Tolerance and intolerance in the writings of Voltaire : the instance of the Jews
This thesis explores the apparent paradox that exists between Voltaire's promotion of universal tolerance and his negative writing about the Jews. It considers the way that past critics have tended to approach these two aspects of his work, often either ignoring those elements that do not fit with their view of Voltaire, or interpreting his comments relating to the Jews as manifestations of an 'antisemitism' that denies the sincerity of his drive for tolerance. We therefore explore today's understanding of the term antisemitism, and trace the development in such thinking from historical Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Jewishness through to the nineteenth- and twentieth- century pseudo-biological theories of race. The thesis contends that Voltaire's promotion of tolerance and his often vitriolic Jewish discourse do not offer contradictory arguments, but represent differing approaches to the same problematic questions: the causes and effects of intolerance, and the ways mankind might be encouraged to use reason and to avoid fanaticism. Using psychocritical analysis, we investigate Voltaire's figures relating to the Jews and the Christians, figures that represent them as both victims and victimizers. This methodology further allows us to consider Voltaire's own self-understanding, an understanding that appears not only in terms of an empathy with fellow sufferers, but also of a suggested awareness of a certain relationship to the Jews themselves. The thesis therefore presents two propositions: first, that it was Voltaire's unconscious acknowledgement of this (for him) troubling kinship with the Jews that gave birth to his more 'hallucinatory' anti- Jewish form of writing, and second, that it was only when he began to embrace this awareness, to tolerate his self-understanding, that he embarked on his programme to promote the rights of all people, including the Jews.