Voltaire’s (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) literary career is reputed throughout our world as one of the first and most vivid anti-Bible careers that ever came out of a Catholic nation such as France during the eighteenth century. Through letters, encyclopedia entries, philosophical tales, critical editions, and other types of writings, Voltaire spent his lifetime as homme de lettres proving the Bible wrong and therefore producing a myriad of arguments against the text he perceived as the origin of all Western superstitions. There are speculations that, after his death, Voltaire’s property in Ferney was acquired by the Geneva Bible Society and, ironically enough, served as a printing house for scripture. Although this anecdote, or urban legend, is debatable and poorly documented, modern-day Evangelical preachers often quote it in order to demonstrate that the holy book had finally won the battle against the attempts of France’s most determined philosopher to eradicate its influence. Perhaps Voltaire’s claim that within a hundred years of his death, one would have to go to antique shops to dig out a Bible, and that this text would only be known by a few scholars who would study the pre-Enlightenment era and its religions, was the initial provocation in this post-mortem battle between the philosopher and scripture (Ross, 2004, pp. 14–15).

Without the realm of speculation, however, it is certain that Voltaire spent most of his life and career as writer and philosopher with the aim to apply scientific criticism to the text and deconstruct the Bible in order to show how its different components had no reason to fit together. His insolence and irony toward the Bible was unmatched by any of the other great figures of his generation (Doizy, 2006, p. 64). He surely inspired the following generations of anti-Bible enthusiasts, such as the young Marquis de Sade, raised by his uncle Jacques-François de Sade, one of Voltaire’s few ecclesiastical friends. Although Voltaire was an avid reader of the Old Testament in particular, he spent most of his life identifying it as the very source of all the religious fanaticism contained in Christian civilizations, responsible for humankind’s delayed evolution into a world in which philosophy would prevail over religious belief, and deism—the only form of spirituality he ever endorsed—over organized religions. But as a former student of the Jesuit fathers, Voltaire learned the sacred principle according to which no one can engage in battle without studying his enemy from the inside out first. Voltaire spent seven years at Louis-le-Grand, Paris’s most prestigious and expensive Jesuit institution, between the ages of 10 and 17. In these formatively significant years, the witty student embraced the methods of inquiry given to him by his teachers but gradually rejected the scholastic teachings around the Bible. The Jesuit taste for theater and public debate became essential in Voltaire’s determination to not become a lawyer, against all paternal expectations, and to join the Libertine circles of the Société du Temple, right after graduating from Louis-le-Grand.

In this new phase of his life Voltaire was exposed to the most anti-biblical ideas at the Libertine headquarters of the Temple of Paris, right within the aging walls of what has often been perceived as one of the most obscure orders of church history, the Templars (Pomeau, 1969, p. 81). Among the Libertines and their atheist approaches, Voltaire learned how to combine and assimilate literary imagination with earthly pleasures. At no point, however, did Voltaire become a Libertine and fully reject the notion of God (Rivière, 2004, pp. 79–80). These multiple and contrasted exposures to Jesuits and Libertines in his Parisian experience prepared the young man for the development of his philosophical tales, a literary form whose aim will be to parody the mythologies of Persia, Greece, and Rome as well as to mock the teachings of the three monotheistic religions coming from the Middle East, and, ultimately, to criticize the expansion of Christianity in the New World. This was an opportunity for him to reconnect with his studies at Louis-le-Grand, where exposure to biblical culture was continuous and constant. In his adult understanding, the Bible was no more than a collection of books from different time periods and authors, the origins of which were arbitrary and human rather than divine. Therefore, its propagation on newly discovered continents as a holy book containing Divine Truth could only be of a criminal nature, since the Bible was, in Voltaire’s perception, the very expression of the anti-natural, that is, the prevailing of the miraculous over the scientific.

He envisioned his mission as homme de lettres to consist in proving the arbitrary motivations of scripture. For this reason, Voltaire often replicated the structure of biblical episodes in his philosophical tales. His insistence on parodying the Bible demonstrated his mastery over the text as well as an ambiguous fascination for the image reservoir of the holy book. For instance, one could consider the story of Candide, a well-known prototype character among his tales, to begin with a Genesis in the idyllic environment of Westphalia and end with the announcement of the Good News and a Revelation. When the reunited characters come to the conclusion at the end of their journey that one must cultivate his own garden, a biblical interpretation is suggested: humankind is about to recover its original condition, prior to the Fall. In other words, Candide replicated the Bible in its order to propose a new interpretation of the universe as well as an economy of salvation, and, in Frederick M. Keener’s terms, “a chain of becoming,” that is, a transformation of the character through Voltaire’s teleological perception of the world around him (1983, p. 206). Voltaire was well aware that the narrative structure of the Bible pushed readers to the same perceptions and provided a model for multiple generations of texts. His own writings should not escape the rule, if the Bible has been so successful and has survived throughout the centuries, but Voltaire only conceived the reproduction of this structure through parody. Since the biblical structure is familiar to most readers, he recycled it in order to modify the content, that is, he substituted the religious and theological essence of the text with a philosophical one.

