sermon of Rabbi Akib” (a searing attack on anti-Semitism),  “Prayer to God” (from the famous Treatise on Tolerance), the hugely popular “Catechism of the Honest Man,” "The Dinner at Count Boulainvillier's," and other witty, sometimes acerbic pieces that point out the errors in the Bible, the corruption of the clergy, and the religiously-inspired persecutions, both of his day and across the ages. Many of these pamphlets were burned in a losing battle by the authorities.

With a lengthy introduction and copious notes by the editor and translator, plus an appendix including first-hand accounts of the battle by noted mathematician and French revolutionary Condorcet, Frederick the Great, Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, and others, this excellent compilation will be a welcome addition to the libraries of anyone with an interest in human rights and freedom of thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633880382
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 07/14/2015
Pages: 397
Sales rank: 1,206,986
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

G. K. Noyer is a freelance writer and translator. She has worked as a script writer for French television programs, translated many more, and has also done translations for websites, art galleries, and museums.

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Voltaire's Revolution

Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion

By G. K. Noyer

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2015 G. K. Noyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-039-9


René Pomeau, one of the great twentieth-century experts on Voltaire, named the final volume of his biography on him, On a voulu l'enterrer — They wanted to bury him. Pomeau was referring to the refusal of the Church to allow burial for Voltaire, but it is a perfect heading for an essay on Voltaire and his legacy in America. Yes, outstanding efforts have been made to bury Voltaire. Why does it matter?

For the past generation or two, when we hear of Voltaire at all in America, it is generally as the author of Candide, invariably hailed as his masterpiece. All the rest is dépassé, outdated, we are assured, besides perhaps a few other short stories. But much of the civilized world from his day to our own would vehemently disagree. What mattered most about Voltaire is what he wrote in his powerful, and worse, successful, écrasez-l'infâme campaign to "crush the infamous" monsters of intolerance and superstition: a tidal wave of books and pamphlets he unleashed to persuade the eighteenth century it was high time to unseat the clergy and religion as the ultimate authorities in everything. This "flood of books and pamphlets," as French Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet, his younger contemporary, called it, was the only way to finally put an end to ten centuries of bloodshed and persecutions over religion. And it did: it ushered in the modern era.

This campaign swept the Western world from America to Budapest, and readers of this selection (or of a very few others still available in English) can now judge for themselves whether they are outdated or not. They would not be alone in finding them as pertinent as every generation has when newly threatened with the forces of tyranny and fanaticism. But even if one's interest is purely historical, these texts and others like them are the reason the era is called the Age of Voltaire, not Candide. Considering that important eras had previously been named after emperors like Alexander or Augustus, it would have been very odd indeed to name one after a commoner for the very first time in history thanks to a novella. And just as interesting for Americans, no doubt, will be the point to which well-known quotations from the founding fathers on religion echo certain passages in these texts. They were largely echoed both in their day and ever since, thanks to Voltaire's knack for framing ideas in such a highly memorable way. Once read, they never leave your mind, in the words of the Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll.

Our schoolbooks used to note the influence of the French Enlightenment writers on the founding of our nation and our revolutionary new laws, but the names of Voltaire and Montesquieu have nearly vanished in recent years, along with the very word Enlightenment. Where it subsists, the word "French," automatically joined to it for two centuries, has completely vanished. We sometimes see an "Enlightenment" evoking only the safer names of Benjamin Franklin, English philosopher John Locke, or Sir Isaac Newton. The battle against the Bible as a basis for law and science never happened, despite thousands of books on the subject throughout the world. The result is that, although many the world over have called America the first embodiment of the Enlightenment's principles, a great many Americans don't know it. And naturally, the total incomprehension of those rights and principles and of our real history has contributed greatly to America's violent polarization over religion — a situation practically unique to our country in the Western hemisphere.

"Christian nation" crusaders have clearly had a hand in these revisions. They make no secret of their determination to do so in myriad books and articles. More amazingly though, even a number of biographies on Voltaire published in America omit any mention of this huge crusade, despite its impact and despite the fact that it consumed the last quarter of his life; rather as though it were feared that any knowledge of the subject might increase the crime rate.

