Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Houdon’s bust of Voltaire still dominates the entrance hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, and last week Voltaire was being quoted on Capitol Hill. In the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Trump, Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin, the House impeachment manager, quoted Thomas Paine on tyranny, and then Voltaire on why people commit atrocities: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

His speech was widely praised, and the quotation of Voltaire evidently struck a chord, being quickly picked up on social media – here is an extract from his speech.

The French ‘original’ of this quotation is easy enough to find on the web: ‘Ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités.’

The quotation has been much tweeted in France, including by the actor Fabrice Luchini in 2017, and a quick search of the web reveals that the quotation can be purchased, in English at least, and with varying wording, on tote bags and bumper stickers, a sure sign that it enjoys popular approval and recognition.

Congressman Jamie Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin.

However a Voltaire specialist writing in the Genevan newpaper Le Temps in 2015 pours cold water on this merchandise, describing the quotation in question as nothing more than a ‘hoax’.

It is perfectly true that the sentence as it stands cannot be found in Voltaire. Tout Voltaire is helpful here. In the whole of Voltaire’s writings we find 117 occurrences of ‘atrocité(s)’ and 311 instances of ‘absurdité(s)’ – these are clearly favoured Voltairean terms – but there is no instance of the two terms appearing in the plural in the same sentence. So where does this quotation come from?

A clue lies in the fact that the quotation is more often found on the web in English than in French, and is most frequently cited in the USA. As Walter Olson has previously suggested, in a blog from the Cato Institute in Washington DC, this quotation seems to derive from Norman Torrey (1894-1980), a distinguished American Voltaire scholar who did pioneering work investigating Voltaire’s library in what was then Leningrad. In his book Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and modern democracy (New York, 1960), he produces an anthology of eighteenth-century extracts, all chosen to resonate with our modern notions of liberal democracy, including this passage from Voltaire (p.277-78, the emphasis in bold is mine):

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag.

‘Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life.

‘In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.’

This passage comes from Questions on miracles, an important and intricate polemical work that has only been fully revealed recently, in the remarkable critical edition by Olivier Ferret and the late José-Michel Moureaux that appeared in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire in 2018.

Collection des lettres sur les miracles

Collection des lettres sur les miracles, title page (Neufchâtel [Genève], 1765).

The passage quoted above is from the eleventh letter – published as a separate pamphlet in 1765 – in what we now properly call Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Here is the French original (OCV, volume 60D, p.290-91; again, the emphasis in bold is mine):

‘Mais, Monsieur, en étant persuades par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c’est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie.

‘Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que ‘nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible, l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de mal faire, la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre cœur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.’

So the quotation that is now received usage seems to have been adapted from an English translation of Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles – and then promptly translated back into French. The position is summed up concisely but accurately in Oxford essential quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe (5th edition, OUP, 2017), which includes under ‘Voltaire’ this entry:

‘“Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust”, commonly quoted as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Questions sur les miracles, 1765).’

Don the Con

Voltaire, like all the philosophes, is preoccupied with prejudice, and fundamentally concerned with clarity of thinking and with the damage done when we think lazily. If we want to reduce injustice in the world, he tells us, then it is important not to give credit to things that are patently absurd. Voltaire had a genius for coining one-liners that sum up exactly an idea that needs to find expression at a particular moment.

So if the idea that ‘anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ has suddenly caught our attention, it must seem necessary to our present moment. And Voltaire understood better than anyone that well-turned phrases catch on and are repeated. A poster designed by Rick Frausto, currently advertised online, and entitled ‘Don the Con’, gives new life to the Voltaire quotation employed in Jamie Raskin’s speech.

Nicholas Cronk


24 thoughts on “Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

  1. Pingback: Voltaire et Donald Trump | L’Oreille tendue

  2. The quote applies more to the democrats and the radical left than to Trump! There is a laundry list of absurdities propagated by the democrat radicalism that is daily causing damage in a multitude of ways!

  3. This quote definitely applies to the mainstream media and the democrats, look at the BLM riots, burning and looting, which the MSM called ‘mostly peaceful protests’, then compare these to the capitol hill protest, there was no burning or looting and yet the democrats and the MSM called it a ‘riot’ Go figure! The academics who write these things are always from the far-left with an axe to grind, normal people don’t think like this, thank heavens.

