Voltaire 10-franc note

Michael Johnson’s article “The Delightful Voltaire” (linked from LRC today) tells me something I never knew before about Voltaire – namely that he chose the name “Voltaire” as an anagram of “Arouet l.j.” (the “l.j.” standing for “le jeune”). Johnson calls it a “loose” anagram, but it’s actually quite exact, given the once-prevalent convention that I and J are interchangeable, as are U and V (a convention that made sense in a culture steeped in Latin).

Incidentally, in another article recently linked from LRC, Tim Black claims that “the attacks launched against religion by thinkers like John Locke or Voltaire were not targeted at its content – they were targeted at its form as part of the state.” This sentence is a bit ambiguous, since Locke and Voltaire were attacking particular religious institutions and doctrines, not “religion” as such – but they clearly thought that various widely held religious views were false and dangerous, and were definitely attacking these views and not solely their forcible imposition by government (though of course they attacked that too).

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30 Responses to Uoltajre!

  1. MagnusGoddmunsson August 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Lets see, Religion turn into a bad thing when impose their beliefs by the force or when the State uses it to justify his actions, right? That’s the only problem I see with religion in general.

    • Roderick August 17, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

      Well, “religion in general” is a pretty broad concept, and not, as I said, what Voltaire & Locke were attacking. But do you think specific ideas and practices (religious or otherwise) can never have negative influence except when they’re backed up by force?

      • MBH August 17, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

        Like the Misesian conflation of explanatory subjectivism with normative subjectivism?

  2. Gary Chartier August 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    So, in order to start a fight, how about these?

    1. The belief that one’s social position is preordained by God or karma.

    2. The belief that women are inherently inferior to men.

    3. The belief that non-procreative sex is evil.

    4. The belief that particular human institutions are infallible, and so have special authority to tell others what to do.

    5. The belief that particular human texts somehow emerged in ways that exempt them from critical scrutiny and that ensure their infallibility.

    6. The belief that monarchs are ultimately appointed by God

    7. The belief that ordinary bodily processes make people ritually impure.

    8. The belief that interest is in principle unjust (rather than, say, often a pointer to the existence of background injustice).

    9. The belief that economic success is consistently and predictably a reward for virtue, and economic failure and loss clear evidence of vice.

    10. The belief that awareness of innate moral corruption should lead to self-loathing.

    11. The belief that parental authority is ratified in some way by the cosmic order.

    12. The belief that friendship, romance, and sex outside one’s religious community is evil.

    13. The belief that desire for anything this-worldly is a source of (alternately) harm and pointless distress or moral corruption, and so is to be extirpated.

    • KP August 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

      Basically, a belief that holds than an action or state of being is objectively morally right or wrong?

      • MagnusGoddmunsson August 17, 2010 at 9:20 pm #

        Okay, I think I’ve already understood. But in the end, it’s the same problem, imposing something to others who don’t want to follow that, right? Or I’m wrong again?

        • Roderick August 17, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

          But in the end, it’s the same problem, imposing something to others who don’t want to follow that, right?

          Well, holding and propagating one of those beliefs doesn’t itself violate anyone’s rights. But it’s still harmful.

      • JOR August 18, 2010 at 12:03 am #

        False beliefs about what is right and what is wrong would be harmful, no?

        • KP August 18, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

          Maybe. But doesn’t that just beg the question as to whether such beliefs are even falsifiable?

        • JOR August 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

          I’m not sure what you mean. If moral realism is false, then all moral beliefs are false (but not harmful or objectionable, since absent some standard of good, there is no harm or benefit).

        • Rad Geek August 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm #


          I’m not sure what you mean. If moral realism is false, then all moral beliefs are false

          Well, that depends on the meta-ethical claim about the meaning of moral “beliefs” that happens to accompany the anti-realism. A few anti-realists — error theorists, like J.L. Mackie — believe that moral beliefs express claims about a non-existent property, and hence all moral beliefs are false. Most anti-realists, however, have some other theory of how moral expressions are supposed to work which hold that they don’t make any assertions at all, either truly or falsely — among them emotivists, expressionists, prescriptivists, etc. For these folks, “Murder is wrong” doesn’t state a truth, but it doesn’t state a falsehood, either; it’s not a statement, but rather another kind of speech-act, and your propensity to engage in that kind of speech-act is, strictly speaking, something other than a belief with propositional content.

