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Caroline Warman


Caroline Warman

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Philander et Clorinda by Philippe-Jacques Loutherbourg, Musée des beaux-arts de Strasbourg (1803)​wiki/​File:Philippe-Jacques_Loutherbourg-Philander_et_Clorinda.jpg

1This is a century of political and cultural imperialism, of wars about borders and control of resources, of world-wide trade and profit based on world- wide exploitation. It is also a century of revolution, and of fierce debate about rights and laws, about the right to follow a religion or to reject it, about policing and its limits. It is a century of violence, and it provokes violent reactions. I’m talking about the eighteenth century, yet I might as well be talking about now. History repeats itself, as has been said before, and will be said again. Its battles are still being lost, its triumphs still being struggled towards. This is why we are publishing this book: Tolerance is a collection of some of those violent reactions and fierce debates, written by people who were revolted by the injustice around them and who found ways of saying so, whether they were allowed to or not.

2When, on 7 January 2015, the cartoonists and columnists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked in their offices in Paris and many killed, France went into shock. One of its most deeply-held values, the right to free speech, had itself been attacked, and it felt intolerable. The context in which two vulnerable young French Muslims had grown up marginalised, been radicalised, and become the Charlie Hebdo killers also felt intolerable. Many turned to the eighteenth-century writer and campaigner Voltaire and to his pithy slogans about free speech and religious tolerance to reiterate their values and express their grief. His face appeared on posters and banners in marches and vigils throughout France. What tends now to be known as the Enlightenment, after the widespread and vociferous campaign mounted by Voltaire and many others to bring the ‘light’ of reason to everyone and to enable them to think for themselves, was back in the news. Modern France, a republic, seemed to be identifying with it and wanting to reiterate what it taught us. But the Enlightenment wasn’t one thing, and it has no agency: to call it the ‘Enlightenment’ at all or to situate it in the past is to agree with this notion of illumination, suggest that it worked, and imply that it’s over now: job done. Yet we know that this isn’t so. What we do know is that eighteenth-century France was home to a unique concentration of thinkers subjecting society to intense scrutiny, writing about what it was and what it ought to have been, and about how to live together despite, or even because of, conflicting views.

  • 1 La Société Française d’Etude du Dix-Huitième Siècle (ed.), Tolerance : le combat des Lumières (Pari (...)

3A group of French academics, knowing this and keen to make a contribution to public debate in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, decided to bring those voices to us. They put aside their own research, and within a month, they had assembled the texts for the French edition of this book.1 Within one month more, Tolerance was for sale across France in the ubiquitous newspaper kiosks.

4The writers of the eighteenth century, it emerges, have a great deal to say to us that sounds not just relevant, but also urgent in today’s world. A chorus of voices from across the century passionately rose up against oppression in the name of religion or any other banner, and against the unjust treatment of people for their creed, colour, gender, wealth, or sexuality. These voices tried again and again to make the case for tolerance, free speech, and equality. Their moment of apparent triumph came with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, the text that opens this anthology and which still stands at the beginning of the French Constitution. Yet declaring those rights to exist and to be inalienable didn’t immediately change the life of French male citizens for the better. Moreover, all those who weren’t French or male remained excluded. The battle was far from won; it is still not won. Many people continue to be oppressed and voiceless. Power battles are still played out in the name of nation, ideology, and religion, whilst the slaughter of innocents still occurs. The writers in this book say again and again that whatever religion is, it shouldn’t be a tool for power or a justification for persecution.

5Since the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, there have been attacks on students in a Kenyan university, on holiday makers on a Tunisian beach, on a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Turkey, on a crowded shopping street in Lebanon, and back in France again. In all these attacks, values associated with the Enlightenment were targeted – whether they be education, tolerance, equality, or even the right to have free time and to spend it in the pursuit of happiness, as defined by those individuals pursuing it and not as decreed by anyone else. Meanwhile conflicts deepen – in Palestine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in Libya, in Ukraine, and in many other places – and people flee, often at great peril to themselves. We are all wondering what is happening to our world, and why it is as it is.

6The writers in this book can help us work through these questions; they can help us identify structures of power or abuse and, in identifying them, reject them. They can do this for us because that’s what they did for themselves. They may not always be right. But we can be certain that through the debates they raise, we can get a little closer to some tolerable answers.

