Voltaire’s Attitude toward the Jewish

“It is probably fair to characterize the mainstream Enlightenment approach to ethics as moral Newtonianism. Most Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the moral universe was governed by a few simple, universally applicable principles, just as Newton’s physics explained the working of the physical universe in terms of the calculable interplay of a few basic forces,” (Chisick 578).  Chisick goes on to state that this period offered new insight into the behavior of man, and allowed a certain freedom for philosophers to consider humanity as equal and intelligent; mankind had the capacity to understand and control his environment (Chisick 578).  The writers of the day are thought of as scientific, open-minded and truthful.

It is during this period that Voltaire composed many philosophical writings.  This paper looks at the essay Of Universal Tolerance within the historical and biographical context as presented by four separate authors.  These scholars suggest Voltaire’s entire body of work implies Voltaire was not as open-minded as would be expected.  That he was, in fact, vaguely stating a hidden distaste for the Jewish faith.

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In analyzing this work, we find that the overall piece is not a rhetorical onslaught of Judaist bashing.  Despite being a Christian himself, this small essay by Voltaire does not seem to imply an overall hatred of a particular religion.  “Given Voltaire’s universalist ethical assumptions and classical bias, his appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures can hardly be expected to be positive,” (Chisick 580).  One can, however, gleam a few hints of what these scholars portend.

The first such instance lies within the very first paragraph.  Voltaire states, “we ought to look upon each all men as our brothers…for all we not all children of the same father, and the creatures of the same God,” (797)?  This statement taken on its own would make Voltaire sound as though he were an extremely tolerant and accepting Christian male.  In looking at the context provided by both Chisick and Arkush, we find that this is not the case.  Arkush suggests that other writings by Voltaire clearly show his impressions of Judaism’s tolerance as the acceptance of numerous Gods.  In accepting that other nationalities Gods are separate from their own, Judaism fails to be a monotheistic religion – the very basis of religion in that period (229).  Chisick takes this a step further by posing that the very nature of Judaism (exclusivist) would put them in disfavor with many of the religions at the time.  Rather then seeing this as a peaceful way to live in a world of many beliefs, it would be natural for intelligent people proposing mankind as equal would be inherently against the religion (582-583).

The influence of Greek and Roman writer’s on Voltaire was immense.  The thinking of the day followed a predestined path.  In trying to think “outside the box” as many philosophers are given credit for doing, even Voltaire would have felt the pressures of popular thought.  Like many scholars of the day, these tomes were the foundation of educational and philosophical ideals.  According to Chisick, Voltaire’s difficulty “to relate positively to the Hebrew Scriptures was the broadly aristocratic worldview that he derived in part from his social position and in part from his classical education,” (581).

Within his third paragraph, Voltaire writes, “’Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me: there are nine hundred million little ants like us on the earth, but my ant-hole is the only one dear to God; all the other are cast off by Him for eternity; mine alone will be happy, and all the others will be eternally damned’” (798).  One can see that the underlying tone is one of elitist attitude for one’s own religion.  In pointing out the fact that he would have to appease those believers of Christianity and the thinkers of the day that their actions do portend this speech (798), Voltaire hints at the feelings within himself.

Certainly not as egregious an attack as Sutcliffe intimates, the sentiment is there none the less.  Sutcliffe found Voltaire to be destructively hateful when considering all of his works.  “Voltaire’s repeated assaults on the alleged barbarism, arrogance, and immorality of the Jews are by far the most notorious instance, but this was neither an isolated nor an original case,” (Sutcliffe 97).  In looking at the lines in Of Universal Tolerance, one simply does not see such active behavior.

The most vehement and insinuating piece of writing on Voltaire comes from Arthur Hertzberg.  Hertzberg discusses the writings of Voltaire in his book entitled, The French Enlightenment and the Jews.  He claims that Voltaire’s blatant contempt for the Jewish people was a main force behind contemporary anti-Semitic behavior.  Allan Arkush also contends the anti-Semitic nature of Voltaire is universally known (223).  Although some scholars suggest the degree of severity suggested by both Arkush and Hertzberg are problematic.  “…As modern anti-Semitism did not exist in Voltaire’s time, it is risky to associate him with it,” (Chisick 578).  In his book, Hertzberg lays the root of all anti-Semitic behavior at Voltaire’s feet.  He contends that in verbally assaulting Jews at every given opportunity, Voltaire has made a mess of a peaceful religion.  (Hertzberg).  It should be noted, however, that Hertzberg was a Jewish Rabbi and his own views on racist behaviors would have led him to find a root cause, even if it failed to exist.