    • This is normal behavior for them. Obviously the person who wrote this is another sheep. Trying to blindly lead others into believing lies. BLM should have been labeled a terrorist organization long ago!

      • Yes !! U know why they weren’t? Because the left paid them!! It’s really quite disgusting and disturbing!!

      • Julie Lopez says those on the left paid BLM. Please specify who exactly and how much or is this just another blind accusation to get those on the right riled up? And yes the Capital was looted. Comparing the two events is apples to oranges the BLM riot did not attempt to assassinate the Vice President and Speaker of the House nor did BLM try to overturn an election.

  4. Bear says a multitude of ways but lists none, Gunner thanks his imaginary sky being (read Psalm 82), he might be more specific. Does he know Asherah was the mother of Yahweh? And I guess Bob thinks the Capital event was a “love fest” as stated by Trump. “shoot the cop with his own gun,” “Hang Mike pence,” “shoot Nancy Pelosi,” while vandalizing and looting the capital, and making all of congress flee for their lives in America’s most sacred building while injuring over 140 police officers. They , no doubt, are Fox (propaganda) News junkies. While Fox News defense of Tucker Carlson was “no reasonable viewer would take Tucker Carlson seriously,” others have paraphrased it to the language of the more common folk as “anyone dumb enough to believe Tucker Carlson is a complete idiot.” Trump has brought every white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, racist bigot out of the closet and convinced them they are patriots. Donald Trump’s Bible is MY NEW ORDER a collection of Hitler’s speeches and strategies that he has employed well. Blame minorities on our nations problems, tell big lies and keep telling them until people believe them etc.

    • My comment which ran in opposition to the above postings is not shown. I used no expletives. I wonder why. The protest at the at the Capital building was an attempt to halt our democratic process and overthrow our democracy, injuring well over a hundred police officers and only ended when Trump at the pleading of Republican congressmen at the Capital and those at the White House got him to call off his assault on our democracy.

  5. Each side believes the other side is absurd and its members commit atrocities. Cheer them on. Reward them., Support them. Adore them. Martyr them. It is a memorable saying to be sure. Not rigid but flexible adaptable one size fits all able. That’s the problem.

    • The problem is the solution and solutions are their problems. Hurt people; hurt others. And unreasonable people don’t know they’re unreasonable. The only way these things get worked out is by concession and kindness for a greater good. It’s easier to understand than to be understood.

  6. Pingback: Iran imposes sanctions on Americans over 2020 killing of top general | In The News Today

  7. Thank you for posting such a fitting quote for the times we now live in and thank you for placing it in the silhouette of former President Donald Trump, as this looks like something he would say or has conveyed in his speeches. The kinds of absurdities we have seen in this past year are so significant, the country is almost unrecognizable. The promotion of the mass destruction of the major cities, massive crime, the economic disaster, the foreign policy failures, the use of the media for propaganda, the list goes on. Let’s hope this destructive path to socialism and communism is halted, that certainly would be just the beginning of the real atrocities.

  8. Pingback: Disney hysteria and sandboxes: Republicans' deeply bizarre war on LGBTQ people escalates - 4Herworld

  9. Pingback: Disney hysteria and litter boxes: Republicans' deeply odd war on LGBTQ people escalates - planetcirculate

  10. Men give birth.
    Pregnant person.
    Gender is a spectrum.
    The earth has a fever.
    2 weeks to bend the curve.
    97% effective in preventing covid.
    No lives matter until black lives matter.
    It’s not life, it’s just a clump of cells.
    Hate is a virus.

    My truth.

    See a pattern as to who is perpetuating the absurdities?

  11. Pingback: Crush the Despicable! Voltaire's Enlightened Racism - History Workshop

  12. It is interesting that none of the comments here refute the fact that Trump has made them believe absurdities, and that the January 6 rioters committed atrocities. The reason they don’t is because they can’t. They can only try to change the subject to something that has nothing to do with the January 6 insurrection.

  13. Pingback: 14 Absurdities on full public display – The Expose

  14. Pingback: 14 Absurdities on full public display | FREE the WORDS

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