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Material for Parts I, II, & III comes from the translation by Joseph McCabe of selected essays by Voltaire entitled: "A Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays."

In just 70 pages in paperback Voltaire produced a major work as timeless today as when he wrote it. For example:

When the risk and the advantage are equal, astonishment ceases, and even pity is enfeebled. But when an innocent father is given into the hands of error, of passion, or of fanaticism; when the accused has no defense but his virtue; when those who dispose of his life run no risk but that of making a mistake; when they can slay with impunity by a legal decree--then the voice of the general public is heard, and each fears for himself. They see no man's life is safe before a court that has been set up to guard the welfare of citizens, and every voice is raised in a demand of vengeance.

While this essay easily stands alone, some helpful background essays include:

The Principle of Action
The Questions of Zapata
Sermon of the Fifty

Voltaire's essay on tolerance begins with an account of one Jean Calas. His son, Marc Antoine, a man of letters, was a somber, restless and violent character. Unfit for the business world, and being unable to prove he was Catholic, he could not practice law, he became despondent, read up on suicide and confided his intentions to a friend. A losing day of gambling tipped him over the edge. That night he hung himself. Read Voltaire's account of what came next:

"...The people of Toulouse gathered around the house. They are superstitious and impulsive people; they regard as monsters their brothers who do not share their religion...

Some fanatic in the crowd cried out that Jean Calas had hanged his son Mark Antoine. The cry was soon repeated on all sides; some adding that the deceased was to have abjured Protestantism on the following day, and that the family and young Lavaisse [a friend] has strangled him out of hatred of the Catholic religion. In a moment, all doubt disappeared. The whole town was persuaded that it is a point of religion with the Protestants for the father and mother to kill their children when they wish to change their faith.

The agitation could not end there. It was imagined that the Protestants of Languedoc had held a meeting the night before; that they had, by a majority of votes chosen an executioner for the sect; that , in the space of 24 hours, the young man had received the news of his appointment and had come from Bordeaux to help Jean Calas, his wife, and their son Pierre to strangle a friend, son, and brother.

The captain of Toulouse, David, excited by these rumours and wishing to give effect to them by a prompt execution, took a step which is against the laws and regulations. He put the Calas family, the Catholic servant, and Lavaisse in irons.

A report not less vicious than his procedure was published. He went even farther. Marc Antoine Calas had died a Calvinist; and if he had taken his own life, his body was supposed to have been dragged on a hurdle. Instead of this, he was buried with great pomp in the Church of St. Stephen, although the priest protested against this profanation.

... No church ever celebrated the feast of a martyr with more pomp; but it was a terrible pomp. They has raised above a magnificent bier a skeleton, which was made to move its bones. It represented Marc Antoine calas holding a palm in one hand, and in the other a pen with which he was to sign his abjuration of heresy. This pen, in point of fact, signed the death-sentence of his father.

The only thing that remained for this poor devil who had taken his own life was canonization. Everybody regarded him as a saint; some invoked him, others went to pray at his tomb, others sought miracles of him, and others, again, related the miracles he had wrought. A monk extracted some of his teeth, to have permanent relics of him. A young woman, who was rather deaf, told how she heard the sound of bells. An apoplectic priest was cured after taking an emetic. Legal declarations of these prodigies were drawn up....

What contributed most to his fate was the approach of that singular festival which the people of Toulouse hold every year in memory of the massacre of four thousand Huguenots. The year 1762 was the bicentenary of the event. The city was decorated with all the trappings of the ceremony, and the heated imagination of the people was still further excited. It was stated publicly that the scaffold on which the Calas were to be executed would be the chief ornament of the festival; it was said providence itself provided these victims for the sacrifice in honour of our holy religion. A score of people heard these, and even more violent things. And this in our days--in an age where philosophy has made so much progress, and a hundred academics are writing for the improvement of our morals! It would seem that fanaticism is angry at the success of reason, and combats it ever more furiously.  

Paraphrasing again: Thirteen judges met daily to bring the trial to a close. The initial division was six for conviction, seven against. The debate moved on. As hard as passionate, as irrational as myth, emotions slowly won the upper hand, eight for conviction five against. Jean Calas was an old man of sixty, feeble, with limbs long swollen and weak. Yet he was convicted of strangling and hanging a young man of twenty eight. Could he have accomplished that with the help of his wife, son Pierre, Lavaisse, and the servant? Perhaps, but the others were not charged. One argument the convicting judges made to convince the hold-outs was that Jean Calas would, on the scaffold, confess his crime and accuse his accomplices. That did not not happen. Faced with that event, the judges had to pass a second sentence setting the others free!

Ridiculous in the extreme? Yes, and one magistrate pointed out that in passing the second verdict, giving lie to the other, they were in fact convicting themselves. With that belated realization, the judges banished Pierre Calas--an action as absurd as all the rest. That too, did not happen. He was threatened by a Dominican monk to denounce his religion. He refused and tried to leave the city, but a priest forced him to return to Toulouse where he was confined to convent, and forced to perform Catholic functions. Voltaire again: It was part of what they wanted. It was the price of his father's blood, and religion seemed to be avenged."

As it happened, the Calas daughters were put in a convent. The mother shrank from the agony and publicity, alone and dispirited. Certain people were so dis-impressed by the spectacle that they prevailed upon her to go to Paris and plead for relief from this gross injustice.

Quoting again "She reached Paris almost at the point of death. She was astonished at her reception, at the help and the tears that were given to her."

At Paris reason dominates fanaticism, however powerful it may be; in the provinces fanaticism almost always overcomes reason.

The Council in Paris moved in her favor as did the whole of Europe. Her daughters were returned to her. There was more because the affair involved religion. There were some who felt that it was better to sacrifice a protestant family then to besmirch the characters of the catholic priests or magistrates.

