Until recently, Voltaire, the pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), enjoyed a reputation as a courageous, witty, uncompromising crusader against tyranny, bigotry, and cruelty. A polemicist, playwright, poet, novelist, and philosopher, Voltaire was also the often pseudonymous author of more than twenty thousand letters and approximately two thousand pamphlets. One of the leading voices of the French Enlightenment, he was associated with the virtues of tolerance, progress, science, and civil liberties, and is considered a forerunner of modern liberalism. His reputation was only enhanced by the facts that he was despised and feared by the monarchy, sent several times into exile, and had his books burned as heretical by the Catholic Church. Revered by the French Revolution, he was interred in the Pantheon in 1791, just three years after his death.
But Voltaire’s vast oeuvre also included full-throated expressions of sentiments completely at odds with the values and principles for which he is primarily celebrated. A few of these sentiments concern race, and in August, 2020, the statue of Voltaire that had stood outside the Académie Française since 1885 was abruptly removed after it had been defaced by red paint and anti-racist graffiti, ostensibly for a cleaning but also in order to prevent further defacement by people who associated Voltaire with racism.
Those making this association pointed to Voltaire’s investments in companies such the French East India Company and others engaged in the slave trade, and also to some of his lesser-known works. Two of these are included here: a brief essay on “The Negro,” one of a series of “Philosophical Letters” (1733); and one of the Letters from Amabed, a little-known epistolary novel (1769).
Voltaire did not reflect deeply on the concept of race, a concept that was at that time unfocused and unscientific. The subject enters primarily in the context of his advocacy of “tolerance,” for which he was the principal spokesman in Europe. One of his primary antagonists on this subject was the Church, which he attacked for promoting ignorance, credulity, and dogma. Voltaire was sympathetic to the arguments, considered heretical, of the French theologian Isaac de la Peyrère in Prae-Adamitae (1655) that Adam and Eve were not the first human beings or the sole progenitors of the entire human species, and that only Jews and Christians were the subjects of the providential story in the Bible. Voltaire took this argument (which de la Peyrère was eventually forced to recant) to mean that the peoples of the world constituted different creations—for which he sometimes used the word races—and that they were all equally human but endowed with different capacities and characteristics. Endorsed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by a few others in the eighteenth century, including David Hume, Edward Long, and Henry Home, Lord Kames, arguments for multiple creations would subsequently be labelled “polygenist” and opposed to the “monogenist” account that seemed to be implied by Genesis 1-3. Polygenesis would become associated with strong arguments for racial differences of the kind that were used to license racial ranking, discrimination, and domination (e.g., Samuel George Morton), but in Voltaire, as in a few other cases in the nineteenth century (e.g., Paul Broca, Robert Knox, and Topinard), polygenesis constituted an argument for pluralism, tolerance, and respect for difference.
The connection between polygenesis and some form of tolerance or non-hostility is at least suggested in two brief essays by Voltaire. In “The Peopling of America,” he ridicules attempts to prove that America was peopled by descendants of one of the sons of Noah who had somehow made his way across the ocean in ancient times. He suggests that just as some species of animals are indigenous to a given region, America is home to a number of races “resembling ours”—Esquimaux, Dariens, Iroquois, Peruvians, and so forth—but distinct from each other, and whose differences demand recognition.
The savage who thinks himself a production of the climate in which he lives . . . is not more ignorant than ourselves in this point, and reasons better. In fact, as the negro of Africa has not his original from us whites, why should the red, olive, or ash-colored people of America come from our countries? And, besides, which was the primitive or mother country of all the others? . . .
You may, if you please, reduce all mankind to one single species, because they have the same organs of life, sense, and motion; but this species is evidently divided into several others, whether we consider it in a physical or a moral light.*
A similar argument informs a brief note called “On the Different Species of Men,” which begins A Treatise on Metaphysics (1734), a book in which Voltaire assumes a distanced perspective “as though I were in the sun.” Gazing down at the earth and its peoples from this immense height, he describes a series of “species” that, he concludes firmly, “do not come from the same man.”
In other works, Voltaire strikes a very different note. In the essay on “The Negro” excerpted below, for example, Voltaire, writing in his own name, or nom de plume, says that black people are a warlike “race peculiar to that part of Africa, the same as elephants and monkeys” who, while superior to white armies, believe that they are made “to be sold to the whites and to serve them.” And in the seventh of the Letters from Amabed (1769), a young Indian man writes to his spiritual counselor back in India of his voyage to Europe, describing social practices and religious beliefs in a way that makes all of them seem strange and ridiculous. As he passes by the southern coast of Africa, Amabed sees some Negroes, who strike him as deeply foolish and so ugly that they themselves debate “if they descended from apes, or if apes came from them.”