The anachronistic fantasies that seek to connect Bible times with contemporary concerns that we find in Voltaire’s tales can be seen as a logical inspiration from his consultation of predecessors such as Baltasar Gracián’s El Criticón and Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde (both published in 1657), the first written by a Jesuit and the second by a Libertine, although both questioning the interpretation of scripture and offering a contemporary contextualization of biblical claims. In general, eighteenth-century French literary production sought to pursue the development of such hybrid literatures from previous centuries, and Voltaire intended to become the master of ceremonies of this emerging genre in an age of political turmoil and philosophical exchange. Somewhere along the way between Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721) and Diderot’s Bijoux Indiscrets (1748), Voltaire established a connection between the biblical world and France under the regency of Philippe d’Orléans, and later during the reign of Louis XV.

When forced into exile in 1726, Voltaire left for England and found new inspirations while living in London until 1729. He immediately considered the land of Shakespeare and Newton to be more advanced than his own, for it allowed religious diversity and the right to form a distinct denomination, among other things. Because of the Protestant presence and the multiple theological evolutions on the island, the relation of Christian believers to the Bible in England was of a different nature than in France, where Catholicism placed more importance on liturgy, sacraments, and hierarchy than on the individual’s relation to scripture. Although he did not agree with the biblical interpretations of the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, Voltaire was interested in the Quakers (a form of Christianity that reconnects to the Bible by eliminating rites and hierarchy) and the Socinians (or Arians), among whom we find John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose understanding of religion echoed Voltaire’s own deism and who were considered by Voltaire as “the two titanic figures who laid the intellectual foundations of the new era” (Israel, 2001, p. 523). In his Lettres sur les Anglais (1733), he often attacked, with respect, the seventeenth century’s most celebrated philosopher and his countryman, René Descartes, in order to become, instead, a faithful admirer of Isaac Newton, the English scientist who spent his life in complete adoration of the Bible and refuted Descartes’s systems. Ironically enough, Voltaire was therefore sensitive to philosophers and scientists of his times who had an affinity with scripture and utilized their discovery in order to support their faith in a divine message contained in the founding text of Christianity. The British scientists and philosophers of eighteenth-century London, in particular Locke and Newton, became a model that Voltaire tried to fully imitate and would want to ideally export to France. In this phase of his life, the young French philosopher had a tendency to compare the existing systems of integration of biblical wisdom in the different denominations that composed Christianity. As Jonathan Israel underlines: “One of the great strengths of Newtonianism, it transpired, was its unparalleled ability to attract both the Christian theologian and the camp of moderate or providential deists, indeed, its aptness for bridging the gap between the two” (2001, p. 519).

Voltaire’s dear memories of England did not suffice, however, to return to France with a Newtonian dedication to the Bible and a similar capacity to be a reconciler. During the 10 years after his life-changing experience as a Londoner, Voltaire stayed in Paris because of the publication of his English Letters, a first version of what will later become the Lettres Philosophiques. The philosopher found refuge in the castle of Cirey, belonging to his younger lover the Marquise Emilie du Châtelet, a woman who also kept Voltaire very alert on an intellectual level. With his young mistress he would acquire more than 21,000 books and transform the castle into a research center for metaphysics, moral philosophy, natural science, and biblical criticism, with the ultimate goal of working on interpreting the Bible in order to determine the invalidity of the holy book of Christianity. Voltaire and Emilie spent their days debating the allegorical and metaphorical dimensions of the Bible, partially with the intention of continuing Newton’s work on earth beyond his death and understanding how scripture can be read in a scientific manner. His partnership with Mme. du Châtelet resulted in the Lettres Philosophiques, a text that often represents the modern world in juxtaposition with biblical metaphors (Cotoni, 1992, p. 202). But, unlike Newton, Voltaire found himself very limited when it came to faith in scripture and had to cope with this discrepancy between Newton and himself. The more he worked with the marquise on the Bible, the greater his repulsion for the holy books became. As the homme de lettres sought to evolve into a recognized philosopher, the relationship of Voltaire with the Bible underwent the unavoidable conflict-resolution stage of biblical parody, which mostly culminated in the following philosophical tales: Zadig (1747), Candide (1759), L’ingénu (1767), and La Princesse de Babylone (1768). These four masterpieces of the French philosopher are impregnated with biblical images and references. In complement to Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751–1772), a collection intended to become a substitute for the Bible in the Age of Reason, Voltaire’s philosophical tales offer his own deconstruction of mythologies and fabulation with which he sought to associate the Bible. More in line with Baruch Spinoza’s understanding of scripture, the structure of philosophical tales sought to demonstrate how the Bible draws believers away from the “natural religion”—which for Voltaire meant deism—especially through its insistence on miracles. But unlike the Lettres philosophiques, his tales were intended to reach a much wider readership.

Voltaire

Frontispiece of Voltaire’s Élémens de la Philosophie de Neuton (Amsterdam, 1738).

