I have below a
copy of Voltaire’s entry--it is not that long--on “religion” for his
Philosophical Dictionary (Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764), an
encyclopedia-type dictionary that included articles that Voltaire had
contributed to the Encyclopédie and other publications over the years. Most of the articles
in the Dictionary represented Voltaire's lifelong critical views on religion, God and politics.
(François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778), was one of the most
prolific writers of the Enlightenment and widely published despite
the widespread censorship of the times. He was a major
contributer to the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire
raisonné des sciences, des
arts et des métiers (aka the "Encyclopedia), a project undertaken
by French intellectuals between 1751 and 1772 that became the central mouthpiece for Enlightenment views.
an Enlightenment spokesman, Voltaire was widely quoted for
saying: "écrasez l'infâme" (crush infamy).
Another quote, widely attributed to Voltaire, while clearly in tune
with Voltaire's sympathies, has never been conclusively attached to
him: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend
to the death your right to say it."
Years ago, I read and attempted to decipher Voltaire's short novella, Candide--I
it in both French and English to see which would be clearer--and a lot
of other people over the centuries have also tried to figure out the
tale. The book documents the travels of Candide and his tutor
Pangloss across the world, and much of the book is a criticism of other
intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Well, the book ends with
a bit of advice, after nothing else proved satisfactory in the search
for answers in the world: "il faut cultiver notre jardin" ( we
must cultivate our own garden). You are just left wondering just what exactly Voltaire intended to say with the book.
The passage below, Voltaire on "religion," took me
some years to finally locate, as I had always thought that the piece was called
the "valley of the bones." After you have read the passage, you will see where I got that phrase from.
In 1791 Voltaire's remains were entombed in
the Paris Panthéon (pictured just below).
The Panthéon in Paris, photo credit
Louis XV originally commissioned the building that became the Pantheon
as a rebuild of the ruined church of
Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. Construction was delayed and
only got underway in 1758. When the massive structure was
finished in 1789, the year that the French Revolution began, the new
government ordered the church to be changed into a mausoleum for the interment of great, French national
heroes. Both Voltaire and Rousseau are buried there, along with the great novelists,
Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Alexandre Dumas.
Voltaire on "religion"; also available via Project Gutenberg
meditated last night; I was absorbed in the contemplation of nature;
I admired the immensity, the course, the harmony of these infinite
globes which the vulgar do not know how to admire.
I admired still more the intelligence which directs these vast forces.
I said to myself: "One must be blind not to be dazzled by this
spectacle; one must be stupid not to recognize the author of it; one
must be mad not to worship Him. What tribute of worship should I render
Him? Should not this tribute be the same in the whole of space, since
it is the same supreme power which reigns equally in all space? Should
not a thinking being who dwells in a star in the Milky Way offer Him
the same homage as the thinking being on this little globe where we
are? Light is uniform for the star Sirius and for us; moral philosophy
must be uniform. If a sentient, thinking animal in Sirius is born of a
tender father and mother who have been occupied with his happiness, he
owes them as much love and care as we owe to our parents. If someone in
the Milky Way sees a needy cripple, if he can relieve him and if he
does not do it, he is guilty toward all globes. Everywhere the heart
has the same duties: on the steps of the throne of God, if He has a
throne; and in the depth of the abyss, if He is an abyss."
I was plunged in these ideas when one of those genii who fill the
intermundane spaces came down to me. I recognized this same aerial
creature who had appeared to me on another occasion to teach me how
different God's judgments were from our own, and how a good action is
preferable to a controversy.
He transported me into a desert all covered with piled up bones; and
between these heaps of dead men there were walks of ever-green trees,
and at the end of each walk a tall man of august mien, who regarded
these sad remains with pity.
"Alas! my archangel," said I, "where have you brought me?"
"To desolation," he answered.
And who are these fine patriarchs whom I see sad and motionless at the
end of these green walks? they seem to be weeping over this countless
crowd of dead."
"You shall know, poor human creature," answered the genius from the intermundane spaces; "but first of all you must weep."
He began with the first pile. "These," he said, "are the twenty-three
thousand Jews who danced before a calf, with the twenty-four thousand
who were killed while lying with Midianitish women. The number of those
massacred for such errors and offences amounts to nearly three hundred
thousand. In the other walks are the bones of the Christians
slaughtered by each other for metaphysical disputes. They are divided
into several heaps of four centuries each. One heap would have mounted
right to the sky; they had to be divided."
