Wednesday, 23 November 2016

A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire.

1822 edition.
The 18th Century was a good century for encyclopedias. In the early 1700s (1704-10) Lexicon Technicum was published; in 1728, Chamber's Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; later came Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751-72), Encyclopædia Britannica from 1768-71, and then Brockhaus Enzyklopädie 1796 - 1808), and finally not forgetting Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary appeared somewhere in the middle of it all - 1764.

The Philosophical Dictionary (Dictionnaire philosophique), first published as Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, almost immediately went on the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is usually where Voltaire ended up (it's not, after all, his only work on that list), because of it's anti Roman Catholic sentiment. In his short articles Voltaire writes on God, the concept of God, religion, religious figures, morality, and other religious concepts such as the soul, hell, and free will. He begins with Abraham and ends with Virtue, stopping along the way at Soul (Âme), Cannibals (Anthropophages), Apocalypse, Good, Certainty, Body, Equality, Hell, Fanaticism, Flood, Luxury, Prejudice, Tyranny, even China and the Japanese Catechisms are mentioned (among many other subjects). 

The articles or entries are fairly succinct and very much of the period: Voltaire's Dictionary is a great insight into Enlightenment philosophy, outlook and attitude. As one would expect it is very anti-religion, shockingly so at some points in its bluntness. I did love reading it and learned a lot, and it felt remarkably modern, like an article by, say, Frankie Boyle almost - funny, pessimistic, and very enlightening, and above all else rather controversial. The Vatican, as I said, took exception, among many others - copies were even burned (this apparently didn't bother Voltaire who saw "no reason to be upset"). To the religious class it represented a great danger. There is one very disturbing story about a young man called François-Jean de la Barre. He was charged with blasphemy and sacrilege; one of the reasons he was found guilty was the fact he was found to have had Voltaire's Dictionary in his possessions. The judge remarked,
Regarding Jean-Francois Lefebvre, chevalier de La Barre, we declare him convicted of having taught to sing and sung impious, execrable and blasphemous songs against God; of having profaned the sign of the cross in making blessings accompanied by foul words which modesty does not permit repeating; of having knowingly refused the signs of respect to the Holy Sacrament carried in procession by the priory of Saint-Pierre; of having shown these signs of adoration to foul and abominable books that he had in his room; of having profaned the mystery of the consecration of wine, having mocked it, in pronouncing the impure terms mentioned in the trial record over a glass of wine which he held in his hand and then drunken the wine; of having finally proposed to Petignat, who was serving mass with him, to bless the cruets while pronouncing the impure words mentioned in the trial record.
He was then executed, and the Dictionary burned alongside him.

It's a great work, even now surprising in his lack of sugar-coating (I read with a mixture of enjoyment and uncomfortableness), and as I keep saying - it is such a valuable insight into the world of the Enlightenment. I do love Voltaire.


  1. i've a copy which i leaf through upon occasion; hilarious reading and astonishing that it wasn't burned at the time, along with V...

    1. forgot to say: The Devil's Dictionary (bierce) must owe something to Voltaire, no?....

    2. I think so. I haven't read it, but I've seen it mentioned numerous times now - must get a hold of it!


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