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© Chappatte in Le Temps, Switzerland (20 September 2012),

As this cartoon by Patrick Chappatte shows, even prior to the murderous attacks of January 2015, Voltaire was closely associated with Charlie Hebdo and with its editors’ efforts to fend off accusations of defamation and blasphemy (fig. 1). Although the famous quotation that he utters here was in fact fabricated by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (using the pseudonym, S. G. Tallentyre), it has been broadly accepted as an accurate characterization of Voltaire’s attitude in matters of philosophical protest.1 Originated in English and long limited to the Anglo-Saxon world, today the saying has great currency even in Voltaire’s native France. The philosophe has thus acquired emblematic status as an unconditional champion of free speech. It was this facet of Voltaire that gave him such prominence in recent outpourings of support for the embattled satirical magazine.

Nonetheless, this iconic perspective ignores the fact that Voltaire was an activist interested primarily in the efficacy of his works, rather than in the [End Page 261] defense of abstract ideals. This was, after all, the man who boasted, when comparing himself with Rousseau, “Jean Jacques n’écrit que pour écrire et moy j’écris pour agir.”2 While he certainly advocated the free circulation of ideas and frequently said things in defiance of those who wished to silence him, he understood and was willing to invest great energies in navigating an arcane system of privilege and censorship, closely tailoring his message, in terms both of form and content, to fit specific circumstances. Given this attitude, Voltaire seemed to consider freedom of expression less as an absolute individual liberty, than as an intellectual power that ought to be exercised strategically. Specifically, in the context of his struggle to promote religious toleration, Voltaire was mindful of the fact that, in urging others to accept principles that they found repugnant, he had to moderate his discourse. Toleration would spread only if he avoided alienating the faithful and succeeded in rendering them indifferent to the idea of religious diversity. In this perilous endeavor, whether Voltaire was free to say precisely what he thought was not the issue; of even greater importance was his need to communicate ideas in ways that could be digested even by his adversaries.

One key factor in determining this attitude was Voltaire’s assessment that true tolerance was not limited to a willingness to allow others to maintain unorthodox beliefs but, at a deeper level, also required a weakening of religious conviction, actual indifférence in matters of belief, an attitude that accorded all faiths equal respect. In early 1764, as he anxiously awaited circumstances propitious to the circulation of his Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire articulated this idea with remarkable lucidity. Soliciting feedback from his friend d’Alembert, he explained that, rather than simply preaching indulgence and charity, his text leaned toward indifférence and thus challenged the fundamental beliefs of his readers because “on n’obtiendra jamais des hommes qu’ils soient indulgens dans le fanatisme, et qu’il faut leur apprendre à mépriser, à regarder même avec horreur les opinions pour lesquelles ils combattent.”3 Or, as Voltaire more succinctly stated later that year, “Le fanatisme, qui a tant désolé le monde, ne peut être adouci que par la tolérance, et la tolérance ne peut être amenée que par l’indifférence.”4 In his reply, d’Alembert concurred but also warned it would be extremely counterproductive to address the idea of religious indifference openly. Prudent, measured words were essential.

Voltaire and d’Alembert knew that, in conservative Catholic circles, toleration—often termed “tolérantisme” by their critics—was deemed inadmissible insofar as Church members were bound by faith to correct the “error” of those who strayed from Christian orthodoxy. In his recently published Instruction pastorale. . . sur la prétendue philosophie des incrédules modernes, the bishop of Le Puy, Jean-George [sic] Le Franc [End Page 262] de Pompignan (brother of the poet, Jean-Jacques), had railed against the philosophes and their message of religious tolerance in these terms, repeatedly citing the works of the “auteur de La Henriade” (i.e., Voltaire).5 At one point, he characterized all leniency with regard to religious error as “a criminal prevarication.” Summarizing a passage from Voltaire’s Poème sur la loi naturelle, he then asked, “Que reste-t-il après cela que d’avouer nettement l’indifférence de toutes les Religions, & l’inutilité d’une Religion révélée?”6 Needless to say, this rhetorical gesture served only to relaunch his tirade against philosophical incredulity.

