Voltaire's Revolution

Writings from His Campaign to Free Laws from Religion

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Editor(s): 
G. K. Noyer
  • Amherst, NY: 
    Prometheus Books
    , July
     2015.
     397 pages.
     $21.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781633880382.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This volume brings together in translation a variety of Voltaire’s shorter writings on religion that until now have been relatively inaccessible to Anglophones. In a significant appendix, Noyer has also collected and translated writings about Voltaire as a man and a thinker, mostly from the pens of his contemporaries.

Mostly drawn from the 1760s and arranged chronologically, Voltaire’s writings in this volume demonstrate the bewildering whirl of Enlightenment print culture: they take a variety of forms—dialogues, open letters, faux sermons, invented news articles, and so on; address a multitude of targets; and were published under a range of names. Together, the pieces delineate Voltaire’s thinking on Christianity, deism, religious pluralism, and the appropriate relation between political authority and religion. They dispel the notion that Voltaire was an atheist (he found atheism morally pernicious and threatening to society), give us insight into his thinking about other major figures of his day (Bolingbroke, Bayle, and others), and of course display his mordant wit.

This is a peculiar edition. As a translation, it is presumably of limited use to specialists, and the book wants for an index that would make it useful to researchers, so one presumes that it is intended largely for teaching. But Voltaire’s writing is very much a product of its time, shot through with references that only scholars of eighteenth-century France will recognize. Though the book has a glossary identifying some of the people and events mentioned, it is limited in scope, and the notes are even more limited.

This is also a peculiarly American edition. While it does provide some biographical and historical context, the introduction is more about the deism of Jefferson, Adams, and their contemporaries than it is about Voltaire, correlating with Noyer’s (quite explicit) concern with the current political climate of the U.S. and the rhetoric of America as a “Christian nation.” Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to this sort of move; one can appreciate Noyer’s attempt to point out the contemporary relevance of Voltaire’s writings, even as she regrets the dehistoricizing tendency of doing so. (Even stipulating to Noyer’s reading of the founding fathers, the link between their views on religion and Noyer’s normative position on the appropriate place of religion in the polity today is never addressed—and I note this as someone sympathetic to Noyer’s view.)

Nevertheless, the volume expands the availability of texts significant to the study of the Enlightenment, of deism, and of the development of laïcité.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Frank is Lecturer at Columbia College Chicago.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

G. K. Noyer is a freelance writer and translator. She has worked as a script writer for French television programs, translated many more, and has also done translations for websites, art galleries, and museums.

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