"What!" I cried, "brothers have treated their brothers like this, and I have the misfortune to be of this brotherhood!"
"Here," said the spirit, "are the twelve million Americans killed in their fatherland because they had not been baptized."
"My God! why did you not leave these frightful bones to dry in the
hemisphere where their bodies were born, and where they were consigned
to so many different deaths? Why assemble here all these abominable
monuments to barbarism and fanaticism?"
"To instruct you."
"Since you wish to instruct me," I said to the genius, "tell me if
there have been peoples other than the Christians and the Jews in whom
zeal and religion wretchedly transformed into fanaticism, have inspired
so many horrible cruelties."
"Yes," he said. "The Mohammedans were sullied with the same
inhumanities, but rarely; and when one asked amman, pity, of them and
offered them tribute, they pardoned. As for the other nations there has
not been one right from the existence of the world which has ever made
a purely religious war. Follow me now." I followed him.
A little beyond these piles of dead men we found other piles; they were
composed of sacks of gold and silver, and each had its label: Substance
of the heretics massacred in the eighteenth century, the seventeenth
and the sixteenth. And so on in going back: Gold and silver of
Americans slaughtered, etc., etc. And all these piles were surmounted
with crosses, mitres, croziers, triple crowns studded with precious
"What, my genius! it was then to have these riches that these dead were piled up?"
"Yes, my son."
I wept; and when by my grief I had merited to be led to the end of the green walks, he led me there.
"Contemplate," he said, "the heroes of humanity who were the world's
benefactors, and who were all united in banishing from the world, as
far as they were able, violence and rapine. Question them."
I ran to the first of the band; he had a crown on his head, and a
little censer in his hand; I humbly asked him his name. "I am Numa
Pompilius," he said to me. "I succeeded a brigand, and I had brigands
to govern: I taught them virtue and the worship of God; after me they
forgot both more than once; I forbade that in the temples there should
be any image, because the Deity which animates nature cannot be
represented. During my reign the Romans had neither wars nor seditions,
and my religion did nothing but good. All the neighbouring peoples came
to honour me at my funeral: that happened to no one but me."
I kissed his hand, and I went to the second. He was a fine old man
about a hundred years old, clad in a white robe. He put his
middle-finger on his mouth, and with the other hand he cast some beans
behind him. I recognized Pythagoras. He assured me he had never had a
golden thigh, and that he had never been a cock; but that he had
governed the Crotoniates with as much justice as Numa governed the
Romans, almost at the same time; and that this justice was the rarest
and most necessary thing in the world. I learned that the Pythagoreans
examined their consciences twice a day. The honest people! how far we
are from them! But we who have been nothing but assassins for thirteen
hundred years, we say that these wise men were arrogant.
In order to please Pythagoras, I did not say a word to him and I passed
to Zarathustra, who was occupied in concentrating the celestial fire in
the focus of a concave mirror, in the middle of a hall with a hundred
doors which all led to wisdom. (Zarathustra's precepts are called
doors, and are a hundred in number.) Over the principal door I read
these words which are the précis of all moral philosophy, and
which cut short all the disputes of the casuists: "When in doubt if an
action is good or bad, refrain."
"Certainly," I said to my genius, "the barbarians who immolated all these victims had never read these beautiful words."
We then saw the Zaleucus, the Thales, the Aniximanders, and all the sages who had sought truth and practised virtue.
When we came to Socrates, I recognized him very quickly by his flat
nose. "Well," I said to him, "here you are then among the number of the
Almighty's confidants! All the inhabitants of Europe, except the Turks
and the Tartars of the Crimea, who know nothing, pronounce your name
with respect. It is revered, loved, this great name, to the point that
people have wanted to know those of your persecutors. Melitus and
Anitus are known because of you, just as Ravaillac is known because of
Henry IV.; but I know only this name of Anitus. I do not know precisely
who was the scoundrel who calumniated you, and who succeeded in having
you condemned to take hemlock."
