Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Of the Danger of False Legends, and of Persecution

Untruth has imposed on men too long; it is time to pick out the few truths that we can trace amid the clouds of legends which brood over Roman history after Tacitus and Suetonius, and have almost always enveloped the annals of other nations.

How can we believe, for instance, that the Romans, whose laws exhibit to us a people of grave and severe character, exposed to prostitution Christian virgins and young women of rank? It is a gross misunderstanding of the austere dignity of the makers of our laws, who punished so rigorously the frailties of their vestal virgins. The "Sincere Acts" of Ruinart describe these indignities; but are we to put the "Acts" of Ruinart on a level with the Acts of the Apostles? These "Sincere Acts" say, according to the Bollandists, that there were in the town of Ancyra seven Christian virgins, each about seventy years old; that the governor Theodectes condemned them to be handed over to the young men of the town; and that he changed the sentence, as was proper, and compelled them to assist, naked, in the mysteries of Diana—at which none ever assisted without a veil. St. Theodotus—who, to tell the truth, kept a public-house, but was not less zealous on that account—prayed ardently to God to take these holy maidens out of life, lest they should succumb to temptation. God heard him. The governor then had them thrown into a lake, with stones round their necks, and they at once appeared to Theodotus and begged him to see that their bodies were not eaten by fishes.

The holy publican and his companions went during the night to the shore of the lake, which was guarded by soldiers. A heavenly torch went before them, and when they came to the spot where the guards were, a heavenly cavalier, armed from top to toe, chased the guards, lance in hand. St. Theodotus drew from the lake the bodies of the virgins. He was brought before the governor—and the celestial cavalier did not prevent the soldiers from cutting off his head. We repeat that we venerate the real martyrs, but it is not easy to believe this story of the Bollandists and Ruinart.

Shall we tell the story of the young St. Romanus? He was cast into the flames, says Eusebius, and certain Jews who were present insulted Jesus Christ for allowing his followers to be burned, whereas God had withdrawn Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Hardly had the Jews spoken when Romanus emerged in triumph from the flames. The emperor ordered that he should be pardoned, saying to the judge that he did not want to fall foul of God. Curious words for Diocletian! The judge, in spite of the emperor's pardon, ordered the tongue of Romanus to be cut out; and, although he had executioners, he had this operation performed by a physician. The young Romanus, who had stuttered from birth, spoke volubly as soon as his tongue was cut out. The physician, to show that the operation had been properly performed, took a man who was passing and cut off just as much of his tongue as he had done in the case of Romanus, and the man died. "Anatomy teaches us," says the author, learnedly, "that a man cannot live without a tongue." If Eusebius really wrote this nonsense, and the passage is not an interpolation, it is difficult to take his history seriously.

Then there is the martyrdom of St. Felicitas and her seven children, sent to death, it is said, by the wise and pius Antoninus. In this case it seems probable that some writer with more zeal than truthfulness has imitated the story of the Maccabees. The narrative begins: "St. Felicitas was a Roman, and lived in the reign of Antoninus." From these words it is clear that the author was not a contemporary of St. Felicitas. He says that the prætor sat to judge them in the Campus Martius. The forgery is exposed by this statement. The Campus Martius, which had once been used for the elections, then served for reviews of the troops and for military games. Again, it is said that after the trial the emperor entrusted the execution of the sentence to various judges; which is quite opposed to all procedure at that time or in our own.

Then there is a St. Hippolytus, who is supposed to have been dragged by horses, like Hippolytus the son of Theseus. This punishment was quite unknown to the Romans, and it is merely the similarity of name that has led to the invention of the legend.

