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.


Read-Along, Voltaire

Candide Read-Along Week III

Summary of Chapters 17-24

Candide and Cacambo head for Cayenne but stop at Eldorado along the way. In Eldorado, children play with rubies and gold in the streets. Candide tries to return the jewels to a teacher there, but he merely throws them back on the ground. Afterward, Candide and Cacambo have a lavish and complementary meal at a cabaret. Eldorado is also different from other lands because the horse-drawn carriages are replaced by sheep-drawn carriages.

The two men next meet a 172 year old man who answers their questions about religion in Eldorado. The citizens are very spiritual but are their own priests. There are no temples or clerics in Eldorado. The king is very kind to Candide and his friend; he offers to help them cross a large mountain range to return home. To accomplish this, they are given a sheep-drawn machine that can go up mountains. Candide makes sure to pack his cart with jewels.

In Surinam, Candide and Cacambo encounter an African slave who lost his left leg and right hand as a punishment for trying to escape from his slave master. He works on a sugar cane plantation and is obviously treated worse than the animals in the area. The man tells them about the hypocrisy of the priests on Sunday. They preach that all people are the children of Adam but

“vous m’avouerez qu’on ne peut pas en user avec ses parents d’une manière plus horrible.”

[you must admit that one cannot treat one’s parents any more horribly.]

After hearing the slave’s story, Candide cries for the first time in the novel.

Candide decides to go to Venice since it is widely known for being a city that is friendly to foreigners. But, after giving some jewels to Cacambo to ransom Cunégonde from the governor of Buenos-Ayres, Candide loses the rest of his new-found wealth in trying to convince the African slave’s master, Vanderdendur, to accompany him to Venice. Candide is not able to legally bring the thief to justice.

Candide then befriends a man named Martin. Martin is a Manichean and a pessimist. He believes that this is the worst of all possible worlds. He lacks hope. He and Candide leave for Bordeaux. The thief that robbed Candide of all his Eldorodan jewels is killed when his ship is sunk by an enemy ship. Martin points out that all the other people in the ship drowned too, and they had done nothing wrong. Still, Candide holds fast to Pangloss’ philosophy. There are times when he questions it but in the end, he is convinced that this must be the best of all possible worlds. Clearly, he is still too naive.

Candide goes to a play and speaks and gambles with some intellectuals. There, he also meets someone who offers to take him to Normandy (Basse-Normandie).

He also witnesses the execution of an admiral. This admiral was executed because he did not kept his men too far from the enemy. From time to time, admirals are killed to rouse the anger and determination of the soldiers.

Candide finally meets Paquette, the maid who gave syphilis to Pangloss. She is a prostitute. Like the other characters in the story, she has gone through many hardships. But despite all these adventures, Candide has still not lost hope in finding Cunégonde.

 Discussion Questions

1. What do you all think about Martin?

Martin is certainly more rational than Candide; however, I do not think the world is fully evil. He fails to see the good in others. At least Candide has hope.

2. Does a utopia like Eldorado sound appealing to you?

While Eldorado is definitely more appealing than any of the other places Candide has visited, I would hesitate to live there. If the king isn’t hiding anything, it may be pleasant to live in Eldorado. But, all attempts at creating a Utopian society has always ended up being a cult. There is a lot of suffering in the world, but I do not think humans have the power to end all such suffering.

Of course, I wouldn’t mind living to 172!!


Philosophy, Read-Along, Voltaire

Candide Read-Along Week II

Summary of Chapters 9-16

This week’s reading began with Candide killing both Don Issachar and the Inquisitor. The old lady, Candide, and Cunégonde then escape to Cadix. Along the way, the old lady recounts the great misfortunes that befell her. She was born Pope Urban X’s daughter but prior to being the servant of Don Issachar, she experienced untold atrocities. She watched her family be cut into pieces and lost a butt cheek to cannibalism. The old lady challenges Candide and Cunégonde to tell her story to all the sailors on the ship. Candide and Cunégonde confirm that people everywhere think that they are the most miserable people in the world.

The ship they are on arrives at the port of Buenos Ayres. There, they meet the governor Don Fernando d’Ibaraa, y Figueora, y Mascarenes, y Lampourdos, y Souza. Candide loves Cunégonde and asks him to marry them. Suddenly, a Franciscan recognizes Candide as the man who killed the Spanish Inquisitor, so Candide is forced to escape once again, except this time with his valet Cacambo. Cunégonde stays behind and becomes the governor’s mistress. As they are escaping, Cacambo asks Candide to fight a war for the Jesuits in Paraguay.

