A famous quote by Voltaire. Its meaning is still debated today. The way I (like to) see it, it is a sentence said in irony. Voltaire is saying, "Let us accept that God exists. But what if he didn't? Well, we would have to invent him, because he is necessary for the individual / society, for whatever reasons. So then, if he DIDN'T exist, we would actually be living exactly the same way, believing in a God that is not there." With this irony, Voltaire is trying to show that God does not exist. Perhaps Voltaire is saying that it does not matter whether God exists or not.

Other views exist, and especially since Voltaire DID believe in God, and wrote about religious tolerance, my view is quite likely not to be what Voltaire intended.

So what DID Voltaire mean? A writing: The Three Impostors was written by an anonymous author. Voltaire found this a text that denied the existence of a divine being. He thought that it was an extremely dangerous work since it put into question the idea that criminals would be punished in the afterlife. This was an idea that he thought was very important for society.

He wrote the author a poem in 1768. In this poem, Voltaire develops the idea that the existence of God (or the belief therein) helps establish social order. He then goes on to boast of his own role in eliminating prejudice and injustice. And finally, Voltaire goes on to deride some of his enemies.

Here it is, in its entirety. Hopefully, it will help bring to light Voltaire's meaning, and also give a glimpse of his personality and philosphy.

"Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors".

Insipid writer, you pretend to draw for your readers
The portraits of your 3 impostors;
How is it that, witlessly, you have become the fourth?
Why, poor enemy of the supreme essence,
Do you confuse Mohammed and the Creator,
And the deeds of man with God, his author?...
Criticize the servant, but respect the master.
God should not suffer for the stupidity of the priest:
Let us recognize this God, although he is poorly served.

My lodging is filled with lizards and rats;
But the architect exists, and anyone who denies it
Is touched with madness under the guise of wisdom.
Consult Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They all adored a master, a judge, a father.
This sublime system is necessary to man.
It is the sacred tie that binds society,
The first foundation of holy equity,
The bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just.

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

But you, faulty logician, whose sad foolishness
Dares to reassure them in the path of crime,
What fruit do you expect to reap from your fine arguments?
Will your children be more obedient to your voice?
Your friends, at time of need, more useful and reliable?
Your wife more honest? and your new renter,
For not believing in God, will he pay you better?
Alas! let's leave intact human belief in fear and hope.

In vain you raise as an objection to me the hypocritical insolence
Of these proud charlatans promoted to high honors,
Nourished by our work, quenched by our tears;
Of these Caesars tainted by their usurped grandeur;
A priest on the Capitoline hill where Pompea triumphed;
Of these wretches in sandals, the excrement of humanity,
Soaking there detestable hands in our blood;
At the sound of their voice a hundred towns are covered in ruins,
And the horrible matins of bloodied Paris:
I know these awful monuments better than you;
I have unmasked them with my pen for the past fifty years.
But, as the fearsome enemy of this fanaticism,
I have also celebrated God when the devil was vanquished.
I always distinguished between religion
And the misery bred of superstition.
Europe has thanked me; twenty crowned heads
Have deigned to applaud the fortunate labors of my nights,
While Patouillet was insulting me in vain.
I have done more in my time than Luther and Calvin.
They were seen opposing, in a fatal error,
Abuses with abuses, scandal with scandal.
Eager to throw themselves amidst the factions,
They condemned the Pope and wanted to imitate him.
Europe was long desolated by them all;
They troubled the earth, and I have consoled it.
I have told the disputants, hounding one another:
"Cease, impertinent ones, cease, unfortunate ones;
Foolish children of God, cherish yourselves in your brothers,
And stop biting one another for absurd chimeras."
Good people have believed me: the evil ones, crushed,
Have hurled cries that are scorned by the wise man;
And in Europe, finally, happy toleration
Has become the catechism of all well made souls.

I see from afar that era coming, those happy days,
When philosophy, enlightening humanity,
Must lead them in peace to the feet of the common master;
Frightful fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
There will be less dogma with more virtue.

If someone wants to assume an official position,
He will no longer bring along two witnesses 2
To testify to his beliefs; rather they will swear to his good conduct.

A Huguenot lover will be able to marry
The attractive sister of an important cleric;
We will see poverty clothed and nourished
With the treasures of the Loretto, amassed for Mary;
The children of Sarah, whom we treat like dogs,
Will eat ham that has been cured by Christians.
The Turk, without asking whether the imam will pardon him,
Will go drink with the abbé Tamponet at the Sorbonne. 3
My nephews will dine gaily and with no ill will
With the descendants of the Pompignan brothers;
They will be able to pardon this harsh La Blétrie 4
For having cut short the course of my life.
We will see a reunion of the finest minds:
But who will ever be able to bear dining with Fréron?

Voltaire's Notes
1 This book of the Three Imposters is a very dangerous work, full of coarse atheism, without wit and devoid of philosophy.
2 In France, in order to be accepted as procurer, notary, clerk, one needs two witnesses who confirm the Catholicism of the recipient.
3 Tamponet was, in fact, a doctor at the Sorbonne.
4 La Bletterie, as I have been told, has stated in print that I have forgotten to have myself buried.

English translation by Jack Iverson

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