Abortion, Alienation, Anomie
- Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary by Robert Nisbet
Harvard, 318 pp, £12.25, November 1982, ISBN 0 674 70065 1
I have reason to believe that the Harvard University Press has it in mind to revive the literary genre of which the exemplar is Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique – a bright idea, for Voltaire’s Dictionary is still read with delight by those who have come to think the better-known Candide intolerably tiresome.
Vol. 5 No. 3 · 17 February 1983
SIR: The references to Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary in Peter Medawar’s review of Robert Nisbet’s Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (LRB, 2 December 1982) include a general one to ‘the anti-religious, anti-clerical coloration of Voltaire’ and a particular one to what he calls its ‘best-known passage’ in the article ‘Tout est bien’, beginning: ‘Either God wishes to expunge the evil from this world and cannot; or he can and does not wish to; or he neither wishes to nor can; or he both wishes to and can.’ These reference give a misleading view of Voltaire’s position. He opposed dogmatic religion, what he called ‘I’infâme’, especially of the Judaco-Christian variety, but not what he called ‘true’ religion, as may be seen in the articles ‘Dieu’, ‘Religion’, ‘Athée’, ‘Théiste’, and so on. And the passage in question is not by Voltaire himself but is a genuine quotation from the treatise De ira Dei by the fourth-century Christian theologian Lactantius, where it is a spurious quotation from Epicurus (Patrologia Latina, 1844, Vol. 7, col. 121). Lactantius tries to refute this ‘black theodicy’; Voltaire neither accepts nor rejects it, but comments that ‘the problem of good and evil remains an insoluble chaos for those who inquire in good faith’; it was accepted by the real opponents of religion, such as Holbach, whom Voltaire opposed. He was in fact just as ‘even-handed’ as Medawar says Nisbet is.