“On Toleration” and “Prayer to God” – Voltaire
Why did Voltaire regard toleration as a virtue and intolerance as a vice?
Voltaire's essay on toleration is a witty, ironic and sometimes satirical piece which uses logic and common sense, and a multitude of examples from ancient history and more modern history, to demonstrate and argue that toleration is a virtue and intolerance is a vice. Voltaire's wit is often conveyed by his disingenuous, straight-faced account of earlier stories about the persecution of early Christian martyrs – accounts which he mocks as fantastical superstitions – superstitions which his argues show that not only is intolerance a vice, but that it is an old-fashioned habit of human behavior which should be eschewed by modern, developed society. His historical scope is wide as is his geographical and cultural sense: he frequently refers to non-European countries in order to show that sectarian fanaticism and intra-Christian violence is a largely European phenomenon. His knowledge of the world and his knowledge of the past impart to the essay a confidence in the benefits of reason, logic and common sense.
The starting point for the essay is the judicial murder of a Protestant in Toulouse who was tried, found guilty and executed for the murder of his son – against all the evidence and merely because he is a Protestant in a fanatically Catholic city. This travesty of justice leads Voltaire to examine the whole phenomenon of interdenominational Christian violence. Voltaire is at pains to suggest that sectarian violence is very old-fashioned and provincial, and that such intolerance should not itself be tolerated in the modern era and says of the reaction to the judicial murder of Jean Calas: “at Paris reasoned dominates fanaticism, however powerful it may be; in the provinces fanaticism almost always overcomes reason”(11).
Of necessity, given when he is writing, a large part of the essay concerns itself with the Catholic-Protestant violence engendered by the Reformation. Voltaire champions “humanity, indulgence, and liberty of conscience” (18), because the alternative is “massacre” and “carnage” (18). Again the argument is framed in terms of an idea of modernity: “… are this generation as barbaric as their fathers? Have not time the progress of reason good books and the humanizing influence on society had effects on the leaders of these people?(19). Voltaire sees tolerance as a virtue because he recognizes that all citizens, regardless of their religious convictions, “contribute alike to the good of the social body (21). By this piece he seems to me to mean that if all citizens obey the law, pay their taxes, and contribute in economic and social time terms to the stability of the state, then their precise religious affiliation is irrelevant. Fanaticism, on the other hand, leads to civil unrest and a waste of national resources.
He uses evidence from the Ottoman Empire from India, Persia, Russia and China to show that European intolerance not only causes terrible deaths and wars, but also differs from the toleration shown by non-European societies to those of slightly different religious beliefs. This is a powerful point: the 18th-century was the period of the European Enlightenment and European science and technology were vastly advanced compared with other parts of the world; Europeans would therefore have seen themselves, rather complacently, as superior to less developed areas of the world. However, Voltaire seeks to prove that freedom of conscience is tolerated and has been tolerated for many centuries in non-European cultures. There is a pragmatic element to all this: French Jesuits in Japan had shown singular fanaticism and intolerance, and Japan had closed its trading links with France – which in Voltaire's eyes clearly harmed the French economy and should have been avoided. Voltaire sums up his basic position very clearly: “Toleration, in fine, never led to civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage (25).
- Quote paper
- David Wheeler (Author), 2012, “On Toleration” and “Prayer to God” - Voltaire: An Exploration, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/193291