Bureaucracy: Satirical Dictionary of Voltaire

Voltaire, , and Paul McPharlin. Satirical Dictionary of Voltaire. Mount Vernon, N.Y: Peter Pauper Press, 1946. Print.


This small “dictionary” cannot properly be called an original work by Voltaire (1694-1778), although the words are, for the most part, his own. It was compiled by an American editor and illustrator, Paul McPharlin, and pulls material from Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique (1764) and Questions sur l'Encyclopédie (1770). McPharlin’s Satirical Dictionary is thus a compilation and condensation of Voltaire’s writings from several sources, all satirical in nature but not explicitly so. This co-authored work is a translation categorically, but is also a translation culturally, having been produced for a modern American audience. Voltaire composed the articles translated here after an apparently dissatisfactory job of working on articles for the letter “T” in the 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française; his Questions also responds to the massive Enlightenment project of knowledge making, the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (see DOING/MAKING). Voltaire’s original texts resist the idea implicit in the creation, manufacture, and distribution of an encyclopedia or dictionary: that knowledge can be codified, information ordered and digested, and truth commodified. By calling attention to Voltaire’s satirical intent with his title, McPharlin directs his American audience to notice and embrace Voltaire’s resistance to the bureaucratic forms of systematized knowledge.

The Satirical Dictionary is a smallish book, about 5 inches by 7.75 inches; its hard-cover is printed all over with ornate, framed letters of the alphabet, in earthy tones of blue and taupe. It was printed by the letterpress method. The first edition of the Satirical Dictionary (UNT owns a second edition) was printed and designed by the husband and wife co-owners of Peter Pauper Press in 1945. Peter and Edna Beilenson commissioned Paul McPharlin to illustrate the cover, select and compile its contents, and write an introductory statement (AIGA). The Beilensons employed McPharlin as an illustrator for several other books, including James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh (a philosophical work) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” as well as another Voltaire-inspired project called Voltaire’s Alphabet of Wit, printed the same year as the first edition of the Satirical Dictionary.

McPharlin’s selection in the Satirical Dictionary comprises a whimsical smorgasbord of reflections on human hypocrisy, vanity, and hubris. It consists of seventy-six entries arranged alphabetically, with no particular logic to the selection other than the juxtaposition of the lofty and the banal: the subjects range from “Democracy” to “Love” to “Testicles.” Although the book is organized alphabetically, the articles in the Satirical Dictionary are actually more encyclopedic, stemming from their original inspiration in Voltaire’s response to the Encyclopédie. Voltaire’s use of satire may perhaps be obvious to modern readers but was not necessarily as obvious during his lifetime. For example, in Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, Voltaire includes an etymology of the word Bulgare (not included in McPharlin’s collection) which is rife with vicious satire aimed at his sometimes friend, Frederick the Great of Prussia. The entry can also be understood as a prompt to read his later and most famous work, Candide, as satire (Langille 55-57). Of “Books,” Voltaire counsels his reader to “[r]emember that the whole world, save only the savage parts, is under the sway of books…Who lead their fellow men in all civilized countries? Those who can read and write” (18). The satirical bent of such an observation only becomes clear when read alongside the entry on “government,” which observes that “[t]here must be some exquisite pleasure in governing, to judge from the numbers who are eager to be concerned in it. We have more books on government than governors in the world…I understand nothing about government” (50).

Voltaire’s choice of the word “dictionary,” and by extension McPharlin’s, can be inferred from the excerpt from Voltaire’s preface to the Dictionnaire philosophique: “This book does not require continuous reading; but wherever one opens it, matter for reflection can be found. The most satisfactory books are those of which the reader is part author” (4). Here, Voltaire draws on the idea of “consultation reading” common to early modern reference books (Blair), but he also encourages his readers to browse the work according to their own inclinations, and to share in the authority of the author/compiler. McPharlin’s selection takes Voltaire at his word: he admits to taking liberties with the material while also claiming that the articles “do not suffer from the condensation they have undergone” (3). What might strike a modern reader as an unforgivable disregard for textual integrity might actually, in an ironic way, bear an affinity to the spirit in which Voltaire himself composed his texts. In his brief preface, Voltaire uses a Biblical allusion to pinpoint his own process of compiling his text: as a compiler from “standard works,” “he himself remains anonymous, and take the position of the Gospel, ‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth’” (4). This serves as a tongue-in-cheek apology for any accidental plagiarism he might have committed; he adds that he expects his debts to be recognized and his innocence assumed. By reprinting this particular excerpt, McPharlin both points out Voltaire’s response to the procedures of compiling reference works and justifies his own practice of selective recompilation.

Find Satirical Dictionary of Voltaire in the UNT Libraries Catalog.