In Paraguay, Candide is the only one who is permitted to speak to the head Jesuit because he is German and the Spanish Cacambo is not. During the meeting, Candide learns that the Jesuit is Cunégonde’s brother who had heretofore been mistaken for dead. At first, the Jesuit and Candide are happy to see each other again. But, once Candide tells him that he will be marrying Cunégonde, the Jesuit becomes infuriated and tries to kill him. Candide strikes back and kills Cunégonde’s brother. Candide and Cacambo escape yet again. To cover up the murder, Candide puts on the Paraguayan Jesuits clothing.

Finally, they find themselves in the land of les Oreillons(The Mumps). The first people Candide encounters on this land are two women whose rear-ends are being bitten by monkeys. Candide kills the monkeys thinking that the animals are threatening the women. However, the women are upset and angry because the monkeys are their lovers. They notify the other people in their village of Candide and Cacambo’s presence. The two men are tied up and are about to be cannibalized for being Jesuit when Cacambo informs them that Candide is not Jesuit. The Oreillons release the men and welcome them into their tribe.

What did I think about it?

The reading from this week is not different than the reading for last week except that in chapters 9-16 Candide kills people for the first time. The naïve Candide is now the murderer of three people – Don Issachar, the Spanish Inquisitor, and Cunégonde’s brother. Voltaire definitely must have enjoyed writing Candide. He also seems to have an obsession with rear-ends.

In this reading, he continued to criticize Leibniz’s philosophy and the Roman Catholic Church.

A word about the way the Catholic priesthood is presented in Candide: None of the priests in the story are respectable men. But I wonder, is Voltaire really successful in convincing his readers that the Church is corrupt? After all, every scene in Candide is extremely exaggerated and all characters are mere caricatures. Therefore, Voltaire only succeeds in criticizing the fictional priests in his work. While I do not doubt that there was corruption in the Church of the 18th century, I don’t know how representative Voltaire’s fictional priests are of the Catholic priesthood of his time. Voltaire has created characters that we all hate but I think that creating such characters actually hurts his argument. Of course, the priests in Candide are corrupt. They are disgusting. We can all agree on that. But none of Voltaire’s characters are believable.

 What do you all think?

Philosophy, Read-Along, Voltaire

Great Introduction to Candide by Plethora @ Plethora of Books

Here is a link to a great introduction to Candide written by Plethora @ Plethora of Books:

Check it out! The post gives us a brief biography of Voltaire and explores the etymologies of the names of the major characters in the text.

Philosophy, Read-Along, Voltaire

Candide Read-Along Week I

Introduction to this Read-along:

So this is the first post for Reading Candide. You can comment in the comments box below each post or on your own blog. However, if you comment on your own blog please link back to this post and put the link to your reflections in the comments box.


Chapter 1

The Baron de Thunder-ten-tronckh is the Baron of Westphalia. Candide is his sister’s son. Because of his mother’s lack of ancestry, Candide is treated like a servant in the Baron’s castle. However, the Doctor Pangloss taught Candide that the castle is the best castle in the world. Doctor Pangloss, we are told, is an expert in virtually everything and teaches the philosophy that this is the best of all possible worlds. Echoing Leibniz’s philosophy of Optimism, Pangloss believes that everything in the world happens for a reason; even pain and suffering are a part of this great world and should be accepted with joy.

Cunégonde is the Baron’s daughter. One day, she sees Pangloss doing “scientific experiments” on her mother’s servant in the bushes. She returns to the castle and kisses Candide behind a curtain. The Baron sees them kissing and, in his anger, banishes Candide from his castle.

Chapter 2

Candide is enlisted in the Bulgarian army. He undergoes brutal training. One morning, Candide decides to go for a stroll but is caught by the Bulgarians and is beaten 4000 times by 2000 men. He asks to be killed but is saved just in time by the Bulgarian king who understands Candide’s naïveté.

Chapter 3

Candide encounters the horrors of war. The Bulgarian war has caused the decapitation, disembowelment, and rape of countless men and women. He asks a man for bread but is rejected because Candide doesn’t think that the Pope is the Antichrist. Finally, Candide meets an Anabaptist named Jacques. Jacques feeds a very grateful Candide. Suddenly, he sees a man who is covered in awful sores.

