Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Short Account of the Death of Jean Calas

The murder of Calas, which was perpetrated with the sword of justice at Toulouse on March 9, 1762, is one of the most singular events that deserve the attention of our own and of later ages. We quickly forget the long list of the dead who have perished in our battles. It is the inevitable fate of war; those who die by the sword might themselves have inflicted death on their enemies, and did not die without the means of defending themselves. 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 defence 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 that 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.

In this strange incident we have to deal with religion, suicide, and parricide. The question was, Whether a father and mother had strangled their son to please God, a brother had strangled his brother, and a friend had strangled his friend; or whether the judges had incurred the reproach of breaking on the wheel an innocent father, or of sparing a guilty mother, brother, and friend.

Jean Calas, a man of sixty-eight years, had been engaged in commerce at Toulouse for more than forty years, and was recognised by all who knew him as a good father. He was a Protestant, as were also his wife and family, except one son, who had abjured the heresy, and was in receipt of a small allowance from his father. He seemed to be so far removed from the absurd fanaticism that breaks the bonds of society that he had approved the conversion of his son [Louis Calas], and had had in his service for thirty years a zealous Catholic woman, who had reared all his children.

One of the sons of Jean Calas, named Marc Antoine, was a man of letters. He was regarded as of a restless, sombre, and violent character. This young man, failing to enter the commercial world, for which he was unfitted, or the legal world, because he could not obtain the necessary certificate that he was a Catholic, determined to end his life, and informed a friend of his intention. He strengthened his resolution by reading all that has ever been written on suicide.

Having one day lost his money in gambling, he determined to carry out his plan on that very day. A personal friend and friend of the family, named Lavaisse, a young man of nineteen, well known for his candid and kindly ways, the son of a distinguished lawyer at Toulouse, had come from Bordeaux on the previous day, October 12, 1761. He happened to sup with the Calas family. The father, mother, Marc Antoine, the elder son, and Pierre, the second son, were present. After supper they withdrew to a small room. Marc Antoine disappeared, and when young Lavaisse was ready to go, and he and Pierre Calas had gone down-stairs, they found, near the shop below, Marc Antoine in his shirt, hanging from a door, his coat folded under the counter. His shirt was unruffled, his hair was neatly combed, and he had no wound or mark on the body.

We will omit the details which were given in court, and the grief and despair of his parents; their cries were heard by the neighbours. Lavaisse and Pierre, beside themselves, ran for surgeons and the police.

While they were doing this, and the father and mother sobbed and wept, the people of Toulouse gathered round the house. They are superstitious and impulsive people; they regard as monsters their brothers who do not share their religion. It was at Toulouse that solemn thanks were offered to God for the death of Henry III., and that an oath was taken to kill any man who should propose to recognise the great and good Henry IV. This city still celebrates every year, by a procession and fireworks, the day on which it massacred four thousand heretical citizens two hundred years ago. Six decrees of the Council have been passed in vain for the suppression of this odious festival; the people of Toulouse celebrate it still like a floral festival.

Some fanatic in the crowd cried out that Jean Calas had hanged his son Marc 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 had strangled him out of hatred of the Catholic religion. In a moment all doubt had disappeared. The whole town was persuaded that it is a point of religion with the Protestants for a father and mother to kill their children when they wish to change their faith.

The agitation could not end here. 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 the choice had fallen on young Lavaisse; and that, in the space of twenty-four 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 even went further. Marc Antoine Calas had died a Calvinist; and, if he had taken his own life, his body was supposed to be 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.

There are in Languedoc four confraternities of penitents—the white, the blue, the grey, and the black. Their members wear a long hood, with a cloth mask, pierced with two holes for the eyes. They endeavoured to induce the Duke of Fitz-James, the governor of the province, to enter their ranks, but he refused. The white penitents held a solemn service over Marc Antoine Calas, as over a martyr. No church ever celebrated the feast of a martyr with more pomp; but it was a terrible pomp. They had 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 the 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 the poor devil who had taken his life was canonisation. 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 pious 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. The writer of this account has in his possession the attestation that a young man of Toulouse went mad because he had prayed for several nights at the tomb of the new saint, and could not obtain the miracle he sought.

Some of the magistrates belonged to the confraternity of white penitents. From that moment the death of Jean Calas seemed inevitable.

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 that Providence itself provided these victims for 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 when philosophy has made so much progress, and a hundred academies are writing for the improvement of our morals! It would seem that fanaticism is angry at the success of reason, and combats it more furiously.

Thirteen judges met daily to bring the trial to a close. There was not, and could not be, any evidence against the family; but a deluded religion took the place of proof. Six of the judges long persisted in condemning Jean Calas, his son, and Lavaisse to the wheel, and the wife of Jean Calas to the stake. The other seven, more moderate, wished at least to make an inquiry. The discussions were long and frequent. One of the judges, convinced that the accused were innocent and the crime was impossible, spoke strongly on their behalf. He opposed a zeal for humanity to the zeal for severity, and became the public pleader for the Calas in Toulouse, where the incessant cries of outraged religion demanded the blood of the accused. Another judge, known for his violent temper, spoke against the Calas with the same spirit. At last, amid great excitement, they both threw up the case and retired to the country.

But by a singular misfortune the judge who was favourable to the Calas had the delicacy to persist in his resignation, and the other returned to condemn those whom he could not judge. His voice it was that drew up the condemnation to the wheel. There were now eight votes to five, as one of the six opposing judges had passed to the more severe party after considerable discussion.

