By Francois Voltaire (Author), H.I. Woolf (Translator)
Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764, is a series of short, radical essays - alphabetically arranged - that form a brilliant and bitter analysis of the social and religious conventions that then dominated eighteenth-century French thought. One of the masterpieces of the Enlightenment, this enormously influential work of sardonic wit - more a collection of essays arranged alphabetically, than a conventional dictionary - considers such diverse subjects as Abraham and Atheism, Faith and Freedom of Thought, Miracles and Moses. Repeatedly condemned by civil and religious authorities, Voltaire's work argues passionately for the cause of reason and justice, and criticizes Christian theology and contemporary attitudes towards war and society - and claims, as he regards the world around him: 'common sense is not so common'.
One of the most famous of all French philosophers and essayists, Voltaire became well known by writing against tyranny and defending the rights of the individual. Although he studied at a Jesuit school, he became a free thinker and in fact is one of the archetypes of European free thinkers of the twelfth/eighteenth and thirteenth/nineteenth centuries who turned against religion. Voltaire also wrote for the theater as well as composing philosophical treatises but was criticized by both philosophical and literary opponents for his attacks against religion. In fact, he was exiled to England for some time where his philosophical interests deepened and in 1734 he wrote his Philosophical Letters against the established schools of both religion and philosophy. Toward the end of his life, he settled in Switzerland where he died. His most important philosophical work is without doubt Candide which is considered one of the literary masterpieces of the French language.
Voltaire became well known by free thinkers and rationalists as a great champion of human freedom against religious prejudice and of rea- son against the dictates of the church. In fact, a number of Muslim modernists were attracted to him because they thought that his attack against Christianity could also be used by them as a way of defending their rationalistic interpretations of Islam against the attacks of certain Christian writers and missionaries. Voltaire knew something about Islam and wrote about it but his knowledge was fairly shallow. He was also attracted to certain aspects of Islamic literature, especially the writings of the Persian poet Sa'di, whom he saw mostly as a rational ethical writer rather than the devout Muslim that he was. Voltaire is remembered in history not only for his purely philosophical works but also for his impact upon the French Revolution and the ideas which emanated from it.
(Seyyed Hossein Nasr)