7When we persecute people and opinions, we isolate them, we make those opinions dearer to those who hold them, we make proselytism more likely, and we swell the ranks of those who wish to tread the path to martyrdom. Said Henri Grégoire, the priest and Revolutionary politician, in a speech of 1794 (p. 33).

8Freedom disappears the instant laws make it possible in certain circumstances for a man to stop being a person and become a thing. Wrote Cesare Beccaria, the great Italian legal philosopher, in his analysis of Crimes and Punishments from 1764 (p. 64).

9To claim that God permits the use of violence to uphold or further the interests of truth, while truth is being simultaneously claimed by all sides, is tantamount to saying that the Supreme Being wishes to blow up the entire human race. Asserted Louis de Jaucourt, the freemason and Encyclopédist, with his typical acerbic touch (p. 128).

10These critical thinkers are not just critical; they are impassioned. The venal self-interest, cruelty, stupidity, hypocrisy, and racism underpinning slavery are depicted in a savage piece by Montesquieu, who turns them inside out by ironically listing all the reasons which ‘justify’ bondage (p. 27). Voltaire’s famous fictional character Candide weeps when he meets a mutilated slave and hears his story (p. 66). The naturalist, traveller, and novelist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre asks us why abuses from the past can be so freely condemned, but modern-day slavery accepted as a necessity (p. 79). And these are only a few of the many short texts included here, all arguing angrily, energetically, wittily, sometimes even outrageously, against oppression in any form and for tolerance of all sorts – the free and unimpeded practice of all religions or none, the free exchange of ideas and dissemination of knowledge by whatever means available, the recourse to the law to protect these rights, and the free expression of outrage whenever any of these elements are contravened. They use stories, arguments, letters, speeches, drama, verse, satire, dictionary definitions, newspaper articles, confession, history, and often combinations of all these, with one inside another like a series of Russian dolls. They encourage us to compare culture, race, class (they call it ‘rank’), and even gender, and they show us how to use comparison to inspect our own views and assumptions. They try to get us to think, although, as the philosopher Rousseau dryly notes, ‘thinking is a skill humans learn like any other, only with greater difficulty’ (p. 41). But we’re trying.

11When I write ‘us’, ‘we’, and ‘our’, I write as if these long-dead writers were addressing us directly, as if there were no gap between them and us. It’s part of the power of these texts that it feels this way. Their writers were involved in a massive and sustained campaign of persuasion, and they unceasingly talk to their readers, questioning, confronting, comparing, reasoning, persuading, thinking up new ways to get our attention. So whoever the reader is, whether it’s a man in a wig and frock coat – probably Catholic, French, and well-to-do, someone who has now been dead for at least two hundred years – or a modern person, just as likely to be a woman as a man and to represent any race, creed, or sexuality, this writing makes appeals to us constantly. These writers want us to agree with them, but they know that we might not. In leaving us that room to decide what we think, they give us freedom even as they argue for it.

12But writing is not dissemination until it has a reader and that reader passes it on. Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and the many others in this book were intensely read and discussed in their time, and that’s why we still study them today. They are still known to the extent that their names are recognised, and some of Voltaire’s slogans still circulate in the public sphere, as we have recently seen. But that is not enough. Those French academics who put this anthology together were convinced that it would be of burning interest to those beyond academia, and made a gift of it to the French public, for whom and on behalf of whom these eighteenth- century thinkers were writing in the first place. We all need access to these texts, because they belong to us all: they are the inheritance of everyone who lives in society and are particularly necessary in times of conflict.

13This is where our translation comes in. Dissemination stops if we can’t read the language a text was written in, or if the text is not available to all who wish to access it. Tolerance contains forty writers. It was assembled by thirty-five academics, with the backing of the French Society for Eighteenth- Century Studies. This English-language edition was translated by over 100 students and tutors of French from fifteen Oxford colleges, with the support of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and Open Book Publishers who are making it free for all on the internet. At every stage, this has been a collective effort, a celebration of fraternity – that third term in the famous French trio. We hope that this open access edition will now reach new readers, and that you will enjoy the eloquence and practical idealism of these extraordinary texts in their new English versions as much as you might have done in the original. Because language is nothing if it isn’t communication and transmission, from one person to the next, from one century to the next, from one language to the next.

14Caroline Warman, Oxford, 1 December 2015


1 La Société Française d’Etude du Dix-Huitième Siècle (ed.), Tolerance : le combat des Lumières (Paris : SFEDS, 2015).

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