chapter  4
23 Pages

Voltaire’s Jews in the world of commerce and their capacity for critical thought and social inclusion

That the Jews were caught in a kind of time capsule-the notion that their

past was their present and their present was their past-and that they

should best be seen synchronically, and, inversely, that it was only in the

Old Testament that they could be seen diachronically, was a problem for

Voltaire. The test of empirical experience could not be wholly ignored. Jews

were palpably not the same through time. History, even if, as he believed,

Jews refused to acknowledge time outside of its biblical setting, had chan-

ged them. As we have seen in the Essai sur les moeurs, there are instances of his treatment of Jewish life in Asia Minor, in Europe from the Hellenistic to

the Roman periods and thence to the early centuries of the Christian era

and forward to the feudal ages and early modern periods of their ongoing

dispersal, in which he does not set them in an unchanging timeframe. Given

the abundance of Voltaire’s references to Jewish money trading, it is a

question of some importance to see how he fitted them into his treatment of

how he saw early modern economic life in his concept of a universal history.

It was part of his grand scheme in the Essai to mark those transition points that were critical in the slow and gradual, yet momentous, movement away

from the closed worlds of discrete units of social and political organization

to the larger world of distant commerce, which had the effect of rearranging

local loyalties and challenging traditional belief. Under the power of nation-

and empire-builders from Charles V to Suleiman the Great from west to

east, and to the north in France, England, and Germany, to the south in

Africa, and to far-off Asia, the politics of half the world was being radically

altered. More important was the expansion of Europe to North and South America. It was an illustrious, economically expansive century, despite reli-

gious conflicts, during which the arts in Italy flourished and radiated their

splendors to almost every part of Europe where manners were softened. It

was a time of growing opulence. Following the loss of Constantinople,

Europe ironically gained control of international trade in the Indies and the

Levant. Industry took off, creating grand entrepoˆts of trade in Marseilles, the

cities of the Netherlands, London, Venice, Augsburg, and Nuremberg

(OCM, 12, 217-19). In the sixteenth century, the theater arts reached a high level, reflecting the newfound wealth pouring in from the East and