Voltaire

Voltaire (1694–1778)

The Fallen Roman Catholic, the Martyred Protestant, and the Excommunicated Jew

Esteemed colleagues:

We have recently discussed the issue of toleration. I used a quotation from Jacques Barzun, citing Oliver Cromwell as an advocate of religious tolerance. This quotation did excite a certain negativity. I hope the following will inspire this group to exercise forbearance. I will not identify the person until the end of this essay, other than to say he is associated with the Enlightenment during the eighteenth century. By context, the very well read among you will be able to render an educated guess that it comes from Voltaire's A Treatise on Toleration (1763).

The rage inspired by a spirit of controversy, and the abuse made of the Christian religion from want of properly understanding it, has occasioned as much bloodshed, and produced as many calamities in Germany, England, and even in Holland, as in France; and yet, at present, the difference in religion occasions no disturbances in those countries; but the Jew, the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Calvinist, the Anabaptist, the Socinian, the Moravian, and a multitude of other sects live in brotherly harmony together, and contribute equally to the good of society.

He proceeds to formulate natural laws to regulate moral conduct. He continues in the following vein, as he personifies Nature and its immutable laws that work even in the moral domain.

"Nature addresses herself thus to mankind: 'I have formed you all weak and ignorant, to vegetate a few moments on that earth which you are afterwards to fatten your carcasses. Let your weakness then teach you to succor each other, and as you are ignorant, bear with and endeavor mutually to instruct each other. Even If ye were all of the same way of thinking, which certainly will never come to pass, and there should be one single person only found amongst you who differed from you in belief, you ought to forgive him, for it is I who make him think in the manner he does. I have given you hands to cultivate the earth, and a faint glimmering of reason to conduct yourselves by, and I have planted in your hearts a spirit of compassion, that you may assist each other under the burden of life. Do not smother that spark, nor suffer it to be corrupted, for know it is of divine origin; neither substitute the wretched debates of the schools in the place of the voice of nature. . . .It is I alone who, in a nation, prevent the fatal effects of the inextinguishable differences that subsist between those two professions and the clergy, and between even the citizen and the husbandman. Though ignorant of the limits of their own prerogatives, they are in spite of themselves obliged to listen to my voice, which speaks to their hearts.

Justice murdered John Calas in Toulouse, by breaking him on the wheel on the 9th of March, 1762. In his Treatise on Toleration, the nominally Roman Catholic Voltaire made the Protestant Calas a cause celebre for religious toleration and judicial reform. He lived to see Calas judicially vindicated posthumously of the murder of his son, who, as the evidence demonstrated, had committed suicide. He and his fellow philosophes challenged the authority of the ancien régime. The French Revolution can be considered their offspring. Some even fell under its freely wielded blade of the guillotine. Exiled, Voltaire came back in the last year of his life in 1783 to see his own rehabilitation. He might have been the greatest man of letters in France of the eighteenth century. Or was it Rousseau?

There was political correctness in the ancien régime; that ancien régime prevails unreformed in the American academy. That is why we get the type of democracy we have with its cynical, semiliterate citizens who do not vote because the game is rigged. At the top level of our political society, apparently, our choice was between Bush and Gore, two wishy washy conservative liberals, or liberal conservatives if you will, from corporate America. Every four years, our professional politicians select our leaders from a quasi-hereditary stable of ciphers from cooperate America. The problem is that there are party activists, in both camps, who truly believe that this system is God given and the “fittest” have triumphed. In the spirit of toleration, I will stay at home, reading the great books, while enjoying my newly won status with its unemployment insurance. All of us had better find a strategy that is win/win for all players (I am thinking in terms of game theory), or else an entrenched oligarchy will govern by fiat every domain of our democracy. De Tocqueville should rise from the dead and rewrite his Democracy in America; Voltaire would have to write a severely revised edition of his book to explain the North American Behemoth. That fiction of participatory democracy is so much that of a workers’ paradise or Aryan nation that our nemeses in the world stage of Realpolitik entertained as functional dystopias during the twentieth century.

This essay was written in May 2000, on the termination of my services at Temple University, and reviewed and revised 11 March 2009 and 26 July 2010. As the Owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk, the cunning of reason worked in a manner to set me free from that institution’s bureaucratic tyrants. I have often thought that the most original thinkers exist independently of the Academy; however, most scholars do need to make a living, and teaching cookie cutter courses leads to the deadening of the intellectual sensibilities. I have been fortunate at Arcadia University to have "superiors" who are enlightened and have given me untrammeled freedom to explore radically new ideas, to make new wine in recycled bottles. Statistically, my situation is sui generis in that I discover new ideas as I lecture in a free style, free of oversight to the benefit of expanding my readings and creative writings and to the edification of my by and large grateful students. I have always spoken truth to power. That personality trait has marked me through the travails of my career, making me hated and feared, because I have a bad habit of not lying or kowtowing to the powers that be. Students love my iconoclasm. I hope that they have loved not only my irreverent attitude toward authority, but my insightfulness and thoughtfulness in my elaborate prepared lectures. My students' and readers' memory of my lectures, books, and website will be my constructed legacy.