Social Justice, Voltaire

Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance (The Calas Affair)

Image result for the calas affair
François Dubois, The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (c. 1576)

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.

 

Nonfiction by Genre, Social Justice

The New Jim Crow on MLK Day

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a reminder to white Americans that racial injustice is alive and well in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr Day should not simply be a day when Americans remember and celebrate the life of a civil rights activist – as if the Civil Rights Act fixed everything. It should also be a time when we reflect on how far we have yet to go. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, but racism still exists in America.

But most of it is more subtle and more structural. Certainly, there are Americans who still hate blacks (ex. the Charleston massacre), but most would like to think that they are colorblind. Michelle Alexander argues convincingly in her book that our criminal justice system is not colorblind. The War on Drugs has perpetuated racial discrimination in this country, but non-black Americans have no problem with a prison system almost entirely made up of blacks. Whites do drugs at the same rate or at a higher rate as blacks, but police do not patrol their neighborhoods. Whites are not stopped and frisked for drugs, so whites are not found with drugs. Black men are shot down by the police who have been trained to associate blacks with violence. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court assumes that our country is colorblind, claims of racism are dismissed. Our unjust structures are not considered unjust by our courts, so the system continues unchallenged. This is the new Jim Crow because like the old Jim Crow, black men with a prison history lose their voting privileges (often, for life), cannot get employment, are disqualified for food stamps, and may not even be able to get housing. Our country found the perfect way to strip blacks of their rights without overtly discriminating against them.

On this MLK Day, consider purchasing or borrowing from the library The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. We are not colorblind. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope things will get better under Trump.

“Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards – or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do – shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices – often for less compelling reasons – are in fact going to college.”