Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Voltaire and tolerance

Publishers in France are reprinting as fast as they can Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance, originally published in 1763.  At the Charlie March for the Republic on Sunday January 11, 2015, many participants were holding the book high above their heads, and now bookstores cannot keep the title in stock.  The book has always been available because it is required reading in French schools and about 10,000 copies are sold each year.  But from January 7 to 14, 2015, because of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, 7,000 copies were sold.  Voltaire's book is a plea for religious tolerance.

For those reading this post out of sequence, I wrote it as a continuation to my post of January 22, 2015, titled "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.

Francois Marie Arouet, known under his pen name Voltaire (1694-1778) was a French writer and philosopher.  He wrote satirical poems and was sent to jail several times because of them and had to move and live in foreign countries.  He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and a contemporary of Mozart.  He believed that people should have freedom of speech, religion, movement, the press, etc.  He spoke against government oppression in France, against financial inequality and for social reform.  He wrote plays, poetry, essays, scientific and historical works, more than 2,000 books and 20,000 letters and pamphlets.

After having written against the Duke of Orleans, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille prison in Paris where he was flogged.  He left for England for 3 years.  His books were burnt in Paris, Geneva and Amsterdam.  Voltaire said in his Philosophical Dictionary "What can you say to a man who tells you he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he's certain he'll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?"  Voltaire was a French icon.  He was the most successful writer of his time and the most scandalous, and the French hold him dear.

Voltaire was outspoken and his ideas influenced many others, including thinkers of both the French and American revolutions.  He is known for a famous quotation that he did not pronounce - the meaning was there but not the exact words - here is the quotation below in English and French (it sounds better in English than in French since it was originally written in English first.)

"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


David said...

Vagabonde, What can I say...? Voltaire was a great writer and thinker. In my opinion, his message of tolerance and completely free speech is an ideal whose realization will never be universally accepted or achieved. The world is full of radical views leading to intolerance...religious, economic and racial...and while I'd like to live to see such tolerance, I'm just not holding my breath. It can be an ugly world out there! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Geo. said...

Thank you, Vagabonde, for this wonderful and cogent essay. I learn here, as always. You are remarkable.

DJan said...

I am so glad that Voltaire has paved the way towards tolerance, and to know that the French have shown the rest of the world how to think about intolerance makes me happy to be a Francophile, in a country that needs to learn how to accept those different from ourselves. I am still sad about these past weeks but hope that somehow, some good will come of it all. Bless you, VB. :-)

PeterParis said...

Highly impressed by how you have managed in these two posts to resume what I feel had to be told, especially to a non-French public. A fantastic job you have done, worth to be read by many more than your blog-friends! A great, great bravo!!!

Rosaria Williams said...

Such an important post, Vagabonde!
I wish you'd send it to the New York Times; or all newspapers. This should circulate all over the world!
Merci bien!

Kay said...

This is such an important, fabulous post, Vagabonde. I really didn't know enough about Voltaire. I love the French way of separation between church and state. I wish the US was more like that.

Jeanie said...

My knowledge of Voltaire is pretty much limited to "Candide" -- and I mean the Bernstein version.

You are a marvel in how you tell of Voltaire, tolerance and in such a fascinating way. How you do it, I'll never know. But I'm glad you do.

Anonymous said...

I Remember you Vagabonde when I had a blog on BlogSpot("Artistique"). Nov. 2013 I moved to wordpress, but I just saw your name when I put in a comment at someone's blog - it's after midnight, but in coming days I'll read your last posts - good to know you're still blogging!

Thérèse said...

Il ne faut pas oublier non plus que certains francais allaient en prison pour carricature non "conforme" comme Daumier sous Louis Philippe qu'il avait represente en Gargentua et en poire je crois meme.

Anonymous said...

Merci pour ta gentille visite sur mon petit blog ce lundi chère Vagabonde !!!

Merci aussi pour cette publication très intéressante et aussi très émouvante !
"Vive la liberté d'expression" !!!!!! Et "Vive la liberté !"

Je t'embrasse très FORT !

Bonne continuation Vagabonde ! :o)

Vicki Lane said...

Thank you for such timely posts. The French love of satire and demand for tolerance is truly admirable.

French Girl in Seattle said...

Congratulations, Vagabonde ! I just read your last two stories - slowly, enjoying every word, and illustration. As always, well researched, well thought-out, and thoroughly fascinating. I have shared both stories on the French Girl in Seattle's Facebook page. My readers already know you, from your excellent series on the Liberation of Paris last summer. Looking forward to learning more with you. Your friend, and fellow French native, Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Miss_Yves said...

dritanje said...

Thank you Vagabonde for this post and the following one. By quoting Voltaire and giving the history of the French state I'm sure you will make it clearer to many how deeply important the concept of freedom of speech and expression is, to France, and why. This lucid and compassionate explanation is exactly what is needed, as I think another commentator said. Again, thank you.

Mae Travels said...

Congratulations on the excellent historic background you have given to the events in France. Understanding the French commitment to tolerance and to satire is definitely important in grasping the reaction to these events and understanding how so many people within and outside of France aren't in step with French views on secularism.

However, what strikes me as most shocking is that many of the Muslims defend the murder of either cartoonists, Jews, or both, and some non-Muslims even express sympathy! Fundamentally this still has to be a story about murder, I think, not just a story about attitudes towards cartoons or Jews.

Jenny Woolf said...

I wish that the English tradition of popular philosophy had continued in the way it has in France. It all seemed to die out here in the 18th century, perhaps because we stuck with the monarchy....

Reader Wil said...

J' aime les dessins humoristiques, mais je pense qu' on n' a pas la liberté d' insulter. Mais c' était terrible ce que s' était passé. Moi je dis:" Je suis Charlie!"
Merci de votre post!
Wil, ABCW Team

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

There should be more Voltares in the world and we all could definitely use more tolerance, which seems to be totally lacking throughout mankind.

Both of your last two stories were excellent and I too enjoyed every word.

marciamayo said...

Wow, I'm sharing this with my husband and step daughter who will be quite interested as they love all things French. Thank you.

Gattina said...

Very interesting post ! Yes Paris has changed a lot and not always to the best. I don't live very far and with the Thalys. I am quickly there.

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