A beginner’s guide to Voltaire, the philosopher of free speech and tolerance


In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French bookbuyers are turning to one of their grands philosophes, Voltaire, for enlightenment and perhaps Enlightenment. Publisher Gallimard is printing an extra 10,000 copies of his Treatise on Tolerance, which was brandished by participants in the Paris rallies of 11 January. In the treatise, Voltaire argues in favour of toleration of religious belief, while reserving the right to argue strenuously against it, and denouncing religious fanaticism of all stripes. “Tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.”

Voltaire was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694: philosopher, novelist, playwright, all-round troublemaker and virtuoso of equal-opportunity ridicule. Since the early 20th century, he has also been doomed to be misquoted by those using him as a weapon in the free-speech wars. He never actually wrote “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – this excellent formulation was, rather, the work of his English biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall (who also used a pseudonym: SG Tallentyre), who used it to describe his “attitude” in her 1906 biography, The Friends of Voltaire.

Noted in an earlier biography is another bon mot, which Voltaire probably did say, in response to the same affair. Hearing that a rival philosopher’s book had been condemned by the authorities to be burned in public, Voltaire quipped: “What a fuss about an omelette!” (A splendidly backhanded defence.) Meanwhile, the instruction “Écrasez l’infâme!” (“Crush what is infamous”), signed on many of his letters, became something of a personal slogan against clerical abuses.

He was, after all, no stranger to getting in trouble with the authorities himself, and he couldn’t help provoking them. The early publication of a satirical poem accusing the Duc d’Orléans of having sex with his own daughter led, not totally unpredictably, to a stint in the Bastille. But Voltaire was able to put incarceration to productive use: it was there that he adopted his nom de plume (or perhaps guerre) and wrote his first play, Oedipe, a riff on the Sophoclean tragedy.

His most famous work remains Candide, a fiction in which the young titular hero is initiated into the mysteries of philosophical optimism. This is a satire on the philosophical theories of the great mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who is immortally caricatured in its pages as one Professor Pangloss – hence our word “Panglossian”. All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, insists Pangloss. By the end of the book, however, Candide himself is not so sure – nor, most probably, are those now reading Voltaire for the first time.


Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/shortcuts/2015/jan/18/beginners-guide-voltaire-philosopher-free-speech-tolerance