The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was his attitude now.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille

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