Voltaire the hypocrite

by Chris Bertram on December 15, 2004

It seems that no op-ed piece on the British government’s proposals to criminalize incitement to religious hatred is complete without some reference to Voltaire. So, for example, “Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1373878,00.html (and cf Toynbee “on the same subject”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1285291,00.html in August):

bq. Voltaire would have defended Islamic communities to the death from racists – but not set their beliefs beyond ordinary debate.

From Maurice Cranston’s “The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226118665/junius-20 pp. 100–101:

bq. It was amid these ominous stirrings that the _Letters from the Mountain_ [by Rousseau] arrived in Geneva like ‘a firebrand in a powder magazine’, a phrase used in a letter from Francois d’Ivernois to Rousseau and often repeated. One or two magistrates proposed burning the book immediately, and Voltaire wrote impassioned letters urging them to do so. Posing as a champion of Christianity, he pressed his best friend on the Petit Conseil, Francois Tronchin, to ensure that the government acted against a ‘seditious blasphemer’ and put a stop to ‘the audacity of a criminal’ not simply by burning the book but by punishing the author ‘with all the severity of the law’.



abb1 12.15.04 at 11:45 am

This is not true. Is it?


Jason Kuznicki 12.15.04 at 12:02 pm

Expecting consistency from Voltaire is like… expecting consistency from Rousseau. You’re better off not doing it.


Lance 12.15.04 at 2:46 pm

I suspect Voltaire’s flair for hyperbole and sarcasm is being disregarded here. No one should take Voltaire at face value, especially when he is most worked up.


Chris Bertram 12.15.04 at 3:02 pm

No, Lance, we’re not dealing with someone just getting carried away here but with a sustained and calculated campaign to get the Genevan authorities to act against Rousseau. (There’s more in Cranston than just that one quote.)


cloquet 12.15.04 at 3:54 pm

Rosseau must have decided to stay in exile and adversity just a while longer, then.


pierre 12.15.04 at 4:10 pm

Like Voltaire, I am categorically against the burning of books. Unless they are by people I know personally.


Jack 12.15.04 at 4:18 pm

What would Voltaire have offered by way of an explanation?


abb1 12.15.04 at 4:52 pm

Could you read this this thing, please Biographie de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Doesn’t it say that what Voltaire wrote in regards to these ‘Letters’ was a satire?


Jason Kuznicki 12.15.04 at 5:16 pm

Abb1, the text you cite does not indicate that this work was a satire. Here is the relevant section:

“Il [Rousseau] reçoit des visites de ses amis de Paris et de Genève, Mme de Verdelin, les Deluc, Moulton, le négociant d’Yvernois. Cette tranquillité fût troublée d’abord par les tracasseries de Thérèse qui se brouilla avec les gens de Motiers, puis par les suites des Lettres écrites de la montagne. Elles lui attirèrent une violente attaque, dans une brochure intitulée le Sentiment des citoyens (1765): où il était voué à un châtiment capital et dénoncé comme ayant exposé ses enfants à la porte d’un hôpital. Jean-Jacques s’obstina à imputer à Vernes ce triste pamphlet dont l’auteur était Voltaire. Puis, le Conseil condamna au feu les Lettres de Rousseau: ce qui redoubla la guerre intestine de Genève. Après avoir regretté la mollesse de ses partisans, Rousseau s’efforça de les calmer (cf. Béranger, Rousseau justifié envers sa patrie, 1775). Cependant les Lettres écrites de la montagne étaient brûlées à La Haye, à Paris, à Berne, à Neufchâtel…”

There is no indication that Voltaire’s pamphlet was a satire at all. Rousseau thought Vernes was the author of the pamphlet, but apparently it was Voltaire. The apparent result of the intervention was that Rousseau’s work got burned all across the francophone world.

Was Voltaire serious? Perhaps; he could certainly be vindictive at times, and at this point in his life he was quite hostile to Rousseau. Then again, he may well have written it merely to provoke the Genevan authorities into doing their worst. This would also be perfectly in character for him. I have not read the pamphlet itself, though, so I cannot even guess at what tone Voltaire intended to take.

Answering this question would require walking across campus to look at Voltaire’s collected letters (Theodore Bestermann is the editor). But it’s already lunchtime, and my entire afternoon is spoken for, so I’m afraid I cannot help you.


