From the VF to Vif! A ‘lively’ book series comes to life again as an online collection

In the early 2000s, the Voltaire Foundation decided to create a paperback series in collaboration with the Sorbonne University Press. It was intended (as we said in our publicity materials at the time) ‘to make available the work of the Voltaire Foundation’s authors to the widest audience in an affordable, paperback format’. Since we are known as the ‘VF’, and we wanted our new series to be lively, we called it Vif – French for ‘lively, alert, or snappy’. Nine of the snappy volumes from the Vif series will now enjoy a second life, as part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE ebook collection – the digital edition of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

The Vif volumes being added to Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are of two types: critical scholarship and primary texts. Of the former, several are collections of essays, originally aimed at advanced students preparing for the agrégation in France or competency exams in the US. These books treat, respectively, Voltaire’s influential manifesto for religious toleration, the Traité sur la tolérance; Diderot’s innovative play Le Fils naturel; and Marivaux’s journalism and theatre.


There is also a scholarly monograph by James Fowler, Voicing Desire, addressing themes of family and sexuality in Diderot’s fiction. Finally, we include an important study of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique by Christiane Mervaud, who is the author of the authoritative critical edition of this work in the Complete works of Voltaire. An expanded version of introduction to that edition became this book and has remained the definitive study of the text.


The second set of books from the Vif being republished in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are three works which are editions of eighteenth-century French texts. The first is an edition of short stories by the author Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711–1780). Best remembered now for writing a version of The Beauty and the Beast (1756), she was a prolific writer, producing some 70 volumes. The anthology published here, entitled Contes et autres écrits, is the first comprehensive introduction to her work. The second, entitled Vivre libre et écrire, provides a series of extracts from novels written by women during the French Revolution. The Revolution brought a marked increase in the number of books attributed to women authors, but many of these works are immensely hard to find. This pioneering anthology makes a selection of them available for the first time, expertly introduced by Huguette Krief.

Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (Expositions BnF).

Perhaps the single most successful woman writer of the French eighteenth century is Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758), author of a best-selling novel, the Lettres d’une péruvienne, and of a play successfully performed at the Comédie-française, Cénie. Her life reads like a novel, and the best biography, English Showalter’s Françoise de Graffigny: her life and works (2004) can be consulted in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE. Graffigny’s greatest achievement is perhaps her magnificent correspondence, amounting to some 2,500 letters. The Voltaire Foundation has previously published a critical edition of her correspondence, edited by a team of scholars under the direction of J. A. Dainard. In praising this edition, Heidi Bostic wrote that the ‘Correspondence may well come to be regarded as the crown jewel of Graffigny’s œuvre. Her letters not only charm with their wit, insight, and style, but also document diverse aspects of eighteenth-century French culture and society’ (Eighteenth-century studies, 2008). Not everyone, sadly, has time to read all 15 volumes, so English Showalter produced a handy one-volume selection of the best of her letters, which is included here as well.

Françoise de Graffigny (Artnet).

These Vif volumes contain important scholarship about the French philosophes and make a crucial contribution to expanding our knowledge of women authors in the period. By integrating these volumes into Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, we are not only making this research more easily available; we are also enriching it by making it cross-searchable with the existing treasures of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

– Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

– Gregory Brown, General Editor for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

The problems with translating Voltaire two hundred and fifty years on

Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif in its German translation by Angelika Oppenheimer.

My translation of Voltaire’s first (1764) version of Dictionnaire philosophique portatif appeared in 2020 under the imprint of Reclam. Mine is the first complete translation of this version, previous translators having made their own selections from a text that had been expanded by Voltaire himself on several occasions. The chapters are not written in a severe academic style, but directly address the reader or take the form of dialogues. The book is designed to entertain the reader at the same time as informing him or her, and therein lies one reason for the problems it presents to a translator.