From this introductory back drop, Voltaire launches into his many-sided views and questions regarding intolerance. His first question was whether religion ought to be charitable or barbaric. In other words, should religion seek to be benevolent and a refuge from fear and want, or should it be what it so often is, exploitive and violent. That question is still pertinent in our times.


We respect all confraternities; they are edifying. But can whatever good they they may do to the state outweigh this appalling evil that they have done? ...One would say that they have taken vows to hate their brothers; for we have religion enough to hate and to persecute, and we have religion enough to love and to help.

There have been times when, as we know only too well, confraternities were dangerous. The Fratelli and the Flagellants gave trouble enough. The League began with associations of that kind. Why should they distinguish themselves thus from other citizens? Did they think themselves more perfect? The very claim is an insult to the rest of the nation. Did they wish all Christians to enter their confraternity? What a sight it would be to have all Europe in hoods and masks, with two little round holes in front of the eyes! Do they seriously think that God prefers this costume to that of ordinary folk? Further, this garment is the uniform of controversialists, warning their opponents to get to arms. It may incite a kind of civil war of the minds, and would perhaps end in fatal excesses, unless the king and his ministers were as wise as the fanatics were demented.

Shades of the Ku Klux Klan--not that long ago! And as 21st Century history has confirmed, controversialism merely spawns more of its own kind--unless checked. "If you are not with us, you are against us," and "bring them on" were recent clarion calls to arms.

With this introduction to the setting, the rest of what follows comes from Mc Cabe. His comments for clarity or reference are in brackets [ ]. ending with --J.M. Our commentary in what follows has the format {Ed: ... ... }


When enlightenment spread, with the renaissance of letters in the fifteenth century, there was a very general complaint of abuses, and everybody agrees that the complaint was just.

Pope Alexander VI. had openly bought the papal tiara, and his five bastards shared its advantages. His son, the cardinal-duke of Borgia, made an end, in concert with his father, of Vitelli, Urbino, Gravina. Oliveretto, and a hundred other nobles, in order to seize their lands. Julius II., animated by the same spirit, excommunicated Louis XII. and gave his kingdom to the first occupant; while he himself, helmet on head and cuirass on back, spread blood and fire over part of Italy. Leo X., to pay for his pleasures, sold indulgences as the taxes are sold in the open market. They who revolted against this brigandage were, at least, not wrong from the moral point of view. Let us see if they were wrong in politics.

They said that, since Jesus Christ had never exacted fees, nor sold dispensations for this world or indulgences for the next, one might refuse to pay a foreign prince the price of these things. Supposing that our fees to Rome and the dispensations which we still buy [To marry within certain degrees of kindred, etc.-J. M.] did not cost us more than five hundred thousand francs a year, it is clear that, since the time of Francis I., we should have paid, in two hundred and fifty years, a hundred and twenty million francs; allowing for the change of value in money, we may say about two hundred and fifty millions [£10,000,000]. One may, therefore, without blasphemy, admit that the heretics, in proposing to abolish these singular taxes, which will astonish a later age, did not do a very grave wrong to the kingdom, and that they were rather good financiers than bad subjects. Let us add that they alone knew Greek, and were acquainted with antiquity. Let us grant that, in spite of their errors, we owe to them the development of the human mind, so long buried in the densest barbarism.

But, as they denied the existence of Purgatory, which it is not permitted to doubt, and which brought a considerable income to the monks; and as they did not venerate relics, which ought to be venerated, and which are a source of even greater profit--in fine, as they assailed much-respected dogmas, the only answer to them at first was to burn them. The king, who protected and subsidized them in Germany, walked at the head of a procession in Paris, and at the close a number of the wretches were executed. This was the manner of execution. They were hung at the end of a long beam, which was balanced, like a see-saw, across a tree. A big fire was lit underneath, and they were alternately sunk into it and raised out. Their torments were thus protracted, until death relieved them from a more hideous punishment than any barbarian had ever invented.

Shortly before the death of Francis I. certain members of the Parliament de Provence, instigated by their clergy against the inhabitants of Merindol and Cabrieres, asked the king for troops to support the execution of nineteen persons of the district whom they had condemned. They had six thousand slain, without regard to sex or age or infancy, and they reduced thirty towns to ashes. These people, who had not hitherto been heard of, were, no doubt, in the wrong to have been born Waldensians; but that was their only crime. They had been settled for three hundred years in the deserts and on the mountains, which they had, with incredible labour, made fertile. Their quiet, pastoral life represented the supposed innocence of the first ages of men. They knew the neighbouring towns only by selling fruit to them. They had no law-courts and never warred; they did not defend themselves. They were slain as one slays animals in an enclosure.

After the death of Francis I.--a prince who is better known for his amours and misfortunes than his cruelty--the execution of a thousand heretics, especially of the Councillor of the Parliament, Dubourg, and the massacre of Vassy, caused the persecuted sect to take to arms. They had increased in the light of the flames and under the sword of the executioner, and substituted fury for patience. They imitated the cruelties of their enemies. Nine civil wars filled France with carnage; and a peace more fatal than war led to the massacre of St. Bartholomew, which is without precedent in the annals of crime.

The [Catholic] League assassinated Henry III. and Henry IV. by the hands of a Dominican monk, and of a monster who had belonged to the order of St. Bernard. There are those who say that humanity, indulgence, and liberty of conscience are horrible things. Candidly, could they have brought about calamities such as these?


There are some who say that, if we treated with paternal indulgence those erring brethren who pray to God in bad French [instead of bad Latin], we should be putting weapons in their hands, and would once more witness the battles of Jarnac, Moncontour, Coutras, Dreux, and St. Denis. I do not know anything about this, as I am not a prophet; but it seems to me an illogical piece of reasoning to say: "These men rebelled when I treated them ill, therefore they will rebel when I treat them well."

