A famous democracy quote

“I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

The origin of this quote has a bit of mystery, but thanks to this nice website: QI I finally find the most likely origin of the quote.

These words appear not to be literally spoken by Voltaire as you frequently can find on web sites, but it is a sentence written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall on Voltaire’s mental attitude on an incident involving the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius. The quote is in the book “The Friends of Voltaire” wrote by Hall under the pseudonym of S. G. Tallentyre in 1906.

The event for which Voltaire was presumed to said those word, was the condemn of the book by Helvétius titled “De l’esprit” (“On the Mind”) in 1758. Helvétius aim was to oppose to Montesquieu‘s “Spirit of the Laws“, where theory that climate influence the character of nations were illustrated.

The book lured a huge opposition from the most important representative personalities of the time: dauphin Louis, son of King Louis XV, Joly de Fleury Advocate General, Le Collège de la Sorbonne. On the Mind became a scapegoat for religious authorities, especially Jesuits and new pope, who began to fear the spread of atheism and wanted to restrict the modern thought harshly and quickly. It was declared to be heretical and atheistic by Church and State and publicly burned by the Paris hangman.

This episode has had far-reaching negative effects on the rest of philosophes.

Voltaire considered the attacks unjustified even though he wasn’t impressed with the text. After he learned that Helvétius’ book was publicly incinerated Hall wrote he reacted as follows:

‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.

This passage of the book “The Friends of Voltaire” is misleading because of the use of the quotation marks. But in a letter published in 1939 in the journal “Modern Language Notes” Hall asserted that the words were hers and not Voltaire’s. 

I always loved this quote which I try to remember during discussions.

The appeal of idealists ready to defend others’ opinion, even if disagreeable, is fascinating. I try to remind myself that it should be the aim of every discussions: exchange of ideas, points of view, listen the other, open to dialog. Everyone of us has a different story, a different environement in which his ideas has become his own, it’s almost impossibile to replicate a life experience, so many causes are conditioning our point of view daily.

Freedom of express ourself is a value.

Freedom from being free of judgement is a bigger value.

Besides… these are ideas.



2 thoughts on “A famous democracy quote

  1. Les Petits Pas de Juls says:

    Fan of this quote too. Especially nowadays when people seem to loathe everything said and done by their neighbors. We should remember this elemental and essential philosophy of free speech and free thinking involve others to also open their minds to opposition but looking for solutions instead of staying stuck with the problems.

    Liked by 1 person

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