Chapter 4

We learn in this chapter that this man is the Doctor Pangloss. Pangloss contracted syphilis from the maid Paquette in the Baron’s castle. He also informs Candide that Cunégonde was raped and killed by the Bulgarians. The Baron died trying to save her. Her mother and brother were also brutally killed. (The mother was chopped into pieces). Pangloss, however, refuses to back down from his claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. He ties Syphillus to the discovery of America. Pangloss is healed of his sickness but loses an eye and an ear in the process. Jacques disagrees with Pangloss’ philosophy. Here is his response:

« Il faut bien…que les homes aient un peu corrompu la nature, car ils ne sont point nés loups, et ils sont devenus loups. Dieu ne leur a donné ni canon de vingt-quatre ni baïonnettes et des canons pour se détruire. »

[“Men must have corrupted nature a little…for they were certainly not born wolves, and yet they’ve become wolves. God gave them neither twenty-four-pounder cannons nor bayonets, and yet they’ve made bayonets and cannons for themselves in order to destroy one another”]

Chapter 5

Pangloss and Candide travel with Jacques to Lisbon. But the worst storm in history hits the Lisbon port. Candide almost falls out of the boat but is saved by the boat helm. Jacques tries to save Candide but is pushed overboard by a sailor. Pangloss prevents Candide from trying to save him because he says that Jacque’s drowning is for the good of all. A giant wave capsizes the entire ship and Candide, the sailor, and Pangloss swim to shore. On land, a huge earthquake destroys three fourths of Lisbon. An inquisitor overhears Pangloss talking about the philosophy of optimism. He rebukes the doctor for having denied original sin and free will.

Chapter 6

To appease the wrath of God and to bring an end to the earthquakes in Lisbon, a group of men are burned at the stake. Candide is severely spanked and Pangloss is hanged.

Chapter 7

An elderly Sister treats Candide’s wounds. She also reconciles him with Cunégonde who never died from the wounds inflicted on her by the Bulgarian.

Chapter 8

Cunégonde tells her story. After being raped and disemboweled by a Bulgarian soldier, she was saved by the Bulgarian captain who then sold her to a Jew named Issacar. She was given a luxurious castle to live in. But, an inquisitor was jealous of Issacar. Issacar and the inquisitor agreed to share Cunégonde between themselves. Cunégonde, however, resisted. She refused to be raped again. After telling Candide her story, she admits that she no longer accepts Pangloss’ philosophy of optimism.

Discussion Questions

1)      Do you think Pangloss is a predatory figure or merely naive like Candide? In other words, is Pangloss deliberately trying to lead others astray or does he actually believe in the philosophy of optimism?

I think that Pangloss truly believes in the philosophy of optimism. He is not immune to hardships.  Even though he contracts Syphillus and faces death he doesn’t deny his philosophy. He definitely has convictions. I don’t know what convinced the Baron and his household that  Pangloss is an expert in everything. When reading about Pangloss, I couldn’t help but think about Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. These are men whom our society has decided are experts in everything. They may be experts in certain aspects of psychology and medicine but they are certainly not experts on everything. And yet, people talk about these doctors as if they are all-knowing.

For the most part, I think that Pangloss is naive like Candide. But I do not know Pangloss’ mindset when he was doing “scientific experiments” with Paquette in the bushes. Did he try to deceive the maid into sleeping with him? Or did he really think he was doing science?

2)      How do you feel about Voltaire’s writing style? Do you find this book funny or disturbing?

I can’t help but laugh while reading Candide. But while his story is funny, it is also quite disturbing. I feel at times that it is quite insensitive of Voltaire to make fun of rape and war. Every day, there are women like Cunégonde who are raped and it is not funny.

3)      Who is your favorite character thus far?

Jacques. He is the most intelligent character thus far.

What do you all think?

Classics Club Events, Read-Along, Voltaire

Reading Candide – March Event

Hello everyone, just a reminder that I will be hosting a Candide read-along in March. Details are below:

The event will be from March 1-31.

I will be reading the work in the original language, but all posts will be in English. Here is the posting schedule:

Monday, March 10 : chapters 1-8

Monday, March 17: chapters 9-16

Monday, March 24: chapters 17-24

Monday, March 31: chapters 25-30 (last post)

After I post about a series of chapters, you have a whole week to comment on those chapters.

Please spread the word. I look forward to our discussions.

Classics Club Events, Voltaire

March Event – Reading Candide

Hello everyone, so I have been thinking for some time about having a read-a-long event for a well-known French classic. I have decided on Candide by Voltaire. This classic is widely available in translation. Here is a Goodreads summary of the novel:

“Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world. 

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.”

The event will be from March 1-31.

I will be reading the work in the original language, but all posts will be in English. Here is the posting schedule:

Monday, March 10 : chapters 1-8

Monday, March 17: chapters 9-16

Monday, March 24: chapters 17-24

Monday, March 31: chapters 25-30 (last post)

After I post about a series of chapters, you have a whole week to comment on those chapters.

So who’s interested? It is fine if you do not comment every week of the event, but I’m hoping for a great discussion.