Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Jews, Muslims, Liberals, PEN Boycotters, Beware: Voltaire Is Laughing at You

Is the enlightenment philosopher having a moment?

Paul Berman
May 01, 2015
(Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia)
(Tablet Magazine; main image: Wikipedia)

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last January, the angry French marched not only in the streets but also into the bookstores, where they transformed Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance, published in 1763, into a best-seller of 2015. Such is the grandeur of France. Only, did the indignant and civic-minded book-buyers find anything suitably up-to-date in those antique pages? I can answer this question because, at home across the sea, I too told myself that at last the moment to read Voltaire had arrived. I plucked a fat compendium off the shelves and discovered at a glance that Voltaire is lighter, livelier, defter, fiercer, and more delightful than I had remembered from schooldays. He thinks people are foolish to slit one another’s throats over disputes regarding, say, transubtantiation. His Treatise on Tolerance describes the very stupid Catholic fanatics (he emphasizes their stupidity) of Toulouse who, out of hatred for Protestantism, executed an upstanding Protestant father by torturing him to death on the wheel. Bright flames of disdain and condemnation curl up from Voltaire’s pages.

He also turns out to be a man of sober instincts. On this point I have felt relieved, given how fashionable it has lately become to sneer at Voltaire as a fanatic of the “Enlightenment fundamentalist” cause, meaning a precursor to the church-burners of later times and an incitement to every free-thinker of our own era who might wish to burn down a mosque (though, in truth, when mosques are burned or blown up in our own moment, which happens all the time, the pyromaniacs generally prove to be Quran-quoting fanatics, together with an occasional European nativist, and nary an Enlightenment philosopher among them). But Voltaire is not a church-burner. He is not even an atheist.

Voltaire is a Christian, in his fashion. He quarrels only with the superstitions that, by clinging to a proper and natural religion, generate fanatical bigotries—the superstitions that, in the hands of the clerical bigots and their panicky congregants, lead to insanely violent religious wars. He is reasonable about reason. My pleasure and satisfaction in seeing these traits, being great, encouraged me to go on turning the pages, and duly I have advanced from one essay and philosophical poem and fat compendium to another, until, after a while, I have arrived at his Letters to H.H. Msgr. the Prince of *** on Rabelais and Other Authors Accused of Having Spoken Badly of the Christian Religion, a major work. And, to be honest, in those pages I have encountered—alas, in the second sentence—a problematic passage.

Voltaire explains that Rabelais was introduced to the pope by his cardinal, and the cardinal kissed the pope’s right foot, and then his mouth, after which Rabelais wanted to kiss the pope’s ass, but insisted that the holy father begin by cleaning it. Now, it is true that Voltaire, being a moderate, stipulates at once that respect for place, propriety, and persons ought to rule out certain kinds of remarks. But it is too late! And the problem with Voltaire, and with Western civilization, and with human nature becomes evident.

This problem is a sense of humor. People laugh. They are incorrigible. It is a flaw in the human character. The world shakes its head in disapproval. And yet, a good many of the people gravely shaking their heads have their hands over the mouths, in a feeble effort to conceal their mirth. Even at PEN they may be laughing. What is to be done about those people, the ones who are laughing? Nothing is to be done. They are already trying to control themselves. In Voltaire’s case, he laughs in your face, even while pretending otherwise. The only way to prevent this sort of disgraceful frivolity would be to abolish humor, perhaps by beheading everyone who smiles out of place. But mass beheadings are precisely what Voltaire would like to discourage.


And the Jews? Is it true that, on this one question, Voltaire undid the liberality of his own liberalism? Less than friendly discussions of Jewish themes do pop up in those fat compendia and keep on doing so, viz., the ancient Hebrews were cannibals and fanatics, Lot prostituted his daughters, King David was a homicidal adulterer, the Hebrews stoned Saint Steven, the modern Jews are stingy and unscrupulous, and so forth. You could argue that, in harping on these points, Voltaire turned his defense of tolerance into an offense against it. More heatedly: You could argue that, in venting these several thoughts and animadversions, Voltaire helped pave the way for the European horrors of later times. The accusation does get made. Still another argument gets made: If even the great Voltaire displayed, in regard to the Jews, a dreadful prejudice, shouldn’t we hesitate a moment before endorsing his call for universal tolerance? Shouldn’t we harbor a suspicion that even the most inspiring of calls for tolerance are likely to contain a hidden bigotry, if not for the Jews, then for the Muslims? The argument for tolerance: Isn’t this a fake? This last argument has become a fashion.