You will observe in these accounts of the martyrs, which were composed entirely by the Christians themselves, that crowds of Christians always go freely to the prison of the condemned, follow him to the scaffold, receive his blood, bury his body, and work miracles with his relics. If it were the religion alone that was persecuted, would not the authorities have arrested these declared Christians who assisted their condemned brethren, and who were accused of performing magic with the martyred bodies? Would they not have been treated as we treated the Waldensians, the Albigenses, the Hussites, and the various sects of Protestants? We slew them and burned them in crowds, without distinction of age or sex. Is there, in any reliable account of the ancient persecutions, any single feature that approaches our massacre of St. Bartholomew or the Irish massacres? Is there a single one with any resemblance to the annual festival that is still held at Toulouse—a cruel and damnable festival, in which a whole people thanks God and congratulates itself that it slew four thousand of its fellow-citizens two hundred years ago?

I say it with a shudder, but it is true; it is we Christians who have been the persecutors, the executioners, the assassins. And who were our victims? Our brothers. It is we who have destroyed a hundred towns, the crucifix or Bible in our hands, and have incessantly shed blood and lit flames from the reign of Constantine to the fury of the cannibals of the Cévènes.

We still occasionally send to the gibbet a few poor folk of Poitou, Vivarais, Valence, or Montauban. Since 1745 [a period of seven years] we have hanged eight of those men who are known as "preachers" or "ministers of the gospel," whose only crime was to have prayed God for the king in their native dialect and given a drop of wine and a morsel of leavened bread to a few silly peasants. These things are not done at Paris, where pleasure is the only thing of consequence, and people are ignorant of what is done in the provinces and abroad. These trials are over in an hour; they are shorter than the trial of a deserter. If the king were aware of them, he would put an end to them.

Catholic priests are not treated thus in any Protestant country. There are more than a hundred Catholic priests in England and Ireland; they are known, and were untouched during the late war.

Shall we always be the last to embrace the wholesome ideas of other nations? They have amended their ways; when shall we amend ours? It took us sixty years to admit what Newton had demonstrated; we are hardly beginning to save the lives of our children by inoculation; and it is only recently that we have begun to act on sound principles of agriculture. When shall we begin to act on sound principles of humanity? How can we have the audacity to reproach the pagans with making martyrs when we have been guilty of the same cruelty in the same circumstances?

Suppose we grant that the Romans put to death numbers of Christians on purely religious grounds. In that case the Romans were very much to blame. Why should we be similarly unjust? Would we become persecutors at the very time when we reproach them with persecuting?

If any man were so wanting in good faith, or so fanatical, as to say to me: "Why do you come to expose our blunders and faults? Why do you destroy our false miracles and false legends? They nourish the piety of many people; there are such things as necessary errors; do not tear out of the body an incurable ulcer if it would entail the destruction of the body"; I should reply to this man: All these false miracles by which you shake the trust that should be given to real ones, all these absurd legends which you add to the truths of the gospels, extinguish religion in the hearts of men. Too many people who long for instruction, and have not the time to instruct themselves, say: "The heads of my religion have deceived me, therefore there is no religion. It is better to cast oneself into the arms of nature than into those of error; I would rather depend on the law of nature than on the inventions of men." Some are so unfortunate as to go even farther. They see that imposture put a curb on them, and they will not have even the curb of truth. They lean to atheism. They become depraved, because others have been false and cruel.

These, assuredly, are the consequences of all the pious frauds and all the superstitions. The reasoning of men is, as a rule, only half-reasoning. It is a very poor argument to say: "Voraginé, the author of the Golden Legend, and the Jesuit Ribadeneira, compiler of the Flowers of the Saints, wrote sheer nonsense; therefore there is no God. The Catholics have murdered a certain number of Huguenots, and the Huguenots have murdered a certain number of Catholics; therefore there is no God. Men have made use of confession, communion, and all the other sacraments, to commit the most horrible crimes: therefore there is no God." I should conclude, on the contrary: Therefore there is a God who, after this transitory life, in which we have known him so little, and committed so many crimes in his name, will vouchsafe to console us for our misfortunes. For, considering the wars of religion, the forty papal schisms (nearly all of which were bloody), the impostures which have nearly all been pernicious, the irreconcilable hatreds lit by differences of opinion, and all the evils that false zeal has brought upon them, men have long suffered hell in this world.

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