Attention: livre dangereux

As Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on an event that occurred 250 years ago in Northern France and which haunted Voltaire for the rest of his life.

When Voltaire inscribed the words ‘livre dangereux’ in a number of the books in his library, he was referring to the subversive content of these works. But he could also have been alluding to the dangers connected with authoring or possessing such books in Old Regime France.

That reality was made startlingly clear in June 1766, when the chevalier de La Barre, a young nobleman from the provincial town of Abbeville, was condemned by the Parisian Parlement to be tortured and executed for various blasphemies, including the failure to doff his cap in the presence of a religious procession, and for ‘having given marks of respect and adoration to the vile and impure books [livres infâmes et impurs] that were placed on a shelf in his room’.* Indeed, the prominence of these books was such that the official document spelling out his sentence made provision for transporting the lot of them back to Abbeville from Paris, where they had been sent while the judgment was under review. And one book specifically was designated to be ‘thrown by the Executor of High Justice onto the same pyre as the body of said Lefebvre de la Barre’: this book was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif.

Of course, following standard practice in the world of clandestine books, Voltaire had declined to have his name appear in print editions of this work, and, in his correspondence, he had consistently denied responsibility for it. For this reason, he himself was not named in the sentence condemning La Barre, nor had he been named the previous year in the Parlement’s decree banning the Dictionnaire philosophique. But the magistrates had intentionally defined their opposition to this work in terms that implicated Voltaire directly. They targeted the Dictionnaire philosophique not simply because it contained unorthodox ideas; more pointedly, they claimed that the rhetorical strategies it used — including ridicule and wit — and the fact that it was aimed at a broad reading audience made it particularly venomous. Regarding authorship, the magistrates pretended not to know whose work this was but ominously stated: ‘If the author were known, he would not appear any less deserving than his work of the most rigorous punishments.’

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Naturally, Voltaire was alarmed to be connected in this way to the Chevalier, and his correspondence displays a number of strategies that distance him from the young man’s horrific execution: renewed denials of authorship; rejection of the idea that reading philosophical works could lead to delinquency; sarcastic denunciations of Pasquier, the councilor most responsible for linking the incident to the philosophes. At the same time, however, Voltaire refused to be intimidated, and he vigorously embraced La Barre’s memory, making it his mission to publicize the arbitrary judicial practices that had led to his death. Most immediately, he revised and amended the text of the very work that tied him to the case, the Dictionnaire philosophique, adding numerous anti-religious articles, including allusions to La Barre. He also composed an emotional Relation de la mort du chevalier de La Barre, which began to circulate in early 1768. In 1769, a further expanded edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique included a new article, ‘Torture’, in which La Barre’s gruesome story again featured prominently. In 1771, the Relation was reprinted in its near entirety as the article ‘Justice’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. And in 1775, Voltaire again took up the events of 1766 in Le Cri du sang innocent, as he sought to assist one of La Barre’s associates, Gaillard d’Etallonde, in his quest to return from exile in Prussia.

Torture: first page.

First page of the article ‘Torture’, in La Raison par alphabet (this is the 1769 edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Indeed, Voltaire continued to ponder the tragedy of Abbeville until his final days, no doubt haunted by the way in which his own works had been implicated in a gross abuse of judiciary power. In returning repeatedly to these events, in creating an ongoing stream of banned books, he carried out his earlier vow: ‘Je veux crier la vérité à plein gosier; je veux faire retentir le nom du chevalier de La Barre à Paris et à Moscou; je veux ramener les hommes à l’amour de l’humanité par l’horreur de la barbarie’ (letter to Gabriel Cramer [D14678, January 1768]).

– John R. Iverson, Whitman College

* The full text of the two parliamentary decrees was reproduced in L.-M. Chaudon’s Dictionnaire anti-philosophique, pour servir de Commentaire & de Correctif au Dictionnaire Philosophique […] (Avignon, 1767).

#NousSommesArouet?

A constantly recurring theme throughout Voltaire’s œuvre is the intolerance exhibited by established religions and the barbarity that all too often follows on from that.

Throughout his life he was haunted by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics. He described it in his epic poem La Henriade (1723), later complaining to Frederic the Great: ‘Croiriez-vous bien qu’on m’a reproché plus d’une fois d’avoir peint avec des couleurs trop odieuses la St Barthelemy?’ (letter of c.15 January 1737). He maintained that he always suffered illness on the anniversary of the atrocity.

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The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, by François Dubois (c.1576).

During his exile in London (1726-1728) he drafted essays about England which he published first in English as the Letters concerning the English nation in 1733, then in French in 1734, and many later editions, in the version we now know as Lettres philosophiques. This work opens with chapters on the religions of England, in which he praises the tolerance of some, such as the Quakers, and criticises others for their intolerance.