I would venture to take the liberty to invite those who are at the head of the government, and those who are destined for high positions, to reflect carefully whether one really has ground to fear that kindness will lead to the same revolts as cruelty; whether what happened in certain circumstances is sure to happen in different circumstances; if the times, public opinion, and morals are unchanged.

The Huguenots, it is true, have been as inebriated with fanaticism and stained with blood as we. But are this generation as barbaric as their fathers? Have not time, the progress of reason, good books, and the humanizing influence of society had an effect on the leaders of these people? And do we not perceive that the aspect of nearly the whole of Europe has been changed within the last fifty years?

Government is stronger everywhere, and morals have improved. The ordinary police, supported by numerous standing armies, gives us some security against a return to that age of anarchy in which Calvinistic peasants fought Catholic peasants, hastily enrolled between the sowing and the harvest.

Different times have different needs. It would be absurd to decimate the Sorbonne today because it once presented a demand for the burning of the Maid of Orleans, declared that Henry III. had forfeited his kingdom, excommunicated him, and proscribed the great Henry IV. We will not think of inquiring into the other bodies in the kingdom who committed the same excesses in those frenzied days. It would not only be unjust, but would be as stupid as to purge all the inhabitants of Marseilles because they had the plague in 1720.

Shall we go and sack Rome, as the troops of Charles V. did, because Sixtus V. in 1585 granted an indulgence of nine years to all Frenchmen who would take up arms against their sovereign? Is it not enough to prevent Rome forever from reverting to such excesses?

The rage that is inspired by the dogmatic spirit and the abuse of the Christian religion, wrongly conceived, has shed as much blood and led to as many disasters in Germany, England, and even Holland, as in France. Yet religious difference causes no trouble today in those States. The Jew, the Catholic, the Greek, the Lutheran, the Calvinist, the Anabaptist, the Socinian, the Memnonist, the Moravian, and so many others, live like brothers in these countries, and contribute alike to the good of the social body.

They fear no longer in Holland that disputes about predestination will end in heads being cut off. They fear no longer at London that the quarrels of Presbyterians and Episcopalians about liturgies and surplices will lead to the death of a king on the scaffold. A populous and wealthier Ireland will no longer see its Catholic citizens sacrifice its Protestant citizens to God during two months, bury them alive, hang their mothers to gibbets, tie the girls to the necks of their mothers, and see them expire together; or put swords in the hands of their prisoners and guide their hands to the bosoms of their wives, their fathers, their mothers, and their daughters, thinking to make parricides of them, and damn them as well as exterminate them. [An exaggerated account of the Ulster rebellion.--J.M.] Such is the· account given by Rapin Thoyras, an officer in Ireland, and almost a contemporary; so we find in all the annals and histories of England. It will never be repeated. Philosophy, the sister of religion, has disarmed the hands that superstition had so long stained with blood; and the human mind, awakening from its intoxication, is amazed at the excesses into which fanaticism had led it.

We have in France a rich province in which the Lutherans outnumber the Catholics. The University of Alsace is in the hands of the Lutherans. They occupy some of the municipal offices; yet not the least religious quarrel has disturbed this province since it came into the possession of our kings. Why? Because no one has ever been persecuted in it. Seek not to vex the hearts of men, and they are yours.

I do not say that all who are not of the same religion as the prince should share the positions and honours of those who follow the dominant religion. In England the Catholics, who are regarded as attached to the party of the Pretender, are not admitted to office. They even pay double taxes. In other respects, however, they have all the rights of citizens.

Some of the French bishops have been suspected of holding that it redounds neither to their honour or their profit to have Calvinists in their dioceses. This is said to be one of the greatest obstacles to toleration. I cannot believe it. The episcopal body in France is composed of gentlemen, who think and act with the nobility that befits their birth. They are charitable and generous; so much justice must be done them. They must think that their fugitive subjects will assuredly not be converted in foreign countries, and that, when they return to their pastors, they may be enlightened by their instructions and touched by their example. There would be honour in converting them, and their material interests would not suffer. The more citizens there were, the larger would be the income from the prelate's estates.

A Polish bishop had an Anabaptist for farmer and a Socinian for steward. It was suggested that he ought to discharge and prosecute the latter because he did not believe in consubstantiality, and the former because he did not baptize his child until it was fifteen years old. He replied that they would be damned for ever in the next world, but that they were very useful to him in this.

Let us get out of our grooves and study the rest of the globe. The Sultan governs in peace twenty million people of different religions; two hundred thousand Greeks live in security at Constantinople; the muphti himself nominates and presents to the emperor the Greek patriarch, and they also admit a Latin patriarch. The Sultan nominates Latin bishops for some of the Greek islands, using the following formula: "I command him to go and reside as bishop in the island of Chios, according to their ancient usage and their vain ceremonies." The empire is full of Jacobites, Nestorians, and Monothelites; it contains Copts Christians of St. John, Jews, and Hindoos. The annals of Turkey do not record any revolt instigated by any of these religions.

Go to India, Persia, or Tartary, and you will find the same toleration and tranquility. Peter the Great patronized all the cults in his vast empire. Commerce and agriculture profited by it, and the body politic never suffered from it.

The government of China has not, during the four thousand years of its known history, had any cult but the simple worship of one God. Nevertheless, it tolerates the superstitions of Fo, and permits a large number of bonzes, who would be dangerous if the prudence of the courts did not restrain them.

It is true that the great Emperor Yang-Chin, perhaps the wisest and most magnanimous emperor that China ever had, expelled the Jesuits. But it was not because he was intolerant; it was because the Jesuits were. They themselves give, in their curious letters, the words of the good prince to them: "I know that your religion is intolerant; I know what you have done in Manila and Japan. You deceived my father; think not to deceive me." If you read the whole of his speech to them, you will see that he was one of the wisest and most clement of men. How could he retain European physicians who, under pretence of showing thermometers and aeolipiles at court, had carried off a prince of the blood? What would he have said if he had read our history and was acquainted with the days of our League and of the Gunpowder Plot?

