Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Whether Intolerance Was Taught by Christ

Let us now see whether Jesus Christ set up sanguinary laws, enjoined intolerance, ordered the building of dungeons of the inquisition, or instituted bodies of executioners.

There are, if I am not mistaken, few passages in the gospels from which the persecuting spirit might deduce that intolerance and constraint are lawful. One is the parable in which the kingdom of heaven is compared to a king who invites his friends to the wedding-feast of his son (Matthew xxii.). The king says to them, by means of his servants: "My oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come unto the marriage." Some go off to their country houses, without taking any notice of the invitation; others go about their business; others assault and slay the king's servants. The king sends his army against the murderers, and destroys their town. He then sends out on the high road to bring in to the feast all who can be found. One of these sits at table without a wedding dress, and is put in irons and cast into outer darkness.

It is clear that, as this allegory concerns only the kingdom of heaven, it certainly does not give a man the right to strangle or put in jail a neighbour who comes to sup with him not wearing a festive garment. I do not remember reading anywhere in history of a prince who had a courtier arrested on that ground. It is hardly more probable that, if an emperor sent his pages to tell the princes of his empire that he had killed his fatlings and invited them to supper, the princes would kill the pages. The invitation to the feast means selection for salvation; the murder of the king's envoys represents the persecution of those who preach wisdom and virtue.

The other parable (Luke xiv.) tells of a man who invites his friends to a grand supper. When he is ready to sit at table, he sends his servant to inform them. One pleads that he has bought an estate, and must go to visit it; as one does not usually go to see an estate during the night, the excuse does not hold. Another says that he has bought five pairs of oxen, and must try them; his excuse is as weak as the preceding—one does not try oxen during the night. A third replies that he has just married; and that, assuredly, is a good excuse. Then the holder of the banquet angrily summons the blind and the lame to the feast, and, seeing that there are still empty places, says to his valet: "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in."

It is true that this parable is not expressly said to be a figure of the kingdom of heaven. There has, unhappily, been too much abuse of these words, "Compel them to come in"; but it is obvious that a single valet could not forcibly compel all the people he meets to come and sup with his master. Moreover, compulsory guests of this sort would not make the dinner very agreeable. According to the weightiest commentators, "Compel them to come in" merely means "Beg, entreat, and press them to come in." What, I ask you, have this entreaty and supper to do with persecution?

If you want to take things literally, will you say that a man must be blind and lame, and compelled by force, to be in the bosom of the Church? Jesus says in the same parable: "When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours." Has any one ever inferred from this that we must not dine with our kinsmen and friends when they have acquired a little money?

After the parable of the feast Christ says (Luke xiv. 26): "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.... For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost?" Is there anybody in the world so unnatural as to conclude that one must hate one's father and mother? Is it not clear that the meaning is: Do not hesitate between me and your dearest affections?

The passage in Matthew (xviii., 17) is quoted: "If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." That does not absolutely say that we must persecute pagans and the farmers of the king's taxes; they are cursed, it is true, but they are not handed over to the secular arm. Instead of the prerogatives of citizenship being taken from these farmers of taxes, they have received the greatest privileges. It is the only profession that is condemned in Scripture, and the one most in favour with governments. Why, then, should we not be as indulgent to our erring brethren as to the tax-gatherers?

The persecuting spirit further seeks a justification of itself in the driving of the merchants from the temple and the sending of a legion of demons from the body of a possessed man into the bodies of two thousand unclean animals. But who can fail to see that these are instances of the justice which God deigns to render to himself for the contravention of his law? It was a lack of respect for the house of the Lord to change its purview into a merchant's shop. It is no use saying that the Sanhedrim and the priests permitted this only for the sake of the sacrifices. The God to whom the sacrifices were made might assuredly destroy this profanation, though he was hidden in a human form; he might also punish those who introduced into the country such enormous herds of animals forbidden by a law which he deigned to observe himself. These cases have no relation whatever to persecution on account of dogma. The spirit of intolerance must be very poor in argument to appeal to such foolish pretexts.

Nearly all the rest of the words and actions of Christ breathe gentleness, patience, and indulgence. He does not even break out against Judas, who must betray him; he commands Peter never to use the sword; he reproaches the children of Zebedee, who, after the example of Elias, wanted to bring fire from heaven on a town that refused them shelter.

In the end Christ succumbed to the wicked. If one may venture to compare the sacred with the profane—God with a man—his death, humanly speaking, had some resemblance to the death of Socrates. The Greek philosopher was a victim to the hatred of the sophists, priests, and leaders of the people; the legislator of the Christians was destroyed by the Scribes, Pharisees, and priests. Socrates might have escaped death, and would not; Jesus Christ offered himself voluntarily. The Greek philosopher not only pardoned his calumniators and his wicked judges, but begged them to treat his children in the same way if they should ever be so fortunate as, like himself, to incur their hatred; the legislator of the Christians, infinitely superior, begged his father to forgive his enemies.

If it be objected that, while Socrates was calm, Jesus Christ seemed to fear death, and suffered such extreme anguish that he sweated blood—the strongest and rarest symptom of fear—this was because he deigned to stoop to all the weakness of the human body that he had put on. His body trembled—his soul was invincible. He taught us that true strength and grandeur consist in supporting the evils under which our nature succumbs. It is a splendid act of courage to meet death while you fear it.

Socrates had treated the sophists as ignorant men, and convinced them of bad faith; Jesus, using his divine rights, treated the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, fools, blind and wicked men, serpents, and vipers.

Need I now ask whether it is tolerance or intolerance that is of divine right? If you wish to follow Jesus Christ, be martyrs, not executioners.

Next: Section 15

Monadnock Valley Press > Voltaire > Treatise on Tolerance