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Propaganda is the word for almost everything Voltaire wrote — all 200 volumes of it. The only work that has lasted is Candide — ironically, a satire on the Enlightenment of which he is supposedly the supreme representative. His plays, in which he tried to correct the “barbarism” of Shakespeare, are rarely performed. They too are propaganda.

Voltaire’s worst vice, however, is his obsessive anti-Semitism. In the Philosophical Dictionary, he misses no opportunity to repeat every old religious prejudice against the Jewish people — and to add new, secularised ones. This really matters, because the Enlightenment played a key role in the mutation of Christian anti-Judaism into the various forms of modern anti-Semitism. Jews were beneficiaries of the religious and political emancipations that took place after the French Revolution. But they were also targeted by the new nationalist and socialist movements that emerged in its wake. They still are. Voltaire is one of the progenitors of all those, particularly on the Left, who today blame the world’s misfortunes on Israel and the Jews, but justify their prejudices by the kind of rationalisations that he deployed. “I would not be in the least surprised if these people do not some day become deadly to the human race,” he wrote in his Lettre de Memmius à Cicéron. He saw Jews as an “Asiatic” nation, whose only contributions to Europe had been “their superstition, their stubbornness and their usury”.

The mention of usury is a clue to Voltaire’s motive. While at Frederick’s court, he had become embroiled in an ugly legal dispute with a Jewish financier, Abraham Hirschel, who had invested in government bonds on Voltaire’s behalf, using the latter’s market-sensitive information. Hirschel accused the Frenchman of theft and forgery; Frederick, himself an anti-Semite, was probably more irritated by Voltaire’s lies and insider trading. It was this litigation that precipitated Voltaire’s break with the king and his flight from Prussia, only to be overtaken in Frankfurt by royal agents in hot pursuit — one of the most humiliating episodes in his life. Voltaire was later reconciled with his Prussian patron; but he never forgave the Jews.
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E. M. Langille
April 14th, 2018
6:04 AM
Voltaire admired the Classics and greco-latin culture. Since Judaism gave rise to Christianity, all the more reason to despise and attack it. Voltaire nevertheless fought sectarianism and religious fanaticism with unprecedented zeal. He can also be justly credited with having promoted secularism and the rule of law.

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