My own instinct is to show a sympathy for the author of On Tolerance. For some reason I have been spending a lot of time over one of Voltaire’s literary and intellectual influences, Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux, from the era of Louis XIV—Bossuet, a thrilling writer, majestic beyond words, virtually a cathedral organ. But Bossuet is also a very Catholic writer, 17th-century-style. In Bossuet’s pages, the Jews stand at the center of world history and continue to do so, and this is because their existence was originally a prophecy of Christ, and later on was a sign of God’s wrath. And then again, the continued existence of the Jews, with the evidence of divine condemnation clinging to them, should be regarded as a sign of the messiah’s impending return—all of which means that Bossuet glares malevolently in Jewish directions for chapters at a time. And Voltaire seems to me, in this respect, a proper disciple of Bossuet, except that, in Voltaire’s case, the malevolence has lost its supernatural sap.

Voltaire glares in Jewish directions anyway. Sometimes this is because he thinks the modern Jewish bankers are swindlers, but mostly it is because, by painting the Old Testament Hebrews in barbarous colors, he hopes to show that New Testament Christianity stands on shaky foundations. Ultimately the Christian religion is his target—Christianity, which seems to him worse, in practice, than Judaism, and worse than Islam. He observes more than once that, for all the disagreeable traits of the ancient and modern Jews, they were never much for slitting one another’s throats over theological quibbles (except on occasion, e.g., 23,000 Jews who were dispatched in the dispute over the calf). Mostly it is Christians who slit throats, in Voltaire’s estimation—his own Catholics especially, more than the Protestants. About the Jews he says, “One finds in all the history of this people no trait of generosity, of magnanimity, of beneficence”—and yet, “the rays of universal tolerance always emerge.” It should be remembered that, for Voltaire, tolerance is the highest of virtues. Generosity, magnanimity, and beneficence are feudal traits. There is more than a touch of admiration for the Jews in this one not-very-affectionate remark.

I notice at least one passage in which, pushing his admiration another inch, he expresses an outright enthusiasm. The passage turns up in the Letters to H.H. Msgr. the Prince of ***, in the section called “On the Jews,” where he discusses Orobio, a Jewish philosopher in 17th-century Amsterdam. Orobio conducted a print debate with the Christian theologian Limborch over the merits of their respective religions. Voltaire reports the debate to have been respectful and perhaps even a little friendly, which suggests interdenominational possibilities warmer than mere tolerance. He summarizes Orobio’s arguments for Judaism, without bothering to summarizing Limborch’s arguments for Christianity, which is something Bossuet would never have countenanced. Orobio’s arguments for Judaism turn out to be pretty impressive—though you will have to look them up for yourself. And, with Orobio in mind, Voltaire suggests a motive for Christian rancor against the Jews, which differs from anything I have noticed in Bossuet. This additional motive is a Christian resentment of the superior and seductive intellectual powers of the Jewish scholars. After 1,600 years of being outdone in debate the Christians have gotten mad.

In any case, never once does Voltaire suggest that Jews or anyone else be burnt at the stake or tied to the wheel or anything else. Tolerance, in his eyes, means refusing to abide the persecution even of people you judge to be lacking in generosity and magnanimity. Tolerance is a negative commitment, instead of a positive commitment: a commitment not to oppress, instead of a commitment to embrace. A negative commitment may sound a little flat. But nothing is flat about Voltaire’s commitment.

In 1761 he composed a protest against the Inquisition by a fictional rabbi of Smyrna, the “Sermon of Rabbi Akib,” which is tremendously moving. The rabbi calls on everyone to regard everyone else as brothers—“all the children of Adam, whites, reds, blacks, grays,” and so on, the races as well as the religions. Anti-racism: the rabbi’s creed. The rabbi discusses an auto-da-fé in Portugal just then, in which the Inquisition (according to Voltaire, who in this instance is said to have gotten all of his facts wrong) has burnt to death a Jesuit and two monks, together with two Muslims. And the auto-da-fé has burnt to death 32 Jews, and whipped to death three others, and imprisoned still another two. About the martyred Jews Voltaire’s rabbi says, “What was their crime? Nothing other than that of being born. Their fathers engendered them in the religion which their ancestors had professed for five thousand years.” To have been born Jewish: “That is the only reason the Portuguese have burnt them.” Those are modern words.

If you want to see what Voltaire is like when his negative commitment to tolerance combusts into the positive anger of an outraged man, listen to the rabbi continue: “Can you believe that, while the flames devoured these innocent victims, the Inquisitors and the other savages chanted our own prayers?”—our Jewish prayers, that is. The rabbi: “The grand inquisitor himself intoned the makib of our good King David, which begin with these words: ‘Have pity on me, O my God, according to your great mercy!’ ”

The rabbi: “Thus these pitiless monsters invoked the God of mercy and kindness, the forgiving God, while committing the most atrocious and barbarous crimes, exercising a cruelty that demons in a rage would not wish to exercise against their fellow demons. Thus, by a contradiction as absurd as their fury is abominable, they offer to God our makibs (our psalms), they borrow our religion itself, while punishing us for having been brought up in our own religion.”

There is nothing fake in this argument for universal tolerance.