Although we still laugh for nearly the same reasons as people did 250 years ago, the objects of our mirth may have changed, and we have to understand that. If we do not understand the text we cannot be amused. Today we know a lot about science, but Voltaire himself was quite well informed. Despite the differences, in most cases we can understand what he means, and we can smile at the way he explains things. History is another matter. We know more than he did. There have been many archaeological excavations and new finds since he wrote his book, especially in Israel and the so-called Holy Land. Some of his explanations are therefore not clear to us unless we do some research.

Voltaire quotes people and theories from antiquity until his century on the basis of authorities that are largely unknown to us, but which were well known and often quoted in his own time. The most recent edition by the Voltaire Foundation thus contains many footnotes to enable us to understand Voltaire’s meanings. He very often quotes authors ironically in order to amuse his readers with their wrong explanations. But we often do not know these sources today. It is especially difficult when it comes to authors who had written for the Roman Catholic Church, because then he is not allowed to speak bluntly, to mention their real names or functions. His contemporaries knew who was meant by his description but we do not. Even historical events could be quoted and criticized only so long as the historical narrative accepted by the church authorities was not challenged. In general, Voltaire had to be very cautious with his criticism in matters concerning the Pope and the Vatican.

I might quote as an example the article ‘Chinese catechism’, where Voltaire says that the obsession with castrating young boys to serve kings as eunuchs seems to him a major affront to human nature (p.128). He has his king say that he accepts that cockerels are castrated to make them taste better, but that he has not yet known eunuchs to be put on the spit. Then the king continues: ‘The Dalai Lama has fifty of them to sing in his pagoda. I would like very much to know if the Chang-ti (their god) enjoys hearing the clear voices of these fifty geldings?’ When Voltaire wrote these words, his readers knew who was meant and what was really the subject of the conversation. Now, though, when I gave my translation to a really well-informed friend, she asked me what was meant.

Ludovico Magnasco receiving the new constitution for the choir from Pope Paul III in 1545 (Wikimedia).

French intellectuals in Voltaire’s time knew something about China and circumstances in Tibet, and about the Dalai Lama, and so they knew who was meant by Voltaire’s setting. It was of course the Pope, whose choir of 60 eunuchs existed until the end of the 19th century. Voltaire would have had reason to fear that the Pope would act against him. The book was banned by the French parliament on 9 March 1765, and copies of it were burned in Geneva and Bern. When, in a previous sentence, Voltaire speaks of kings who had seven hundred concubines and thousands of eunuchs to serve them, it is an ironic exaggeration and an allusion to Solomon, which might not be understood without a footnote. But this was what he was allowed to write. The reference to Solomon can be found in the footnotes of the French edition. Probably readers in Voltaire’s time had no problem. They had to know their Bible, and so could smile at Voltaire’s account.

Robert Estienne, Dictionarium latinogallicum (Paris, 1538) (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Another problem is that words have sometimes changed their meaning during the centuries since Voltaire, and without the Dictionnaires historiques et critiques, whose history begins with the Dictionarium latinogallicum of Robert Estienne (1538), I would have been lost. They enabled me to know what had been the real sense of the words as used by Voltaire. Words in the German language have also sometimes changed their sense. We can find the history in the dictionaries of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the Duden, although what I needed was not knowledge about the development of the German language. The first Dictionnaire l’Académie française was published in 1694, the year of Voltaire’s birth. Its fourth edition was published in 1762, two years before the publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and may have confirmed Voltaire in his own project: Enlightenment.

Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Paris, 1694) (BnF).

Some of the expressions used by Voltaire cannot be found before the edition of 1762. One of these is the plural of hell, ‘les enfers’, as the term for the ancient underworld. There was only one Jewish-Christian Hell, but several pagan kingdoms of the dead. These differed depending on where they had existed, whether in Egypt, in Babylon, or in Greece and Rome. The Europeans even had some knowledge of Chinese ideas about life after death. Some monks had been in China in the 17th century and had written about their experiences. The expression mostly used in German for the kingdom of the dead in antiquity was ‘Hades’, which in France was understood as the name of the god. It is the same with some other words with which we are not very familiar, and sometimes cannot find in our normal dictionary.

