02-28-2008 11:29 AM
Philosophical Dictionary was emblematic of the French Enlightenment. The scathing work chipped away at the archaic institutional structures of Old Regime France and the power of the Catholic Church. Bearing little resemblance to a modern-day dictionary, Voltaire's work uses sarcasm and maxims alike to engage the reader.
A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays
In this collection of anti-clerical works from the last 25 years of Voltaire's life, he roundly attacks the philosophical optimism of the deists and the papacy, revealing his polemics and humanist philosophies.
Letters Concerning the English Nation (a.k.a. Philosophical Letters)
Voltaire's two-and-a-half-year sojourn in England left a profound impression, and these letters -- written as though explaining English society to a French friend -- focus on the country's religion and politics, with commentaries on Quakers, the Church of England, Presbyterians, Anti-Trinitarians, Parliament, the government, and commerce. They also include essays on Locke, Descartes, and Newton. Voltaire was much influenced by English tolerance, and his observations on the subject sounded a revolutionary note among European readers that resonated for long afterward. First published in English in 1733, Philosophical Letters was condemned by the French government as "likely to inspire a license of thought most dangerous to religion and civil order." It remains a landmark of the Age of Reason.
Zadig and L'Ingenu
In Zadig, Voltaire's hero must face many terrible and humorous misfortunes on his path to happiness. Gentle Zadig is abandoned by his fickle fiance, framed by a jealous enemy, sold in to slavery, and sentenced to death before he can reunite with his true love. L'Ingenu depicts a "child of nature" brought up by Huron Indians, who returns to his native Brittany, where he exposes contemporary hypocracy with his simple, naive view of the world. Both are stories of young men who are both blessed and buffeted by the workings of fortune.
Micromegas and Other Short Fictions
Traveling through strange environments, Voltaire's protagonists are educated, often by surprise, into the complexities and contradictions of their world. Arriving on Earth from the star Sirius, the gigantic explorer Micromégas discovers a diminutive people with an inflated idea of their own importance in the universe. Babouc in "The World as It Is" learns that humanity is equally capable of barbarism and remarkable altruism. Other characters include a little-known god of infidelity, a pretentious graduate who invites a savage to dinner, and an Indian fakir who puts up with a bed of nails to gain the adoration of his female disciples. These "fables of reason" are often seen as an early form of Science Fiction.
Additional Recommended Reading
The Portable Enlightenment Reader
Isaac Kramnick (Editor)
The Age of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, also called the Age of Reason, was so named for an exultant intellectual movement that shook the foundations of Western civilization. In championing radical ideas such as individual liberty and an empirical appraisal of the universe through rational inquiry and natural experience, Enlightenment philosophers in Europe and America planted the seeds for modern liberalism, cultural humanism, science and technology, and laissez-faire capitalism. This volume brings together the era's classic works that demonstrate the pervasive impact of Enlightenment views on philosophy and epistemology as well as on political, social, and economic institutions.
Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
In 1766 Rousseau was on the run from intolerance, persecution, and enemies who decried him as a madman. Meanwhile, Hume, was universally lauded as a paragon of decency. Having willingly put himself under Hume's protection, Rousseau, with his beloved dog, Sultan, took refuge in England, where he would find safety and freedom. Yet within months, the exile had accused Hume of plotting to dishonor him. The violence of Hume's response was totally out of character, and the resulting furor involved leading figures in British and French society, and became the talk of intellectual Europe.
The Rights of Man
History has come to regard Paine as the figure who gave political cogency to the liberating ideas of the Enlightenment, and his great pamphlets, Common Sense and Rights of Man, are seen as classic arguments in defense of the individual's right to assert his or her freedom in the face of tyranny.