Victor Hugo on Voltaire


Voltaire conquered; Voltaire waged the splendid kind of warfare, the war of one alone against all; that is to say, the grand warfare. The war of thought against matter, the war of reason against prejudice, the war of the just against the unjust, the war for the oppressed against the oppressor; the war of goodness, the war of kindness. He had the tenderness of a woman and the wrath of a hero. He was a great mind, and an immense heart.

He conquered the old code and the old dogma. He conquered the feudal lord, the Gothic judge, the Roman priest. He raised the populace to the dignity of people. He taught, pacificated, and civilized. He fought for Sirven and Montbailly, as for Calas and La Barre; he accepted all the menaces, all the out rages, all the persecutions, calumny, and exile. He was indefatigable and immovable. He conquered violence by a smile, despotism by sarcasm, infallibility by irony, obstinacy by perseverance, ignorance by truth.

I have just pronounced the word, smile. I pause at it. Smile! It is Voltaire.

Let us say it, gentlemen, pacification is the great side of the philosopher; in Voltaire the equilibrium always re-establishes itself at last. Whatever may be his just wrath, it passes, and the irritated Voltaire always gives place to the Voltaire calmed. Then in that profound eye the smile appears.

That smile is wisdom. That smile, I repeat, is Voltaire. That smile sometimes becomes laughter, but the philosophic sadness tempers it. Toward the strong it is mockery; toward the weak it is a caress. It disquiets the oppressor, and reassures the op pressed. Against the great, it is raillery; for the little, it is pity. Ah, let us be moved by that smile! It had in it the rays of the dawn. It illuminated the true, the just, the good, and what there is of worthy in the useful. It lighted up the interior of superstitions. Those ugly things it is salutary to see; he has shown them. Luminous, that smile was fruitful also. The new society, the desire for equality and concession, and that beginning of fraternity which called itself tolerance, reciprocal good-will, the just accord of men and rights, reason recognized as the supreme law, the annihilation of prejudices and fixed opinions, the serenity of souls, the spirit of indulgence and of pardon, harmony, peace—behold, what has come from that great smile!

On the day—very near, without any doubt—when the identity of wisdom and clemency will be recognized, the day when the amnesty will be proclaimed, I affirm it, up there, in the stars, Voltaire will smile.

Gentlemen, between two servants of Humanity, who appeared eighteen hundred years apart, there is a mysterious relation.

To combat Pharisaism; to unmask imposture; to overthrow tyrannies, usurpations, prejudices, falsehoods, superstitions; to demolish the temple in order to rebuild it, that is to say, to replace the false by the true; to attack a ferocious magistracy; to attack a sanguinary priesthood; to take a whip and drive the money-changers from the sanctuary; to reclaim the heritage of the disinherited; to protect the weak, the poor, the suffering, the overwhelmed, to struggle for the persecuted and oppressed—that was the war of Jesus Christ! And who waged that war? It was Voltaire.

The completion of the evangelical work is the philosophical work; the spirit of meekness began, the spirit of tolerance continued. Let us say it with a sentiment of profound respect; Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled. Of that divine tear and of that human smile is composed the sweetness of the present civilization.

——Victor Hugo, Oration on Voltaire.

Evangelizing the American Continent

It was truly a sight that might well inspire horror, to behold these savages tumbling among the dark mountains of paganism, and guilty of the most horrible ignorance of religion. It is true, they neither stole nor defrauded; they were sober, frugal, continent, and faithful to their word; but though they acted right habitually, it was all in vain, unless they acted so from precept. The new comers, therefore, used every method to induce them to embrace and practice the true religion—except, indeed, that of setting them the example.

——Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

Tolerance the First Principle of Manners

Every denial of, or interference with, the personal freedom or absolute rights of another, is a violation of good manners. He who presumes to censure me for my religious belief, or want of belief; who makes it a matter of criticism or reproach, that I am a Theist or Atheist, Trinitarian or Unitarian, Catholic or Protestant, Pagan or Christian, Jew, Mohamedan, or Mormon, is guilty of rudeness and insult. If any of these modes of belief make me intolerant or intrusive, he may resent such intolerance, or repel such intrusion; but the basis of all true politeness, and social enjoyment, is the mutual tolerance of personal rights. And every one who wishes to see the world anything but a scene of conflict and a prison house, must be willing to give this toleration themselves, and to demand it of all others, and for all others. Admirable was the answer of a friend of ours to some one who came to him with a complaint of what he thought the improper conduct of a neighbor: “I may not approve this man’s acts,” he said; “they may be contrary to my judgment, and offend my taste, but I would shoulder a musket to-morrow in defense of his right to do as he pleases in a matter that infringes upon the rights of no other person.”

No doubt there is a criticism which is proper and useful in society. There is no objection to very free criticism, when made in the spirit of toleration. The critic who says: “Neighbor, I understand that you ate cabbage for dinner to-day. I consider eating cabbage immoral, and opposed to the best interests of society.” This may pass, and I may thank my friend for the suggestion, and engage to take it into respectful consideration. But if he adds, “You have no right to eat cabbages, and if you persist we intend to pull your house down,” I should be apt to buy a revolver and try the issue.

It may be known, as a matter of fact, and innocently related, that such a man is a fire-worshiper; that such a woman knits on Sunday; that another eats his Welsh rarebit with mustard; that Miss Jones has the misfortune to be devotedly in love with her friend’s husband; or that Mrs. Thompson accepts the free-love theories of the Fourierists. But when such matters, the love or the mustard, become causes of persecution, there is a very gross violation of the first principles of good manners.

——The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855.

As to the author, “We have solemnly pledged to keep his incognito sacred,” says the publisher.

Church Lady, A.D. 400

Among those who anticipated the sentence [against the followers of John Chrysostom] by flight was an old maid named Nicarete, who deserves mention as a curious figure of the time. She was a philanthropist who devoted her means to works of charity, and always went about with a chest of drugs, which she used to dispense gratis, and which pious rumour said were always effectual. She reminds us of charitable ladies of modern times who distribute tracts, have a craze for homoeopathy, and hang on the lips of some favourite clergyman.

—Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire

The Unselfishness of Genius


The virtues, talents, and glorious services of illustrious men of every nation constitute their best inheritance, their most rational source of pride and exultation, and it has often happened that the renown of a people, like that of the Thebans, began and ended with a single man. Yet how often we find nations either entirely indifferent to their best benefactors, or persecuting them with all the barbarous rigours of religious, political, or philosophical intolerance! Not to mention the numerous instances recorded of ancient times, we shall find, even in the most enlightened ages, humanized by the mild and forgiving precepts of Christianity, these examples, if possible still more numerous and flagrant. Galileo is a hackneyed instance; but it is not so generally known that Newton was charged by bigotry and ignorance with holding opinions at war with orthodoxy, and Locke expelled from that reverend bedlam Oxford by political intolerance. Among the most illustrious reformers, as well as the most enlightened of reasoners, Melancthon, Erasmus, and even Theodore Beza were suspected and denounced, because they did not keep pace with the rampant zealots of the times, who would willingly have warmed them at the stake. In short, it would seem to be among the inflexible dispensations of Providence, that no selfish motive should ever operate upon the great benefactors of mankind, in their glorious endeavours, since all they can rationally anticipate as their reward in this world is to pass their lives amid persecutions and slanders, among a race of ungrateful beings, who never become sensible of their ingratitude or their obligations till it is too late to make reparation.

——James K. Paulding, The Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham