10 of Voltaire's Favorite Bon Mots for Bastille Day
It’s fitting to celebrate the writer Voltaire—born François-Marie Arouet—on Bastille Day, given that he himself was imprisoned there early in his writing career. As an Enlightenment philosopher and social critic, Voltaire helped champion revolutionary, humanist ideals such as freedom of religion and speech. That last in particular is a matter of pride for the French, whose love of debate goes hand in hand with their ideal of tolerance for opposing ideas. Though he didn’t actually say it, one of the most famous quotes attributed to Voltaire over the centuries was in fact a summary of his own writing: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
There are many delightful words or phrases we can actually attribute to Voltaire. Below is a list of some of Voltaire’s choicest bon mots, used to add punch to his persuasions and sting to his satire. Use them to add a little extra flair to your conversations this July 14—while you indulge in some crepes and wine, of course.
The target of his entire literary career, infâme translates to “infamous,” a blanket term Voltaire used to refer to injustice in any form: words, ideas, even individuals or groups. His rallying cry, écrasez l’infâme, or “crush the infamous,” encapsulates his manner of bringing to light the controversial events of his day to be judged in the court of public opinion.
When Voltaire published Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations in 1756, it was an early attempt to codify his era’s understanding of cultural differences, values, and nuances in a kind of "universal history." It comes from the same source as the English term mores, encompassing the habits, traditions and conduct of a given group. In Voltaire’s work, it was often employed to explain the insipid ways a culture can perpetuate wrongs.
A literal translation, "to demonstrate," doesn’t quite convey the nuance with which Voltaire wrote démontrer. Fitting with Enlightenment rationalism, his use was a reference to deduction through reasoning, and could be personally directed at one making a claim, at once disproving and denouncing an opponent. It was a phrase which could reveal Voltaire’s vanity, as when, discussing his views on Newton’s laws in his Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire boasts “Quel philosophe pourra me démontrer?”—“What philosopher will prove me wrong?”
Meaning to admit or confess, this verb does have an archaic cognate in English: "to avow." Writing frequently in response to rival philosophers, such as Rousseau or Pope, Voltaire was always careful to concede points of agreement before lambasting his contemporary thinkers. In debate, it can be an effective means of converting an opposing viewpoint to one’s own way of thinking.
While conceding a point can be a smart tactic, it’s necessary to sharply and tactfully turn the conversation back to the original argument. Néanmoins, meaning "nevertheless," provides just that transition, and can often be found in Voltaire’s treatises and essays.
“As long as there are knaves and fools,” Voltaire wrote, “there will be religion.” He was never afraid to criticize the negative aspect of any authority, religious zealots included. Fripons are knaves, more literally translated as rogues: unscrupulous takers of advantage of others, as prevalent then as they are now.
In order to prove a point, Voltaire was always taking absurd ideas to their extreme end. In his book Zadig, Voltaire satirizes the philosophy of Leibniz. Zadig meets a hermit, who kills a young child because of a crime he is destined to commit in the future—despite being innocent now—with the message that there is “no evil from which good does not come,” a direct jab at Leibniz’s “the best of all possible worlds.” He epitomized his empirical stand when he wrote to Prince Frederick William of Prussia about both sides of the God or no-God debate: “Le doute n'est pas un état bien agréable, mais l'assurance est un état ridicule.” Meaning, doubt is not a comfortable state, but absolute certainty is absurd.
Another handy verb of Voltaire’s, oser means "to dare," and was often wielded to build absurdity and sarcasm into his satires.
The term orgueil—pride—shows up again and again in Voltaire’s verse as well as his prose, ever a vice he deplored despite having a fair dose of it himself. He left us the axiom, “L'orgueil des petits consiste à parler toujours de soi; l'orgueil des grands est de n'en jamais parler.” Meaning: Pride in the lowly is to talk always of themselves; in great people, it is never to do so.
10. VACARME UNIVERSEL
In his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique, mocking opponents of press freedom, Voltaire imagines cries of “un scandale, un vacarme universel dans votre petit coin de terre,” meaning a universal uproar whenever the devout take offense to an idea counter to their own. One of his most facetious phrases, it could certainly be used to satirize opponents as he had. Today, we can use it to describe the general atmosphere the legendary Voltaire was capable of producing, all with simply a pen and his mind.