VOLTAIRE°


VOLTAIRE° (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778), French philosopher. No writer contributed so much as Voltaire to the destruction of the traditional beliefs fundamental to European society before the French Revolution: belief in the divine right of monarchy, in the legitimacy of the privileges of the nobility, and in the infallibility of the Church. Voltaire's philosophical convictions were those of a deist, not an atheist. It is also noteworthy that he attacked the biblical belief in the unity of mankind; to blacks, for instance, he attributed an inferior and separate origin. The better to ridicule the established Church, or, in his own words "Écraser l'Infâme," Voltaire preferred to concentrate his attacks on the Old Testament and its followers, the Jews; this he did in such a manner that in antisemitic campaigns in the following centuries he was used as an authority and frequently quoted. From the psychological point of view it seems that the antisemitism of Voltaire, far from being a tactical stratagem, expressed in the facility of his attacks against the Jews, was primarily a result of his hatred for the Church. For instance, it is characteristic of Voltaire that in his polemics with Isaac de *Pinto, he forgot the habitual formula which followed his usual way of signing, "Écrasez l'Infâme," and signed instead: "Voltaire, chrétien gentilhomme de la chambre du Roi très-chrétien." Historically speaking, Voltaire's outlook was a powerful contribution to the creation of the mental climate which made possible the emancipation of the Jews, but at the same time it prepared the ground for the future racial antisemitism. Just after Voltaire's death, Zalkind *Hourwitz, librarian to the king of France, wrote: "The Jews forgive him all the evil he did to them because of all the good he brought them, perhaps unwittingly; for they have enjoyed a little respite for a few years now and this they owe to the progress of the Enlightenment, to which Voltaire surely contributed more than any other writer through his numerous works against fanaticism." Two centuries later this judiciously balanced judgment seems to have been only partially warranted. Recent scholars such as A. Hertzberg (see bibliography) have seen Voltaire as one of the founders of modern secular antisemitism (see *Antisemitism).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

A. Guénée, Lettre de quelques Juifs … à M. de Voltaire (1769); many editions; also translated: Letters of Certain Jews… (1777); W. Klemperer, Voltaire und die Juden (1894); P. Stauff, Voltaire ueber die Juden (1913); H. Oppenheimer (Emmrich), Das Judentum bei Voltaire (1930); L. Poliakov, Histoire de l'antisémitisme, 3 (1968); A. Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968), index.

[Leon Poliakov]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.