Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

This contribution follows on from part 1 of ‘Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment’, published last week, and is adapted from the author’s article in ‘A Companion to World literature’, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire and the Biblical Orient

In the Protestant lands of Enlightenment Europe, in Britain and Germany especially, there were biblical scholars who became Orientalists in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible. By the second half of the eighteenth century there was widespread discussion of the ‘sublimity’ of Hebrew poetry and the Bible’s ‘Oriental’ style was an issue debated by eighteenth-century translators of the Bible: should the Orientalisms of the Hebrew original be rendered literally, as Johann David Michaelis believed, even at the risk of defamiliarizing the biblical text? Or should the Oriental style be tamed to suit the taste of the times? Even though not a reader of Hebrew, Voltaire was certainly sensitive to the ‘Oriental’ style of the Hebrew scriptures and, as a parodist and ventriloquist of genius, he took every opportunity to play with his ‘Oriental’ voice. The Oriental fiction Zadig has a parodic dedication signed by the Persian poet ‘Saadi’, preceded by a bogus ‘Approbation’ naming a Turkish chief judge, a spoof on contemporary French censorship (OCV, vol.30B, p.113-16). This parody of overblown ‘Oriental’ style becomes a philosophical discourse of choice and a favoured device in Voltaire’s high-profile campaigns of the 1760s against religious intolerance, carried on under the slogan Ecrasez l’infâme. Voltaire uses it in De l’horrible danger de la lecture (1765), a hard-hitting attack on censorship, written ostensibly in the voice of an Ottoman mufti, and again in the Epître écrite de Constantinople aux frères (c.1768) and the Avis à tous les orientaux (c.1769), both pleas for toleration and rational religion (OCV, vol.67, p.1-9, and vol.70A, p.1-10). These two polemical pamphlets, untypically, remained unpublished in Voltaire’s lifetime.

Mandement du muphti (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

When Voltaire needs to beg a favour of the duc de Choiseul, then foreign minister, he writes him a letter addressing him in the style of an Oriental potentate (9 January 1767, D13823). A mysterious text entitled Mandement du muphti, published anonymously in French in London in 1772, and claiming to be a translation from the Arabic, is a humorous attack on Voltaire, concluding with the hope that he be impaled in front of the château de Ferney. No one has ever been able to identify with certainty the author of this strange work but, given its bravura use of the Oriental voice, there is every chance that this work is by Voltaire himself, and that he is here parodying his own Oriental voice.

Voltaire clearly relishes the playful possibilities of the Oriental style but his creation of an Oriental voice is emphatically not innocent. Although himself no Hebrew scholar, he was steeped in biblical criticism and unstoppable on the subject of the illogicalities and absurdities of the Old Testament. Voltaire likes to emphasize the fictional, even fairy-tale, quality of the Hebrew scriptures, and so remind his readers of their status as an Oriental text. In 1759 Voltaire wrote to Mme Du Deffand: ‘je vous avouerai que je ne lis que l’ancien Testament, trois ou quatre chants de Virgile, tout L’Arioste, une partie des mille et une nuit’ (D8484). In this respect, Voltaire’s Orientalism takes a radical turn, for in placing the Bible and the 1001 Nights on the same footing as works of entertainment, Voltaire is using an argument from comparative literary history to undermine Christian orthodoxy. Faced by an ancient historical or theological text, Voltaire’s greatest term of abuse is to brand it a ‘fable’: as a character in Jeannot and Colin remarks, ‘Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne sont que des fables convenues’ (OCV, vol.57B, p.280). In Aventure indienne there is a hilarious description of Bacchus walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet, these details, the narrator notes, ‘comme on le raconte fidèlement dans les Orphiques’ (OCV, vol.60B, p.253): for Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (and he was familiar with the current of scholarship since the Renaissance that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures); but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. Similarly Ralph Nablow shows that a mythologicial reference in the conclusion to La Princesse de Babylone (OCV, vol.66, p.203) has a distinct biblical echo.

Voltaire, Le Taureau blanc ([London], 1774).

Voltaire’s most daring Oriental work, written when he was 80, is undoubtedly Le Taureau blanc (1773-1774), an Oriental fiction constructed on the fables of the Old Testament. As Roger Pearson writes in his translation of Candide and other stories, ‘As an Oriental tale devoted to the Bible it is unique not only among Voltaire’s stories but also among all eighteenth-century Oriental tales’ (Oxford, 2006). The heroine of the tale, princess Amaside, demands to be entertained by the stories told her by the old serpent, but she turns out to be more discriminating than Scheherazade, and is bored by all his tales from the Old Testament: ‘“I find stories like that boring,” remarked the fair Amaside, who had both intelligence and good taste … “I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched … But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome.”’

In encouraging his readers to regard the Old Testament as an Oriental text, one more among so many, he was taking his habitual relativism to new levels of impertinence, and of radicalism. The Christian Bible might be seen by some as the founding text of world literature – as it is by the Chicago professor of literary criticism Richard Moulton in 1911 in World literature and its place in general culture – insofar as it speaks across linguistic and cultural barriers, and has meaning in many different cultures in many different periods. Voltaire, in his role as literary historian, seems to take pleasure in reminding us that the Word of God is the product of a specific group of Eastern cultures.


Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (Londres [Amsterdam], 1776) (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Voltaire’s researches as a historian, allied to his insatiable literary interests, made him enormously receptive to world literature and it is no exaggeration to characterize him as a pioneering historian of comparative literature. Relativism is at the core of his philosophical approach, so a work like his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (1776) uses the wisdom of imagined Chinese and Indian cultures to comment on religion and politics in France. If his belief in the universality of human reason encourages him to minimize the distinctions between different literary cultures, his determination to undermine the unique position accorded to the ‘fables’ of the Old Testament encourages him to emphasize the ‘Oriental’, non-European, quality of the Hebrew scriptures. Voltaire’s unprecedented literary celebrity earned him a European, and eventually a global, readership. True, it is Goethe who is credited with inventing the word Weltliteratur, much influenced as he was by ‘Oriental’ poets; but it is hard to think that Goethe’s conception of world literature would have developed as it did had it not been for the intellectual example of Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk

One thought on “Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

  1. Pingback: Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2) | Storia della filosofia Unisalento

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