chapter  1
7 Pages

Spinoza, Bayle, and Voltaire: issues in contention

The earth did indeed tremble. Voltaire’s poem on the philosophical systems

of the world captures a partial image of Spinoza. He ironically defends yet

gently steps aside from him, leaving the ‘‘atheistic’’ infidel to God’s justice.

Admiration is not absent, as we may also see in his polemic in Le Philosophe ignorant: ‘‘Spinoza has done what no Greek philosopher, still less any

Jew, has done. He has employed an imposing geometric method to bring

clarity to his ideas’’ (OC, 62, 57-64).1 The rest of the passage, sprinkled

with ridicule, moves from admiration to deflation, as he complains about

Spinoza’s reputed materialism, atheism, and idle metaphysics that had led

him to an erroneous set of theorems about Providence, God, materiality

and the human spirit, which, because of his obscurities and sophisms,

detracted human beings from the task of understanding their true nature. Then, taking back his praise of Spinoza’s geometric method, he chastises

him for surrendering to its rigidities, instead of dealing honestly with argu-

ments supporting the existence of divine Providence. Spinoza did so in good

faith, to be sure, but he was too full of his own ideas, a human weakness

that, Voltaire magnanimously adds, afflicts all humankind. In both his

epistle and his more extended but limited thoughts on the state of philoso-

phy, Voltaire took aim at Spinoza’s affirmation of a discredited Cartesian-

ism. He stated confidently that the Cartesian system had produced Spinoza’s.2 The attack on Spinoza was to elicit a polite scolding from Mel-

chior Grimm, (1723-1807), the editor of the Correspondance litte´raire, who

took him to task for his superficial treatment (OCM, 7, 49).