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Caroline Warman

32. Voltaire, ‘Free Thinking’, from Dictionary of Philosophy, 17641

Texte intégral

  • 1 Voltaire, ‘Liberté de penser’, in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764, pp. 224-228.

1In this extract from the Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire invents a dialogue between the Englishman Boldmind – whose name describes his character – and the Spaniard Medroso – his name meaning ‘fearful’ in Spanish, and evoking the fear inspired by the Spanish Inquisition (the Holy Office) and the Dominican monks who supported it.

2Around the year 1707, when the English had won the battle of Sargasso, defended Portugal and for a time given a king to Spain, General Officer Lord Boldmind, who had been injured, was taking the waters at Barèges. There he met Count Medroso who, having fallen from his horse behind the baggage train a mile and a half from the battlefield, had also come to take the waters. He was familiar with the Inquisition; Lord Boldmind was just familiar in conversation. One day, after a few drinks, he had this conversation with Medroso:

3Boldmind: So you’re sergeant to the Dominicans? You’ve got a nasty job there.

4Medroso: That’s true, but I prefer to be their lackey than their victim, and I decided I would rather have the misfortune of burning my neighbour than being roasted myself.

5Boldmind: What a dreadful alternative! You lot were a hundred times happier under the yoke of the Moors when you were allowed to fester freely amongst your superstitions; for all that they were conquerors, they did not presume to exert the unheard-of right of putting souls in chains.

6Medroso: What do you expect? We are not permitted to write, to speak or even to think. If we do speak, it is easy to interpret our words, even more so our writing. Moreover, as we cannot be burned at the stake for our private thoughts, we are threatened with being burned eternally by the order of God himself if we do not think like the Dominicans. They have convinced our government that if we were allowed to use our common sense the entire state would combust, and the nation would become the most wretched on Earth.

7Boldmind: Do you find us so wretched, we English who cover the seas with our ships, and who have just won several battles for you at the other end of Europe? Do you see the Dutch, who have snatched from you almost all your finds in India, and who now enjoy the status of being your protectors, being cursed by God for having granted total freedom to the press, or for trading in men’s thoughts? Was the Roman Empire less powerful because Cicero wrote freely?

8Medroso: Who is this Cicero? I have never heard of him; it’s not about Cicero, it’s about our Holy Father the Pope and Saint Anthony of Padua, and I have always heard it said that the Roman Catholic religion would be lost if men started to think.

9Boldmind: It’s not for you to believe it or not, because you are certain that your religion is divine, and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. If that is true, nothing can ever destroy it.

10Medroso: True, but it can be reduced to not much; and it’s thanks to free thought that Sweden, Denmark, your entire island, and half of Germany now languish in inexpressible misery, no longer being subjects of the Pope. It is even being said that if mankind continues to follow their false enlightenment, they will soon be worshipping nothing but God and virtue. If the gates of Hell ever get that far, what will become of the Holy See?

11Boldmind: If the first Christians hadn’t had the freedom to think, isn’t it true that there would have been no Christianity?

12Medroso: What do you mean? I don’t understand you.

13Boldmind: I’m sure you don’t. What I mean is that if Tiberius and the first emperors had had Benedictine monks to prevent the early Christians from having pen and ink, and if free thought hadn’t been long established in the Roman Empire, they would never have been able to set out their articles of belief. If Christianity only developed because of the freedom to think, then by what contradiction or injustice could it possibly want to eradicate the freedom on which it itself is based?

14If someone makes you a business offer, don’t you think about it for a long time before agreeing to it? What more important business could there be in the world than our eternal happiness or misery? There are one hundred religions on the earth, every one of which will send you to hell if you persist in believing in your own dogmas which theirs consider to be nonsensical and ungodly: so look again at those dogmas.

15Medroso: How can I look at them? I am not a theologian.

16Boldmind: You are a man, and that is enough.

17Medroso: Alas! You’re more of a man than me.

18Boldmind: It’s up to you to learn to think; you were born with a mind. You are a bird caught in the Inquisition’s cage – the Holy See has clipped your wings, but they will grow back. If you don’t know any geometry, you can learn it – everyone can find things out; it is shameful to put your soul in the hands of people you’d never give your money to. Dare to think for yourself!

19Medroso: People say that if everyone thought for themselves, everything would become strangely confused.

20Boldmind: On the contrary. When people go to the theatre, everyone freely speaks their mind, and there’s no disorder. It’s only when some arrogant patron tries to push a rubbish poet on people who can tell good from bad that you will hear the boos start up. The two sides might even hurl apples at each other, as once happened in London. It’s the people who want to rule our minds who have caused a good chunk of the misery in this world. We have only been happy in England since everyone gained the right to speak his mind freely.

21Medroso: We’re just as tranquil in Lisbon where nobody is allowed to say what they think at all.

22Boldmind: You may be tranquil but you are not happy: it’s the tranquillity of slaves condemned to row in a galley. You row to the beat, and in silence.

23Medroso: Do you think that my soul is chained to a galley then?

24Boldmind: Yes, and I’d like to free it.

25Medroso: But what if I like it in the galley?

26Boldmind: Then you deserve to be there.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1765 edition:​books?id=1gg1AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA224


1 Voltaire, ‘Liberté de penser’, in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, 1764, pp. 224-228.


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