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Intolerance:  A Misunderstanding of Freedom

Standing next to the body of Voltaire in the Pantheon this summer I struggled with this man’s resting place among the greats of Paris. But, if you dig deep into the writings of Voltaire his influence can be found in the American and French Revolutions, and his ideas are alive in the separation of Church and State. We can thank him for assisting the development of our form of government.

We are in great need of Voltaire’s help today, as it would appear we in America and beyond have forgotten what freedom means.

Freedom demands tolerance.


While we set out in our pursuit of happiness, we must permit others their pursuit though it varies. Voltaire can help us with this in his “Treatises on Tolerance” written in 1763.

Voltaire was outraged at the execution of Jean Calas, a Huguenot, and the banishment of his son and the imprisonment of his daughters by Catholics in France. Calas was falsely accused of killing his son, the suggested motive was the boy was about to convert to Catholicism and Calas would rather the boy die than convert. When in fact, the boy committed suicide while the family ate dinner. At the time however, Catholics were looking for a reason to kill Calvinist and vice versa. Voltaire wrote to bring justice to the family, and eventually justice was served.

Calas’ death was the reason Voltaire wrote the treatises in hopes of righting the wrong to the Calas family, eliminating religious intolerance, and creating government, which would only enforce laws where one person harmed another.

Intolerance is alive in America.

Left and Right call for the persecution of those that disagree with them.

“There are some people who claim that humanity, tolerance, and freedom of conscience are appalling things,” write Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 20, Penguin Random House UK)

We seem to be unaware of how our ideas turn into fanaticism. This use to be a term reserved for the Christian Right, however, now fanaticism is not reserved for the religious only, but also the secular.

Following an idea to its conclusion, research, and meditation on reason and reality appear to be lost to most. How have we missed Voltaire’s warnings from 1763?

“Philosophy – and only philosophy, the sister of religion – has disarmed the hands of mankind that have been steeped in blood for such a long time by superstition. The human spirit, waking from its intoxication, is astonished at the excesses to which fanaticism has lead it,” says Voltaire (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 24, Penguin Random House UK)

How much time does the Left and Right spend philosophizing?

We failed greatly by giving a voice to white supremacist in Virginia. We should have ignored them and permitted them to continue in their lost condition. This small band of illegitimates was given the world stage. We should have tolerated their presence and looked the other way – this in fact, would have produced a greater good.

Voltaire writes in the sixteenth century about such people:

“…dressed in hoods and masked, with two small round holes for their eyes to peer through! Does anyone really believe God prefers such clothes to a plain jerkin? It is even worse than that. This religious habit is a uniform for people who want to cause controversy and to warn their opponents that they should be ready to defend themselves. It can trigger a civil war in people’s minds, and it would end up in fatal excesses if the king and his ministers were not as wise as the fanatics are irrational,” (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 15, Penguin Random House UK)

Voltaire follows this statement up with:

“Tolerance has never proved civil war, whereas intolerance has covered the earth in carnage.” (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 20, Penguin Random House UK)

How may we be tolerant?

First, we must know history and the results of the actions of our ancestors. We may learn what needs our attention and what should disinterest us.

“A brief and accurate summary may possibly open the eyes of some people who are ignorant of that history, and may touch the hearts of those who have an open mind.” (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 15, Penguin Random House UK)

Second, we must employ good reason. We must philosophize well.

“If there are still some maniacs among us, the best way to reduce their number is to assign this mental illness to the control of reason, which is slowly but infallibly enlightens mankind. Reason is gentle and humane, and it encourages toleration; it eliminates discord, reinforces virtue and is more effective in persuading people to obey the law than force is in winning their compliance.” “A brief an accurate summary may possibly open the eyes of some people who are ignorant of that history, and may touch the hearts of those who have an open mind.” (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 30, Penguin Random House UK)

Third, and Voltaire would disagree with me, we should look to the person of Jesus of Nazareth as an example of tolerance. Jesus was very calculated in when and when not to speak. With this control, he became the most heard being in the universe.

“If God is truly the author of religion, he will sustain it without your help. You know that intolerance produces only hypocrites and rebels.” (Treatises on Tolerance, Pg. 62, Penguin Random House UK)

Right or Left we may remain true to our convictions without pushing them on others.

This is not a call to all out laissez-faire, but it is a call to think before you yell, post, or throw a rock.


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