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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 577-600

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Ethics and History in Voltaire's Attitudes toward the Jews

Harvey Chisick

The question of Voltaire's anti-Semitism has received considerable attention, partly because it suggests a paradox. Did one of the outstanding liberals and humanitarians of the eighteenth century, who devoted great energy and enthusiasm to fighting the prejudices of the religion into which he was born, share at least some of the prejudices of that religion? Having turned his back on the theologically based Jew-hatred of the Middle Ages, did Voltaire then help to originate a modern and secular form of anti-Semitism? Or, as some have maintained, did he criticize the Hebrew Scriptures primarily to get at Christianity? Were his attacks on the values and behavior of many of the protagonists of the Hebrew Bible directed against Jews of his own time, or were they for the most part thinly veiled criticisms of the Greek Scriptures and the Church militant? 1

Formulated in these terms, the problem has no solution for the simple reason that Voltaire can be quoted both saying things hurtful and insulting to Jews and, less frequently, expressing sympathy for them. Arthur Hertzberg, who sees Voltaire as the link between religiously based Jew-hatred and modern anti-Semitism, recognizes this, and to avoid the futile project of citation and countercitation considers how Voltaire was understood by his contemporaries and later generations. 2 Hertzberg finds that Voltaire was cited frequently by authors hostileto the Jews but virtually never by writers sympathetic to them. Whether this justifies Hertzberg's conclusion that Voltaire was therefore an anti-Semite is questionable.

First, a writer's work can be used selectively or distorted by those who borrow from it. Voltaire's works contain a veritable storehouse of anti-Jewish [End Page 577] statements. Yet this is not the whole story. Second, as modern anti-Semitism did not exist in Voltaire's time, it is risky to associate him with it. Moreover, it is difficult to determine whether later writers derived their anti-Semitism from Voltaire or simply found in his work a ready arsenal of cleverly expressed views suitable to opinions they already held. It is not clear whether Voltaire contributed to forming modern anti-Semitism or whether he was simply a convenient source of memorable citations for writers whose opinions differed fundamentally from his own. Certainly there are statements of openness toward and sympathy for Jews in the writings of Voltaire that no anti-Semite would accept.

I wish to suggest that framing the question in terms of Voltaire's attitudes toward the Jews rather than his anti-Semitism may be a more useful way to approach the problem. These attitudes and the judgments that follow from them depend in large part on Voltaire's conceptions of good and evil. His ethics and the assumptions on which they are based should offer a useful perspective from which to consider the ambivalence of what he wrote about the Jews. In what follows I will first consider Voltaire's basic ethical assumptions. Then I will examine his approach to the Hebrew Scriptures, for the most part using his important and popular Dictionnaire philosophique as my point of reference. I will then examine the importance of historiographical context to the issue under discussion and try to evaluate the relative importance of his historiography and his ethics in determining his attitudes toward the Jews.


Voltaire's basic ethical assumptions derived from two main sources. The first is the Enlightenment's paradigms of man and nature established by Locke and Newton. The second is the classical tradition as expressed in the great works of literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome, which formed the substance of the curricula of the collèges, or secondary schools, of eighteenth-century France—and indeed of all Europe—at that time.

It is probably fair to characterize the mainstream Enlightenment approach to ethics as moral Newtonianism. Most Enlightenment thinkers assumed that the moral universe was governed by a few simple, universally applicable principles, just as...


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