It was enough for him to be informed of the indecent quarrels of the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and secular priests sent into his State from the ends of the earth. They came to preach the truth, and fell to anathematizing each other. Hence the Emperor was bound to expel the foreign disturbers. But how kindly he dismissed them! What paternal care did he not devote to their journey, and in order to protect them from insult on the way? Their very banishment was a lesson in toleration and humanity.

The Japanese were the most tolerant of all men. A dozen peaceful religions throve in their empire, when the Jesuits came with a thirteenth. As they soon showed that they would tolerate no other, there arose a civil war, even more frightful than that of the League, and the land was desolated. In the end the Christian religion was drowned in blood; the Japanese closed their empire, and regarded us only as wild beasts, like those which the English have cleared out of their island. The minister Colbert, knowing how we need the Japanese, who have no need of us, tried in vain to reopen commerce with their empire. He found them inflexible.

Thus the whole of our continent shows us that we must neither preach nor practice intolerance.

Turn your eyes to the other hemisphere. Study Carolina, of which the wise Locke was the legislator. Seven fathers of families sufficed to set up a public cult approved by the law; and this liberty gave rise to no disorder. Heaven preserve us from quoting this as an example for France to follow! We quote it only to show that the greatest excess of toleration was not followed by the slightest dissension. But what is good and useful in a young colony is not suitable for a long-established kingdom.

What shall we say of the primitive people who have been derisively called Quakers, but who, however ridiculous their customs may he, have been so virtuous and given so useful a lesson of peace to other men? There are a hundred thousand of them in Pennsylvania. Discord and controversy are unknown in the happy country they have made for themselves; and the very name of their chief town, Philadelphia, which unceasingly reminds them that all men are brothers, is an example and a shame to nations that are yet ignorant of toleration.

Toleration, is fine, never led to civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage. Choose, then, between these rivals--between the mother who would have her son slain and the mother who yields, provided his life be spared.

I speak here only of the interest of nations. While respecting theology, as I do, I regard in this article only the physical and moral well-being of society. I beg every impartial reader to weigh these truths, verify them, and add to them. Attentive readers, who restrain not their thoughts, always go farther than the author.


I venture to think that some enlightened and magnanimous minister, some humane and wise prelate, some prince who puts his interest in the number of his subjects and his glory in their welfare, may deign to glance at this inartistic and defective paper. He will supply its defects and say to himself: What do I risk in seeing my land cultivated and enriched by a larger number of industrious workers, the revenue increased, the State more flourishing?

Germany would be a desert strewn with the bones of Catholics. Protestants, and Anabaptists, slain by each other, if the peace of Westphalia had not at length brought freedom of conscience.

We have Jews at Bordeaux and Metz and in Alsace; we have Lutherans. Molinists. and Jansenists; can we not suffer and control Calvinists on much the same terms as those on which Catholics are tolerated at London? The more sects there are, the less danger in each. Multiplicity enfeebles them. They are all restrained by just laws which forbid disorderly meetings, insults, and sedition, and are ever enforced by the community.

We know that many fathers of families, who have made large fortunes in foreign lands, are ready to return to their country. They ask only the protection of natural law, the validity of their marriages, security as to the condition of their children, the right to inherit from their fathers, and the enfranchisement of their persons. They ask not for public chapels, or the right to municipal offices and dignities. Catholics have not these things in England and other countries. It is not a question of giving immense privileges and secure positions to a faction, but of allowing a peaceful people to live, and of moderating the laws once, but no longer, necessary. It is not our place to tell the ministry what is to be done; we do but ask consideration for the unfortunate.

How many ways there are of making them useful, and preventing them from ever being dangerous! The prudence of the ministry and the Council, supported as it is by force, will easily discover these means, which are already happily employed by other nations.

There are still fanatics among the Calvinistic populace; but it is certain that there are far more among the convulsionary [bigoted Catholic] populace. The dregs of the fanatical worshippers of St. Medard count as nothing in the nation; the dregs of the Calvinistic prophets are annihilated. The great means to reduce the number of fanatics, if any remain, is to submit that disease of the mind to the treatment of reason, which slowly, but infallibly, enlightens men. Reason is gentle and humane. It inspires liberality, suppresses discord, and strengthens virtue; it has more power to make obedience to the laws attractive than force has to compel it. And shall we take no account of the ridicule that attaches to-day to the enthusiasm of these good people? Ridicule is a strong barrier to the extravagance of all sectarians. The past is as if it had never been. We must always start from the present--from the point which nations have already reached.

There was a time when it was thought necessary to issue decrees against those who taught a doctrine at variance with the categories of Aristotle, the abhorrence of a vacuum, the quiddities, the universal apart from the object. We have in Europe more than a hundred volumes of jurisprudence on sorcery and the way to distinguish between false and real sorcerers. The excommunication of grasshoppers and harmful insects has been much practiced, and still survives in certain rituals. But the practice is over; Aristotle and the sorcerers and grasshoppers are left in peace. There are countless instances of this folly, once thought so important. Other follies arise from time to time; but they have their day and are abandoned. What would happen today if a man were minded to call himself a Carpocratian, a Eutychian, a Monothelite, Monophysist, a Nestorian. or a Manichrean? We should laugh at him, as at a man dressed in the garb of former days.

The nation was beginning to open its eyes when the Jesuits Le Tellier and Doucin fabricated the bull Unigenitus and sent it to Rome. They thought that they still lived in those ignorant times when the most absurd statements were accepted without inquiry. They ventured even to condemn the proposition, a truth of all times and all places: "The fear of unjust excommunication should not prevent one from doing one's duty." It was a proscription of reason, the liberties of the Gallican Church, and of the fundamental principle of morals. It was to say to men: God commands you never to do your duty if you fear injustice. Never was common sense more outrageously challenged! The counselors of Rome were not on their guard. The papal court was persuaded that the bull was necessary, and that the nation desired it; it was signed, sealed, and dispatched. You know the result; assuredly, if they had been foreseen, the bull would have been modified. There were angry quarrels, which the prudence and goodness of the king have settled.