          (but not harmful or objectionable, since absent some standard of good, there is no harm or benefit).

          That needn’t follow. You could be an antirealist about moral goodness without being an antirealist about all forms of goodness. (Say, prudential goodness I take it that this may be one way to gloss, e.g., Mandeville’s position.) In any case, if one is an antirealist about all forms of goodness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is going to withdraw claims about what’s good and what’s not good; it’s just that she has a different theory about what it comes to, logically, when she makes a claim like “The belief in the curse of destruction is harmful.” On a realist theory, “harm” refers to some form of evil (moral, prudential, or otherwise) being inflicted; so the statement simply ascribes the property of producing those evils to the belief. On the kind of theories that typically accompany antirealism, the claim is still going to be made; it’s just going to be held to boil down to something like “Boo! belief in the curse of destruction!”

        • JOR August 24, 2010 at 2:20 am #

          Charles, I’m aware of those theories, but I think error theory is the only nonrealist theory that is both honest with itself about what people are doing when they make moral claims, and coherent. (To be coherent, the emotivists especially would seem to have to deny that people even have moral beliefs at all). And as far as I can tell, when people talk about “good” in a nonmoral sense it either unselfcounsciously presupposes some moral claim(s) or else just reduces to either the speaker’s preferences or their ideas about most other people’s preferences. What is “prudent” depends pretty directly on either what is right, or on what is desired, depending on the sense in which it is used.

      • MBH August 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

        Basically, a belief that holds than an action or state of being is objectively morally right or wrong?

        That’s not equivalent to what Gary said. I read it more like this, “a belief that such and such is right or wrong without rational justification.” There’s nothing wrong the proposition that “it’s objectively morally wrong to kill without rational justification.”

        • KP August 19, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

          That doesn’t change anything, it just furthers the question of whether one’s justification for said actions or state was indeed rational.

        • MBH August 20, 2010 at 12:57 am #

          Gary’s point is that where the standard ought to be rationality, there’s instead appeals to authority and the like.

        • KP August 20, 2010 at 6:42 am #

          See above.

        • MBH August 22, 2010 at 1:02 am #

          See below.

        • KP August 22, 2010 at 9:07 am #

          OK? You basically just repeated yourself without addressing the question raised.

  3. Gary Chartier August 17, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

    Sorry, KP, was your comment a response to what I wrote? I didn’t intend my list to provide any support for the denial that choices are objectively right or wrong. I was simply trying to provide examples of what seem to me to be false and harmful religious beliefs. I don’t believe that all religious or moral beliefs fall into this category

    • KP August 17, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

      I was just pointing out that your list of “fightin’ words” basically have the same recurring ideas about right and wrong.

      I don’t really see anything false about several of the items listed though.

  4. Joel Schlosberg August 18, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    The surname of the heroine of Carl Sagan’s Contact, Eleanor Arroway, was chosen as a homophone of “Arouet” as a reference to Voltaire; her first name pays homage to a rather different heroine of Sagan’s, Eleanor Roosevelt.

    There’s something about the lack of separate I/J and U/V characters in early English that seems to throw people (I’d have thought that reading the Dr. Seuss book On Beyond Zebra! at an early age would have gotten people used to the idea of alphabets not being static); there’s a myth that the absence of J Street in Washington DC, which in actuality is due to the I/J characters not being distinct at the time, has something to do with a grudge by the city’s designer against John Jay:
    In the “only on Wikipedia” department, here’s their discussion of the proper spelling of the name of Monty Python’s Biggus Dickus, since neither the letter “U” nor the “CK” combination existed at the time:

    With regards to how much Voltaire’s critiques of religion had to do with them being imposed by force, his famous “absurdities and atrocities” quote shows up in several differently-worded forms that differ in whether compulsion is involved, for instance “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities” vs. “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

    And in other Voltaire news, there’s a new edition of a book by Voltaire about religion, God and Human Beings, that has never been translated into English before.

    • Roderick August 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

      Iä Iä Voltaire fhtagn! I see that the introduction is by S. T. Joshi, best known as an H.P. Lovecraft scholar.

      • Srubna August 20, 2010 at 2:17 am #

        S.T. Joshi is excellent. So is his friend, Robert M. Price – both excellent critics of religion and Lovecraft scholars. Price is also my fav. biblical scholar.

