Voltaire Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Combining satire and irony with empirical, rational, and moral arguments, Voltaire’s A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket attacked superstition, sectarian fanaticism, and intolerance, exposing the atrocities committed in the name of religion. Its aggressive anticlericalism and irreverent treatment of Holy Scripture shocked contemporary readers and provoked virulent public debate.

Summary of Event

In eighteenth century France, reference works such as Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; An Historical and Critical Dictionary, Historical and Critical Dictionary, An (Bayle) 1710) and Denis Diderot’s monumental Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia (Diderot) 1965) contributed to the dissemination of knowledge among an increasingly literate population. Specialized dictionaries Dictionaries and encyclopedias, including many pocket-sized editions published during the 1750’s and 1760’s, became tools in the hands of Enlightenment Enlightenment;France philosophers. Voltaire himself possessed more than thirty reference works Reference works in his personal library and made frequent and careful use of them in his writing. He fully understood the social and political impact such works might have. [kw]Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket (July, 1764) [kw]Pocket, Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the (July, 1764) [kw]Dictionary for the Pocket, Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical (July, 1764) [kw]Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, Voltaire Publishes A (July, 1764) [kw]Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, Voltaire (July, 1764) Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, A (Voltaire) Religion;criticism of [g]France;July, 1764: Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket[1760] [c]Philosophy;July, 1764: Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket[1760] [c]Literature;July, 1764: Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket[1760] [c]Religion and theology;July, 1764: Voltaire Publishes A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket[1760] Voltaire Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Diderot, Denis Bayle, Pierre Frederick the Great Grasset, Gabriel

In the early autumn of 1752, while a guest at the court of Prussia’s king Frederick the Great, Voltaire set about writing his revolutionary Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (1764; enlarged 1769 as La Raison par alphabet; also known as Dictionnaire philosophique: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, 1765; also as Philosophical Dictionary, 1945, enlarged 1962). The author’s departure from Prussia the following year, however, interrupted his progress, and it was not until some eight or nine years later, in the relative calm and seclusion of his estates at Ferney and Tourney, near the Swiss border, that he resumed his efforts. In the meantime, he had written Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756, 1763; The General History and State of Europe, 1754, 1759), Poème sur la désastre de Lisbonne (1756; Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake (Voltaire) 1764), Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, Candide (Voltaire) 1759; also as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), L’Orphelin de la Chine (pr., pb. 1755; The Orphan of China, 1756), and a number of articles for both Diderot’s Encyclopedia and the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1762; dictionary of the French academy).

A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket was published anonymously by Gabriel Grasset in Geneva, Switzerland, in July, 1764. A small octavo volume of 344 pages bearing a forged London imprint, it contained seventy-three articles ranging from “Abraham” to “Vertu” (virtue)—later editions begin at “Abbé” (abbot). Conceived as an instrument for political, religious, and ethical enlightenment, its publication provoked virulent responses from critics eager to decry the danger of Voltaire’s ideas to traditional religious practices. On September 10, 1764, the procurer general of Geneva prompted the city council to seize Censorship;Switzerland Book censorship;Switzerland and burn all extant copies of the book, describing its content as an outrage to religion and contrary to Church dogma. By then, however, only a handful of copies could be found, the others having been quickly sold and spread throughout Europe. Other public book burnings occurred in Switzerland, Holland, and, later, France.

Anointed with scandal, Voltaire’s book only increased in popularity. Before year’s end, it had been reprinted in Germany, France, and England, with a new, augmented edition appearing in Amsterdam in late December, 1764. On March 19 of the following year, the Parlement of Paris ceremoniously condemned the work alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764; Letters Written from the Mountain, 1767). Despite these and other ominous warnings to the Enlightenment philosophers, Voltaire continued his work on the dictionary, producing augmented editions in 1765 and 1767. The author’s final major revision of 1769, titled La Raison par alphabet (reason by alphabet), encompassed 118 articles and two volumes. The accepted title for later editions became Dictionnaire philosophique. At the height of the work’s popularity, between 1765 and 1772, conservative Protestant and Catholic writers, including Jean-Alphonse Rosset, Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier, Charles Bonnet, Aimé-Henri Paulian, Antoine Guénée, Louis-Mayeul Chaudon, and Claude-François Nonnotte, hastened to publish refutations of the author’s Deist ideas. Their sometimes indignant reactions to his philosophical dictionary serve as one measure of its initial impact.