The Dictionnaires d’autrefois are highly informative about usage in former times. The many examples quoted from different writers in Voltaire’s time help us to strike the right note in translating him. I myself had sometimes failed to see where the irony of a comment lay because I knew the critical word only from another context. Perspectives may change with the passing of time, so that at first sight we do not see what is meant. Which brings me to one of Voltaire’s own themes. Some people and institutions have an interest in changes in the social perspective, and, in some ways, not so much has changed since Voltaire’s time. However, speech patterns were developed that drew people’s thoughts in particular directions. This was already beginning in Voltaire’s time, and Voltaire noticed and criticized it. His Pocket Philosophical Dictionary is designed to be thought-provoking, to bring us to a proper understanding as to who is attempting to exert influence and the ways such attempts may be made, so that we may become able to resist them. The book has occasionally borne the alternative title: Reason in alphabetical form (La Raison par alphabet, 2 vols, [Genève], 1769).

The Enlightenment philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac thought that it is only by knowing what we have been seeing wrongly that we can learn to do things better. The Pocket Philosophical Dictionary contains so much that we do not know any more: a look inside and we will become ‘enlightened’. It is for this very reason that I want Reason in alphabetical form to be read by as many people as possible.

– Angelika Oppenheimer

Albert et Zemmour contre Voltaire. L’extrême droite contre Voltaire: mensonges et falsifications

Faut-il brûler Sade?’ demandait Simone de Beauvoir en 1955 quand les livres du ‘divin marquis’ pourrissaient encore dans l’Enfer de la Bibliothèque nationale. Certains, de nos jours, aimeraient bien y précipiter tous les livres de Voltaire, au moment même où la première collection véritablement complète de ses œuvres vient d’être publiée à Oxford au terme d’un travail de plus de cinquante ans. Tandis que Boulevard Voltaire et autres Réseau Voltaire se réclament contre toute vraisemblance de sa liberté d’esprit, les champions de l’antiracisme s’unissent aux défenseurs de l’Europe chrétienne pour le vouer aux gémonies: au Panthéon des hommes infâmes, Voltaire occupe désormais une place de choix. Antichrétien et islamophobe, raciste et esclavagiste, capitaliste et méprisant envers le peuple, il aurait confondu sa justice avec la Justice et imposé la civilisation du bourgeois blanc français mâle au nom de l’universalisme des Lumières. Sans compter que de sa tombe au Panthéon, son hideux sourire empêche son voisin d’en face de dormir.

Le tombeau de Voltaire au Panthéon

Le tombeau de Voltaire au Panthéon. (Photo: Yann Caradec, Wikimedia Commons)

Aujourd’hui, c’est Valeurs actuelles qui s’y met, dans un long article de l’historien Jean-Marc Albert publié le 8 août 2020 sur le site web du magazine (voir ci-dessous, note 1). Deux ans plus tôt, c’est l’essayiste Eric Zemmour, qu’on ne présente plus, qui publiait un portrait au vitriol de Voltaire dans Destin français (Albin Michel, 2018). Pourquoi tant de haine? se demande, incrédule, le Français moyen qui a probablement lu Candide dans sa jeunesse et acheté le Traité sur la tolérance après les attentats de janvier 2015. La réponse se tient en trois mots: la haine des Lumières. ‘La raison’, éructe Zemmour, ‘corrode tout, mine tout, détruit tout. La tradition est balayée. Le dogme religieux ne s’en remettra pas. La monarchie suivra.’ Derrière l’entreprise de démolition de Voltaire se cache la haine de 1789, ‘la grande saturnale de la Révolution française’, toujours selon l’inénarrable Zemmour. Une fois de plus, l’hallali contre l’esprit des Lumières est sonné. Une fois de plus, on conspue Voltaire, la ‘figure tutélaire’ des intellectuels engagés, ‘icône de l’idée républicaine’ selon Albert.

Traité sur la tolérance

Traité sur la tolérance (1753), p.1.

