A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire

From Guardian:

A-Pocket-Philosophical-DictiIn three years it will be the 250th anniversary of the publication of this incendiary work. I hope suitable festivities are being planned. I cannot think of any political work this old which survives modern scrutiny so well – not so much because it contains essential truths, but because it is still such fun to read. Dangerous fun, that is: it's like being in the presence of a particularly enraged alternative comedian, an Enlightenment Bill Hicks, perhaps. Readers opening the first edition and reading the first entry – on Abraham – would have raised an eyebrow at this: “The fact is that the seed of Ishmael has been infinitely more favoured by God than the seed of Jacob. Both races have in turn produced thieves; but the Arab thieves have been prodigiously superior to the Jewish thieves.” Any reader consoling him- or herself at the time with the thought that this is just antisemitism of a particularly broad kind is not reading properly: this is a declaration, as it were, that nothing in the following pages is going to be treated as sacred. Everything is about to get a good kicking, and irony will be piled upon irony.

Voltaire was pushing 70 when he wrote it, but he wasn't getting soft in his old age. Rather the contrary. He felt not only that time was running out, but that he could really let rip without too much fear of the consequences. Not that he was completely reckless: for as long as possible, he maintained the fiction that he was not the work's author. And with good reason: the book was instantly placed on the Vatican's list of banned books, where it remained until the list itself was withdrawn in 1966; and in 1776, two years after publication, a young man from Picardy, the chevalier de La Barre, was accused of various anti-religious acts, and his possession of Voltaire's Dictionary was a factor in his guilty sentence. Punishment: to have his tongue torn out, be beheaded, and burned at the stake, with a copy of the offensive book tossed on to the pyre for good measure (pour encourager les autres, you might say).

More here.