Faced with such rigid opposition, Voltaire displayed unusual restraint. Although he mocked the bishop of Le Puy in several anonymous brochures, he also sought to deliver a lesson on civility. This lesson took the form of the Lettre de m. Cubstorf, pasteur de Helmstad, à m. Kirkerf, pasteur de Lauvtorp, in which Voltaire adopted the persona of a German cleric writing to a colleague.7 The letter began by lamenting the spread of philosophical thought but quickly shifted to indict the ecclesiastical establishment. Arguing that, ultimately, verbal violence serves only to reinforce hostilities, the fictitious Cubstorf laid blame for growing religious dissension squarely at the feet of his vituperative brethren:

Si nous avions été plus modérés, je suis persuadé qu’on ne se serait pas tant révolté contre nous. […] Je pense que le seul moyen de ramener nos ennemis serait de ne leur montrer que de la charité et de la modestie; mais nous commençons par leur prodiguer les noms de petits esprits, de libertins, de cœurs corrompus; nous forçons leur amour-propre à se mettre contre nous sous les armes. Ne serait-il pas plus sage et plus utile d’employer la douceur qui vient à bout de tout?8

Clearly, in Voltaire’s eyes, those who engaged in harsh polemics, like Le Franc de Pompignan, had no chance of capturing the sympathies of precisely those individuals who were the supposed targets of their pastoral efforts. Instead, those individuals were further marginalized and put on the defensive.

Of course, Voltaire himself was hardly a stranger to verbal attacks, and he skewered his enemies mercilessly, reducing many of them to satirical rubble. In criticizing elements of the prevailing Judeo-Christian tradition, he never hesitated to salt his commentary with large doses of ridicule. No doubt, he committed errors of judgment on numerous occasions. But in the serious matter of establishing a more tolerant and open society, in attempting to move people away from deep-rooted convictions, the Lettre de m. Cubstorf demonstrates that Voltaire was keenly aware of the importance of words and the fact that, in some situations, the art of persuasion can require self-censorship [End Page 263] and moderation. In this regard, it seems fair to surmise that, in the highly secularized setting of twenty-first century France, Voltaire would have questioned, not whether Charlie Hebdo should have the right to publish its cartoons, but what their creators were hoping to achieve. As empowering as it is to think that Voltaire would “defend to the death” the idea of free expression, it is also essential to consider that he himself was sometimes prudent in its use.

John R. Iverson

John R. Iverson is associate professor of French at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. He has contributed several critical editions to the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire and currently serves as a member of the Conseil scientifique for that project. His essays have appeared in volumes 28 and 31 of Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture.


1. For full documentation, see Burdette Kinne, “Voltaire Never Said it!”, Modern Language Notes 58:7 (Nov. 1943), 534–35.

2. “Jean-Jacques writes only to write, while I write in order to act” (Voltaire to Jacob Vernes, c. 15 April 1767 [D14117]). All references to Voltaire’s correspondence are from the definitive edition by Theodore Besterman in the Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire (Geneva and Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1968–present). All translations are my own.

3. “One will never get men to be indulgent in the midst of fanaticism, and because they must be taught to despise and even to look with horror upon the opinions over which they fight” (13 February 1764 [D11695]). See also d’Alembert’s response of 22 February 1764 (D11720) and Voltaire’s reply of 1 March 1764 (D11738).

4. “Fanaticism, which has so desolated the world, can only be softened by tolerance, and tolerance can only be introduced through indifference” (Voltaire to comte d’Argental, 5 November 1764 [D12178]).

5. Jean-George [sic] Le Franc de Pompignan, Instruction pastorale de monseigneur l’évêque du Puy, sur la prétendue philosophie des incrédules modernes (Pastoral Instruction from the Bishop of Le Puy on the Supposed Philosophy of the Modern Non-Believers; Le Puy: chez Clet, 1763), 24.

6. “What remains after this but to admit openly the indifference of all Religions and the uselessness of a revealed Religion?” (Le Franc de Pompignan, Instruction pastorale, 188–9).

7. The Letter from Mr. Cubstorf, pastor in Helmstad, to Mr. Kirkerf, pastor in Lauvtorp was published in April 1764 with the Contes de Guillaume Vadé. The brochures aimed at Jean-George Le Franc de Pompignan are in volume 57A of the Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2014), the Lettre de m. Cubstorf in volume 57B (2014).

8. “If we had been more moderate, I am convinced that there would not have been so much rebellion against us. . . . I think the only way to win back our enemies would be to show them nothing but charity and modesty; but we begin by covering them with names : small-minded, libertine, corrupt hearts; we push their self-respect to take up arms against us. Would it not be wiser and more useful to employ kindness, which can achieve anything? (Voltaire, Letter à m. Cubstorf, 419).

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