60 in 60: #33 – Voltaire’s Miracles and Idolatry (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

Miracles and Idolatry
by Voltaire (1694 to 1778)

Memorable Line
“I have spoken of love. It is hard to pass from people who embrace each other to people who eat each other. ”

The Skinny
This series of short, sharp essays–taken from Dictionnaire Philosophique–makes wry observations about the value of martyrs, the history of cannibalism, the feelings of animals, the crimes of Plato, the fallibility of councils, and many other subjects.

Relevance? Argument?
Just staring at the cover of this book with its “We can only guffaw at all the humbug we are told about martyrs” pull quote made me chortle a little. Whenever I return to Voltaire, it’s like going out on the town with an old friend who was once the class clown but has, in his maturity, tempered this talent with hard-earned wisdom and an impressive encyclopedia of facts. It also seems appropriate to have revisited on inauguration day the kind of clarity and precision that makes Voltaire such a delight to read.

Perhaps one of the most compelling pieces included here, “Animals,” makes the argument that creatures feel the same pains as people, can learn, and should not be compared to machines because they can correct their mistakes. Along with the cleverness, there’s real feeling here: “Barbarians seize this dog who so prodigiously surpasses man in friendship. They nail him to a table and dissect him alive to show you the mesenteric veins. You discover in him all the same organs of feeling that you possess. Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal in order that he should not feel? Does he have nerves to be impassive? Do not assume that nature presents his impertinent contradiction.” This modern point of view is one that, in some quarters, is still denied to this day.

Equally as impressive is Voltaire’s attack on those who say animals have no souls, and his opening salvo of “Listen to other animals reasoning about animals” conveys a fundamental point about the author’s perspective. Voltaire is ever able to place himself above his subjects to see them more clearly, while still having compassion and empathy for the world and the people in it. “What proof have you of such a soul” in humans, let alone animals, Voltaire asks. “On what ground do you imagine that this being, which is not body, dies with the body? The greatest donkeys are those who have alleged that this soul is neither body nor spirit. There’s a fine system!”

Voltaire’s rampage through this topic is frighteningly economical, wasting neither words nor rhetoric, and being the sharper for it. “What can be the cause of so many contradictory errors? It is the habit men have always had of examining what a thing is before knowing whether it exists. The mobile tongue, the valve of a bellows, is called the soul of the bellows. What is this soul? It is a name I have given to this valve which descends, lets air in, raises itself, and pushes it through a tube when I agitate the bellows. Here we have no soul distinct from the machine.”

To be economical and passionate is difficult. To be economical, passionate, and precise in your details is something akin to a miracle, and yet this is Voltaire’s ordinary state of being on the written page.

Another favorite passage of mine comes from “Atheism,” which ultimately comes down on the side of religion, but had brickbats for everyone, based on Voltaire’s personal Stupid-o-Meter:

If there are atheists, who is to be blamed if not the mercenary tyrants of souls who, in revolting us against their swindles, compel some feeble spirits to deny the god whom these monsters dishonour?…Men fattened on our substance cry out to us, ‘Be sure that a she-ass spoke; believe that a fish swallowed up a man and threw him on the shore three days later safe and sound; don’t doubt that the god of the universe ordered one Jewish prophet to eat shit, and another prophet to buy two whores and to beget sons of whores on them. These are the very words a god of truth and purity is made to pronounce. Believe a hundred things either obviously abominable or mathematically impossible: otherwise the god of mercy will burn you in the fires of hell, not only for millions of billions of centuries, but throughout all eternity, whether you have a body, or whether you have no body. These inconceivable stupidities revolt feeble and reckless minds, as well as firm and wise minds.

Indeed, this book could as well be called Against Stupidity, in that Voltaire so frequently allies stupidity with greed, selfishness, idolatry, vanity, and illogic. Sometimes his sheer bloody-mindedness on the illogical is enough to make one laugh out loud: “What a strange idea, inspired by the wash-pot, that a jug of water washes away all crimes! Now that all children are baptized because a no less absurd idea assumes them all to be criminals, they are all saved until they reach the age of reason and can become guilty. So butcher them as quickly as possible to assure them paradise!”* That one can feel guilty about cackling is confirmed by this passage.

An essay on Papal Councils just about made me do a spit-take, with its mentions of an embarrassed Holy Ghost and its opening gambit, which I think Voltaire almost dares us to take seriously: “All councils are undoubtedly infallible: for they are composed of men. It is impossible for passions, intrigues, the lust for dispute, hatred, jealousy, prejudice, ignorance to ever reign in these assemblies. But why, it will be asked, have so many councils contradicted each other? It is to try our faith. Each was in the right in its turn.”

Voltaire’s a satirist, of course, but his satire is of the sort that outlasts centuries because it is wedded to a healthy sense of absurdity–and because, as much as he may disparage certain customs and portions of humanity, his love for the world shines through. The sharpness of his flensing is a measure of that love.

This isn’t to say Voltaire lacks seriousness, either. “Martyrs,” which I quoted above, has very serious things to say about the church. “Equality,” while including some terse hilarity, has a similar somber quality to it. Indeed, in very little time at all, I began to wish Rousseau had given over his Social Contract to Voltaire for revision, extension, and excision.

I’ll end, then, with one last little anecdote, from Voltaire’s essay “Hell”, because his words are much more entertaining than my own: “Not long ago a good and decent Protestant minister preached and wrote that the damned would one day be pardoned, that the suffering should be proportionate to the sin, and that the error of a moment cannot deserve infinite punishment. The priests, his colleagues, dismissed this indulgent judge. One said to him, ‘My dear fellow, I don’t believe any more than you do that hell is eternal; but it’s a good thing for your maid, your tailor, and even your lawyer to believe it.'”

* In revisiting Voltaire, certain aspects of his writing reminded me of the fiction of Rhys Hughes.

Surely Voltaire and Jonathan Swift spent some time drinking together?

Question for Readers
What have you encountered simultaneously so clever and wise and yet so wrong that you’ve laughed uproariously even as your brain told you to stop?

Next up, David Hume’s On Suicide


  1. Tim says

    Another one to add to my to-read list with Orwell and Ruskin. Thanks Jeff, you’re doing something wonderful here.

    When you mentioned hilarious wisdom that I don’t agree with I instantly thought of James Branch Cabell:

    “…And religion, like all the other products of romance, is true in a far higher sense than are the unstable conditions of our physical life. Indeed, the most prosaic of materialists proclaim that we are all descended from an insane fish, who somehow evolved the idea that it was his duty to live on land, and eventually succeeded in doing it. So, now that his earth-tending progeny manifest the same illogical aspiration toward heaven, their bankruptcy in common-sense may, even by material standards, have much the same incredible result.”

    Beyond Life, p. 115.

    Not the best example, since he’s not speaking literally and I sort of agree with him, but that’s the one that came to mind. Most of that book is quotable and much of it explosively funny.

  2. Transfiguring Roar says

    Kierkegaard on how everything is boring. That made me laugh.

    I’ve been aware of Voltaire for quite some time, but not gotten around to reading his books. He sounds like a champion.

  3. Pujd says

    Thank you for these posts. I discovered this series just today and I will get me some of them, of course doing my best to limit myself. This book seems essential though together with Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard so cheers for the walkthrough.