The facts are explained plainly enough, however, in countries where the crime rate is a quarter of ours, at most. "The term Enlightenment underlines the aspiration of these eighteenth-century thinkers to free their contemporaries from superstitions," a tenth-grade French history textbook tells us. "These philosophers, key to the eighteenth century, fought for liberty, tolerance and progress. ... Voltaire is the symbol through his combat for tolerance." Or as even the Dictionnaire de Théologie catholique (the French Dictionary of Catholic Theology) put it: "it was principally through the efforts of Voltaire that the modern world came into being ... in which the state, freed from the church and purely laic, guarantees each citizen the freedom of his person, of thought, of speech, of the press, of conscience and religion" (my italics).10 This phrase, incidentally, sums up the First Amendment to the US Constitution practically verbatim.

"Freedom of his person" meant that we would no longer be tortured, burned, or imprisoned because of our religious beliefs, or lack of them, as we had been throughout the previous ten centuries. This was not only a critical chapter in our own history but a stupendous revolution in thought throughout the Western world. The erasure of that chapter from our school books is, at best, foreboding.

Like many of the key founders in America (despite their being consigned to various churches by conservatives nowadays),12 Voltaire was a deist. In fact, a huge wave of deism emerged in America during the years of his campaign (roughly 1760 until his death in 1778), which guided the reforms of the next half-century at least. "[D]eism ... is a dominant note in that interesting epoch," American historian Howard Mumford Jones wrote, "[I]n the future republic, the story of religious and political thought in the eighteenth century is the story of the rising tide of deism. ... Toleration and rationalism go hand in hand." The error in the popular conception of Puritans, etc., fleeing persecution to set up a new religious order, he added, is that in fact, they came reluctantly, then persecuted others themselves.

To say our founders were all Christians is true, but it omits some very significant details. Birth certificates did not exist, only baptismal records. No marriages were performed, or burials, without the consent of a pastor or a priest; and excommunication deprived you of those rights. So how likely was it that you wouldn't be a Christian? You didn't officially exist otherwise. We only have a civil status — an identity outside the control of a church — today thanks to Enlightenment reforms.

Through Thomas Jefferson's struggles to change these laws, we learn that a person raised a Christian who denied its divine authority lost his civil rights, custody of his children, and could be imprisoned for life in America. Obstinate refusal to recant could earn the death penalty. Quakers had been hanged under the heresy laws, he adds, and church attendance was required every Sunday, barring "lawful excuse of absence." In rural areas especially, education was long impeded by the fact that each sect insisted on having its own school.

As the eminent American Voltairian Norman Torrey put it, Voltaire (and everyone else) was forced to deal with religion every moment of their lives. Automatically born a Catholic in France, Voltaire had to obtain permission from the reigning Calvinists in Geneva to acquire a home there in 1755.

These facts may help us grasp why deism won so many converts. Though often labelled atheists, deists or theists believe in God, just not in religion. Deists consider all sacred books to have been written by fallible human beings not "God," or what they more usually call a "supreme intelligence." This Supreme Being or creator is the reason for the world's existence, but governs it through natural and universal laws, discernible everywhere. Deism especially rejects the notion of any "chosen people" or spokesmen for god on earth.

"A catechist announces god to children and Newton demonstrates him to the wise," Voltaire wrote in the Philosophical Dictionary ("Atheist"), adding that there seemed to be fewer atheists than ever in his day, thanks to the growing discoveries of these universal laws in science. In "Theist" he explains that the theist does not flatter himself that he knows how god acts or punishes, but perceives that he does act in all places and all times. All religions contradict each other, he adds, but theism, the simple worship of one god, is the most ancient and widespread belief. Its only rule is to treat others as we would wish to be treated, as Confucius wrote five hundred years before Christ. The very words theology — "knowledge of god" — and metaphysics — "above nature" — expose the presumption and charlatanism of all antiquity. How can man know what God thinks, or what he is? How can we know anything "above nature?" Voltaire asks in Dieu et les hommes ("God and Human Beings"). Religions manifest the secret voice of God, which speaks to all humanity. They should unite and not divide us: hence any religion that belongs to only one people is false. Whether we read Confucius, Jesus, Mahomet, or Cicero, good morals are conveyed everywhere by men who calmly use their reason. "Morals, everywhere the same, come from God. Theology, everywhere different and ridiculous, comes from men. Whoever dares say 'God spoke to me' is a criminal in the eyes of God and men. If God had orders, he would give them to the entire earth" — not in books prone to copying and translation errors.

