Translated by Theodore Besterman
Date of Publication: 1764 (my edition, 2004 by Penguin Books)
Number of Pages: 400
Synopsis (from back cover): Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764, is a series of short, radical essays, which form a brilliant and bitter analysis of the social and religious conventions that dominated eighteenth-century French thought. One of the masterpieces of the Enlightenment, this enormously influential work of sardonic wit – more a collection of essays arranged alphabetically than a conventional dictionary – considers such diverse subjects as Abraham and Atheism, Faith and Freedom of Thought, Miracles and Moses. Repeatedly condemned by civil and religious authorities, Voltaire argues passionately for the cause of reason and justice, and criticizes Christian theology and contemporary attitudes towards war and society – and claims, as he regards the world around him: “common sense is not so common”.
Review: The issues explored in this book are still relevant today. I found myself agreeing with a lot of his views, especially those on Tolerance and Beauty. His definition of beauty, of its relativism, is often repeated today: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This is of course true, but often forgotten in today’s Hollywood-obsessed world. We are barraged by images of stick-thin models and actresses and told that this is the standard of beauty. The truth is, there is no standard of beauty. Even Voltaire, almost 250 years ago, understood this.
His views on Tolerance, however, are even more relevant today. In our deeply divided society, it’s becoming more and more obvious that there is a lack of tolerance. I even admit that I have had a less than tolerant attitude toward certain right-wing politicians. Voltaire also states, quite emphatically, that Christians, although their religion preaches tolerance, are actually the most intolerant people in the world. Again, I agree with this statement and believe it remains true today. I believe there is too much self-righteousness and a quickness to proselytize in modern Christianity that takes away from its message of love, peace, and yes, tolerance.
These were not the only essays that touched me. The entire book is filled with diverse subjects, and will surely appeal to a wide range of modern readers. You don’t have to agree with all his views to appreciate Voltaire’s intelligence and quick wit. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in philosophy, history, or political science, and it was a wonderful treat to get to read this for class credit!
Reviewed by Sarah