Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

What is toleration? It is the appurtenance of humanity. We are all full of weakness and errors; let us mutually pardon each other our follies — it is the first law of nature.

When, on the exchange of Amsterdam, of London, of Surat, or of Bassora, the Gueber, the Banian, the Jew, the Mahometan, the Chinese Deist, the Brahmin, the Christian of the Greek Church, the Roman Catholic Christian, the Protestant Christian, and the Quaker Christian, traffic together, they do not lift the poniard against each other, in order to gain souls for their religion. Why then have we been cutting one another’s throats almost without interruption since the first Council of Nice?

Constantine began by issuing an edict which allowed all religions, and ended by persecuting. Before him, tumults were excited against the Christians, only because they began to make a party in the state. The Romans permitted all kinds of worship, even those of the Jews, and of the Egyptians, for whom they had so much contempt. Why did Rome tolerate these religions? Because neither the Egyptians, nor even the Jews, aimed at exterminating the ancient religion of the empire, or ranged through land and sea for proselytes; they thought only of money-getting; but it is undeniable, that the Christians wished their own religion to be the dominant one. The Jews would not suffer the statue of Jupiter at Jerusalem, but the Christians wished it not to be in the capitol. St. Thomas had the candor to avow, that if the Christians did not dethrone the emperors, it was because they could not. Their opinion was, that the whole earth ought to be Christian. They were therefore necessarily enemies to the whole earth, until it was converted.

Among themselves, they were the enemies of each other on all their points of controversy. Was it first of all necessary to regard Jesus Christ as God? Those who denied it were anathematized under the name of Ebionites, who themselves anathematized the adorers of Jesus.

Did some among them wish all things to be in common, as it is pretended they were in the time of the apostles? Their adversaries called them Nicolaites, and accused them of the most infamous crimes. Did others profess a mystical devotion? They were termed Gnostics, and attacked with fury. Did Marcion dispute on the Trinity? He was treated as an idolater.

Tertullian, Praxeas, Origen, Novatus, Novatian, Sabellius, Donatus, were all persecuted by their brethren, before Constantine; and scarcely had Constantine made the Christian religion the ruling one, when the Athanasians and the Eusebians tore each other to pieces; and from that time to our own days, the Christian Church has been deluged with blood.

The Jewish people were, I confess, a very barbarous nation. They mercilessly cut the throats of all the inhabitants of an unfortunate little country upon which they had no more claim than they had upon Paris or London. However, when Naaman was cured of the leprosy by being plunged seven times in the Jordan — when, in order to testify his gratitude to Elisha, who had taught him the secret, he told him he would adore the god of the Jews from gratitude, he reserved to himself the liberty to adore also the god of his own king; he asked Elisha’s permission to do so, and the prophet did not hesitate to grant it. The Jews adored their god, but they were never astonished that every nation had its own. They approved of Chemos having given a certain district to the Moabites, provided their god would give them one also. Jacob did not hesitate to marry the daughters of an idolater. Laban had his god, as Jacob had his. Such are the examples of toleration among the most intolerant and cruel people of antiquity. We have imitated them in their absurd passions, and not in their indulgence.

It is clear that every private individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster. This admits of no difficulty. But the government, the magistrates, the princes! — how do they conduct themselves towards those who have a faith different from their own? If they are powerful foreigners, it is certain that a prince will form an alliance with them. The Most Christian Francis I. will league himself with the Mussulmans against the Most Catholic Charles V. Francis I. will give money to the Lutherans in Germany, to support them in their rebellion against their emperor; but he will commence, as usual, by having the Lutherans in his own country burned. He pays them in Saxony from policy; he burns them in Paris from policy. But what follows? Persecutions make proselytes. France will soon be filled with new Protestants. At first they will submit to be hanged; afterwards they will hang in their turn. There will be civil wars; then Saint Bartholomew will come; and this corner of the world will be worse than all that the ancients and moderns have ever said of hell.

Blockheads, who have never been able to render a pure worship to the God who made you! Wretches, whom the example of the Noachides, the Chinese literati, the Parsees, and of all the wise, has not availed to guide! Monsters, who need superstitions, just as the gizzard of a raven needs carrion! We have already told you — and we have nothing else to say — if you have two religions among you, they will massacre each other; if you have thirty, they will live in peace. Look at the Grand Turk: he governs Guebers, Banians, Christians of the Greek Church, Nestorians, and Roman Catholics. The first who would excite a tumult is empaled; and all is tranquil.

§ II.