"Since my adventure," replied Socrates, "I have never thought about
that man; but seeing that you make me remember it, I have much pity for
him. He was a wicked priest who secretly conducted a business in hides,
a trade reputed shameful among us. He sent his two children to my
school. The other disciples taunted them with having a father who was a
currier; they were obliged to leave. The irritated father had no rest
until he had stirred up all the priests and all the sophists against
me. They persuaded the counsel of the five hundred that I was an
impious fellow who did not believe that the Moon, Mercury and Mars were
gods. Indeed, I used to think, as I think now, that there is only one
God, master of all nature. The judges handed me over to the poisoner of
the republic; he cut short my life by a few days: I died peacefully at
the age of seventy; and since that time I pass a happy life with all
these great men whom you see, and of whom I am the least."
After enjoying some time in conversation with Socrates, I went forward
with my guide into a grove situated above the thickets where all the
sages of antiquity seemed to be tasting sweet repose.
I saw a man of gentle, simple countenance, who seemed to me to be about
thirty-five years old. From afar he cast compassionate glances on these
piles of whitened bones, across which I had had to pass to reach the
sages' abode. I was astonished to find his feet swollen and bleeding,
his hands likewise, his side pierced, and his ribs flayed with whip
cuts. "Good Heavens!" I said to him, "is it possible for a just man, a
sage, to be in this state? I have just seen one who was treated in a
very hateful way, but there is no comparison between his torture and
yours. Wicked priests and wicked judges poisoned him; is it by priests
and judges that you have been so cruelly assassinated?"
He answered with much courtesy--"Yes."
"And who were these monsters?"
"They were hypocrites."
"Ah! that says everything; I understand by this single word that they
must have condemned you to death. Had you then proved to them, as
Socrates did, that the Moon was not a goddess, and that Mercury was not
"No, these planets were not in question. My compatriots did not know at
all what a planet is; they were all arrant ignoramuses. Their
superstitions were quite different from those of the Greeks."
"You wanted to teach them a new religion, then?"
"Not at all; I said to them simply--'Love God with all your heart and
your fellow-creature as yourself, for that is man's whole duty.' Judge
if this precept is not as old as the universe; judge if I brought them
a new religion. I did not stop telling them that I had come not to
destroy the law but to fulfil it; I had observed all their rites;
circumcised as they all were, baptized as were the most zealous among
them, like them I paid the Corban; I observed the Passover as they did,
eating standing up a lamb cooked with lettuces. I and my friends went
to pray in the temple; my friends even frequented this temple after my
death; in a word, I fulfilled all their laws without a single
"What! these wretches could not even reproach you with swerving from their laws?"
"No, without a doubt."
"Why then did they put you in the condition in which I now see you?"
"What do you expect me to say! they were very arrogant and selfish.
They saw that I knew them; they knew that I was making the citizens
acquainted with them; they were the stronger; they took away my life:
and people like them will always do as much, if they can, to whoever
does them too much justice."
"But did you say nothing, do nothing that could serve them as a pretext?"
"To the wicked everything serves as pretext."
"Did you not say once that you were come not to send peace, but a sword?"
"It is a copyist's error; I told them that I sent peace and not a
sword. I have never written anything; what I said can have been changed
without evil intention."
"You therefore contributed in no way by your speeches, badly reported,
badly interpreted, to these frightful piles of bones which I saw on my
road in coming to consult you?"
"It is with horror only that I have seen those who have made themselves guilty of these murders."
"And these monuments of power and wealth, of pride and avarice, these
treasures, these ornaments, these signs of grandeur, which I have seen
piled up on the road while I was seeking wisdom, do they come from you?"
"That is impossible; I and my people lived in poverty and meanness: my grandeur was in virtue only."
I was about to beg him to be so good as to tell me just who he was. My
guide warned me to do nothing of the sort. He told me that I was not
made to understand these sublime mysteries. Only did I conjure him to
tell me in what true religion consisted.
"Have I not already told you? Love God and your fellow-creature as yourself."
"What! if one loves God, one can eat meat on Friday?"
"I always ate what was given me; for I was too poor to give anyone food."
"In loving God, in being just, should one not be rather cautious not to
confide all the adventures of one's life to an unknown man?"
"That was always my practice."
"Can I not, by doing good, dispense with making a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella?"
"I have never been in that country."
"Is it necessary for me to imprison myself in a retreat with fools?"
"As for me, I always made little journeys from town to town."
"Is it necessary for me to take sides either for the Greek Church or the Latin?"
"When I was in the world I never made any difference between the Jew and the Samaritan."
"Well, if that is so, I take you for my only master." Then he made me a
sign with his head which filled me with consolation. The vision
disappeared, and a clear conscience stayed with me.