Voltaire, Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses
Edizione digitale con introduzione, note editoriali, trascrizione a cura di Ruggero Sciuto e traduzione a cura Kelsey Rubin-Detlev
“Strictly linked as it is to the problem of evil as well as to the notions of causation and moral freedom, the idea of determinism (or ‘fatalisme’, in eighteenth-century French parlance) was crucial to Voltaire’s philosophy and surfaces regularly in his works. From well-known contes philosophiques such as Candide or Zadig to understudied texts such as the Lettres de Memmius à Cicéron and the Traité de métaphysique, from the great historiographical works to the letters that he exchanged with Frederick II of Prussia and others, Voltaire constantly engaged with the problem of determinism and human freedom, offering various and often contrasting solutions to it.
Although short and apparently light in tone, the Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses, presented here in a digital edition, is a key text in the evolution of Voltaire’s philosophical views. The two interlocutors – a Brahmin and a Jesuit – discuss precisely the question of whether human actions are free or not, with preference being clearly given to the latter position, which is expounded by the Brahmin and which solidly rests on the notion of the causal chain (or ‘chaîne des événements’). To be sure, anticipating what is today termed ‘the butterfly effect’, the Brahmin emphasises the extraordinary consequences that apparently minor causes can trigger. This is quite a common trope in eighteenth-century French texts, which has at its root Pascal’s famous statement in the Pensées that, had Cleopatra’s nose been slightly shorter than it was, the whole world would have been completely different.
The Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite, of which, regrettably, no manuscript survives, was probably written in 1751 and was first published anonymously in the periodical Abeille du Parnasse of 5 February 1752. It then underwent several reprints during Voltaire’s lifetime, which, however, display only a limited number of variants. Our digital edition of this text, which is not meant to be definitive but is rather conceived as a prototype for future digital projects, is based on a 1756 edition, with variants collated from only one other witness of 1768. For a full scholarly edition, we refer the reader to the Œuvres Complètes de Voltaire, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968-, vol.32A, p.97-117.”