Author of close to sixty plays, many of them historical, and of another dozen history books, besides countless essays and polemical works, Voltaire spent most of his eighty-four years researching history, philosophy, and religion. He had of course learned the Greek and Roman classics in school, like all those educated in his era, and borrowings from them and from the older Egyptian, Babylonian, and Phoenician nations among whom the biblical Jews lived became apparent while poring through the ancient texts and church fathers. Borrowings from Plato on later Christian dogmas such as "The Word" and the Trinity became evident. The earliest version we have of the New Testament was written in Greek. To paraphrase what Voltaire has a disciple of Confucius tell a holy man, "People have more sense today than you think. Many laugh at your miracles and superstitions, and by making religion ridiculous or immoral, you become guilty of all the vices into which they plunge." (In the Dictionary entry "Fraud: Should Pious Frauds be Practiced on the People?")

Atheists dismiss Voltaire for belief in any creator at all, and others charge him with having deprived people of a "personal God." If a personal God can only be the biblical god, perhaps a little self-analysis is in order. Nineteenth century French writer Stendhal voiced the crux of the matter in his classic novel, The Red and the Black. His hero, Julien Sorel, is not consoled in prison by "the God of the Bible, a petty despot, cruel and filled with a thirst for vengeance," but by "Voltaire's God: just, good, and infinite." At heart a moralist seeking better morals, the brotherhood of man and our interconnectedness was what Voltaire discovered and promulgated more powerfully than anyone.

He was also hailed as the first "real historian" for his Essay on Universal History in 1756 — the first world history "liberated from the straitjacket of theology" in the words of Theodore Besterman, founder of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford. A comparison with its illustrious predecessor, Bossuet's Histoire Universelle, demonstrates the point. Bishop Bossuet based his "universal history" primarily on the Bible and on his own visions of God's will, which clearly intended to impose the Catholic faith. With elegant, understated purpose, Voltaire's world history actually includes the rest of the world, not just Christendom. As American historian of philosophy Will Durant wrote, it enraged by taking views of Rome later developed by British historian Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and by giving China, India, Persia, and their religions "the dimensions geography had given them ... with the impartiality of a Martian. A vast and novel world was revealed, and every dogma faded into relativity." The conception of modern history dates from that book, wrote British historian John Cruickshank and others.

Though obviously no one causes a revolution of such magnitude alone, Voltaire made himself the most compelling voice of a world grown weary — at last, if not unanimously — of Crusades, Inquisitions, religious wars and massacres, heretic and witch burnings, book burnings, and persecutions. He became "the greatest mental fighter of his age, perhaps of any age" according to free-thought historian, J. M. Robertson, "a 'power-house' not to be matched in human history." The Thirty Years War alone, a clash between Catholic and Protestant states in the previous century that engulfed all Europe from Spain to Sweden, had reached a death toll some estimate at twelve million, razing entire regions and half the male population. Another twelve million "heathens" had been annihilated on the American continent. To drive home the novel concept that heresy is only "the crime of disagreeing with us," as Voltaire did, was crucial.

And he was far from alone. Protests against this state of affairs had been evolving since the Renaissance, as he reminds us in Letters on Rabelais and Other Writers Accused of Writing against the Christian Religion. The Protestants had already rejected a certain number of superstitions. Other untenable Judeo-Christian beliefs had been probed most notably by French Protestant philosopher Pierre Bayle, and Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A whole wave of English Deists, many of them clergymen, had contested the miracles, prophecies, revelation, and morality of the book said to be the Word of God, a half century before Voltaire launched this all-out campaign. But nothing had changed, as Condorcet explains in his eyewitness account of Voltaire's battle and its effect (included in the Appendix).

As Voltaire lived in England from 1726 to 1729, many have assumed he became a deist there. But he had already been denounced to the French police for a deistic poem written in 1722. Handmade copies of the poem circulated anonymously for fifty years, not only in French, but translated into English, German, Latin, Russian, and Italian, before Voltaire dared include it in his printed works. Entitled Epître à Uranie or Le Pour et Le Contre (For and Against), it sums up the emotions that obviously inspired the decades of research that followed.