Entendons-nous bien. Personne n’est obligé d’aimer Voltaire, ni l’homme ni l’écrivain. De toute façon, il ne reste pas grand-chose de ses œuvres: Candide et quelques autres contes philosophiques, les Lettres philosophiques et le Dictionnaire philosophique, deux œuvres emblématiques qu’on étudie encore à la fac, et bien sûr le Traité sur la tolérance dont tout le monde a entendu parler. On peut légitimement préférer à ces écrits La Nouvelle Héloïse de Rousseau, la Recherche de Proust ou tout Houellebecq. On peut tout aussi légitimement dénoncer les indélicatesses de l’homme Voltaire, ses mensonges, ses flagorneries, ses jalousies, voire ses contradictions; on peut déplorer qu’il ait méprisé la ‘multitude’, on peut fustiger son anticléricalisme, et pourtant s’exclamer avec lui à la lecture d’Albert et Zemmour: ‘Est-il possible que ceux qui pensent soient avilis par ceux qui ne pensent pas?’ (lettre à Duclos du 22 octobre 1760, D9340). La question n’est pas là. Il ne s’agit ni de promouvoir l’œuvre de Voltaire ni de réhabiliter l’homme; il s’agit de dénoncer les contre-vérités et les mensonges proférés à son encontre par un historien et un essayiste en vue qui détestent Voltaire sans l’avoir lu ni s’être donné la peine de faire le minimum de travail de recherche qu’on est en droit d’attendre de n’importe quel titulaire d’une licence, même réactionnaire. Il n’est pas interdit de déverser sa haine sur des personnes mortes depuis longtemps, mais encore faut-il que les arguments soient irréprochables. Or c’est loin d’être le cas.

Statue de Voltaire à Paris vandalisée en juin 2020

Statue de Voltaire à Paris vandalisée en juin 2020. (Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes)

Zemmour est sincèrement scandalisé du prétendu mépris de Voltaire pour ses contemporains, à commencer par les pauvres: ‘Les frères de la doctrine chrétienne’, lui fait-il dire, ‘sont survenus pour achever de tout perdre: ils apprennent à lire et à écrire à des gens qui n’eussent dû apprendre qu’à dessiner et à manier le rabot et la lime, mais qui ne veulent plus le faire.’ Ce qui est réellement scandalisant, c’est que Zemmour a lu trop vite sa source, probablement l’Histoire des guerres civiles de France de Laponneraye et Hippolyte Lucas (1847). La phrase ne se trouve pas chez Voltaire, mais dans l’Essai sur l’éducation nationale (1763) de La Chalotais. Après le mépris des pauvres, le mépris du peuple: ‘C’est une très grande question de savoir jusqu’à quel degré le peuple, c’est-à-dire neuf parts du genre humain sur dix, doit être traité comme des singes’, lit-on dans Jusqu’à quel point on doit tromper le peuple (1756). Zemmour cite cette phrase sans (vouloir) se rendre compte qu’elle est ironique: ce sont les prêtres de tout poil, insinue Voltaire, qui traitent le peuple de singes en les trompant avec des superstitions révoltantes. Mépris des Français, enfin, la ‘chiasse du genre humain’. Arrachée de son contexte, l’expression est choquante. En réalité, Voltaire se désole qu’à cause de la conduite désastreuse de la guerre de Sept Ans, ‘toutes les nations nous insultent et nous méprisent. […] Pendant que nous sommes la chiasse du genre humain, on parle français à Moscou et à Yassy; mais à qui doit-on ce petit honneur? A une douzaine de citoyens qu’on persécute dans leur patrie’ (lettre à d’Argental du 4 avril 1762, D10404). Voilà comment, à coup de citations tronquées, faussement attribuées ou arrachées de leur contexte, un essayiste sans grand talent fait dire à Voltaire le contraire de ce qu’il pensait.