It seems that in a case of parricide, when a father is to be condemned to the most frightful death, the verdict ought to be unanimous, as the evidence for so rare a crime ought to be such as to convince everybody. The slightest doubt in such a case should intimidate a judge who is to sign the death-sentence. The weakness of our reason and its inadequacy are shown daily; and what greater proof of it can we have than when we find a citizen condemned to the wheel by a majority of one vote? In ancient Athens there had to be fifty votes above the half to secure a sentence of death. It shows us, most unprofitably, that the Greeks were wiser and more humane than we.

It seemed impossible that Jean Calas, an old man of sixty-eight years, whose limbs had long been swollen and weak, had been able to strangle and hang a young man in his twenty-eighth year, above the average in strength. It seemed certain that he must have been assisted in the murder by his wife, his son Pierre, Lavaisse, and the servant. They had not left each other's company for an instant on the evening of the fatal event. But this supposition was just as absurd as the other. How could a zealous Catholic servant allow Huguenots to kill a young man, reared by herself, to punish him for embracing her own religion? How could Lavaisse have come expressly from Bordeaux to strangle his friend, whose conversion was unknown to him? How could a tender mother lay hands on her son? How could the whole of them together strangle a young man who was stronger than all of them without a long and violent struggle, without cries that would have aroused the neighbours, without repeated blows and torn garments?

It was evident that, if there had been any crime, all the accused were equally guilty, as they had never left each other for a moment; it was evident that they were not all guilty; and it was evident that the father alone could not have done it. Nevertheless, the father alone was condemned to the wheel.

The reason of the sentence was as inconceivable as all the rest. The judges, who were bent on executing Jean Calas, persuaded the others that the weak old man could not endure the torture, and would on the scaffold confess his crime and accuse his accomplices. They were confounded when the old man, expiring on the wheel, prayed God to witness his innocence, and begged him to pardon his judges.

They were compelled to pass a second sentence in contradiction of the first, and to set free the mother, the son Pierre, the young Lavaisse, and the servant; but one of the councillors pointing out that this verdict gave the lie to the other, that they were condemning themselves, and that, as the accused were all together at the supposed hour of the crime, the acquittal of the survivors necessarily proved the innocence of the dead father, they decided to banish Pierre Calas. This banishment seemed as illogical and absurd as all the rest. Pierre Calas was either guilty or innocent. If he was guilty, he should be broken on the wheel like his father; if he was innocent, they had no right to banish him. However, the judges, terrified by the execution of the father and the touching piety of his end, thought they were saving their honour by affecting to pardon the son, as if it were not a fresh prevarication to pardon him; and they thought that the banishment of this poor and helpless young man was not a great injustice after that they had already committed.

They began with threatening Pierre Calas, in his dungeon, that he would suffer like his father if he did not renounce his religion. The young man attests this on oath: "A Dominican monk came to my cell and threatened me with the same kind of death if I did not give up my religion."

Pierre Calas, on leaving the city, met a priest, who compelled him to return to Toulouse. They confined him in a Dominican convent, and forced him to perform Catholic functions. It was part of what they wanted. It was the price of his father's blood, and religion seemed to be avenged.

The daughters were taken from the mother and put in a convent. The mother, almost sprinkled with the blood of her husband, her eldest son dead, the younger banished, deprived of her daughters and all her property, was alone in the world, without bread, without hope, dying of the intolerable misery. Certain persons, having carefully examined the circumstances of this horrible adventure, were so impressed that they urged the widow, who had retired into solitude, to go and demand justice at the feet of the throne. At the time she shrank from publicity; moreover, being English by birth, and having been transplanted into a French province in early youth, the name of Paris terrified her. She imagined that the capital of the kingdom would be still more barbaric than the capital of Languedoc. At length the duty of clearing the memory of her husband prevailed over her weakness. 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 be; in the provinces fanaticism almost always overcomes reason.

M. de Beaumont, the famous advocate of the Parlement de Paris, undertook to defend her, and drew up a memorial signed by fifteen other advocates. M. Loiseau, not less eloquent, drew up a memoir on behalf of the family. M. Mariette, an advocate of the Council, drew up a judicial inquiry which brought conviction to every mind. These three generous defenders of the laws of innocence gave to the widow the profit on the sale of their memoirs. Paris and the whole of Europe were moved with pity, and demanded justice for the unfortunate woman. The verdict was given by the public long before it was signed by the Council.

The spirit of pity penetrated the ministry, in spite of the torrent of business that so often shuts out pity, and in spite of that daily sight of misery that does even more to harden the heart. The daughters were restored to their mother. As they sat, clothed in crape and bathed in tears, their judges were seen to weep.

They had still enemies, however, for it was a question of religion. Many of those people who are known in France as "devout" said openly that it was much better to let an innocent old Calvinist be slain than to compel eight Councillors of Languedoc to admit that they were wrong. One even heard such phrases as "There are more magistrates than Calas"; and it was inferred that the Calas family ought to be sacrificed to the honour of the magistrates. They did not reflect that the honour of judges, like that of other men, consists in repairing their blunders. It is not believed in France that the Pope is infallible, even with the assistance of his cardinals; we might just as well admit that eight judges of Toulouse are not. All other people, more reasonable and disinterested, said that the Toulouse verdict would be reversed all over Europe, even if special considerations prevented it from being reversed by the Council.

Such was the position of this astonishing adventure when it moved certain impartial and reasonable persons to submit to the public a few reflections on the subject of toleration, indulgence, and pity, which the Abbé Houteville calls "a monstrous dogma," in his garbled version of the facts, and which reason calls an "appanage of nature."

Either the judges of Toulouse, swept away by the fanaticism of the people, have broken on the wheel an innocent man, which is unprecedented; or the father and his wife strangled their elder son, with the assistance of another son and a friend, which is unnatural. In either case the abuse of religion has led to a great crime. It is, therefore, of interest to the race to inquire whether religion ought to be charitable or barbaric.

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