Sutcliffe seeks to prove Hertzberg’s claims throughout his entire article.  Although he considers all of Voltaire’s writing in surmising his conclusion, he finds anti-Semitic sentiment around every period and semicolon.   “Voltaire, whose urbane wit and engaged polemical campaigning made him almost the personification of the French Enlightenment, in a very large proportion of his writings mounts almost obsessively repetitive attacks on the Old Testament and on Judaism,” (Sutcliffe 116).

In contrast to the active pursuit of racist actions, Voltaire insinuates the opposite.  “It is not only very cruel to persecute in this short life those who do not think in the same way as we do, but I very much doubt if there is not an impious boldness in pronouncing them eternally damned,” (798).  In not stating the act of thinking a religion is wrong as being unjust, we can see hat Voltaire does not find a problem with feeling a given construct of religion as false or even unworthy of consideration.  However, his direct rebuttal to active hatred, that is to say persecutory actions, does in fact point toward his distaste for harming others in the name of religion.

This fact is reiterated by Chisick when he states, “Despite his fundamental misunderstanding of Jewish history, Voltaire’s ethics were admirable. He believed in humanity and applied that value universally,” (595).  Chisick contends man’s ethics will cause him move on a topic close to his heart.  In having sinful ethics, the man becomes the beast (596).

Voltaire was a Deist, he believed that God’s existence was not evident through the Bible or miracles, but evident through the natural world around us, in other words God’s existence was observable through nature.  “Like most Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire insisted on the consistency and regularity of natural phenomena and on their being subject to invariable scientific laws,” (Chisick 589).  Since most religions, to include Islam and Christianity confer to the Torah, Koran or Bible for their direction and impetus, it is no wonder Voltaire would openly attack the Catholic Church as he has.  Much like Lorenzo Valla or Desiderius Erasmus, Voltaire questions all the mandates and requirements of the church in order to gain passage into heaven.  “Are we not permitted to hope in him, as well as to fear him?  Is it not sufficient if we are faithful to the church?  Must every individual usurp the rights of Divinity and determine, before it, the fate of all men,” (Voltaire 798)?  One ascertains his notion that although the church in its purest form is correct, it is not absolute.  Man has a say in things; he can influence his own destiny.

He still, however maintains his distinct belief that Christianity is the one true faith.  “Oh different worshippers of a peaceful God, if you have a cruel heart, if, while you adore he whose whole law consists of these few words: ‘Love God and your neighbor,’ you have burdened that pure and holy law with false and unintelligible disputes,” (Voltaire 798).  It is almost as though he is saying do not act on your transgressions, and all will be well.  In considering, however, the context yet again, one can see that Christianity takes the higher ground repeatedly in Of Universal Tolerance.

Voltaire does suggest that his words of enlightenment are merely what one expects to hear.  In taking on the voice of a just god, in replying to the sentiment that surely heathen men of science and thinking as surely heaven-bound, Voltaire points in the opposite direction.  “‘Let your punishment be eternal as I am.  But you, …who have died according to the prescribed rules, sit forever at my right hand and share my empire and my felicity.’ You draw back in horror at these words; and after they have escaped me, I have nothing more to say to you,” (Voltaire 798).  He makes no apologies for his contempt of un-Christian peoples.  He simply stops the discussion right there.  It is what he feels, and that is all.

In not bending to the will of whomever Voltaire views as his questioners, we see that perhaps the context applied by Arkush, Chisick, Hertzberg and Sutcliffe are valid.  This paper has illustrated then in considering the context of history, biography and previous authored works, the story of a small essay changes.  The lines reveal hidden meanings and connotations.  Voltaire’s works do in fact demonstrate a basic distaste for Judaism.  His does consider Christianity, with all its faults to be the supreme religion, the one to make sense.  Chisick points out the Muslim faith comes under attack by Voltaire as well, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.

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