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While Voltaire repeatedly condemns the godly massacres by the Jews described in the Old Testament, and Islam’s violent conquests (see Diego Venturino, ‘Imposteur ou législateur? Le Mahomet des Lumières’, in Religions en transition dans la seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle, SVEC 2000:02), his main target always remains Christian intolerance.

The adoption of the battle-cry ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’, first used in a letter to D’Alembert in October 1760, and referring to the crimes of the Church, indicates that his concern was not merely historical or literary. On three occasions he waged campaigns against the intolerance and violent injustice committed in the name of religion in France in the cases of Jean Calas (1762) and the Sirven family (1764), falsely charged with the murder of a family member to prevent their conversion to Catholicism, and the chevalier de La Barre (1766), a young nobleman wrongly accused of blasphemy and brutally executed. The first of these provoked Voltaire’s wide-ranging study of intolerance, the Traité sur la tolérance (OCV, vol.56c). Of La Barre he wrote, in the Dictionnaire philosophique article ‘Torture’: ‘Lorsque le chevalier de La Barre, petit-fils d’un lieutenant général des armées, jeune homme de beaucoup d’esprit et d’une grande espérance, mais ayant toute l’étourderie d’une jeunesse effrénée, fut convaincu d’avoir chanté des chansons impies, et même d’avoir passé devant une procession de capucins sans avoir ôté son chapeau, les juges d’Abbeville, gens comparables aux sénateurs romains, ordonnèrent non seulement qu’on lui arrachât la langue, qu’on lui coupât la main et qu’on brûlât son corps à petit feu; mais ils l’appliquèrent encore à la torture pour savoir précisément combien de chansons il avait chanté, et combien de processions il avait vues passer, le chapeau sur la tête.’

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Voltaire promettant son appui a la famille Calas, by C. de Last (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Major works that deal with the theme of Christian intolerance and persecution include: the Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, vol.35-36), La Philosophie de l’histoire (OCV, vol.59), Des conspirations contre les peuples (OCV, vol.61b), L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (OCV, vol.62), Dieu et les hommes (OCV, vol.69), and De la paix perpétuelle (OCV, vol.70, forthcoming). In the last years of his life Voltaire gathered all his arguments against dogmatic religion in three closely related works: La Bible enfin expliquée (OCV, vol.79a), a passage-by-passage dissection of the basis of Christianity; Un chrétien contre six Juifs and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme (both OCV, vol.79b, newly published by the Voltaire Foundation). The three together, benefitting from a lifetime’s consideration of the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, form a compelling summation of his argument for toleration and justice.

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The interrogation of the chevalier de La Barre as depicted on the monument to him in Abbeville (1907).

Of De la paix perpétuelle the Mémoires secrets of 17 September 1769 wrote: ‘Ce projet […] traité politiquement par l’abbé de Saint-Pierre et par M. Rousseau de Genève, ne sert ici que de cadre au développement du système de tolérance que ne cesse de prêcher depuis si longtemps le fameux philosophe de Ferney. Il voudrait qu’on détruisît tous les dogmes, sources intarissables de troubles et de divisions; il trace en conséquence un tableau des horreurs du fanatisme, et ce sujet remanié cent fois par le même auteur, reprend sous son pinceau encore plus de chaleur et d’énergie: le fiel qu’il broie avec ses couleurs, donne à sa touche tout le terrible des peintures de Michel Ange. M. de Voltaire est toujours sublime quand il parle d’après son cœur.’

Voltaire himself, in the article ‘Fanatisme’ of the Dictionnaire philosophique, asked a question that has acquired a chilling relevance from the recent events in France: ‘Que répondre à un homme qui vous dit qu’il aime mieux obéir à Dieu qu’aux hommes, et qui, en conséquence, est sûr de mériter le ciel en vous égorgeant?’

The answer to this that he gives at the end of the Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme not only has relevance to the supposed ‘right to offend’ so frequently claimed in these days, but questions in its turn all sides in such conflicts:

‘Je me donnerai bien de garde de m’élever avec colère contre les malheureux qui ont perverti ainsi leur raison; je me bornerai à les plaindre, en cas que leur folie n’aille pas jusqu’à la persécution et au meurtre; car alors ils ne seraient que des voleurs de grand chemin. Quiconque n’est coupable que de se tromper mérite compassion; quiconque persécute mérite d’être traité comme une bête féroce.

Pardonnons aux hommes, et qu’on nous pardonne. Je finis par ce souhait unique que Dieu veuille exaucer!’

– M.S.