In it, he says that he wishes to penetrate mysteries concerning "the God they announce and the one hidden from us," not as a libertine would but respectfully, for "I want to love God; I seek in him a father, and we are shown a tyrant we should hate." The God they portray, he continues, created us to love pleasure only the better to torment us, in this life and the next. Scarcely has he created us, than he repents and commands the sea to drown us all. To create a purer race? No — a race of brigands and cruel tyrants more wicked than the first, among whom he sends his only son to preach three years, then die in agony to save us. But in vain! We are not saved. So he plunges a hundred nations as far away as America into hell forever, for never having known that a carpenter's son expired on a cross in Syria. Voltaire is unable to recognize the God we should adore in this unworthy image. "I would insult him if I did," he concludes, for he is the creator of all men. He ends addressing the creator directly: "If I am not a Christian, it is to love you more."

Voltaire's contemporaries saw him as the era's leading poet, playwright, historian, and philosophe. Candide was just a footnote. Something akin to 80 percent of his massive output (comprising some ninety volumes, currently being expanded by Oxford) aimed at spreading this broader, less tribal view of "God." The strategy included making the findings of scientists accessible to a broader public, for what Voltaire did learn about in England was Sir Francis Bacon, Newton (from Newton's friend, Dr. Samuel Clarke, no less), and John Locke.


Excerpted from Voltaire's Revolution by G. K. Noyer. Copyright © 2015 G. K. Noyer. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9

Introduction 11

Grateful Thanks to a Charitable Man (1750) 63

Extract from a Decree by… the Inquisition (1750) 69

In Defense of Milord Bolingbroke (1752) 71

Dialogue between a Brahmin and a Jesuit (1756) 79

Dialogues between Lucretius and Posidonius (1756) 85

Reflections for Fools (1760) 101

Letter from Charles Gouju to His Brothers (1761) 105

The Sermon of Rabbi Akib (1761) 109

Extract from the London Gazette (1762) 117

Prayer to God (from Treatise on Tolerance) (1763) 119

Catechism of the Honest Man (1763) 121

Omer de Fleury, Having Entered, Have Said (1763) 139

Letter from Mr. Clocpicre to Mr. Eratou (1764) 141

Adapt to the Times (1764) 145

Wives, Submit to Your Husbands (1765) 149

Republican Ideas by a Member of a Corps (1765) 153

Dialogue between a Doubter and a Venerator (1766) 163

Letters to His Highness, the Prince of **** on Rabelais (1767) 171

Letter I On Francois Rabelais 172

Letter II On the Predecessors of Rabelais, etc. 177

Letter III On Vanini 182

Letter IV On the English Authors 184

Letter V On Swift 191

Letter VI On the Germans 192

Letter VII On the French 195

Letter VIII On the Encyclopedia 212

Letter IX On the Jews 214

Letter X On Spinoza 222

Dinner at Count de Boulainvilliers' (1767) 227

The Emperor of China and Friar Chuckles (1768) 257


An Anonymous Character Sketch of Voltaire (1734 or 1735) 271

Oliver Goldsmith on Voltaire 275

Condorcet's Account of Voltaire's Battle 281

Madame Suard's Visit to Ferney in 1775 287

The Count de Ségur on Voltaire's Return to Paris in 1778 307

La Correspondance Littéraire, Phibsophique, et Critique on Voltaire's Death (June 1778) 317

Frederick the Great's Eulogy of Voltaire 321

Edgar Quinet on The Exterminating Angel (1844) 335

Robert G. Ingersoll on The Great Infidels 339

Glossary 343

Notes 351

Selected Bibliography 393

About the Translator and Editor 397

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Voltaire's Revolution: Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's amazing to see how Voltaire's arguments against religion helped shape the birth of the United States, as icons such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were huge followers of his work. G.K. Noyer explains here how they modelled their outlooks and beliefs on his arguments in ways that have not been examined since he was a household name. It is a shame that such a trailblazer as Voltaire has been largely avoided in today's US history books. Noyer did very accurate and thorough work in honor of this revolutionary hero.