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Philosophical Dictionary Paperback – January 21, 2010
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Text: English, French (translation)
About the Author
Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) (1694--1778) was one of the key thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Of his many works, "Candide" remains the most popular.
Peter Constantine was awarded the 1998 PEN Translation Award for "Six Early Stories "by Thomas Mann and the 1999 National Translation Award for "The Undiscovered Chekhov: Forty-three New Stories." Widely acclaimed for his recent translation of the complete works of Isaac Babel, he also translated Gogol's "Taras Bulba" and Tolstoy's "The Cossacks "for the Modern Library. His translations of fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including "The New Yorker, Harper's," and "Paris Review. "He lives in New York City.
Top customer reviews
I found this translation to be easily readable. I especially appreciated Besterman’s many footnotes that provide historical context to Voltaire’s observations, such as that in the entry “Chinese catechism,” which informs the reader that European knowledge of the far east was “scanty and inaccurate” in Voltaire’s lifetime. Also, Besterman, via his own footnotes, reminds us at various points that Voltaire’s words should not be taken too literally. He is often speaking in an ironic, and sometimes, sarcastic sense. Many entries end with an attribution of the entry to some other author. For example, the entry “Abraham” is attributed to one Nicolas Fréret. Besterman informs us that this was “merely part of Voltaire’s prudential campaign of pretense that the Dictionnaire philosophique was a collective work.” (p. 20) It was prudent for Voltaire to distance himself from some of his more controversial opinions because he could be arrested, tortured, and killed if he offended either the church or the crown.
This is a book that can be read in any order you wish. Pick it up, open to a random page, and pick the first topic that appears. Start reading. Skip entries that do not interest you. I, of course, being a little obsessed with order, felt compelled to read the dictionary from beginning to end. Every entry was fascinating. But I found the entry “Fanaticism” to be almost chilling in its relevance to today’s events. Voltaire writes there, “How can you answer a man who tells you that he would rather obey god than men, and who is therefore sure to deserve heaven in cutting your throat?” (p. 203) One thinks of the fanatics that call themselves the Islamic State. But if you leave off the part about cutting throats, it could also apply to certain American politicians.
I don’t think Voltaire felt any obligation to cover every aspect of philosophy in his dictionary. I found no entries for scholasticism or stoicism, for example. I think he just wrote a brief essay on any topic that sparked his interest and then filed it away for later inclusion in his dictionary. So, Philosophical Dictionary is really a collection of essays arranged in alphabetical order by topic. The lengths of these essays range from a few paragraphs to twenty-five pages.
The majority of the topics concern religion: Abraham, Angel, Atheism, Baptism, Christianity (one of the longest essays), Soul, Transubstantiation, etc. In his topics on biblical events, Voltaire’s first question is did the alleged event occur? Of course, even posing such a question about sacred scripture in print in 18th century France could get a writer in deep trouble. The Dictionary ended up on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
This particular paperback edition is cheaply printed. In some words, for example, the loop in lower case letter “e” is filled in so that it looks like a “c”. The same blotting affects the loop in the lower case “a”. Superscripted numerals (for footnotes) sometimes look like little blots of ink. Only context allows you to deduce what number was intended. The poor print was not a serious obstacle to reading, but it makes for an ugly typeface.
This version is actually a condensed version of over 300 pages. I found a copy of the original in 6 volumes at over 300 pages each. This work is a `dictionary' arranged in alphabetical order. The subjects he chooses are seemingly random and include such things as `beauty', `corn', `envy', `Joan of Arc', and almost any other thing you can think of.
I found many of the articles to be dated and not very `philosophical', but many others were fascinating. I enjoyed his views on the soul, atheism, and free-will. They were clearly philosophical and were probably considered radical at the time. Many of his radical views are now considered mainstream, but some are still bound to offend. His satire was not as biting as some of his other works, but it still probably caused offence to many of his contemporaries.
I was somewhat disappointed that this was a condensed version, but I still appreciated the opportunity to read more from Voltaire in a Kindle freebie.
I was almost turned off and put the book away after reading so much anti-semitic writings. Then, I took it with a grain of salt, understood that Voltaire was no different from his fellow man on the matter (in the 1700s) so I just kept reading.
I am glad that I did for his attacks rolled away from the Jews to many more subjects. A delightful read with a tinge of missogyny, deism, anti-semitism and of course a few old and outdated ideas like these.
What is more important is that Voltaire's writings influenced the Jacobin revolution that swept Europe after it devoured France. Kudos Voltaire!
I really enjoyed his reflections over religion and undoubtedly, this is a good book to read and grow in knowledge.
The only bothering part of this book is the accepted prejudice of the time. I wonder if Mr. Voltaire was actually just spouting what the Catholic church wanted to hear at the time to keep from being persicuted