Passons à Jean-Marc Albert, la voix de son maître. A en croire l’historien, Voltaire se révèle tellement ‘cupide, misogyne, homophobe, hostile aux Juifs et à Mahomet’ dans son Dictionnaire philosophique que celui-ci a été ‘soigneusement épuré depuis’. Voltaire expurgé par nos ‘bien-pensants’ modernes? Albert a déniché cette allégation absurde dans un article de Roger-Pol Droit paru dans Le Point du 2 août 2012 où le philosophe nous présente, sous le titre ‘La face cachée de Voltaire’, un Voltaire inconnu, antipathique, abject’ (voir ci-dessous, note 2), antisémite et misogyne à tel point que les articles ‘Femme’ et ‘Juif’ ont été bannis des éditions modernes de son Dictionnaire philosophique. Or l’explication de cette ‘disparition’ est simple: les deux articles en question ne se trouvent pas dans les différentes éditions du Dictionnaire parues du vivant de Voltaire. Comme bien d’autres avant lui, Roger-Pol Droit a confondu le texte original du Dictionnaire philosophique portatif avec un Dictionnaire philosophique publié après la mort de Voltaire, véritable monstre éditorial concocté sans la collaboration de l’auteur, récemment réédité (Bompiani, 2013) sans qu’une seule virgule en soit supprimée. Un regard jeté dans une édition moderne du véritable Dictionnaire philosophique aurait immédiatement dissipé l’erreur, mais encore fallait-il s’en donner la peine.

Dictionnaire philosophique portatif

Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (Londres, 1764).

Albert a raison de dire que la fameuse phrase ‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrais toujours pour que vous puissiez le dire’ n’a jamais été prononcée par Voltaire. Mais faut-il pour autant le calomnier à outrance? Cet apôtre de la tolérance, nous informe-t-il, aurait tenté d’‘étrangler’ le libraire genevois Grasset! Agé de 61 ans à l’époque des faits et de constitution fragile, cela est peu probable. Il est vrai qu’au cours d’une mémorable scène, Voltaire a tenté d’arracher au jeune Grasset un extrait de La Pucelle d’Orléans que celui-ci, venu aux Délices probablement dans l’intention de faire chanter son auteur, tenait dans sa poche. Exilé à Genève, Voltaire craignait que son poème burlesque sur la jeune Lorraine, que des éditions pirates ont augmenté de détails piquants auxquels il n’avait aucune part, tombassent entre les mains du roi, qui le tenait alors arbitrairement éloigné de la capitale. On comprend que Voltaire fît déférer le maître-chanteur devant les magistrats. Mais sous la plume d’Albert, la victime n’est pas celui qu’on croit: Voltaire ‘fait emprisonner le malheureux qui sera banni’. Calumniare audacter…

Aucun écrivain n’eut davantage à souffrir de la calomnie que Voltaire. Dès son vivant, on lui attribua des lettres fabriquées de toutes pièces visant à nuire à sa réputation. Voltaire s’en plaignait amèrement, tout comme il s’insurgeait contre les fausses lettres publiées sous le nom de Madame de Pompadour par des folliculaires sans scrupules ‘pour gagner un peu d’argent’ (lettre au duc de Richelieu du 13 juillet 1772, D17826). C’est dans cette circonstance précise que Voltaire écrit la phrase suivante qui, arrachée de son contexte, est brandie par Zemmour pour prouver la ‘face noire’ de l’écrivain qu’il abhorre: ‘Nous avions besoin autrefois qu’on encourageât la littérature et aujourd’hui il faut avouer que nous avons besoin qu’on la réprime.’ Après la lecture d’Albert et Zemmour, on est tenté de s’écrier avec Voltaire: ‘Est-il possible que tant de gens de lettres soient coupables d’une telle infamie?’

Gerhardt Stenger, Maître de conférences émérite à l’Université de Nantes


  1. L’article Wikipédia qui est consacré à Albert nous apprend qu’il est ‘spécialiste de l’histoire culinaire et des comportements alimentaires de l’Antiquité à nos jours’. Excellente prédisposition pour écrire un article sur Voltaire.
  2. Roger-Pol Droit vient de publier un roman sur Voltaire et Rousseau, une amitié impossible (Albin Michel, 2019), où on découvre un ‘Voltaire adulé et mondain, affairiste et généreux, candide et manipulateur’.