        • Joel Schlosberg August 22, 2010 at 12:20 am #

          OK, I got beaten to the punch with the Joshi/Price comparison; also, both Joshi and Price make a point of putting in references to and quotes from Lovecraft in writing on other subjects. Joshi also recently edited Against Religion: The Atheist Writings of H. P. Lovecraft, which brings together material mostly drawn from Lovecraft’s letters (Lovecraft didn’t write all that much about his religious beliefs in his published nonfiction, though there is a concise and direct statement of his atheism in “A Confession of Unfaith”, previously included in Miscellaneous Writings).

          Lovecraft’s popularity among freethinkers isn’t hard to understand, as his horror fiction revolves around humanity’s insignificance in the universe rather than the conventional mythical supernatural entities; science fiction author Fritz Leiber called him “a literary Copernicus” who “shifted the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space”.

  5. Srubna August 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm #

    A lot of Christians libertarians and conservatives want to re-write American and philosophic history the same way the Progressives and Marxists did. But instead of contending that Thomas Jefferson was a socialist, they pretend he was some sort of closet Christian. It’s silly, and obviously motivated by their ideological premises.

    As a side note, Murray Rothbard does the same thing with American history, pretending there was some sort of libertarian consesus which is clearly absurd (especially among the populace); he confuses Puritan radicalism and propaganda with the sort of libertarian propaganda he promotes. Just because someone argues for ‘property’ or ‘natural rights’ doesn’t mean they have in mind the anarchronistic doctrine of laissez-faire.

  6. Anna O. Morgenstern August 20, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I’m glad you said “anarchronistic” because if you said “anachronistic” there was going to be an argument. 🙂
    Going back to the main topic, it seems more and more as I start to understand history and the state better, that religion has always been a bulwark for a state of some sort. There have been religions that eschewed states, but there have never been states without some sort of religion to back them up. The religion of “democracy” was very popular for a while, but lately it’s been challenged/replaced by the religion of “national security”.
    US politics these days seems like a fight between these two religions, with some bastardized form of Christianity often pushed into service to mask the true mythos.

    • Srubna August 20, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

      Nobody before the 19th century promoted consistent laissez-faire on what we would recognize as either libertarian grounds or formulations.

      Everything is a bulwark for the state. People are naturally inclined towards this sort of stuff. Libertarians and egoists are a minority for a reason; it’s also why we tend to be fringers and crazies.
      Normal, socially ‘healthy’ human beings want social status and identarian lifestyles. That makes them eternally vulnerable to various kinds of political exploitation – and what’s more, they like it that way.

      • Rad Geek August 21, 2010 at 3:01 am #

        Nobody before the 19th century promoted consistent laissez-faire on what we would recognize as either libertarian grounds or formulations.

        Really? How’s that?

        Everything is a bulwark for the state. People are naturally inclined towards this sort of stuff.

        Well, I don’t know what range of things “this sort of stuff” is supposed to encompass. If you’re claiming that people are naturally inclined towards statism, if that were true, it would seem odd that people have been around for about 500,000 years, but have only had states, as far as anyone can discover, for about 13,000 years (and nation-states for only about 400 years). If that’s what people are naturally inclined towards, then the overwhelming majority of human existence has been dominated by the unnatural.

        • Srubna August 21, 2010 at 9:04 am #

          Burke is only arguing against artificial government, I don’t think there is as much contradiction between his later and earlier works as is commonly supposed. Even that aside being opposed to the State is not at all the same as being a propertarian radical. Puritan radicalism and Agrarian leftism is not libertarianism; at least not in the same sense Rothbard would be. Paine and Thoreau weren’t ‘libertarians’ either, in this sense; any more than Henry George was.

          “I don’t know what range of things “this sort of stuff” is supposed to encompass”
          Most human culture.

          “If you’re claiming that people are naturally inclined towards statism,”
          People are naturally inclined towards dominance and submission to cultural taboos and tropes and consider human relations more important than factual, logical ones; which I can assure has been the case as long as there have been humans (and before that, as well). Obviously a bunch of people with hardly any tangible property aren’t going to have a centralized government, but that doesn’t mean they were libertarian. They were atavistic and rigidly controlled by social taboos.

        • Srubna August 21, 2010 at 9:10 am #

          I’m obviously not denying a development of individualist radicalism in European history – private-property anarchism did not spring full grown from the brow of Spencer – but consistent and coherent laissez-faire was born of economic science; it has no moralistic ‘father’ because without economic science one can not make sense of the various alternative property regimes and substantive boundries.

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