So it is in regard to a number of the points which divide the Protestants and ourselves. Some are of no consequence; some are more serious; but on these points the fury of the controversyhas so far abated that the Protestants themselves no longer enter into disputes in their churches.

It is a time of disgust, of satiety, or, rather, of reason, that may be used as an epoch and guarantee of public tranquility. Controversy is an epidemic disease that near sits end, and what is now needed is gentle treatment. It is to the interest of the State that its expatriated children should return modestly to the homes of their fathers. Humanity demands it, reason counsels it, and politics need not fear it.


Natural law is that indicated to men by nature. You have reared a child; he owes you respect as a father, gratitude as a benefactor. You have a right to the products of the soil that you have cultivated with your own hands. You have given or received a promise; it must be kept.

Human law must in every case be based on natural law. All over the earth the great principle of both is: Do not unto others what you would that they do not unto you. Now, in virtue of this principle, one man cannot say to another: Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish." Thus do men speak in Portugal, Spain, and Goa. In some other countries they are now content to say: "Believe, or I detest thee; believe, or I will do thee all the harm I can. Monster, thou sharest not my religion, and therefore hast no religion; thou shalt be a thing of horror to thy neighbours, thy city, and thy province."

If it were a point of human law to behave thus, the Japanese should detest the Chinese, who should abhor the Siamese; the Siamese, in turn, should persecute the Thibetans, who should fall upon the Hindoos. A Mogul should tear out the heart of the first Malabarian he met; the Malabarian should slay the Persian, who might massacre the Turk; and all of them should fling themselves against the Christians, who have so long devoured each other.

The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.


The peoples of whom history has given us some slight knowledge regarded their different religions as links that bound them together; it was an association of the human race. There was a kind of right to hospitality among the gods, just as there was among men. When a stranger reached a town, his first act was to worship the gods of the country; even the gods of enemies were strictly venerated. The Trojans offered prayers to the gods who fought for the Greeks.

Alexander, in the deserts of Libya, went to consult the god Ammon, whom the Greeks called Zeus and the Latin's Jupiter, though they both had their own Zeus or Jupiter at home. When a town was besieged, sacrifices and prayers were offered to the gods of the town to secure their favour. Thus in the very midst of war religion united men and moderated their fury, though at times it enjoined on them inhuman and horrible deeds.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that not one of the ancient civilized nations restricted the freedom of thought. [This position could be held only in a modified form in regard to ancient Greece. See E. S. P. Haynes's work, Religious Persecution. --J. M.] Each of them had a religion. but it seems to me that they used it in regard to men as they did in regard to their gods. All of them recognized a supreme God, but they associated with him a prodigious number of lesser divinities. They had only one cult, but they permitted numbers of special systems.

The Greeks, for instance, however religious they were, allowed the Epicureans to deny providence and the existence of the soul. I need not speak of the other sects which all offended against the sound idea of the creative being, yet were all tolerated.

Socrates, who approached nearest to a knowledge of the Creator, is said to have paid for it, and died a martyr to the Deity; he is the only man whom the Greeks put to death for his opinions. If that was really the cause of his condemnation, however, it is not to the credit of intolerance, since they punished only the man who alone gave glory to God, and honoured those who held unworthy views of the Deity. The enemies of toleration would, I think, be ill advised to quote the odious example of the judges of Socrates.

It is evident, moreover, that he was the victim of a furious party, angered against him. He had made irreconcilable enemies of the sophists, orators, and poets who taught in the schools, and of all the teachers in charge of the children of distinguished men. He himself admits, in his discourse given to us by Plato, that he went from house to house proving to the teachers that they were ignorant. Such conduct was hardly worthy of one whom an oracle had declared to be the wisest of men. A priest and a councillor of the Five Hundred were put forward to accuse him. I must confess that I do not know what the precise accusation was; I find only vagueness in his apology. He is made to say, in general, that he was accused of instilling into young men sentiments in opposition to the religion and government. It is the usual method of calumniators, but a court would demand accredited facts and precise charges. Of these there is no trace in the trial of Socrates. We know only that at first there were two hundred and twenty votes in his favour. From this we may infer that the court of the Five Hundred included two hundred and twenty philosophers; I doubt if so many could be found elsewhere. The majority at length condemned him to drink the hemlock; but let us remember that, when the Athenians returned to their senses, they regarded both the accusers and the judges with horror; that Melitus, the chief author of the sentence, was condemned to death for his injustice; and that the others were banished, and a temple was erected to Socrates. Never was philosophy so much avenged and honoured. The case of Socrates is really the most terrible argument that can be used against intolerance. The Athenians had an altar dedicate to foreign gods--the gods they knew not. Could there be a stronger proof, not merely of their indulgence to all nations, but even of respect for their cults?

A French writer, in attempting to justify the massacre of St. Bartholomew, quotes the war of the Phocaeans, known as "the sacred war," as if this war had been inspired by cult, or dogma, or theological argument. Nay, it was a question only of determining to whom a certain field belonged; it is the subject of all wars. Beards of corn are not a symbol of faith; no Greek town ever went to war for opinions. What, indeed, would· this gentleman have? Would he have us enter upon a " sacred war"?


