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The Battle for Toleration, and its Betrayal

The Battle for Toleration, and its Betrayal

5 Mins
August 29, 2010

November 2003 -- This is how the story was told: In 1761, a young French Protestant of Toulouse, Marc Antoine Calas, finding his life a failure and having recently lost all his money in gambling, committed suicide by hanging himself. On discovering the body, his father and mother were naturally distraught, and their lamentations brought the townsfolk. The dead man's brother, Pierre, and a visiting friend, M. Lavaisse, fetched the doctor and the police.

Soon, however, the Catholic townspeople began to scream that Marc Antoine had been murdered by his Protestant family. Why? It must have been because he was prepared to abjure Protestantism! Yes, on the very next day!

Although the father, Jean Calas, had already sanctioned one son's conversion to Catholicism, and although he had long employed a zealous Catholic as his servant, he was put on trial for murder and convicted. Calas was subjected to torture but without confessing. The executioner then bound him to a wooden cross, broke his legs and arms with an iron bar, and strangled him. Lastly, his body was chained to a stake and burned.

The judges, shaken by the dying man's proclamations of innocence, passed lesser sentences on the other members of the Calas household: the mother was deprived of her estate; the brother was banished; the daughters were put in a convent. Eventually, the numerous implausibilities in the Calas case attracted outside attention, and Madame Calas was persuaded to appeal the case to the king. In the event, the conviction was overturned, and the king generously pensioned the living victims.

Such is the narrative that begins A Treatise on Toleration: In Connection with the Death of Jean Calas, published by Voltaire in 1763. His, though he does not say so, was the outside attention that led to the reversal of the conviction and the Calas family's recompense.

But the essay is no mild narrative of a wrong righted. It is a frontal attack on that which Voltaire blamed for the judicial murder of Jean Calas, that which he loathed above all things: irrationality armed with violence. Against this enemy, he deployed argument, precedent, sarcasm, scorn, and anger. And he offered as an alternative, not the promise of defeating irrationality, but the hope of disarming it.


November 21 is the birthday of Francois-Marie Arouet, who called himself Voltaire. He was born to middle-class parents in 1694 and received an excellent education at a Jesuit school, where he was steeped in the scholastic skills of logic and argument.

Voltaire's first great success was as a playwright—his Oedipe (1718) led critics to hail him as the new Racine, and his epic poem about France's King Henry IV further burnished his reputation. But the defining moment of Voltaire's life was his forced exile in England, from 1726 to 1729. There, he was introduced to the Enlightenment ideas that were flourishing in England, most especially the ideas of Locke and Newton. From them, and from England more broadly, he obtained the fundamental outlook that he would champion for the rest of his life.

In 1734, Voltaire drew upon his English experience for Lettres Philosophiques, which promoted religious toleration, and in 1738 he published his Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton, which popularized a non-Cartesian approach to physics.

The second defining moment in his life occurred when, in 1758, he acquired a large estate at Ferney straddling the borders of France and Switzerland. Here, in the early 1760s, word came to him of notorious acts of religious intolerance, such as the Calas affair, and this prompted Voltaire's emergence as an active crusader. His Treatise on Toleration and the articles on tolerance in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) set down for all time not only his arguments against intolerance but also his rage and his scorn. As Thomas Babington Macaulay opined: "Of all the intellectual weapons that have ever been wielded by man, the most terrible was the mockery of Voltaire. Bigots and tyrants who had never been moved by the wailings and cursings of millions, turned pale at his name."


The modern debate over toleration began during the reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when two arguments in favor of intolerance were widely believed. First, it was said, a false prophet is a kind of spiritual serial murderer, for he seduces people into believing falsehoods and practicing evil, thus leading them into eternal death. Better to silence him, by whatever means necessary, than risk the souls of thousands. Secondly, a person seduced into believing falsehoods and practicing evil will destroy the interpersonal benevolence that binds people together in a society. These were the arguments that advocates of toleration had to rebut.

The greatest of toleration's early proponents was John Locke, whose "Letter on Toleration" offers two principal reasons for espousing the policy. First, he writes, intolerance is inefficacious and cannot save people from damnation. The reason is that coercion cannot compel a man to believe what he does not believe; it can only force him to go through the motions of expressing belief. Secondly, intolerance employed for people's salvation confuses men's temporal and spiritual lives. The magistrate's job is to keep the peace between people; it is up to individuals to save their souls.

These reasons, however, set limits to Locke's principle of toleration. Thus, for him, the second argument for intolerance does have a certain force: the magistrate ought not tolerate political or moral opinions that would undermine the state or civil society. Also properly suppressed are conspiracy, foreign allegiances (hence, Roman Catholicism), and atheism (because, Locke supposed, atheists would not feel themselves bound by their oaths).

As noted above, Voltaire greatly admired the tolerant attitudes and policies of the English and of Locke in particular. Naturally, then, one finds in his arguments for toleration much that is simply an expansion of Locke's thinking. But one also finds differences.

He writes, in very Lockean terms: "You know well that intolerance begets only hypocrites or rebels." But for Voltaire, creating rebels, or others who would disturb the peace, is much the greater concern. Partly, he may place his emphasis here to rebut the linkage of religion and state that the French traditionally made through the phrase "one faith, one law, one king." But perhaps also Voltaire is using this argument because he sees a chance to extend Locke's argument: "You worry about tolerating opinions that may undermine the state or civil society," he seems to say. "You should worry about intolerance of opinions producing rebels against the state and society."


"Voltaire's deepest influence on Western civilization is the enshrining of toleration as a virtue." So writes Alan Charles Kors, an authority on French Enlightenment thinking and author of the Teaching Company's series "Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment."

Ironically, since the Enlightenment, the concept of toleration has been so transmogrified by post-Enlightenment trends that it now means almost the opposite of what it meant to Voltaire. No longer does toleration mean living alongside irrational views and behaviors so long as they are deprived of employing coercion. The postmodern doctrine of toleration now means denying that any view or behavior can be characterized as irrational. And it now entails—in the form of political correctness—the use of coercion to silence those who assert that certain views or behaviors are irrational. Were Voltaire alive today, postmodern "toleration" might well be his principal target.

This article was originally published in the November 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

Roger Donway
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Roger Donway
Religion and Atheism