Charlie Hebdo and French satire" where I explained the long French tradition of tolerance regarding irreverent satire and raunchy cartoons. (My post on Charlie Hebdo will be published after this one so it can show up first on my blog.) The French satirical press has no taboos when it comes to mock power or religion, and this tradition dates back to way before the French Revolution. Even if they find the cartoons tasteless or vulgar the French public thinks that cartoonists have the right to draw and publish them without fearing for their lives.
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."
"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'a la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire."
In a letter dated February 6, 1770, to the abbot Le Riche he wrote: "Dear Mr. Abbot, I hate what you are writing, but I would give my life so that you may keep on writing." In 1906 an Edwardian British writer, Evelyn Hall writing under the pen name of S. G. Tallentyre, translated Voltaire's sentence with the well known quotation "I do not agree with what you have to say ..." She wished not to make a literal translation of Voltaire's phrase but instead a summary of his thought. She later said that her sentence should not have been placed between quotation marks since it was her own paraphrase. Although by that time the book had been translated into French and the quotation had become popular. But, in a way, even if he did not say these exact words, this quotation illustrates his philosophy very well. (I know that French translations into English can be tricky!)
"La tolérance n'a jamais excité de guerre civile ; l'intolérance a couvert la terre de carnage."
"Tolerance has never brought civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage."
Voltaire painted by Nicolas de Largilliere - 1656-1746
Here is an excerpt from chapter twenty-two of his Treatise on Tolerance -
Chapitre XXII - De la tolérance universelle
Il ne faut pas un grand art, une éloquence bien recherchée, pour prouver que des chrétiens doivent se tolérer les uns les autres. Je vais plus loin : je vous dis qu'il faut regarder tous les hommes comme nos frères. Quoi ! mon frère le Turc ? mon frère le Chinois ? le Juif? le Siamois ? Oui, sans doute …. Mais ces peuples nous méprisent ; mais ils nous traitent d'idolâtres ! Hé bien ! je leur dirai qu'ils ont grand tort.
Chapter XXII - Of Universal Tolerance
"It does not require any great art or studied elocution to prove that Christians ought to tolerate one another. I will go even further and say that we ought to look upon all men as our brothers. What! call a Turk, a Chinese, a Jew, and a Siamese, my brother? Yes, of course ... But these people despise us and call us idolaters! Well, then, I should tell them that they are very wrong."
Voltaire welcoming his guests, painted by Jean Huber, Swiss 1721-1786
Some more quotations -
"Nous avons assez de religion pour haïr et persécuter et nous n'en avons pas assez pour aimer et pour secourir."
"We have enough religion to hate and persecute, but not enough to love and help one another."
Already in his work "Candide" Voltaire had said "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." ("Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.") In "Le Sottisier" he said: "Si Dieu nous a fait à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu." "If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated."
Voltaire discussing with the abbot Adam - engraving by Joseph Lante, 1764
By his fight against intolerance, superstition and the Catholic Church Voltaire appears to be one of the founders of the French "laique" idea. Before the Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church in France was the largest land owner, imposing taxes on people and taking 10% of all harvest while having peasants paying taxes on the land as well. They imposed many types of taxes and were intolerant - you needed to go to church to get schooling or get treated by doctors or hospitals and be buried - no church attendance = nothing, not even being able to register births and deaths. The French Revolution was in large part against the domination of the French Catholic Church and its clergy and why a strong separation of Church and State was established. It is now firmly rooted in French law.
The French Republic was founded then in part to challenge the prerogatives of the Catholic Church. The big difference with the American Revolution is that it established the right for everyone to practice religion of their choice. But for the French Revolution, it was first the right not to "believe" in a god or the right not to practice a religion, since for centuries they were forced to do so. So, it is a different concept. If you ask French people if they are Christians, about 60% or so will say yes, because for them it is a cultural idea. But then you find out that only 4.5% attend church regularly, compared to 65% or more going to church regularly in the Southern United States where I live. In France "laicite" (which could be translated as radical secularism but not atheism) is cherished, enshrined in its identity and in its Constitution. It is engraved in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, offering every citizen freedom of "conscience."
France also takes freedom of speech incredibly seriously, just as Voltaire did. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly is an opponent of all forms of organized religions of the "No God, No Master" type. It ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews, and Muslims equally. It was ferocious against extremism of all types and offended everyone and has been called "a true equal-opportunity offender." French people just defended Charlie Hebdo's right to provoke them. Charlie Hebdo did not incite racial hatred towards Muslims, or Christians or Jews, but they mocked and criticized their religons equally and were boldly defiant of any convention. This is OK with the French, since religion is not as important to them as it is in some other countries. This is why, almost 4 million people, of no-religion or any religion marched in France to defend their freedom of speech.
"Let us therefore reject all superstition in order to become more human; but in speaking against fanaticism, let us not imitate the fanatics: they are sick men in delirium who want to chastise their doctors. Let us assuage their ills, and never embitter them, and let us pour drop by drop into their souls the divine balm of toleration, which they would reject with horror if it were offered to them all at once." - Voltaire
"Rejetons donc toute superstition, afin de devenir plus humains; mais en parlant contre le fanatisme, n'irritons point les fanatiques; ce sont des malades en délire, qui veulent battre leurs médecins. Adoucissons leurs maux, ne les aigrissons jamais; et faisons couler goutte à goutte dans leur âme ce baume divin de la tolérance, qu'ils rejetteraient avec horreur, si on le leur présentait à pleine coupe." Voltaire