Of all religions, the Christian ought doubtless to inspire the most toleration, although hitherto the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men. Jesus, having deigned to be born in poverty and lowliness like his brethren, never condescended to practise the art of writing. The Jews had a law written with the greatest minuteness, and we have not a single line from the hand of Jesus. The apostles were divided on many points. St. Peter and St. Barnabas ate forbidden meats with the new stranger Christians, and abstained from them with the Jewish Christians. St. Paul reproached them with this conduct; and this same St. Paul, the Pharisee, the disciple of the Pharisee Gamaliel — this same St. Paul, who had persecuted the Christians with fury, and who after breaking with Gamaliel became a Christian himself — nevertheless, went afterwards to sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem, during his apostolic vacation. For eight days he observed publicly all the ceremonies of the Jewish law which he had renounced; he even added devotions and purifications which were superabundant; he completely Judaized. The greatest apostle of the Christians did, for eight days, the very things for which men are condemned to the stake among a large portion of Christian nations.

Theudas and Judas were called Messiahs, before Jesus: Dositheus, Simon, Menander, called themselves Messiahs, after Jesus. From the first century of the Church, and before even the name of Christian was known, there were a score of sects in Judæa.

The contemplative Gnostics, the Dositheans, the Cerintheins, existed before the disciples of Jesus had taken the name of Christians. There were soon thirty churches, each of which belonged to a different society; and by the close of the first century thirty sects of Christians might be reckoned in Asia Minor, in Syria, in Alexandria, and even in Rome.

All these sects, despised by the Roman government, and concealed in their obscurity, nevertheless persecuted each other in the hiding holes where they lurked; that is to say, they reproached one another. This is all they could do in their abject condition: they were almost wholly composed of the dregs of the people.

When at length some Christians had embraced the dogmas of Plato, and mingled a little philosophy with their religion, which they separated from the Jewish, they insensibly became more considerable, but were always divided into many sects, without there ever having been a time when the Christian church was reunited. It took its origin in the midst of the divisions of the Jews, the Samaritans, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenians, the Judaites, the disciples of John, and the Therapeutæ. It was divided in its infancy; it was divided even amid the persecutions it sometimes endured under the first emperors. The martyr was often regarded by his brethren as an apostate; and the Carpocratian Christian expired under the sword of the Roman executioner, excommunicated by the Ebionite Christian, which Ebionite was anathematized by the Sabellian.

This horrible discord, lasting for so many centuries, is a very striking lesson that we ought mutually to forgive each other’s errors: discord is the great evil of the human species, and toleration is its only remedy.

There is nobody who does not assent to this truth, whether meditating coolly in his closet, or examining the truth peaceably with his friends. Why, then, do the same men who in private admit charity, beneficence, and justice, oppose themselves in public so furiously against these virtues? Why! — it is because their interest is their god; because they sacrifice all to that monster whom they adore.

I possess dignity and power, which ignorance and credulity have founded. I trample on the heads of men prostrated at my feet; if they should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; they must, therefore, be kept bound down to the earth with chains of iron.

Thus have men reasoned, whom ages of fanaticism have rendered powerful. They have other persons in power under them, and these latter again have underlings, who enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor man, fatten themselves with his blood, and laugh at his imbecility. They detest all toleration, as contractors enriched at the expense of the public are afraid to render their accounts, and as tyrants dread the name of liberty. To crown all, in short, they encourage fanatics who cry aloud: Respect the absurdities of my master; tremble, pay, and be silent.

Such was the practice for a long time in a great part of the world; but now, when so many sects are balanced by their power, what side must we take among them? Every sect, we know, is a mere title of error; while there is no sect of geometricians, of algebraists, of arithmeticians; because all the propositions of geometry, algebra, and arithmetic, are true. In all the other sciences, one may be mistaken. What Thomist or Scotist theologian can venture to assert seriously that he goes on sure grounds?

If there is any sect which reminds one of the time of the first Christians, it is undeniably that of the Quakers. The apostles received the spirit. The Quakers receive the spirit. The apostles and disciples spoke three or four at once in the assembly in the third story; the Quakers do as much on the ground floor. Women were permitted to preach, according to St. Paul, and they were forbidden according to the same St. Paul: the Quakeresses preach by virtue of the first permission.

The apostles and disciples swore by yea and nay; the Quakers will not swear in any other form. There was no rank, no difference of dress, among apostles and disciples; the Quakers have sleeves without buttons, and are all clothed alike. Jesus Christ baptized none of his apostles; the Quakers are never baptized.

It would be easy to push the parallel farther; it would be still easier to demonstrate how much the Christian religion of our day differs from the religion which Jesus practised. Jesus was a Jew, and we are not Jews. Jesus abstained from pork, because it is uncleanly, and from rabbit, because it ruminates and its foot is not cloven; we fearlessly eat pork, because it is not uncleanly for us, and we eat rabbit which has the cloven foot and does not ruminate.

Jesus was circumcised, and we retain our fore-skin. Jesus ate the Paschal lamb with lettuce, He celebrated the feast of the tabernacles; and we do nothing of this. He observed the Sabbath, and we have changed it; He sacrificed, and we never sacrifice.