Apart from the prose, the wit, the human-rights campaigns, the sympathy for the oppressed, the righteous anger and the argument for tolerance, though, is there anything else in Voltaire? A few months before this year’s Paris attentats, the philosopher André Glucksmann, who has spent a lifetime being ahead of everyone else, published a book titled Voltaire Contre-Attaque, in which he observes that, for a long time now, people have tended to suppose that Voltaire does not, in fact, have anything additional to offer. In the 18th century Voltaire may have been a god, but already by the mid-19th century he had become a topic of debate for village pharmacists and village priests (in the pages of Flaubert); and, by the 20th century, he failed to arouse any philosophical debate at all; and, by our own time, he has come to seem, as I say, politically incorrect. But Glucksmann regards all of this as a mistake.

He directs our attention to the comic and philosophical novel Candide: or, Optimism, with an eye to its subtitular theme. You might suppose that, in regard to historical progress and its trend lines, optimism would be Voltaire’s strongest impulse—optimism because he considers that modern rationalism is beginning to dissipate the ancient shadows of superstition, and the age of crazy religious wars is slipping into the past. But the whole point of Candide is to observe that optimists are out of their minds. You will perhaps recall that, in the German castle of Thunder-ten-tronckh, where Candide grows up, the learned philosopher Dr. Pangloss provides the intellectual tone, and he does so by professing a high-minded doctrine called metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. The high-minded doctrine proclaims the universal equality of man. It calls for human rights. It is a liberal doctrine. And metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology stipulates that no effect exists without a cause, and all is for the best, and we inhabit the best of all possible worlds.

Voltaire is a stalwart of the anticlerical cause because he is the enemy of intellectual fog.

Only, no sooner does poor Candide venture outside the castle than he ends up trapped in a war, penniless, beaten, and starving. A preacher orates on charity. Candide approaches the preacher and (in a passage that Glucksmann underlines) asks for bread. “My friend,” says the preacher, “do you believe that the pope is the Anti-Christ?” “I have not heard it said,” responds Candide; “but, whether he is or not, I need bread.” Someone less fanatical offers him bread. Candide kneels before this second person and cries out: “Master Pangloss indeed said that all is for the best in this world.” And right away Candide encounters a beggar covered with pustules, his eyes dead, his nose eaten away, his teeth black—who turns out to be Pangloss!, victim of a venereal disease that he has contracted from someone, who got it from someone else, who got it from still another person, and thus to one of the companions of Christopher Columbus, without whom we would not have chocolate or cochineal for carmine dye!

Voltaire, then—who is he? He is a liberal whose notion of liberalism requires him to criticize his own party, which is the party of the liberal philosophers. He is a stalwart of the anticlerical cause because he is the enemy of intellectual fog. But he also knows that intellectual fog comes in secular and academic versions. He knows that incomprehensible metaphysical theories of human progress generate a kind of insanity. He knows that optimism contains a fanaticism, which contains a nihilism, which means an indifference to suffering. Optimism: “the rage to sustain that all is well when things are bad.” But neither do these criticisms of his plunge him into gloomy resignation. The desire to cultivate one’s own garden does not mean “Nothing is to be done.” Injustice prods him to action even if he worries about people who dream of a golden future. He is the original human-rights firebrand. The original liberal anti-totalitarian. He is great. But then, if he is so great, what could possibly have brought about the sorry decline in his reputation over the centuries?

Glucksmann answers this question. Voltaire has been done in by the wrath of his sworn enemies. It is not just the clerics, who are more likely nowadays to natter about sharia than about transubstantiation, but who, in either case, regard Voltaire as a menace to the faith, or perhaps as a menace to the humble people of faith, which is worse. The academics, too, have never forgiven him. Their own doctrinal absurdities have changed not a whit during the last two and a half centuries, such that, from the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology of the chateau Thunder-ten-tronckh to the Heideggero-post-deconstructo-identity-resentment-ism of the humanities department is barely a walk down the corridor. The professors observe that Voltaire is an enemy of intellectual systems, and they conclude that he is the enemy of intellect. They regard him as an anti-intellectual, which is nearly as bad as being an enemy of God. They detect in Voltaire a light touch, which will never accommodate their own weighty truths. They sneer. They invite us to do likewise. And we end up sneering, which is not to our credit.

Or so argues André Glucksmann in Voltaire Contre-Attaque. Is he right? I think he is right. He himself has always been humorous, in his mordant fashion. He is at his happiest in the cause of the super-oppressed, and happiness renders him witty. His book in defense of Voltaire turns out to be a defense, as well, of the persecuted and friendless Roma of France, which is positively Voltairean of him. Perhaps a remnant breeze from the 18th century has been animating Glucksmann’s indignation all along. He has spent most of a lifetime fulminating against the fundamentalists on one side, and Professor Pangloss on the other. Is this bad? Not if you accept his summary judgment of the modern condition: “Anything new since Voltaire? Nothing.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.