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2. Voltaire (1694-1778), ‘Prayer to God’, from Treatise on Tolerance, 17633

In 1762, Jean Calas, a Protestant, was accused of murdering his son for having wanted to convert to Catholicism. Despite the absence of any evidence, he was condemned to be broken on the wheel. Voltaire quickly became convinced that this was an outrageous miscarriage of justice, and decided to do something about it.4 He wrote the Treatise on Tolerance, ending it with this prayer.

It is no longer to people that I speak; it is to you, God of all beings, of all worlds, and of all times: if we feeble creatures, lost in the immensity of the universe, and invisible to the rest of it, are allowed to ask anything of you, you who have given everything and whose decrees are as unchanging as they are eternal, then may you deign to have pity on the errors inherent in our nature; may these errors not be our undoing. You did not give us a heart so that we could hate each other, nor hands so we could slit each other’s throats; help us to help each other endure the burden of this painful and brief life; may the tiny differences between the clothes which cover our feeble bodies, between our inadequate languages, between our ridiculous customs, between all our imperfect laws, our absurd opinions, between all our circumstances, so disproportionate in our eyes and yet so equal before yours; may all these tiny variations which differentiate the atoms called humans not be the triggers of hatred and persecution; may those who light candles at midday in adoration of you learn to tolerate those who simply bask in the light of your sun; may those who wrap a white cloth round their robes to express the command to love you not hate those who say the same thing under a coat of black wool; may it be equally acceptable to adore you in the jargon of an ancient language or of a more recent one; may those whose clothes are dyed red or violet and who rule over a small plot on a little heap of the mud of this world, and who happen to possess some rounded pieces of a certain metal, enjoy what they call greatness and riches without pride, and may others view them without envy: for you know that there is nothing to envy or boast about in these vanities.

May all men remember that they are brothers! May they abhor the tyranny wielded over souls, as they ever execrate the violent theft of the fruits of hard work and peaceful industry! If the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate each other, let us not tear each other apart when we are at peace. Let us spend the brief moment of our existence blessing, together and in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, your goodness in bestowing on us this moment.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1763 edition:

3 Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, known as), ‘Prière à Dieu’, from Traité sur la tolérance, 1763.

4 Image of Voltaire: ‘Monsieur de Voltaire fait d’après une découpure’ by Abbé Charles-Philippe Campion de Tersan (1763):