Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

Voltaire’s afterlife is complex, his reputation changing with successive regimes. The French Revolution looked back to him as a heroic precursor of its struggle, and in 1791 his remains were brought back to Paris and with great ceremony placed in the Panthéon. For much of the nineteenth century the name of Voltaire was synonymous with anticlericalism, and the philosophe was widely, if implausibly, seen as an Antichrist. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair Voltaire’s reputation as a crusader for tolerance was re-emphasised, and in the latter years of the Third Republic, under the influence of the Sorbonne literary historian Gustave Lanson, Voltaire became a fixture of the republican school and university curriculum. The latter half of the twentieth century has taken a more nuanced approach to Voltaire’s religious views, especially in the wake of René Pomeau’s La Religion de Voltaire (first published in 1954), which stresses the depth of Voltaire’s deist convictions.

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). Image: BnF.

Voltaire’s legacy in the wider world is ubiquitous. His name has become a byword for tolerance, justice and the power of reason whenever fanaticism, tyranny and superstition rear their ugly heads. Famously, portraits of him spontaneously appeared on the walls of the French capital in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in 2015. Several years before the attack, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Philippe Val, had published a book entitled Reviens, Voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!, and philosopher André Glucksmann’s last book, published in 2014 (one year before he died), is called Voltaire contre-attaque.

Voltaire is undoubtedly the most widely quoted of all French writers past and present. Everyone is familiar with his ‘il faut cultiver son jardin’, ‘le meilleur des mondes possibles’, and ‘si Dieu [which can be replaced with anything deemed to be of value, no matter how trivial] n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’. These three quotations happen to be genuine and traceable; interestingly, however, we at the Voltaire Foundation often receive queries from scholars and members of the public alike asking about the provenance of various Voltaire quotes which, after diligent research, turn out to be apocryphal. It is as if witty and wise pronouncements in search of an author were routinely attributed to him by default.

Paris, January 2015.

Ironically, what must be the most famous and oft-repeated quotation by Voltaire does not appear anywhere in his writings or his correspondence. Elizabeth Knowles picks up the story:

“A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ’

“In De l’esprit (‘On the Mind’), published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

“‘What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. “On the Mind” became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. “What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’

“(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)” [1]

We will end this short blog article on this culinary note. Readers who are curious about the origin of this particular quote are invited to consult Lettres à Son Altesse Monseigneur le prince de *** (letter 7) or the article ‘Athéisme’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

[1] Excerpt reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55. By permission of Oxford University Press.


Tolerance and combat

After the killings on 7 January 2015 in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Voltaire of all people suddenly rushed into public prominence in France, serving as a symbol of (one supposes) free speech, satire, tolerance, and a certain insolence éclairée. His image sprang up on walls and lampposts, quotations and misquotations appeared on placards, and the Traité sur la tolérance flew off bookstore shelves across the country. This sudden public reclamation of the patriarch of Ferney prompted members of the Société française d’études du dix-huitième siècle (SFEDS) to seek some way to engage with the public’s enthusiasm for eighteenth-century ideas, and to highlight their relevance to debates taking place today. An anthology of texts was prepared, and appeared in April of last year under the title Tolérance: le combat des Lumières.


Picture taken in Paris a few days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Scholars in the UK quickly took up the challenge of translating these texts into English as a way of broadening access to them. Thursday 7 January 2016, the anniversary of the attacks, saw the publication of this collective endeavour, involving 102 student and faculty translators, as Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment, edited by Caroline Warman and made available for free online. This was paired with a roundtable discussion at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, chaired by Warman and featuring a distinguished panel of four Oxford academics: Catriona Seth, Kate Tunstall, Timothy Garton Ash, and Karma Nabulsi.

Warman introduced the proceedings as an opportunity to ‘think about the eighteenth century from a contemporary point of view’; to ask, as the anthology invites us to do, ‘what does free speech mean, and do we like it?’.

The first to speak was Catriona Seth, president of SFEDS and one of the originators of the French anthology. After the attacks, she said, ‘we were totally shell-shocked’ at what was ‘definitely seen as an attack against free speech’. Yet the book was not conceived to offer bromides or give ready-made, centuries-old answers. ‘The whole point of [the book] was saying we have to adhere to the possibility that other people can think differently to us.’

