- - Sunday, February 1, 2015


We’re all Voltaire now, even the French.

“Treatise on Tolerance,” Voltaire’s 250-year-old jeremiad against religious fanaticism, argues that religious intolerance was driving the strife in the world in his time, and his book is climbing the best-seller lists in France in the wake of the brutality of Islamic terrorists who killed 20 persons last month in Paris, at the magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket.

The casual browser might think Voltaire, the pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), had been reading the morning newspapers. M. Voltaire was outraged not by Islamic strife but by the bloody fighting of his day between French Catholics and Protestants. He didn’t like royals and Catholics very much, but his book is a cry against everybody who takes out anger and resentment in violent frustration. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Voltaire is remembered mostly for something he didn’t say, exactly, but it was sentiment important to him then and important in his legacy today: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is the sentiment, if not the source, of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and inspires free-speech advocates across the globe.

The summary of the sentiment in the famous quotation was actually the work of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an Englishwoman writing under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, in her biographical book “The Friends of Voltaire,” published in 1906. Voltaire himself was prolific as an essayist, historian and philosopher, the author of 2,000 books and pamphlets and 20,000 letters. He wrote poems, novels, historical and even scientific tomes, many of them rages against intolerance and religious bigotry. He had to be careful, because censorship laws were many and strong. He is remembered by French scholars for something else pithy, and this he did say: “Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them.”

The famous sentiment for which he is remembered best was expressed in defense of the works of another French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvetius, a wealthy companion of a group of Enlightenment writers and scholars, whose works, like those of Voltaire, were burned and he was forced to recant some of the things he said about religious figures. Voltaire thought Helvetius’ best-known work, “De l’esprit” (translated as “On the Mind”), was “commonplace, obscure and in error,” but this is the work that he would cheerfully die in defense of, and of Helvetius’ right to write or say what he pleased, commonplace and in error, or not.

Voltaire had opinions on nearly everything, but the pervasive religious cant, which controlled much of everyday life in France, was a favorite subject of his pen. He wrote frequently about what he believed were the human origins of religious dogma preached by the Roman Catholic church. He didn’t have much use for the French holdings of vast territory in North America, which would one day include the nation that would enshrine Voltaire’s free speech in its Constitution. He obviously thought of New France in winter, dismissing the territory as “a few acres of snow.”

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