Voltaire: Philosophical Dictionary

(1764)

Explanation and Analysis of the Document

The selected articles deal primarily with issues of politics and government. Voltaire had published and thought extensively about such issues, but he puts forth no ready-made solutions. The Philosophical Dictionary expounds a skeptical view of the human capacity for self-government far removed from the stereotype of a facile “Enlightenment optimism.”

Voltaire's mordant skepticism dissolves the myths of superiority that underlay the aristocratic and monarchical governments of eighteenth-century Europe, but he puts little faith in the ability of people to govern themselves. The natural desire of men to dominate and the limited resources the earth affords make large-scale equality impossible. Political equality among men—Voltaire had no interest in questions of equality between men and women—is only barely possible in the small areas the size of a city-state that he saw as the only setting realistically possible for a stable democracy....

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Medallion portrait of Voltaire (Yale University Art Gallery)

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