Jews in Voltaire's Candide

By Scherr, Arthur | Romance Notes, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Jews in Voltaire's Candide


Scherr, Arthur, Romance Notes


MOST Voltaire scholars insist that he hated Jews. They quote various writings to show his hostility to the Old Testament and the absurdities of Jewish religious dogma and fanaticism and his contempt for Jews, both as depicted in the Bible and in their contemporary European lifestyle to the extent he was familiar with it. They argue that he retained resentments dating from a time when former business partners who were Jewish merchants or bankers had cheated him or gone bankrupt, despising wealthy Jews for their alleged obsession with money and poor Jews for their rumored unkemptness, primitive superstitions, insularity, and failure to develop a substantive cultural identity. (1)

Usually, scholars quote from Voltaire's corpus of erudite, semi-scholarly writings, such as the Essai Sur Les Moeurs and the Dictionnaire Philosophique, his multi-volume Correspondance, and obscure pamphlets that focus particularly on the Jewish religion's shortcomings and the violent, barbaric history of the Jewish people as literally depicted in the Old Testament, to reveal his irrational prejudice against the so-called Chosen People. Occasionally, however, Voltaire's well-known masterpiece, Candide, is brought into the argument to "prove" the ubiquity of his antipathy toward the Jews.

Briefly discussing Voltaire in his essay, "The Attitude of the Enlightenment Towards the Jew," using Candide as an example, Paul H. Meyer concluded that the sage of Ferney's animosity against Jews was appalling and unremitting. Meyer asserts:

A great deal has been written on the specific issue of Voltaire's attitude to the Jews, and neither the fact that his hostility did primarily serve as a protective screen behind which he could attack the Roman Catholic Church with relative impunity, nor the thesis that he was genuinely repelled by the instances of primitive ferocity found in the Old Testament, will completely explain either the irrelevance of the numerous gratuitous aspersions cast on the Jews as individuals, as in Candide, or his frequent and deliberate distortions of the facts related in the Bible. There is no question but that Voltaire, particularly in his latter years, nursed a violent hatred of the Jews and it is equally certain that his animosity...did have a considerable impact on public opinion in France. (Meyer 1177)

Similarly, Arnold Ages, who has written numerous indignant attacks on Voltaire's Anti-Semitism, based on selections from diverse sources, points out: "His Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, and Candide, to name but a few of his better known works, are saturated with comments on Jews and Judaism and the vast majority are negative" (361).

However, a closer examination of Candide makes evident that, for Voltaire as for most philosophes, Jews, like Frenchmen, Englishmen, and myriad other groups, embodied what David Hume, one of the age's leading thinkers, referred to as the "constant and universal principles of human nature," no more, no less (Hume 93). As Voltaire put it in his Examen Important de Milord Bolingbroke, "Nowadays, in Rome, in London, in Paris, in all the great cities, in place of religion, as in Alexandria from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, as the letter to Sevarius, written from Alexandria, asserts: 'All have only one God; Christians, Jews, and all the others, adore it with the same ardor: it is money.'" After quoting this statement, Voltaire scholar Pierre Aubery notes that "the Jews of his time were indeed very similar in their values and behaviour to Christians and other people whose values and behaviour were, for the most part, far from admirable" (Aubery 181-182).

Surprisingly, none of Voltaire's defenders against charges of anti-Semitism have paid any attention to how Jews are actually depicted in his greatest work, Candide. This may be because the broad humor of the conte makes it hard to take its ideas about race and ethnicity seriously. Although Jews are not prominent in the conte, a careful reader can get a good idea of Voltaire's opinion of Jews in relation to other ethnic or religious groups. …

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