Treatise on Tolerance

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance is one of his major, frontal assaults on intolerance, bigotry, and persecution. Voltaire’s wishes in this Treatise have largely been accomplished, and his insights and beautiful prose are always a great pleasure.

The essays, plays (the immortal Candide) and other writings of Francois-Marie Arouet (“Voltaire”), are among most revered in history. He is among the most prolific writers who ever lived, and may be the most prolific; those of his works (mostly letters, essays and plays) that survive comprise some 20 volumes of fine print. Next to Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, he is possibly the most quoted human in history.

A philosopher, playwright, poet, satirist, and congenital champion of the causes of mistreated individuals and groups (however unpopular with the local leaders), he earned a fortune from his writings and became successful investor. He was convicted of “felonies” (most political-nonsense and one for “manipulating the bond market”) by the King of France and King Ferdinand of Prussia (and was exiled twice and imprisoned once) but he remained a hero in both of their Courts. A founder of the Encyclopedists with Diderot, an existentialist too, he never rejected God, as he saw the absence of God as “fatal to [human] virtue”. “If God didn’t exist, we would have had to invent him” – which some read as Voltaire’s true position on point. “It’s a good thing that your maid, your tailor and even your lawyer believe [that hell is eternal]” as it will mitigate crime. “Natural religion has a thousand times prevented citizens from committing crimes.” However, organized religion “encourages all the cruelties done…under the banner of the saint.” He abhorred religious dogma, biblical myths and the intolerance and bloodshed that religions spawned; he viewed religious rituals of all sorts as useless superstitions and religious sects as divisive sources of intolerance and violence.

Voltaire, among the most quotable of all writers, offers endless witty, profound and provocative one liners: For example: “The fewer the dogmas, the fewer the disputes…the fewer the disputes, the less risk of calamity…To be happy in this life…we must be tolerant and merciful…The height of all folly is to attempt to bring all men to think alike on matters of metaphysics…” He quotes the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was the first to recognize Christianity as an acceptable religion, when he admonished Christian prelates to stop arguing over biblical wording, saying, “You are a couple of prize fools to argue over matters you cannot understand.” Voltaire added it is “equally wrong to bring to public notice arguments which would only confuse an ignorant populace.” Above all, Voltaire was a loving soul: “May all men remember they are brothers. May they abhor the tyranny which would imprison the soul…let us at least not hate one another or tear each other apart…but let us…praise…Thy goodness…”

Voltaire lived at a time (like David Hume), when religions persecuted, imprisoned and sometimes tortured to death those of different views. There was no “freedom of speech” and, to his death, and he fought valiantly for it. His writings, like those of Thomas Paine, surely contributed to the language that was written into the U.S. Constitution in 1776. Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance is worth the effort of embracing it.