Chris Bertram 12.15.04 at 5:21 pm

No it doesn’t. It refers to Voltaire’s _Le Sentiment des citoyens_ (another nasty attack). Whether this was satire or not, it is an incident subsequent to the private letters Voltaire wrote trying to get the Genevan Petit Conseil to act against Rousseau. Rousseau refused to believe that Voltaire could have been the author of something so spiteful.

(BTW, you really shouldn’t prefer an account from a 19th century encyclopaedia article to Cranston’s very scholarly biography.)


Anderson 12.15.04 at 5:31 pm

Voltaire could be a complete bastard whenever he chose, as can be gleaned even from Besterman’s very sympathetic biography.

I sometimes think that his amazingly fluid ability with words had some correlation with his character; just as it’s easy to say “A . ~A”, it’s easy to BE that as well.


roger 12.15.04 at 8:27 pm

Was this the same Rousseau who wanted to make sure that Geneva continued to ban theater? Who replied to D’Alambert’s praise of drama in the Encyclopedie:

With what avidity the youth of Geneva, entrained by an authority of such a weight, will give themselves to ideas of which they are all too currently inclined. How, since the publication of this volume, young Genevans, otherwise good citizens, await the moment to patronize the establishment of a theater, believing thus to render a service to the country and almost to humanity itself! This is the subject of my alarms, this is the ill I wished to prevent.”
A sentiment that has echoed down the ages, all the way to Madame Mao.

Just sure I am getting the censorship issues straight here. I’m not used to Rousseau being the hero of freedom of speech.


Chris Bertram 12.15.04 at 9:44 pm

Roger, I wasn’t holding Rousseau up as a hero of free speech….


roger 12.15.04 at 10:06 pm

Chris, I know that. While I will grant that Voltaire was vengeful and inconsistent, even hypocritical, in the pursuit of his enemies, still, it is a bit of a hard knock to try to say he doesn’t deserve his place as a defender of tolerance because he was hypocritical to a man who was not exactly a paragon of free speech beliefs himself. I’d say that Voltaire’s record against intolerance, while spotty (his notorious prejudice against Jews, for example), was on the whole admirable. The deeper point is that an intellectual who desires and promotes liberty ends up persecuting a so called enemy of liberty with those tools he had at hand.
Rather the paradox that seems to overcome the left defenders of the Iraq invasion.


roger 12.15.04 at 10:14 pm

ps — oh, and along those lines, there’s been a meme on the left blogs urging people to complain to the FCC about Limbaugh for saying “dick” on the air.

After a while, any stick becomes good in a fight. But surely, the left – libertarian view is that Limbaugh should not be fined for saying dick on the air, NBC shouldn’t be fined for showing Janet Jackson’s provocative aureolas for five seconds, and, and… there should be theaters in Geneva.


Chris Bertram 12.15.04 at 11:30 pm

Well, Roger, I think you’ll find that Rousseau was pretty tolerant of religious differences too, on the whole. (Though that’s a complex topic , but well dealt with by Ralph Leigh in a lecture “Rousseau and the Problem of Tolerance”(? title).

As for “so-called enemy of liberty”. Indeed, “so-called”. But you can always read my book on the subject ;)

Theatres were illegal in a lot of places in the mid-18th century — including where I live in Bristol, England. I don’t think you should assimilate that to modern totalitarianism.


Jackmormon 12.16.04 at 12:49 am

I’m trying to work out whether the freedom of speech question in Voltaire shouldn’t be separated from the religious tolerance question. I know there’s linked logically, but one of the burning questions in the 18th c was how to sever the link between religion and the state.

Voltaire seems to have admired dissenting religions like the Quakers it seems specifically because of their stance on equality and free speech (Letters from england), but of course to an exile from a French monarchy, the Quakers would have seemed exotic. My guess is that he tolerates all expression that is funny and unthreatening or somehow profitable.

Rousseau’s position was more consistent, but more troubling as a basis for law. In “the confessions of a savoyard vicar” in Emile, Rousseau seems to advocate state religions: the individual can enjoy his freedom to dissent on the inside all he (or more rarely, she) likes, but in order to be part of the nation, the individual should conform to the state’s constraints. Rousseau’s position on free speech I can’t come up with easily at the moment, but I expect it would have something torturous to do with an opposition between subjective expression and political language-acts.

There’s a number of places where the two would clash violently. Which leaves us back to Pierre’s comment: Like Voltaire, I am categorically against the burning of books. Unless they are by people I know personally.


