Treatise on Tolerance

by Voltaire (1763)

Consequences of the Execution of Jean Calas

If the white penitents were the cause of the execution of an innocent man, the utter ruin of a family, and the dispersal and humiliation that attach to an execution, though they should punish only injustice; if the haste of the white penitents to commemorate as a saint one who, according to our barbaric customs, should have been dragged on a hurdle, led to the execution of a virtuous parent; they ought indeed to be penitents for the rest of their lives. They and the judges should weep, but not in a long white robe, and with no mask to hide their tears.

We respect all confraternities; they are edifying. But can whatever good they may do the State outweigh this appalling evil that they have done? It seems that they have been established by the zeal which in Languedoc fires the Catholics against those whom we call Huguenots. One would say that they had taken vows to hate their brothers; for we have religion enough left to hate and to persecute, and we have enough to love and to help. What would happen if these confraternities were controlled by enthusiasts, as were once certain congregations of artisans and "gentlemen," among whom, as one of our most eloquent and learned magistrates said, the seeing of visions was reduced to a fine art? What would happen if these confraternities set up again those dark chambers, called "meditation rooms," on which were painted devils armed with horns and claws, gulfs of flame, crosses and daggers, with the holy name of Jesus surmounting the picture? What a spectacle for eyes that are already fascinated, and imaginations that are as inflamed as they are submissive to their confessors!

There have been times when, as we know only too well, confraternities were dangerous. The Fratelli and the Flagellants gave trouble enough. The League began with associations of that kind. Why should they distinguish themselves thus from other citizens? Did they think themselves more perfect? The very claim is an insult to the rest of the nation. Did they wish all Christians to enter their confraternity? What a sight it would be to have all Europe in hoods and masks, with two little round holes in front of the eyes! Do they seriously think that God prefers this costume to that of ordinary folk? Further, this garment is the uniform of controversialists, warning their opponents to get to arms. It may excite a kind of civil war of minds, and would perhaps end in fatal excesses, unless the king and his ministers were as wise as the fanatics were demented.

We know well what the price has been ever since Christians began to dispute about dogmas. Blood has flowed, on scaffolds and in battles, from the fourth century to our own days. We will restrict ourselves here to the wars and horrors which the Reformation struggle caused, and see what was the source of them in France. Possibly a short and faithful account of those calamities will open the eyes of the uninformed and touch the hearts of the humane.

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