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Voltaire and the Battle for Religious Tolerance

François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltare, was one of the intellectual driving forces that lead to the French Revolution (1789-1799). A writer, historian and philosopher of the French Enlightenment, he is famous for his attacks on the established Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole, and his advocacy for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. He did not see his effort come to fruition with the violent abolition of the absolutist monarch and the rise of democracy, but he was one of the main figures who planted the seed of liberalism, religious tolerance and secularism in France and in Europe.

One of the satirical novellas meant to influence the people's attitude toward the established social order was L'Ingénu (The Huron), published in 1767, exactly 250 years ago. As in most of his previous works, Voltaire advocates deism and condemns intolerance, fanaticism, superstition and the Catholic clergy. It tells about a Native American, called "Child of Nature," who comes to France and sees the world in a more "natural way," the technique used often in France of the time to criticise the poisonous influence of the contemporary society. His tendency to comprehend things literary, like asking for circumcision after having read the Bible and waiting in a stream to be baptised, leads the main protagonist to comic misinterpretations. This work, which combines the genres of conte philosophique, an apologue and a novel, is typical for Voltaire's manner of criticising religious doctrine and the injustices of the French society.


Religious tolerance is one of the goals Voltaire most ardently fought for. It is also one of the most radical consequences of the French Revolution that came as a direct result of the kind of beliefs he propagated all his life. Voltaire candidly admires the degree of religious tolerance achieved in England in one of his “Lettres philosophiques,” but he advocates it in almost all of his writings.

Religious tolerance appears in perhaps his most famous concept, the jardin, expressed in his short novel, Candide. Voltaire’s jardin has been usually interpreted as an imperative to preoccupy ourselves with our terrestrial well-being, to stop looking upwards for the source of comfort, but to the ground, to our immediate physical and mental necessities and obligations. Le jardin also represents a call to abandon all metaphysical speculation, and to find fulfillment in our daily chores and duties. If “la cultivation de notre jardin” means working towards the betterment of our society as well, it is set up in Voltaire’s thought in opposition to religious intolerance and neglect of the material world stemming from our deep mental involvement in prescribed dogmas. In its extreme manifestation, this tendency leads to the Garden of Epicurus and a life of hedonistic pleasures, revived by Renaissance humanists, and often even further to the life of crude sensualism.

Voltaire’s thirst for knowledge and the development of reason arises from the atmosphere of the Age of Enlightenment, the revolutionary “Siècle des Lumières” that produced such figures as Diderot and Montesquieu, Locke and Newton, but the enlightened reasoning of these monumental thinkers probably originates from the writing of their sixteenth-century precursor. In his “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” Montaigne turns his attention from the contemplation of the divine toward this world. He cites the Milesian wench who, noticing the philosopher Thales spending all his time “à la contemplation de la voûte céleste et tenir toujours les yeux élevés contrement” (“in contemplation of the heavenly vault and always keeping his eyes raised upward”), placed something in front of him to make his stumble “pour l’avertir qu’il serait temps d’amuser son pensement aux choses qui étaient dans les nues, quand il aurait pourvu à celles qui était à ses pieds” (“to warn him that it would be time to amuse his thoughts with things in the clouds when he had seen to those at his feet”) (267). Montaigne’s pyrrhonian skepticism is evident in Voltaire’s admiration for Locke, who dared to doubt. In his Lettres philosophiques, Voltaires says, “…mais il ose aussi douter” (“…but he dares also to doubt”) (397). Like certain skeptics before him, Locke is willing to establish our uncertainty about the world we live in: “Locke, dis-je, considère enfin l’étendue, ou plutot le néant des connaissances humaines” (“Locke, I say, considers finally the extent, or rather the emptiness of human knowledge”) (398). Questioning the non-physical essence of the spirit and raising his doubt about the competency of the Scholastics to define the origin of the soul, Voltaire is pointing to the inability of human reason to prove empirically anything pertaining to the ostensibly immaterial world. 

At the end of Candide, Voltaire presents his religious ideal. The cohabitation of Christians and Muslims in the Turkish métairie illustrates for Jean Goldzink Voltaire’s central concept: when dogmas are abandoned in favor of practical virtue, tolerance is established in place of sectarian confrontations: “Le jardin de Candide – installé a coté de la métairie du bon turc s’oppose, donc, au fanaticisme religieux de l’Inquisition portugaise, au sectarisme froidement politique des jésuites, et reflète la tolérance déiste de l’Eldorado.” (“Candide’s garden – established next to the good Turk’s farm is opposed, therefore, to the religious fanaticism of Portuguese Inquisition, to the coldly political Jesuit sectarianism, and reflects the deist tolerance of Eldorado”) (79). Le jardin, therefore, can also be seen as a haven for people of different religions and beliefs.  It receives with open arms an Indian (Cacambo), a Catholic (Giroflée), and it makes the two antagonistic philosophers, Pangloss and Martin, work together. The only person driven out is the Jesuit baron, the epitome of religious intolerance, and the governing ideological motto for the little community, now led by Candide, is acquired from a Muslim.

Unlike Diderot, who ultimately opposes the pyrrhonian concept of l’épochè (in Greek, “abstention”), Voltaire implicitly picks it up to equate atheism and dogmatic religion. The dogma of original sin, according to Voltaire, preserves us from untimely rationalizations of reality by reminding us of the gravity of human existence, essentially concerned with the problem of the choice between the good and the bad: there is a radical mess in the universe, and it is up to man to combat that mess

Voltaire describes belief in dogmas as laziness, and man has to escape from the machine-state of his nature.  Candide acquires his wisdom by his travels, which represent action par excellence.  Martin Haag illustrates Voltaire’s deism in the following excerpt:

Dieu a laissé dans l’être un vide, ou même un désordre principiel, qu’il revient à l’homme de combler et de redresser. Du point de vue philosophique, le vide désigne l’existence en puissance, par opposition à l’existence en acte. La liberté humaine trouve sa place dans ce vide, dans cette distance entre la puissance et l’acte, ou encore dans cette suspension de la nécessité divine : l’homme est libre de coopérer ou non au progrès, c’est- à -dire à l’actualisation des fins morales de la divinité. (382)

God left a void in being, or even a principal disorder, for man to fulfill and straighten out. From the philosophic point of view, the void designates existence through potential, as opposed to existence through action. Human freedom finds a place in that void, in that distance between the potential and the action, or even in that suspension of divine necessity: man is free to cooperate or not in progress, i.e., in the realization of the moral purpose of the deity.

When the higher power does not control individuals, a great opportunity for intellectual exploration and artistic creation is opened, and Voltaire felt challenged to satisfy it. The deism he propagated turned out to be only a step toward complete secularism and atheism.

Svetozar Postic

Works Cited

Goldzink, Jean.  “Roman et idéologie dans Candide: Le Jardin.”  La Pensée. 155 (1971): 78-91.

Martin Haag, Eliane.  “Diderot et Voltaire lecteurs de Montaigne: du jugement suspendu à la raison libre.”  Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 3 (1997): 365-83.

Montaigne, Michel de.  Essais.  3 Vols.  Paris: Gallimard, 2002-3.

Voltaire.  “Lettres philosophiques.”  The Age of Enlightenment: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century French Literature.  Ed. Otis E. Fellows.  New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1961.  390-408.

Voltaire.  “Candide ou l’optimisme.”  Romans et contes.  Paris: Gallimard, 1979.  145-235.

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