Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LIBERTY OF OPINION.

Towards the year 1707, the time at which the English gained the battle of Saragossa, protected Portugal, and for some time gave a king to Spain, Lord Boldmind, a general officer who had been wounded, was at the waters of Barèges. He there met with Count Medroso, who having fallen from his horse behind the baggage, at a league and a half from the field of battle, also came to take the waters. He was a familiar of the Inquisition, while Lord Boldmind was only familiar in conversation. One day after their wine, he held this dialogue with Medroso:

Boldmind.

— You are then the sergeant of the Dominicans? You exercise a villainous trade.

Medroso.

— It is true; but I would rather be their servant than their victim, and I have preferred the unhappiness of burning my neighbor to that of being roasted myself.

Boldmind.

— What a horrible alternative! You were a hundred times happier under the yoke of the Moors, who freely suffered you to abide in all your superstitions, and conquerors as they were, arrogated not to themselves the strange right of sending souls to hell.

Medroso.

— What would you have? It is not permitted us either to write, speak, or even to think. If we speak, it is easy to misinterpret our words, and still more our writings; and as we cannot be condemned in an auto-da-fé for our secret thoughts, we are menaced with being burned eternally by the order of God himself, if we think not like the Jacobins. They have persuaded the government that if we had common sense the entire state would be in combustion, and the nation become the most miserable upon earth.

Boldmind.

— Do you believe that we English who cover the seas with vessels, and who go to gain battles for you in the south of Europe, can be so unhappy? Do you perceive that the Dutch, who have ravished from you almost all your discoveries in India, and who at present are ranked as your protectors, are cursed of God for having given entire liberty to the press, and for making commerce of the thoughts of men? Has the Roman Empire been less powerful because Tullius Cicero has written with freedom?

Medroso.

— Who is this Tullius Cicero? I have never heard his name pronounced at St. Hermandad.

Boldmind.

— He was a bachelor of the university of Rome, who wrote that which he thought, like Julius Cæsar, Marcus Aurelius, Titus Lucretius Carus, Plinius, Seneca, and other sages.

Medroso.

— I know none of them; but I am told that the Catholic religion, Biscayan and Roman, is lost if we begin to think.

Boldmind.

— It is not for you to believe it; for you are sure that your religion is divine, and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. If that is the case, nothing will ever destroy it.

Medroso.

— No; but it may be reduced to very little; and it is through having thought, that Sweden, Denmark, all your island, and the half of Germany groan under the frightful misfortune of not being subjects of the pope. It is even said that, if men continue to follow their false lights, they will soon have merely the simple adoration of God and of virtue. If the gates of hell ever prevail so far, what will become of the holy office?

Boldmind.

— If the first Christians had not the liberty of thought, does it not follow that there would have been no Christianity?

Medroso.

— I understand you not.

Boldmind.

— I readily believe it. I would say, that if Tiberius and the first emperors had fostered Jacobins, they would have hindered the first Christians from having pens and ink; and had it not been a long time permitted in the Roman Empire to think freely, it would be impossible for the Christians to establish their dogmas. If, therefore, Christianity was only formed by liberty of opinion, by what contradiction, by what injustice, would you now destroy the liberty on which alone it is founded?

When some affair of interest is proposed to us, do we not examine it for a long time before we conclude upon it? What interest in the world is so great as our eternal happiness or misery? There are a hundred religions on earth which all condemn us if we believe your dogmas, which they call impious and absurd; why, therefore, not examine these dogmas?

Medroso.

— How can I examine them? I am not a Jacobin.

Boldmind.

— You are a man, and that is sufficient.

Medroso.

— Alas! you are more of a man than I am.

Boldmind.

— You have only to teach yourself to think; you are born with a mind, you are a bird in the cage of the Inquisition, the holy office has clipped your wings, but they will grow again. He who knows not geometry can learn it: all men can instruct themselves. Is it not shameful to put your soul into the hands of those to whom you would not intrust your money? Dare to think for yourself.

Medroso.

— It is said that if the world thought for itself, it would produce strange confusion.

Boldmind.

— Quite the contrary. When we assist at a spectacle, every one freely tells his opinion of it, and the public peace is not thereby disturbed; but if some insolent protector of a poet would force all people of taste to proclaim that to be good which appears to them bad, blows would follow, and the two parties would throw apples of discord at one another’s heads, as once happened at London. Tyrants over mind have caused a part of the misfortunes of the world. We are happy in England only because every one freely enjoys the right of speaking his opinion.

Medroso.

— We are all very tranquil at Lisbon, where no person dares speak his.

Boldmind.

— You are tranquil, but you are not happy: it is the tranquillity of galley-slaves, who row in cadence and in silence.

Medroso.

— You believe, then, that my soul is at the galleys?

Boldmind.

— Yes, and I would deliver it.

Medroso.

— But if I find myself well at the galleys?

Boldmind.

— Why, then, you deserve to be there.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25