Among the ancient Romans you will not find, from Romulus until the days when the Christians disputed with the priests of the empire, a single man persecuted on account of his opinions. Cicero doubted everything; Lucretious denied everything; yet they incurred not the least reproach. Indeed, licence went so far that Pliny, the naturalist, began his book by saying that there is no god, or that, if there is, it is the sun. Cicero, speaking of the lower regions, says: "There is no old woman so stupid as to believe in them ( Non est anus tam excors qua credat)." Juvenal says: "Even the children do not believe (Nee pueri credunt)." They sang in the theatre at Rome: "There is nothing after death, and death is nothing (Post mortem nihil est, ipsaque mors nihil )." We may abhor these maxims, or, at the most, forgive a people whom the light of the gospel had not reached; but we must conclude that the Romans were very tolerant, since they did not excite a single murmur.

The great principle of the Senate and people of Rome was, "Offenses against the gods are the business of the gods (Deorum offensa diis curae)." They dreamed only of conquering, governing, and civilizing the world. They were our legislators and our conquerors; and Caesar, who gave us roads, laws, and games, never attempted to compel us to abandon our druids for him, great pontiff as he was of our sovereign nation.

The Romans did not profess all cults, or assign public functions to all, but they permitted all. They had no material object of worship under Numa, no pictures or statues; though they presently erected statues to "the gods of the great nations," whom they learned from the Greeks. The law of the Twelve Tables, Deos peregrinos ne colunto ("Foreign gods shall not be worshiped"), means only that public cult shall be given only to the superior divinities approved by the Senate. Isis had a temple at Rome until Tiberius destroyed it. The Jews were engaged in commerce there since the time of the Punic war, and had synagogues there in the days of Augustus. They kept them almost always, as in modern Rome. Can there be a clearer proof that toleration was regarded by the Romans as the most sacred line of the law of nations.

We are told that, as soon as the Christians appeared, they were persecuted by the Romans, who persecuted nobody. It seems to me that the statement is entirely false, and I need only quote St. Paul himself in disproof of it. In the Acts of the Apostles (xxv. 16) we read that, when Paul was dragged before the Roman Governor by the Jews in some religious quarrel, Festus said: "It is not the manner of the the Romans to deliver any man to die before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself." These words are the more remarkable for a Roman magistrate, because he seems to have had nothing but contempt for Paul. Deceived by the false light of his reason, he took Paul for a fool, and said: "Much learning doth make thee mad." He was, therefore, having regard only to the equity of Roman law in giving his protection to a stranger for whom he had no esteem.

Thus the Holy Spirit, in inspiring Acts, testifies that the Romans were just, and did not persecute. It was not the Romans who fell upon Paul, but the Jews. St. James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned by the order of a Jewish Sadducee, not of a Roman. The Jews alone stoned St. Stephen; and St. Paul, in holding the cloaks of the executioners, certainly did not act as a Roman citizen. [The Jews had no right to infiict death after Judaea had become a Roman province, but the authorities at times overlooked these punishments of blasphemy.--JM]

The first Christians had, no doubt, no cause of quarrel with the Romans; their only enemies were the Jews, from whom they were beginning to separate. We know the fierce hatred that sectarians always have for those who leave the sect. There were probably disturbances in the synagogues at Rome. Suetonius says, in his life of Claudius: "Judaeos impulsore Christo assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit." [Ch.25 Voltaire has in this followed ecclesiastical custom. The word in Suetonius is not "Christo," but "Chresto," and therefore the passage reads, in English: "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome for their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus." As Chrestus was not an uncommon name at Rome, there is no need to apply the passage to Christ in any way. --J. M. } He was wrong in saying that they were instigated by Christ, and was not likely to be well informed in detail about a people so much despised at Rome as the Jews were; but he was not mistaken as to the subject of the quarrels. Suetonius wrote under Hadrian, in the second century, when the Christians were not distinct from the Jews in Roman eyes. His words show that the Romans, instead of oppressing the first Christians, rather coerced the Jews who persecuted them. They wished the Roman synagogue to deal as indulgently with their separated brethren as the Senate did. The banished Jews returned soon afterwards, and even attained high positions, in spite of the laws which excluded them, as Dio Cassius and Ulpian tell us. Is it possible that, after the ruin of Jerusalem, the emperors should lavish honours on the Jews, and persecute, and hand over to the executioner or the beasts, Christians, who were regarded as a Jewish sect?

It is said that Nero persecuted them. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome, and were abandoned to the fury of the people. Was that on account of their religious belief? Certainly not. Shall we say that the Chinese who were slain by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed on account of religion? However much a man may wish to deceive himself, it is impossible to ascribe to intolerance the disaster that befell a few half-Jewish, half-Christian men and women at Rome under Nero. [The passage of Tacitus (Annals, xv. 44) is very generally rejected as an interpolation.- J. M.]


There were Christian martyrs in later years. It is very difficult to discover the precise grounds on which they were condemned; but I venture to think that none of them were put to death on religious grounds under the earlier Emperors. All religions were tolerated, and there is no reason to suppose that the Romans would seek out and persecute certain obscure men with a peculiar cult, at a time when they permitted all other religions.

Titus, Trajan, the Antonines, and Decius were not barbarians. How can we suppose that they deprived the Christians alone of a liberty which the whole empire enjoyed? How could they venture to charge the Christians with their secret mysteries when the mysteries of Isis, Mithra, and the Syrian goddess, all alien to the Roman cult, were freely permitted? There must have been other reasons for persecution. Possibly certain special animosities, supported by reasons of State, led to the shedding of Christian blood.

For instance, when St. Lawrence refused to give to the Roman prefect, Cornelius Secularis, the money of the Christians which he held, the prefect and emperor would naturally be irritated. They did not know that St. Lawrence had distributed the money to the poor, and done a charitable and holy act. They regarded him as rebellious, and had him put to death.1 [I omit many of the lengthy notes, in which Voltaire, with veiled irony and a bland pretense of orthodoxy-for the reason of which see the Introduction-throws doubt on the persecutions. The freer scholarship of the nineteenth century has so far justified his scepticism that few are now interested in the fairy tales of the early "persecutions." There was only one general repression of the Christians, under Diocletian. See the latest editions of Gibbon, and Robertson's Short History of Christianity (pp. 130-140) J. M.]