Speaking next, Kate Tunstall took a stand against the concept that gave the anthology its name. She made clear her distaste for the term ‘tolerance’ and explained that it ‘connotes […] something to be put up with. It belongs […] to the discourse of charity’. To her, invoking tolerance is ‘a way of refusing to allow conflict to be articulated in a productive way, that is to say among equals.’ She quoted at length from one of the passages included in the anthology, a speech delivered in 1789 by the Protestant Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne decrying Louis XVI’s 1787 ‘Edict of Toleration’: ‘[T]his, gentlemen, is how, in France and in the eighteenth century, we continue to apply that axiom of the dark ages and divide our nation into two castes, one favoured, and one excluded […] Tolerance! I demand that the very word be banished’.

In his comments, Timothy Garton Ash argued that there exists an absolutely basic principle which must be observed in society: a rejection of violence and violent intimidation. To say ‘#jesuischarlie’ in the wake of the assassinations of its staff, as distasteful as one may have found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, was according to him an expression of this principle. Because in modern multicultural societies people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds occupy the same space, ‘everyone is a heretic [to somebody else in a given society], and no one is a heretic [from the perspective of the liberal state]’. This is what is meant by tolerance today according to Ash. Amounting to neither acceptance nor endorsement, it is a limited form of respect ‘for the believer, but not for the content of the belief’.

For her part, Karma Nabulsi challenged the very terms of the public debate: ‘I don’t think [Charlie Hebdo] is a free speech issue, and I don’t think it’s a tolerance issue’, she said. She recast the question in terms of the triad of revolutionary Republican virtues: liberty, equality, and fraternity. For her, ‘je suis Charlie’ is not an expression of solidarity, but of exclusion. It evinces an ignorance of France’s colonial history and of the everyday lived experience of Muslims in modern France. It divides the ‘whole’ of Rousseau’s virtuous republic – where ‘each citizen is nothing, and can do nothing without the whole’ – into warring factions. So-called ‘tolerance’ and ‘free speech’ operate as watered-down approximations of the full-blooded virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all.

In these remarks and the discussion that followed, there was broad agreement on basic principles, but there was also a clear division between two ways of considering the questions at hand.

On one side were those who saw the question as one about free speech under threat, to which the answer was a firmer embrace of ‘tolerance’. On this account, free speech and tolerance are universal values, to be applied equally to all, irrespective of attitude or social position. On the other side were those whose principles are no less universal, who agree that violence and the threat of violence are to be rejected, but who take into account when applying their principles the world as it is, and the power structures that exist within it: Tunstall and Nabulsi stressed that all members of a society may ostensibly enjoy formal equality before the law, but still be subject to power relations that make this equality unequal de facto.

Seth described as ‘an irony of history’ an episode in which, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Voltaire’s legacy was celebrated in, of all places, the ‘Salon du Pape’ at Versailles, where a banner was hung bearing his epigram, ‘la tolérance est l’apanage de l’humanité’. Yet this was less an irony than an indication of the fact that, 237 years after Voltaire’s death, his ideas are no longer uncomfortable for those in power.

TraitŽe sur la tolŽrance

Page 1 of Traité sur la tolérance, Geneva, Cramer, 1763.

At the time he wrote the Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire was taking up his pen against the dominant groups in French society, decrying the manifest injustice of an execution founded on prejudice against a marginalised religious minority. The situation of French Muslims today has its parallels with that of French Protestants under the Ancien Régime. In this light the reflexive alliance between Voltaire and Charlie seems less sure. Last year’s assassinations were monstrous. But to react to them by venerating cartoons that targeted, either in intent or effect, a marginalised religious minority, all in the name of ‘tolerance’, is a less straightforwardly enlightened position than many have supposed.

Contrary to the expectations conjured by a title as univocal as Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment, this roundtable was no chest-pounding celebration of a code of unassailable liberal values in the face of barbarism. Rather, it came closer in spirit to the subtitle of the French anthology: le combat des Lumières. Combat and querelle are key elements of the Enlightenment just as much as tolérance—perhaps more so. The notions that ideas matter and that intellectual debate has genuine stakes were at the heart of the great flourishing that was the European Enlightenment, as exemplified by Voltaire. Yet rather than make ‘iconoclasts into icons’, as one attendee succinctly put it, we do better to honour and carry forward the legacy of the Enlightenment by enacting that legacy through rigorous critical engagement with the world we live in.

– Cameron J. Quinn