Une version de ce texte parut dans Mediapart blog en janvier 2021.

Voltaire editor, edited and re-edited

The first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s complete works, printed in Kehl in 1784 and financed by Beaumarchais, was recently the subject of a 900-page thesis (Linda Gil, Paris-Sorbonne, 2014). The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, not lagging far behind, at 604 pages, also started life with this 70-volume edition as its focus, in particular the nearly 4000 pages that make up what the editors call the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’. Under this title, made up in large part of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (later La Raison par alphabet) and the 1770-1772 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, the Kehl editors included a number of previously unknown articles and fragments.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

Our edition of these texts attempts to pin down what they were, when (and whether) Voltaire wrote them, whether certain groups can be discerned amongst them, and to what degree the printed record of the Kehl edition reflects the manuscripts that were actually found after Voltaire’s death – as much as is still possible, that is, after two hundred years have elapsed, and when most of the manuscript sources have long since disappeared.

As the volume moved through the stages of the editing and publishing process, it proved to be a protean thing, changing shape several times: some texts originally included in the original list of contents were found not to belong in the volume after all; others were discovered or moved in from elsewhere along the way; and once or twice new manuscripts unexpectedly came to light, changing the tentative dating and identification of one or another of the texts. What began as a simple alphabetically ordered series of about 45 texts eventually took shape as a book in four sections (of uneven length) which covers the ground of all posthumous additions to Voltaire’s ‘alphabetical works’, usually under the title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, from 1784, through the nineteenth-century, right up to the present day, in the form of a fragment that has in fact never before been published at all.

The chain of editorial decision-making goes further back in time than one initially realises, however, starting with Voltaire’s own apparent intention to produce a compendium of excerpts from other people’s works. As Bertram Schwarzbach adumbrated in 1982, twenty-four of the texts in this volume (with a possible twenty-fifth), show Voltaire (or one of his secretaries, perhaps?) re-working existing writings by others in what sometimes strongly resembles current practices of copying and pasting, much as we move sentences and parts of sentences around using a word processor. This in no way suggests that Voltaire was guilty of plagiarism: to begin with, he did not publish these re-workings in his own lifetime; furthermore, the boundaries of editing, re-publishing and re-purposing in the late eighteenth century were different than they are today. But the fact that these manuscripts were found amongst Voltaire’s papers meant that his early editors believed them to be by him (with one exception, ‘Fanatisme’, which they recognised as an abridged version of Deleyre’s Encyclopédie article). Thus were these texts eventually published under Voltaire’s name in the Kehl edition, leading to a (partly) unintentional distortion of the Voltairean canon, perpetuated in all subsequent editions until the Oxford Œuvres complètes. Questions such as these are soon to be addressed more generally in a one-day conference: ‘Editorialités: Practices of editing and publishing’, and Marian Hobson has written elsewhere about the value of critical editions. It is in part thanks to modern-day editorial work that the editor-generated puzzles of over two centuries ago are now being unpicked: a neat illustration of just how much the role of editor has changed in that time.

– Gillian Pink

Attention: livre dangereux

As Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on an event that occurred 250 years ago in Northern France and which haunted Voltaire for the rest of his life.

When Voltaire inscribed the words ‘livre dangereux’ in a number of the books in his library, he was referring to the subversive content of these works. But he could also have been alluding to the dangers connected with authoring or possessing such books in Old Regime France.

That reality was made startlingly clear in June 1766, when the chevalier de La Barre, a young nobleman from the provincial town of Abbeville, was condemned by the Parisian Parlement to be tortured and executed for various blasphemies, including the failure to doff his cap in the presence of a religious procession, and for ‘having given marks of respect and adoration to the vile and impure books [livres infâmes et impurs] that were placed on a shelf in his room’.* Indeed, the prominence of these books was such that the official document spelling out his sentence made provision for transporting the lot of them back to Abbeville from Paris, where they had been sent while the judgment was under review. And one book specifically was designated to be ‘thrown by the Executor of High Justice onto the same pyre as the body of said Lefebvre de la Barre’: this book was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif.