Image courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries; copyright the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma

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In various passages of these tales, Voltaire recycled biblical imagery in order to make a point against the Bible. The well-known Candide, for instance, was a tale meant to be read by an audience who had familiarity with the main biblical episodes in order to be able to appreciate the parallelism and/or the parody. The whole concept of destitution from divinity that the Bible presents in the Fall of Adam and Eve remains at the core of Candide’s journey throughout the Christian world, and Candide must leave his own Eden to travel a world of cruelty, injustice, and suffering. The famous conclusion of his journey indicates the need for everyone to return to the garden, another biblical image that suggests that an Edenic state can be regained through virtue and reason. L’ingénu projects an individual free from biblical education into this same world, coming from North America to the Old World to contemplate how contradictory and hypocritical Christians are, since they never seem to follow what the Book says and end up doing what is not in the Book: “Je m’aperçois tous les jours, constate le Huron, qu’on fait ici une infinité de choses qui ne sont pas dans votre livre, et qu’on y fait rien de tout ce qu’il dit” (Voltaire, 1995, p. 93).

In 1774, when Voltaire was 80 years old, all these parameters again converged in Le taureau blanc (The White Bull), one of his last philosophical tales in which, according to Thomas Carr Jr., “Voltaire presents biblical discourse as arising from the same process of fabulation which produced the myths of all ancient cultures” (1985, p. 48). Although it is not Voltaire’s most famous tale and can be found only in a few editions, Le taureau blanc marks the philosopher’s sharpest attack on the Bible through the use of parodies and the abuse of biblical images. But as some of Voltaire’s friends will notice, this “broad attack against Old Testament narrative” (Carr, 1985, p. 54) might be read as the fruit of a semi-senile philosopher who has brought up the same arguments in a compulsive manner for the previous 40 years of his career.

But for him, no philosophical tale seemed to seal this discussion. Voltaire continued to spend his life in a state between fascination for, obsession with, systematic opposition to, and hate of scripture, because he never ceased to attack the veracity of the Book and to update his demonstrations. Until the end of his life he made every effort to prove the Bible wrong. One of his very last projects is La Bible enfin expliquée (The Bible Explained, at Last; 1777), a critical edition of the Bible in which each page is divided between two equal amounts of original source and footnotes. The reader can therefore see on each page the discursive battle take place before his or her eyes. In this meticulous and titanic enterprise, Voltaire comments upon scripture from cover to cover, underlining what he considers to be its contradictions, incoherence, exaggerations, infamies, irrationalities, and, ultimately, its immorality. Although this work was published anonymously in London, the familiar style and famous references in the footnotes made it very explicit that the feather of Voltaire was behind this critical edition. In spite of being meticulous, La Bible enfin expliquée could be considered to be the work of a compulsive editor. The fact that it coincided with the philosopher’s old age and the proximity of his death is somewhat relevant, since Voltaire believed it necessary to continue his campaign against the Bible until his last breath, but such obstinacy shows by the same token an ambiguous passion for his enemy.

[See also ENGLISH LITERATURE, EARLY MODERN and MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

References

  • Carr, Thomas M., Jr. “Voltaire’s Fables of Discretion: The Conte philosophique in Le Taureau blanc.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 15 (1985): 47–65.
  • Cotoni, Marie-Hélène. “La référence à la Bible dans les Lettres philosophiques de Voltaire.” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France 2 (March–April 1992): 198–209.
  • Doizy, Guillaume. “De la caricature anticléricale à la farce biblique.” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 134 (April–June 2006): 63–91.
  • Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Keener, Frederick M. The Chain of Becoming: The Philosophical Tale, the Novel, and a Neglected Realism of the Enlightenment in Swift, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Johnson, and Austen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
  • Pomeau, René. La Religion de Voltaire. Paris: Nizet, 1969.
  • Rivière, Marc Serge. “Philosophical Liberty, Sexual Licence: The Ambiguity of Voltaire’s Libertinage.” In Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty and Licence in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Peter Cryle and Lisa O’Connell, pp. 75–91. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Ross, David. “Voltaire’s House and the Bible Society.” The Open Society: Journal of New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists 77, no. 1 (Autumn 2004): 14–15.
  • Voltaire. Le Taureau blanc. Edited by René Pomeau. Paris: Nizet, 1957.
  • Voltaire. L’Ingénu and La Princesse de Babylone. In Romans et contes, edited by René Pomeau. Garnier Flammarion 111. Paris: Flammarion, 1992.
  • Voltaire. La Bible enfin expliquée. In Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, edited by Bertram E. Schwarzbach. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012.

Further Reading

  • Conrod, Frédéric. Loyola’s Greater Narrative: The Architecture of the Spiritual Exercises in Golden Age and Enlightenment Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
  • Mayson, Hadyn T. “A Biblical ‘Conte Philosophique,’ Voltaire’s Taureau Blanc.” In Eighteenth-Century French Studies: Literature and the Arts, edited by E. T. Dubois, pp. 60–72. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K.: Oriel, 1969.

Frédéric Conrod