A Treatise on Tolerance and Other Writings, by Voltaire

My Copy: 9781435108424 (image from bn.com)

A Treatise on Tolerance is a conglomeration of letters and pamphlets Voltaire wrote after the brutal public execution of Jean Calas, a Protestant accused of murdering his son because he supposedly decided to become a Catholic (though later information and what was given at Calas’ trial makes this reasoning lunacy, with what Voltaire gives us).

I can see why historians have hailed this book as an important contribution to the discussion of religion and religious tolerance in the West. Granted, this is largely about Protestantism (Huguenots) vs. Catholicism in France, but Voltaire (living in Switzerland at the time) put pen to paper to challenge the prejudice and fanaticism that surrounded the trial, and what he’d seen as a young man.

If there’s anything this book is telling me I need to do, it’s certainly saying I need to brush up on my Holy Bible a bit. If you’ve got a pretty good basis in both testaments, then you can probably find the references Voltaire makes easily. But it’s more than that–Voltaire references religious councils and documents or letters between secular and religious leaders of nations. So, many of the names, dates, times are unfamiliar to me, and the taken-for-granted stance on the 10 commandments and on idolatry…

Let’s just say I’m inclined to re-start reading the Bible to see where Voltaire found these not-so clear-cut instances of idolatry banned and idolatry tolerated–seemingly by God.

It’s been a decade since I did my initial researches into early Christianity–guess it’s time to pull those books out again.

A Treatise on Tolerance is brilliant, and so many things make sense, even today. I haven’t read any complete works of Voltaire yet (and technically, this isn’t one either), but I did find him digestible as far as his logic goes. Some tones are too dry, but his is like listening in on a conversation. The language is allowed to flow and doesn’t feel like a lecture or a sermon (those get so damn boring after a while for me–I need a change of tone once in a while).

The documents that make up A Treatise on Tolerance cover a variety of points, proofs, a few stories and analogies regarding Christian history and beliefs. The trial opened the door for discussion with Voltaire, and made people uneasy when Calas, in his 70s, did not “confess” to the murder, even as he was being torn apart.

Depiction of Calas being broken on the wheel.

I was shocked at some of the nonchalant ways religious leaders talked to each other about murdering thousands of the minority in their communities. Makes me glad I didn’t live back then for sure. There is much in these pages to quote from, and I love this little gem from Voltaire:

“With horror I say it, but it is an undoubted truth, that we, who call ourselves Christians, have been persecutors, executioners, and assassins! And of whom? Of our own brethren. it is we who have razed a hundred towns to their foundations with the crucifix or Bible in our hands, and who have continually persevered in shedding torrents of blood, and lighting the fires of persecution, from the reign of Constantine to the time of the religious horrors of the cannibals who inhabited the Cevennes; horrors which, praised be God, no longer exist.”

“The Danger of False Legends and Persecution (Chapter 10),” (44)

Voltaire also throws some wit in the book with an “Account of a Controversial Dispute Which Happened in China (Chapter 19),” which made me laugh and also made me a little annoyed at the same time. It feels like the setup to a long joke, but the Chinese emperor heard three men arguing and had them come before him. His puzzlement at the three Christian men arguing among themselves about who was right about a certain point…let’s just say I side with the emperor on this one. I’m sure when Christian clergy were spreading out around the world and trying to convert those of other cultures, many people were baffled at how these foreigners are all Christians but bicker about what it means. It makes me wonder what their success rate was if there was more than one denomination in the neighborhood.

If you’re interested in justice, history, early Christianity or religious history in the West, and philosophy, then I definitely recommend this book. I have a feeling I’ll be referring to it often if I have questions as I re-read my Bible to see what points Voltaire was driving at.

Not a long read, and again–I think I’m glad I didn’t live in those days the way this sounds!

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