Of course, following standard practice in the world of clandestine books, Voltaire had declined to have his name appear in print editions of this work, and, in his correspondence, he had consistently denied responsibility for it. For this reason, he himself was not named in the sentence condemning La Barre, nor had he been named the previous year in the Parlement’s decree banning the Dictionnaire philosophique. But the magistrates had intentionally defined their opposition to this work in terms that implicated Voltaire directly. They targeted the Dictionnaire philosophique not simply because it contained unorthodox ideas; more pointedly, they claimed that the rhetorical strategies it used — including ridicule and wit — and the fact that it was aimed at a broad reading audience made it particularly venomous. Regarding authorship, the magistrates pretended not to know whose work this was but ominously stated: ‘If the author were known, he would not appear any less deserving than his work of the most rigorous punishments.’

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Naturally, Voltaire was alarmed to be connected in this way to the Chevalier, and his correspondence displays a number of strategies that distance him from the young man’s horrific execution: renewed denials of authorship; rejection of the idea that reading philosophical works could lead to delinquency; sarcastic denunciations of Pasquier, the councilor most responsible for linking the incident to the philosophes. At the same time, however, Voltaire refused to be intimidated, and he vigorously embraced La Barre’s memory, making it his mission to publicize the arbitrary judicial practices that had led to his death. Most immediately, he revised and amended the text of the very work that tied him to the case, the Dictionnaire philosophique, adding numerous anti-religious articles, including allusions to La Barre. He also composed an emotional Relation de la mort du chevalier de La Barre, which began to circulate in early 1768. In 1769, a further expanded edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique included a new article, ‘Torture’, in which La Barre’s gruesome story again featured prominently. In 1771, the Relation was reprinted in its near entirety as the article ‘Justice’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. And in 1775, Voltaire again took up the events of 1766 in Le Cri du sang innocent, as he sought to assist one of La Barre’s associates, Gaillard d’Etallonde, in his quest to return from exile in Prussia.

Torture: first page.

First page of the article ‘Torture’, in La Raison par alphabet (this is the 1769 edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Indeed, Voltaire continued to ponder the tragedy of Abbeville until his final days, no doubt haunted by the way in which his own works had been implicated in a gross abuse of judiciary power. In returning repeatedly to these events, in creating an ongoing stream of banned books, he carried out his earlier vow: ‘Je veux crier la vérité à plein gosier; je veux faire retentir le nom du chevalier de La Barre à Paris et à Moscou; je veux ramener les hommes à l’amour de l’humanité par l’horreur de la barbarie’ (letter to Gabriel Cramer [D14678, January 1768]).

– John R. Iverson, Whitman College

* The full text of the two parliamentary decrees was reproduced in L.-M. Chaudon’s Dictionnaire anti-philosophique, pour servir de Commentaire & de Correctif au Dictionnaire Philosophique […] (Avignon, 1767).

Voltaire, tolerance, solidarity (liberté, égalité, fraternité)

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express warmest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, in the wake of the tragic and brutal events of 13 November.

André Glucksmann, who sadly died last week on 10 November, wrote his final book about Voltaire, Voltaire contre-attaque (Robert Laffont, 2014). Discussing Voltaire’s views on toleration, he quotes the conclusion of the article « Tolérance » in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

« Nous devons nous tolérer mutuellement parce que nous sommes tous faibles, inconséquents, sujets à la mutabilité, à l’erreur: un roseau couché par le vent dans la fange dira-t-il au roseau voisin couché dans un sens contraire, rampe à ma façon, misérable, ou je présenterai requête pour qu’on t’arrache et qu’on te brûle ? »

– Nicholas Cronk

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015