On March 10, 1762 Jean Calas was tortured and executed for allegedly murdering his son Marc-Antoine. Although Jean was the only member of the family executed, his wife, servant, son Paul, and friend M. Gaubert Lavaysse were also implicated in the murder. The Calas affair came to Voltaire’s attention because it appeared to be a case of religious fanaticism.
Jean’s eldest son Louis had already converted to Catholicism years earlier, and the family employed a Catholic servant. Still, the court sided with the crowd and ruled that Jean murdered his Catholic son for heresy. If Jean was required by his Calvinist faith to murder his son (as the Catholic prosecutors claimed), why did he employ a Catholic servant? And why would the Catholic servant agree to murder a fellow Catholic?
In all appearances, Marc-Antoine committed suicide. The family members were eating dinner when their son suddenly left the room. His body was found hanging in the front room.
Even before the law stepped in, a crowd of Catholics carried the body away and buried in consecrated ground. They began venerating Marc-Antoine as a Catholic martyr. The judges in Toulouse could not agree on the case, but they condemned Jean to death anyway. Through a series of authentic and potentially fictional letters, The Calas Affair traces the events leading up to and following the death of Marc-Antoine.
But it’s the following Treatise on Tolerance that is arguably more important than the précis of the affair. Here, Voltaire makes a case for religious tolerance.
I was surprised by Voltaire’ knowledge of the Bible. He clearly followed contemporary Biblical scholarship. Although some people accuse Voltaire of antisemitism, I had the opposite impression. Voltaire condemns the violence of the Old Testament, but he also argues that early Judaism was more tolerant than 18th century Christianity. Voltaire is only intolerant toward Atheists because he assumes that they are necessarily amoral. Voltaire may have be a Deist and highly critical of organized religion, but he was influenced by and admired many aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In The Treatise on Tolerance, Voltaire targets particularly the Christian dogmatic tradition for promoting heresy hunting .
Voltaire rightly argues that the ancient Romans were by and large tolerant toward different religions. The periods of persecution were the exception to the rule. You would think that a persecuted religion such as Christianity would know what persecution feels like and avoid persecuting others. But Christians of all stripes have committed numerous atrocities over the centuries.
Voltaire makes it clear that the Gospels do not promote violence and intolerance. In an eye-opening commentary on the Old Testament, Voltaire demonstrates that the Old Testament God is only concerned about the behavior of the Jewish people. God is not concerned about the behavior of Gentile religions. Finally, God’s punishments and rewards are immediate and temporal. Voltaire references Hebrew, questions the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, considers whether Judaism began as semi-polytheistic, and has a detailed knowledge of the early ecclesiastical councils – evidence that he kept up with contemporary religious scholarship.
Voltaire argues throughout his treatise that fanaticism is not only irrational but also a violation of true faith. It is hypocrisy at its finest. The Treatise on Tolerance is all the more convincing for its simplicity. Today, most people in the West take it for granted that executing perceived heretics is wrong, but religious bigotry is unfortunately alive and well. 18th century justifications for the persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) sound eerily familiar.
If much of Voltaire’s argument seems obvious to most readers, that’s because we have progressed a lot in the past three hundred years. It certainly wasn’t obvious to many of his contemporaries. In 1572, anywhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Huguenots were massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day. In the 1700s, when Voltaire wrote The Treatise on Tolerance, Catholics still celebrated the anniversary of the massacre!
The Treatise on Tolerance is a reminder of what prejudice is capable of. While some sections are humorous, it is not a satire. Voltaire cuts to the heart of the matter. This is definitely a work worth revisiting in our increasingly intolerant age.