Employing a variety of narrative strategies, Voltaire, in A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket, waged an energetic campaign against religious tyranny, bigotry, superstition, idolatry, and sectarian intolerance. As a Deist, Deism he saw proof of a Supreme Being’s existence in the evidence of cosmic design, yet he could not acknowledge the existence of a personal God willing to intervene in the course of human events. A critical reader of the Bible, Voltaire wondered at the abundance of political and moral misdeeds in Holy Scripture, making particular note of King David’s thievery, Abraham’s duplicity, Jephthah’s cruelty, and the lack of decorum in Ezekiel. Armed with irony and skepticism, he subverted the authority of religious doctrine, calling into question the immortality of the soul, faith in miracles, and belief in resurrection.

In other entries in the dictionary, Voltaire listed crimes Hypocrisy;religious Religious hypocrisy committed by the Papacy, Papacy and Voltaire from political assassination and fornication to simony and civil war. He cast doubt on the infallibility of early Christian councils that, in his view, were governed by all-too-human emotions, including hatred, ambition, jealousy, and prejudice. Tracing the sources of Christianity back to pagan culture, he reduced the major religions to the status of sects, and he uncovered in history’s sundry Religious violence Violence and religion wars and massacres a legacy of the senseless rivalry of those sects.

While the overwhelming majority of the dictionary’s articles, in one way or another, concern theology, religion, and superstitious beliefs, there are noteworthy exceptions to this rule. In some cases, Voltaire Social criticism addressed more specifically social inequities, human vice, good taste in literature, and the capricious nature of existing laws with little or no reference to religion. However, the number of such articles in the original work remains comparatively small. After Voltaire’s death, the editors of the so-called Kehl edition of his complete works (pb. 1784-1789 in Kehl, Germany) injudiciously conflated A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket with a selection of articles taken from some of the author’s other works, including Questions sur l’ “Encyclopédie” (1770-1772; questions on the Encyclopedia) and articles Voltaire had written for Diderot’s Encyclopedia and for the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. The result was that, for more than a century in France, the original work’s anticlerical bent had become obfuscated by the addition of materials written in a different spirit and for other purposes.


A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket was profoundly scandalous, not because it denounced institutional abuse within the Church Catholic Church;Voltaire —something supporters of Church doctrine had been doing for centuries—but because its irreverent satire shook the very foundations of Christian society, calling into question the legitimacy and morality of organized religion. It was profoundly influential, not because it was scandalous, but because it expressed fundamental beliefs readily applicable to the human condition. It couched those beliefs in persuasive rhetoric and founded them upon empirical and historical observation, leaving readers free to reach their own conclusions. Touching a vibrant chord in his readers, Voltaire expressed many of the ideals that later inspired the French Revolution and the formation of modern democracies, including liberty of conscience and freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and a vision of greater social justice.

With its multiplicity of narrative voices and its disparate narrative styles, A Philosophical Dictionary for the Pocket had a liberating effect. It encouraged reader participation, promoted the abandonment of metaphysical certainties, and stimulated open debate on important social questions. After the French Revolution, French Revolution (1789-1796);Voltaire Voltaire’s name increasingly came to be associated with populist, Democracy;Voltaire republican ideals, a perception that gained currency during the highly polarized political debates of the early and mid-nineteenth century. Whether or not that perception is tenable remains a matter for historians to debate. Future generations will undoubtedly read this classic of French literature, searching for and discovering in it some of the fundamental tenets of modern, democratic society.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bird, Stephen. Reinventing Voltaire: The Politics of Commemoration in Nineteenth-Century France. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 2000. Examines Voltaire’s legacy in nineteenth century politics, art, and education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Andrew. Livre Dangereux: Voltaire’s “Dictionnaire Philosophique”: A Bibliography of the Original Editions and Catalogue of an Exhibition Held in Worcester College Library to Celebrate the Tercentenary of Voltaire’s Birth. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1994. Includes a preface and commentary on the publishing history of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knapp, Bettina L. Voltaire Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. A survey of Voltaire’s life and major works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kölving, Ulla, and Christiane Mervaud. Voltaire et ses combats: Actes du congrès international, Oxford-Paris, 1994. Vol. 1. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1997. Includes French-language articles devoted to various aspects of Voltaire’s dictionary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mervaud, Christiane. Le Scandale du Dictionnaire philosophique. La Rochelle, France: Rumeur des Ages, 1995. A look at conservative Catholic and Protestant reactions to Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mervaud, Christiane, et al., eds. Dictionnaire philosophique. Vols. 35-36 in Les Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire. Oxford, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1994. Mervaud’s introduction covers the work’s genesis, its major editions, its philosophical underpinnings, and its reception. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Patrick. “The Tolerant Skepticism of Voltaire and Diderot: Against Leibnizian Optimism and ’Wise Charity.’” In Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration, edited by Alan Levine. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999. Discusses toleration in Voltaire’s dictionary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shoaf, Richard. “Science, Sect, and Certainty in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.” Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (1985): 121-126. Discusses the limits of Voltaire’s skepticism.

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