Voltaire’s opposition to all religions as sources of mystification and dogmatism led him to make statements, often under pseudonyms, that seemed even to some of his contemporaries anti-Semitic. Evidence for this charge includes a fictional letter published by Voltaire under the title of “Letter of Memmius to Cicero” (1771) in which Voltaire, speaking as the Roman poet, writes that all Jews were “born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The issue of Voltaire’s anti-Semitism is discussed in the works by Peter Gay and Harvey Chisick cited below.
In some of his more celebrated works written in his own voice if not his given name, Voltaire condemned the slave trade and the cruel treatment of slaves, and denounced the Christian church for tolerating it. Short Studies in English and American Subjects begins with a comparison between the ancient Romans and the English, in which the advantage lies, Voltaire says, “entirely on the side of the latter; namely, that the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty” (6). Voltaire defended the integrity of native Americans, praised the Inca civilization, seemed to prefer Chinese to European civilization, and ridiculed the European assumption of superiority.
The diminished accountability associated with the use of pseudonyms enabled Voltaire to give voice to a far wider range of views and arguments than would be possible for a more conventional author, but Voltaire has, rightly or wrongly, been held responsible for all view penned by him.
*Voltaire, “The Peopling of America,” in Short Studies in English and American Subjects, in The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version, with Notes by Tobias Smollett, vol. 19, Pt. 2 (Paris: E. R. Du Mont, 1901), 222-34, 225-27.
The NEGRO race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds. The mucous membrane, or network, which nature has spread between the muscles and the skin, is white in us and black or copper-colored in them. The famous Ruisch was the first in our time, who, in dissecting a negro at Amsterdam, was so happily skilful as to raise the whole of this mucoreticular membrane. Czar Peter purchased it of him; but Ruisch kept a small piece for himself, which I have seen, and it is like a piece of black gauze. . . . Their eyes are not formed like ours. The black wool on their heads and other parts has no resemblance to our hair; and it may be said that if their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas, and seem formed neither for the advantages nor abuses of our philosophy. They are a race peculiar to that part of Africa, the same as elephants and monkeys. The negroes of the empire of Morocco are a warlike, hardy, and cruel people, and often superior in the field to the sunburned, tawny troops, whom they call white. They think themselves born in Guinea, to be sold to the whites and to serve them.
There are several different kinds of negroes. Those of Guinea, Ethiopia, Madagascar and the Indies are all different. The blacks of Guinea and Congo have wool; the others long, shaggy hair. The petty nations of blacks, who have but little commerce with other nations, are strangers to all kind of religious worship. The first degree of stupidity is to think only of the present and of bodily wants. . . . The second degree is to foresee by halves, without being able to form any fixed society; to behold the stars with wonder and amazement; to celebrate certain feasts, to make a general rejoicing on the return of certain seasons, or the appearance of a particular star, without going further or having any distinct positive idea. In this middle state between imbecility and infant reason, many nations have continued for several ages.
SEVENTH LETTER OF AMABED.
What a beautiful climate is that of these southern coasts! but what villainous inhabitants! what brutes! The more nature has done for us, the less we do for her. No art is known among all these peoples; the great question among them is, whether they are descended from the monkeys, or whether the monkeys came from them. Our sages have told us that man was made in the image of God; —here is a very pleasant image of the Eternal Being, with a flat black nose, with very little intelligence, or none at all! A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth, to adorn it with houses and gardens, and follow the track of the stars; —time is required for all things. For our part, we date our philosophy from a period of a hundred and fifteen thousand six hundred and fifty-two years ago: in all truth, were it not for the respect which I owe to thee, I should think that we were deceived; it seems to me that much more time is required to have arrived at the point to which we have attained. Let us take twenty thousand years alone to invent a tolerable language, as much to write it by means of an alphabet, as much for metallurgy, as much for the plow and the shuttle, as much for navigation; and how many other arts are required by the ages ! The Chaldeans date from four hundred thousand years, and even that is not enough.
The captain has bought, on a coast which is called Angola, six negroes, who were sold to him for the current price of six oxen; —it must be that this country is much more thickly peopled than ours, since men are sold so cheaply; but how can a so abundant population be made to accord with so much ignorance?
The captain has a few musicians with him;—he commanded them to play on their instruments, and immediately these poor negroes began to dance with almost as much lightness as our elephants. Is it possible that, loving music, they have not known enough to invent the violin, not even the bagpipe? Thou wilt say to me, great Shastasid, that the industry of elephants even has not been able to make this effort, and that it is necessary to wait. To this, I have no reply to make.
Harvey Chisick, “Ethics and History in Voltaire’s Attitude toward the Jews,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35 (Summer 2002) 4: 577-600.
Peter Gay, “Voltaire’s Anti-Semitism,” in The Party of Humanity (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 97-110.
David Harvey, The French Enlightenment and its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Justin E. H. Smith, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), esp. Ch. 4, “The Specter of Polygenesis.”