Chapter 7. "Ăsthetic Principles Are Not Universal" by Voltaire

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from "Beauty"
The Reading Selection from "Beauty"
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Voltaire Thoemmes

About the author …

Voltaire (1694—1778), whose pen name is FranŞois-Marie Arouet, is a French literary moralist greatly influenced by the epistemology of John Locke and Issac Newton. In his Candide, he caricatures Leibniz's doctrine that this is the "best of all possible worlds." He is perhaps best known for a humanism entailing an empirical skepticism of dogmatic religious and social doctrine; for these views, he was briefly imprisioned and then exiled to England. While there, when he became subject to a mob of British ridiculing him as being French, he is reported to reply, "You wish to kill me because I am a Frenchman. Am I not punished enough in not being born an Englishman?" It is said the mob was won over.[1] Later, while in Prussia, he served as an ambassador-spy.

About the work …

In the entry "Beauty" in his Philosophical Dictionary, [2] Voltaire argues that "artistic beauty is in the eye of the beholder" although some virtuous actions are considered "beautiful" universally across cultures. This short essay is an entry in a polemical book, an epitome of French Enlightenment writing. Voltare described his Dictionary as expressing "common sense" which is "not so common."

Ideas of Interest from "Beauty"

  1. How does Voltaire show that beauty cannot be defined in terms of fulfilling the purpose of a work of art?

  2. What is Voltaire's evidence that artistic standards are not universal?

  3. According to Voltaire, how does the beauty of virtue become known? How is the beauty of virtue unlike the beauty of the senses, of intelligence and of imagination?



Edmund Fuller, 2500 Ancedotes for All Occasions New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952.


Voltaire, "Beauty" in Philosophical Dictionary, trans. H.I. Woolf, New York: Knopf, 1924.