random memes }

A Voltaire(ish) quote

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

The story behind a phrase oft-assigned to Voltaire (and one of my favorite memes). From SBF Glossary: VJ to VQT:

The phrase is widely attributed to Voltaire, but cannot be found in his writings. With good reason. The phrase was invented by a later author as an epitome of his attitude.

It appeared in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S[tephen] G. Tallentyre. Chapter VII is devoted to Helvétius (1715-1771), whom she depicts as a kindly, generous person, with a hint of more talent to raise him above mediocrity. He married and settled in the sticks, with a new wife who was unfashionably old (32), and they were happy. This was ended by his tragic aspiration, to earn some small glory for himself as a philosopher.

In 1758, he published ``De l'Esprit,'' which Hall renders "On the Mind.'' From the little Hall says of it directly, I take it that this was a moral-relativist tract, adducing bad social conditions as the cause of immoral behavior, regarding humans essentially as animals, and skeptical of the validity of moral claims generally.

This was unpopular with everyone - secular philosophers, all of the church, the government. It certainly got him noticed, but not by all at once. Voltaire immediately regarded the work as a serious disappointment from one who had been a somewhat promising protege. He was most insulted to have been compared in it with lesser intellectual lights (Crébillon and Fontenelle). It was widely criticized by other wits of their enlightened social circle. For a few months, however, it escaped the notice of the government.

Then the Dauphin read it.

The privilege to publish was revoked; the censor who approved its publication was sacked. A rolling wave of official condemnation began, culminating with the Pope (Jan. 31, 1759) and the Parliament of Paris (Feb. 6) and public book-burning by the hangman (Feb. 10), an honor shared with Voltaire's ``Natural Law.''

On the principle that anything so unpopular with the government must ipso facto be pretty good, the official condemnation permanently established Helvétius's philosophical repute among the fashionable salon crowd, and rehabilitated him among the intellectual elite as well, to a great extent. He became popular in Protestant Germany and England.

Hall wrote:

...The men who had hated [the book], and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. `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. But he soon came, as a Voltaire would come, to swearing that there was no more materialism in `On the Mind' than in Locke, and a thousand more daring things in `The Spirit of Laws.'

(Boldface added here for emphasis.) Friends is not a scholarly work, but Hall is fairly scrupulous throughout the book to state within the text whether she is quoting speech or text, and whether various reports are first-person or likely hearsay. I believe it was reasonable of her to expect that `I disapprove ... say it' would be recognized as her own characterization of Voltaire's attitude. I think some readers were confused because of the way she follows this with paraphrases of his spoken criticisms.

In any case, the phrase was too eloquent, so it became quoted, and famous names attach themselves to quotes, to the detriment of the less well-known originators.

Hall herself claimed later that she had been paraphrasing Voltaire's words in his Essay on Tolerance:

Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.

Hall died in 1919. In his A Book of French Quotations (1963), Norbert Guterman suggested that the probable source for the quotation was a line in a 6 February 1770 letter to M. le Riche:

Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.''