Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique portatif and its Hostile Epigones


Modern Languages & Literatures


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



French authorities reacted with fury and violence against Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). Not only was the work banned in France; a juvenile delinquent accused of genuflecting before his bookshelf, which contained the book, was tortured and executed in Abbeville in 1764. As his corpse was consumed by flames, a copy of Voltaire's dictionary was tossed in the fire, blamed for having induced the youth to commit impious acts. Voltaire's text also provoked virulent reactions in the world of letters, several of them in alphabetical order. Over the course of a decade Voltaire incessantly revised and expanded his dictionary; in turn, his hostile epigones likewise countered with new, augmented editions. All sought to reach as many people as possible, aiming their texts at a broad reading public, whose numbers had increased markedly since the beginning of the century as literacy rates rose in France. In my paper I discuss the ways in which Voltaire and his enemies used dictionaries in order to propound Enlightened versus Catholic definitions of truth and the nature of existence, and thereby to sway both private belief and public policy. The Dictionnaire philosophique has generated a plethora of literary criticism, to which occasional recourse will enhance our appreciation of Voltaires textual strategies. In turn, we will contextualize the anti-Voltaire dictionaries within recent scholarship on what Isaiah Berlin has called the Counter-Enlightenment. Surprisingly, though Voltaire is by far the superior writer, he is not the clear-cut winner in this battle, as we shall see.

Conference Name

American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies

Conference Location

San Antonio, TX

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