Consider the martyrdom of St. Polyeuctes. Was he condemned on the ground of religion alone? He enters the temple, in which thanks are being given to the gods for the victory of the Emperor Decius. He insults the sacrificing priests, and overturns and breaks the altars and statues. In what country in the world would such an outrage be overlooked? The Christian who in public tore down the edict of the Emperor Diocletian, and drew the great persecution upon his brethren in the last two years of the reign of that emperor, had more zeal than discretion, and, unhappily, brought a great disaster on the body to which he belonged. This unthinkable zeal, which often broke out, and was condemned even by some of the fathers of the Church, was probably the cause of all the persecutions. {Ed: Even today in Asia, Christians are hated for their proselytizing. Could that have been so in Roman times? Probably.}

I do not, of course, compare the early Protestants with the early Christians; one cannot put error by the side of truth. But it is a fact that Forel, the predecessor of Calvin, did at Arles the same thing that St. Polyeuctes had done in Armenia. The statue of St. Antony the Hermit was being carried in procession, and Forel and some of his companions fell on the monks who carried it, beat and scattered them, and threw St. Antony in the river. He deserved the death which he managed to evade by flight. [Voltaire's irony and pretence of orthodoxy must again, as in so many places, be taken into account. You do not, as a French commentator says, incur death in French law for throwing a piece of wood into the Rhone. --J. M.] If he had been content to call out to the monks that he did not believe that a crow brought half a loaf to St. Antony the Hermit, or that St. Antony conversed with centaurs and satyrs, he would merely have merited a stern rebuke for disturbing public order; and if, the evening after the procession, he had calmly studied the story of the crow, the centaurs, and the satyrs, they would have had no reproach to make him.

You think that the Romans would have suffered the infamous Antinous [A beautiful youth loved by the Emperor Hadrian. -J.M.] to be raised to the rank of the secondary gods, and would have rent and given to the beasts those whose only reproach was to have quietly worshipped one just God! You imagine that they would have recognized a supreme and sovereign God, master of all the secondary gods, as we see in their formula, Deus optimus maximus, yet persecuted those who worshipped one sole God I

It is incredible that there was any inquisition against the Christians--that men were sent among them to interrogate them on their beliefs--under the emperors. On that point they never troubled either Jew, Syrian, Egyptian, Druid, or philosopher. The martyrs were men who made an outcry against what they called false gods. It was a very wise and pious thing to refuse to believe in them; but, after all, if, not content with worshiping God in spirit and in truth, they broke out violently against the established cult, however absurd it was, we are compelled to admit that they were themselves intolerant. [If they had been content to preach and write, they would probably have been left in peace; but the refusal to take the oaths, in a constitution in which much use was made of oaths, exposed them to suspicion. The refusal to take part publicly in the feasts in honour of the emperors was a sort of crime at a time when the empire was constantly stirred by revolutions. The insults they offered to the established cult were punished with severity and barbarism, and it was an age of rough and violent ways.]

Tertullian admits in his Apology (ch. xxxix.) that the Christians were regarded as seditious. The charge was unjust, but it shows that it was not merely their religion which stimulated the zeal of the magistrates. He admits that the Christians refused to decorate their doors with laurel branches in the public rejoicings for the victories of the emperors; such an affectation might easily be turned into the crime of treason.

The first period of juridical severity against the Christians was under Domitian, but it was generally restricted to a banishment that did not last a year. "Facile coeptum repressit, restitutisquos ipse relegaverat," says Tertullian [He quickly repressed the work, restoring those whom he had banished"]. Lactantius, whose style is so vehement, agrees that the Church was peaceful and flourishing from Domitian to Decius [A.D. 96-250]. [The Deaths of the Persecutors, ch.iii.--a very untrustworthy work. It is doubtful if Lactantius wrote it. There was no general persecution under Domitian, but certain high officials suffered, like the rest of Rome, from his excessive suspicion. -J. M.] This long peace, he says, was broken when "that execrable animal Decius began to vex the Church."

We need not discuss here the opinion of the learned Dodwell that the martyrs were few in number; but if the Romans persecuted the Christian religion, if the Senate had put to death so many innocent men with unusual tortures-plunging Christians in boiling oil and exposing gir1s naked to the beasts in the circus--how is it that they left untouched all the earlier bishops of Rome? St. Irenaeus can count among them only one martyr, Telesphorus, in the year A.D. 139; and we have no proof that Telesphorus was put to death. Zepherinus governed the flock at Rome for twenty-eight years, and died peacefully in 219. It is true that nearly all the popes are inscribed in the the early martyrologies, but the word,"martyr" was then taken in its literal sense, as "witness," not as one put to death.

It is difficult to reconcile this persecuting fury with the freedom which the Christians had to hold the fifty-six Councils which ecclesiastical writers count in the first three centuries. {Ed: Itis not so surprising to modern psychology, the ecclesiastical writers were merely projecting their own predilections!}

There were persecutions; but if they were as violent as we are told, it is probable that Tertullian, who wrote so vigorously against the established cult, would not have died in his bed. We know, of course, that the emperors would not read his Apology--an obscure work, composed in Africa, would hardly reach those who were ruling the world. But it must have been known to those who were in touch with the proconsul of Africa, and ought to have brought a good deal of ill-feeling on its author. He did not, however, suffer martyrdom.

