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40. Voltaire, ‘On Universal Tolerance’, 176364

Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance was published in 1763 in order to secure the rehabilitation of Jean Calas (see also p. 14). But in its final chapters, the philosopher broadens the scope of his thesis and calls for respect and fraternity between all men.

No great skill or studied eloquence is needed to prove that Christians must tolerate one another. I will go further: I say to you that we must regard all men as our brothers. What! My brother the Turk? My brother the Chinese? The Jew? The Siamese? Yes, of course; are we not all children of the same father, and creatures of the same God?

But these peoples despise us; but they treat us as idolaters! Very well! I shall tell them how wrong they are. It seems to me that I could at least shake the obstinate pride of an imam or a Buddhist monk if I spoke to them as follows:

‘This small globe, which is but a speck, spins through space just like so many others; we are lost in this immensity. Man, about five feet tall, is surely nothing in the grand scheme of creation. One of these imperceptible beings says to some of its neighbours, in Arabia or in Kaffraria: ‘Listen, there may be nine hundred million little ants like us on the earth, but because only my anthill is beloved of God, all the others are an eternal abomination in his eyes. My anthill alone will be blessed, and all the others will be eternally wretched’.’

Then they would stop me, and ask me who is the idiot spouting this stuff. I would be obliged to respond: ‘It is you yourselves’. I would then try to calm them, but that would be rather difficult. […]

It is true that these absurd horrors do not always sully the face of the Earth; but they have been frequent, and one could easily compile a volume far longer than the gospels which condemn them. Not only is it rather cruel in this short life to persecute those who do not think like us, but I do not know if it is not rather bold to proclaim their eternal damnation. It seems to me that it is hardly up to us, momentary atoms that we are, to predict in this way the judgments of the Creator. Far be it from me to challenge that maxim, ‘Outside the Church, there is no salvation’, I respect it, and all that it teaches, but do we truly know all the ways of God and the full extent of his mercies? May we not have as much hope in Him as we have fear? Is it not enough to be faithful to the Church? Does each individual have to usurp the rights of God, and decide on the eternal fate of all men before He does? […]

O followers of a merciful God! if you had a cruel heart; if, in loving Him whose entire law consisted of the words ‘Love God and your neighbour’, you had overloaded this pure and holy law with sophisms and incomprehensible disputes; if you had sparked discord, either over a new word, or else over a single letter of the alphabet; if you had ascribed eternal punishment to the omission of a few words, of a few ceremonies that other peoples could not have been aware of, I would say to you, shedding tears over the human race: ‘Come with me to the day when all men will be judged, and when God will render unto each according to his deeds.

‘I see all the dead from centuries past and from our own time compared in his presence. Are you really sure that our Creator and Father will say to the wise and virtuous Confucius, to the legislator Solon, to Pythagoras, to Zaleucus, to Socrates, to Plato, to the divine Antonines, to the good Trajan, to Titus, the delight and darling of the human race, to Epictetus, to so many other men, the models of mankind65:

Go, monsters, go and suffer punishments of infinite intensity and duration; may your torture be as eternal as I am! And you, my beloved, Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche, etc.,66 who died following the prescribed rites, be seated on my right hand and share my dominion and happiness forever.

‘You recoil in horror at these words; and, once they have left my mouth, I no longer have anything to say to you’.

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

64 Voltaire, ‘De la tolérance universelle’, in his Traité sur la tolérance, 1763, ch. 22, p. 188.

65 Confucius, Solon, Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, the Antonines (Marcus Aurelius and his father Antoninus Pius), Trajan, Titus, Epictetus are philosophers or legislators or statesmen or all three, and they are all great men from Antiquity. Confucius was Chinese; Solon, Pythagoras, Zaleucus, Socrates, Plato, and Epictetus were all Greek; Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, and Titus were all Roman emperors of the first and second centuries CE; the others, with the exception of Epictetus who lived at the same time as the Emperors, all flourished in the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE.

66 Jean Châtel, Ravaillac, Damiens, Cartouche all suffered exceptionally harsh executions due to their ‘exceptional’ crimes. Châtel (1575-1594) attempted to assassinate Henri IV – the offending hand was cut off first; François Ravaillac (1578-1610) did assassinate him, and suffered the regicide’s execution, which was to be pulled apart by four horses; Robert-François Damiens (1715-1757) attempted to assassinate Louis XV, and also suffered the regicide’s execution; Louis-Dominique Garthausen (1693-1721), known as ‘Cartouche’, was a notorious highwayman, and was broken on the wheel.