Jackmormon 12.16.04 at 12:50 am

Sorry, that’s speech-acts, of course.


Jeff Bogdan 12.16.04 at 12:53 am

Getting Limbaugh fined (or fired) for saying “dick” on the air would be completely unfair. On the other hand…whoo-hoo!


Chris Bertram 12.16.04 at 7:57 am

Jackmormon: R’s considered position (in the Letter to Voltaire, the 2nd Discourse and the Social Contract) is in favour of toleration of all religions which intersect with the doctrines of “civil religion”. So, no open atheists (he agrees with Locke on this one….) and no religions that aren’t prepared to co-exist with other religions.

(The no-atheists position is slightly complexified by more moderate remarks in a footnote to Julie.)

The Enclyclopedie entry on Tolerance (or mayby Intolerance, I forget) cites Rousseau in extenso as exemplifying religious toleration. So by contemporary standards, at least, he had fairly liberal views.


Damien 12.16.04 at 5:01 pm

Regarding the growing and mutual hatred between Rousseau and Voltaire, a very good article is accessible online in French. As Roger points out, Voltaire is by no means clean, but one has to aknowledge that the first books to burn in Geneva were Voltaire’s, thanks to Rousseau’s fifth letter in “Lettres écrites de la montagne”.
The same website also provides us with the full text of Voltaire’s satire of Rousseau, “Lettre au Docteur Jean Jacques Pansophe”


Chris Bertram 12.16.04 at 6:10 pm

How could it be the case that the first books to burn were Voltaire’s given that the SC and Emile had already been burnt in June 1762!


Damien 12.16.04 at 8:38 pm


Voltaire had nothing to do with the frenzy against Rousseau in 1762. Instead he offered his support to Rousseau at the time!
But the burning of Voltaire’s books in Geneva in 1764 can be linked to Rousseau’s “Letters from the mountain” where Rousseau exposes Voltaire as the author of the “Sermon des Cinquante”. Voltaire then writes the anonymous “Le Sentiment des Citoyens” to get his revenge.
Read the article, it’s worth it!


Chris Bertram 12.17.04 at 10:38 am


That isn’t the impression given by Cranston (3rd volume) pp. 9–10. Of course, Cranston could be wrong, but he supports Rousseau’s belief (dismissed by the author of your article) that Voltaire was maliciously at work in 1762 also.


roger 12.17.04 at 6:27 pm

Sticking my nose in this issue once more — in Condorcet’s bio of Voltaire, sweetly put up on the Voltaire site (http://www.voltaire-integral.com/index.html) , the issue between Voltaire and Rousseau was complicated by the issue between the citoyens, ruled by a Protestant aristocracy (the magistrates) and a mix of Protestant and Catholics who were denied the privileges of Catholicism. Condorcet is a prejudiced source, but in his telling, Voltaire’s status, being close to Geneva, is as threatened as Rousseau’s one by the politics of reaction against the idea that a people had a right to revolt against an oppressive government.

Here’s Condorcet: On parla donc de remettre en vigueur les lois qui défendaient aux catholiques d’avoir du bien dans le territoire genevois; on reprocha aux magistrats leurs liaisons avec Voltaire, qui avait osé s’élever contre l’assassinat barbare de Servet, commandé au nom de Dieu par Calvin aux lâches et superstitieux sénateurs de Genève. Voltaire fut obligé de renoncer à sa maison des Délices.

Bientôt après, Rousseau établit dans Émile des principes qui révélaient aux citoyens de Genève toute l’étendue de leurs droits, et qui les appuyaient sur des vérités simples que tous les hommes pouvaient sentir, que tous devaient adopter. Les aristocrates voulurent l’en punir; mais ils avaient besoin d’un prétexte. Ils prirent celui de la religion, et se réunirent aux prêtres qui, dans tous les pays, indifférents à la forme de la constitution et à la liberté des hommes, promettent les secours du ciel au parti qui favorise le plus leur intolérance, et deviennent, suivant leurs intérêts, tantôt les appuis de la tyrannie d’un prince persécuteur ou d’un sénat superstitieux, tantôt les défenseurs de la liberté d’un peuple fanatique.

So, this isn’t only a free speech issue, or a matter of Voltaire simply prosecuting Rousseau — but of two men who both played sides with various factions in Geneva for their various gains. Voltaire was an old hand at this.

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