Origen taught publicly at Alexandria, and was not put to death. This same Origen, who spoke so freely to both pagans and Christians--announcing Jesus to the former and denying a God in three persons to the latter--says expressly, in the third book of his Contra Celsum, that "there have been few martyrs, and those at long intervals"; although, he says, "the Christians do all in theIr power to make everybody embrace their religion, running about the towns and villages." {Ed: Proselytizing: A compulsive fervor? Maybe. Is it possible that Adorno's Authoritarianism and Milgram's Obedience combine with natural fervor and fear of death to create this Achilles Heel in an otherwise benign religion?}

It is clear that a seditious complexion might be put by the hostile priests on all this running about, yet the missions were tolerated, in spite of the constant and cowardly disorders of the Egyptian people, who killed a Roman for slaying a cat, and were always contemptible. [Voltaire, who knew only the late history of Egypt, gives a lengthy note to explain his disdain. Archeological research has altered all that. -J.M.]

Who did more to bring upon him the priests and the government than St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, a pupil of Origen? Gregory saw, during the night, an old man, sent by God, and a woman shining with light; the woman was the Virgin, and the man St. John the Evangelist. John dictated to him a creed, which Gregory went out to preach. In going to Neocaesarea he passed by a temple in which oracles were given, and the rain compelled him to spend the night in it, after making many signs of the cross. The following day the sacrificing priest was astonished to find that the demons who were wont to answer him would do so no longer. When he called, they said that they would come no more, and could not live in the temple, because Gregory had spent the night in it and made the sign of the cross in it. The priest had Gregory seized, and Gregory said: "I can expel the demons from wherever I like, and drive them into wherever I like." "Send them back into my temple, then," said the priest. So Gregory tore off a piece from a book he had in his hand and wrote on it: "Gregory to Satan: I order thee to return to this temple." The message was placed on the altar, and the demons obeyed, and gave the oracles as before.

St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us these facts in his Life of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. The priests in charge of the idols must have been incensed against Gregory, and wished, in their blindness, to denounce him to the magistrates. But their greatest enemy never suffered persecution.

It is said that St. Cyprian was the first bishop of Carthage to be condemned to death, in the year 258. During a very long period, therefore, no bishop of Carthage suffered for his religion. History does not tell us what charges were· made against St. Cyprian, what enemies he had, and why the pro-consul of Africa was angry with him. St. Cyprian writes to Cornelius, Bishop of Rome: "There was, a short time ago, some popular disturbance at Carthage, and the cry was twice raised that I ought to be cast to the lions." It is very probable that the excitement of the passionate populace of Carthage was the cause of the death of Cyprian; it is, at all events, certain that the Emperor Gallus did not condemn him on the ground of religion from distant Rome, since he left untouched Cornelius, who lived under his eyes.

So many hidden causes are associated at times with the apparent cause, so many unknown springs may be at work in the persecution of a man, that it is impossible, centuries afterwards, to discover the hidden source of the misfortunes even of distinguished men; it is still more difficult to explain the persecution of an individual who must have been known only to those of his own party.

Observe that St. Gregory Thaumaturgus and St. Denis, Bishop of Alexandria, who were not put to death, lived at the same time as St. Cyprian. How is it that they were left in peace, since they were, at least, as well known as the Bishop of Carthage? And why was Cyprian put to death? Does it not seem as if the latter fell a victim to personal and powerful enemies, under the pretext of calumny or reasons of State, which are so often associated with religion, and that the former were fortunate enough to escape the malice of men?

It is impossible that the mere charge of being a Christian led to the death of St. Ignatius under the clement and just Trajan, since the Christians were allowed to accompany and console him during his voyage to Rome. Seditions were common at Antioch, always a turbulent city, where Ignatius was secret bishop of the Christians. Possibly these seditions were imputed to the Christians, and brought the authorities upon them.

St. Simeon, for instance, was charged before Sapor with being a Roman spy. The story of his martyrdom tells that King Sapor ordered him to worship the sun. but we know that the Persians did not worship the sun; they regarded it as an emblem of the good principle Ormuzd, the god whom they recognized.

However tolerant we may be, we cannot help being indignant with the rhetoricians who accuse Diocletian of persecuting the Christians as soon as he ascended the throne. Let us consult Eusebius of Caesarea,the favourite and panegyrist of Constantine, the violent enemy of preceding emperors. He says (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. VIII.): "The emperors for a long time gave the Christians proof of their good will. They entrusted provinces to them; several Christians lived in the palace; they even married Christians. Diocletian married Prisca, whose daughter was the wife of Maximianus Galerius."

We may well suspect that the persecution set afoot by Galerius, after a clement and benevolent reign of twenty-nine years, was due to some intrigue that is unknown to us. [Not wholly unknown. We know that the mother of Galerius, an ignorant peasant, was stung by the insults of Christian officers in the palace, and inflamed her son, who persuaded Diocletian to take action. The action was mild at first; but Christians tore down the imperial edict, and the palace was twice set on fire. Then Dioc1etian yielded.- J. M.]

The story of the massacre of the Theban Legion on religious grounds is absurd. It is ridiculous to say that the legion came from Asia by the great St. Bernard Pass; it is impossible that it should be brought from Asia at all to quell a sedition in Gaul--a year after the sedition broke out, moreover; it is not less incredible that six thousand infantry and seven hundred cavalry could be slain in a pass in which two hundred men could hold at bay a whole army. The account of this supposed butchery begins with an evident imposture: "When the earth groaned under the tyranny of Diocletian, heaven was peopled with saints." Now, this episode is supposed to have taken place in 286, a time when Diocletian favoured the Christians, and the empire flourished. [The persecution under Diocletian began in 303.- J. M.] Finally--a point which might dispense us from discussion altogether--there never was a Theban Legion. The Romans had too much pride and common sense to make up a legion of Egyptians, who served only as slaves at Rome; one might as well talk of a Jewish Legion. We have the names of the thirty-two legions, which represented the chief strength of the Roman Empire, and there is no Theban Legion among them. We must relegate the fable to the same category as the acrostic verses of the Sibyls, which foretold the miracles of Christ, and so many other forgeries with which a false zeal duped the credulous.


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