Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Abuses of Intolerance

Do I propose, then, that every citizen shall be free to follow his own reason, and believe whatever this enlightened or deluded reason shall dictate to him? Certainly, provided he does not disturb the public order. It does not depend on man to believe or not to believe; but it depends on him to respect the usages of his country. If you insist that it is a crime to disbelieve in the dominant religion, you condemn the first Christians, your fathers, and you justify those whom you reproach with persecuting them.

You say that there is a great difference; that all other religions are the work of man, and the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church alone is the work of God. But, surely, the fact that our religion is divine does not imply that it should rule by hatred, fury, exile, the confiscation of goods, imprisonment, torture, murder, and thanksgiving to God for murder? The more divine the Christian religion is, the less it is the place of man to command it; if God is its author, he will maintain it without your aid. You know well that intolerance begets only hypocrites or rebels. Fearful alternative! Would you, indeed, sustain by executioners the religion of a God who fell into the hands of executioners, and who preached only gentleness and patience?

Reflect on the frightful consequences of the right of intolerance. If it were allowed to despoil, cast in prison, and put to death a citizen who, at a certain degree of latitude, would not profess the religion generally admitted at that degree, how could we except the leaders of the State from those penalties? Religion equally binds the monarch and the beggar; hence more than fifty doctors or monks have made the monstrous assertion that it was lawful to depose or slay any sovereign who dissented from the dominant religion, and the Parliaments of our kingdom have repeatedly condemned these abominable decisions of abominable theologians.

The blood of Henry the Great [IV.] was still warm when the Parlement de Paris issued a decree making the independence of the Crown a fundamental law. Cardinal Duperron, who owed his position to Henry the Great, arose in the States of 1614 against the decree of the Parlement, and had it suppressed. All the journals of the time record the terms which Duperron used in his discourse: "If a prince became an Arian," he said, "we should be obliged to depose him."

Let us be allowed to say that every citizen is entitled to inherit his father's property, and that we do not see why he should be deprived of it, and dragged to the gibbet, because he takes sides with one theologian against another.

We know that our dogmas were not always clearly explained and universally received in the Church. Christ not having said in what manner the Holy Ghost proceeded, the Latin Church long believed with the Greek that he proceeded from the Father only; after a time it added, in the Creed, that he also proceeded from the Son. I ask whether, the day after this decision, any citizen who preferred to keep to the old formula deserved to be put to death? But is it less unjust and cruel to punish to-day the man who thinks as people thought in former times? Were men guilty in the days of Honorius I. because they did not believe that Jesus had two wills?

It is not long since the Immaculate Conception began to be generally accepted; the Dominicans still refuse to believe it. At what particular date will these Dominicans incur the penalties of heresy in this world and the next?

If we need a lesson how to behave in these interminable disputes, we should look to the apostles and evangelists. There was ground for a violent schism between Peter and Paul, and Paul withstood Peter to the face, but the controversy was peacefully settled. The evangelists in turn had a great field of combat, if they had resembled modern writers. They contradict each other frequently; yet we find no dissension among their followers over these contradictions, and they are neatly reconciled by the fathers of the Church. St. Paul, in his epistle to a few Jews at Rome who had been converted to Christianity, says at the end of the third chapter that faith alone glorifies, and works justify no one. St. James, on the contrary, in his epistle (ch. ii.) says constantly that one cannot be saved without works. Here is a point that has separated two great sects among us, yet made no division among the apostles.

If the persecution of those with whom we dispute were a holy action, the man who had killed most heretics would be the greatest saint in Paradise. What a poor figure the man who had been content to despoil and imprison his brothers would cut by the side of the zealot who had slain hundreds of them on St. Bartholomew's day! Here is a proof of it. The successor of St. Peter and his consistory cannot err. They approved, acclaimed, and consecrated the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Therefore this deed was holy; and therefore of two assassins who were equal in piety one who had killed twenty-four Huguenot women would have double the glory of the man who had killed only a dozen. By the same reasoning the fanatics of Cévènes would have ground to believe that they would be elevated in glory in proportion to the number of priests, monks, and Catholic women they had slain. It is a strange title to glory in heaven.

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