Jesus always concealed the mystery of His incarnation and His dignity; He never said He was equal to God. St. Paul says expressly, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, that God created Jesus inferior to the angels; and in spite of St. Paul’s words, Jesus was acknowledged as God at the Council of Nice.

Jesus has not given the pope either the march of Ancona or the duchy of Spoleto; and, notwithstanding, the pope possesses them by divine right. Jesus did not make a sacrament either of marriage or of deaconry; and, with us, marriage and deaconry are sacraments. If we would attend closely to the fact, the Catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is, in all its ceremonies and in all its dogma, the reverse of the religion of Jesus!

But what! must we all Judaize, because Jesus Judaized all His life? If it were allowed to reason logically in matters of religion, it is clear that we ought all to become Jews, since Jesus Christ, our Saviour, was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew, and since He expressly said, that He accomplished and fulfilled the Jewish religion. But it is still more clear that we ought mutually to tolerate one another, because we are all weak, irrational, and subject to change and error. A reed prostrated by the wind in the mire — ought it to say to a neighboring reed placed in a contrary direction: Creep after my fashion, wretch, or I will present a request for you to be seized and burned?

§ III.

My friends, when we have preached toleration in prose and in verse, in some of our pulpits, and in all our societies — when we have made these true human voices resound in the organs of our churches — we have done something for nature, we have re-established humanity in its rights; there will no longer be an ex-Jesuit, or an ex-Jansenist, who dares to say, I am intolerant.

There will always be barbarians and cheats who will foment intolerance; but they will not avow it — and that is something gained. Let us always bear in mind, my friends, let us repeat — for we must repeat, for fear it should be forgotten — the words of the bishop of Soissons, not Languet, but Fitzjames-Stuart, in his mandate of 1757: “We ought to regard the Turks as our brethren.”

Let us consider, that throughout English America, which constitutes nearly the fourth part of the known world, entire liberty of conscience is established; and provided a man believes in a God, every religion is well received: notwithstanding which, commerce flourishes and population increases. Let us always reflect, that the first law of the Empire of Russia, which is greater than the Roman Empire, is the toleration of every sect.

The Turkish Empire, and the Persian, always allowed the same indulgence. Mahomet II., when he took Constantinople, did not force the Greeks to abandon their religion, although he looked on them as idolaters. Every Greek father of a family got off for five or six crowns a year. Many prebends and bishoprics were preserved for them; and even at this day the Turkish sultan makes canons and bishops, without the pope having ever made an imam or a mollah.

My friends, there are only some monks, and some Protestants as barbarous as those monks, who are still intolerant. We have been so infected with this furor, that in our voyages of long duration, we have carried it to China, to Tonquin, and Japan. We have introduced the plague to those beautiful climes. The most indulgent of mankind have been taught by us to be the most inflexible. We said to them at the outset, in return for their kind welcome — Know that we alone on the earth are in the right, and that we ought to be masters everywhere. Then they drove us away forever. This lesson, which has cost seas of blood, ought to correct us.

§ IV.

The author of the preceding article is a worthy man who would sup with a Quaker, an Anabaptist, a Socinian, a Mussulman, etc. I would push this civility farther; I would say to my brother the Turk — Let us eat together a good hen with rice, invoking Allah; your religion seems to me very respectable; you adore but one God; you are obliged to give the fortieth part of your revenue every day in alms, and to be reconciled with your enemies on the day of the Bairam. Our bigots, who calumniate the world, have said a hundred times, that your religion succeeded only because it was wholly sensual. They have lied, poor fellows! Your religion is very austere; it commands prayer five times a day; it imposes the most rigorous fast; it denies you the wine and the liquors which our spiritual directors encourage; and if it permits only four wives to those who can support them — which are very few — it condemns by this restriction the Jewish incontinence, which allowed eighteen wives to the homicide David, and seven hundred, without reckoning concubines, to Solomon, the assassin of his brother.

I will say to my brother the Chinese: Let us sup together without ceremony, for I dislike grimaces; but I like your law, the wisest of all, and perhaps the most ancient. I will say nearly as much to my brother the Indian.

But what shall I say to my brother the Jew? Shall I invite him to supper? Yes, on condition that, during the repast, Balaam’s ass does not take it into its head to bray; that Ezekiel does not mix his dinner with our supper; that a fish does not swallow up one of the guests, and keep him three days in his belly; that a serpent does not join in the conversation, in order to seduce my wife; that a prophet does not think proper to sleep with her, as the worthy man, Hosea, did for five francs and a bushel of barley; above all, that no Jew parades through my house to the sound of the trumpet, causes the walls to fall down, and cuts the throats of myself, my father, my mother, my wife, my children, my cat and my dog, according to the ancient practice of the Jews. Come, my friends, let us have peace, and say our benedicite.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01