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Caroline Warman

59. Voltaire, On the Horrible Danger of Reading, 17651

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  • 1 Voltaire, De l’horrible danger de la lecture, in his Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, 1765.

1Shocked by the edict against printing that was passed in Turkey in 1757, Voltaire chose to voice his outrage and satirise the edict through a farcical send-up. He imagines the legal document and all its rulings. Also targeted, of course, is the culture of censorship then prominent in France.

2I, Joussouf-Cheribi, by the grace of God, mufti of the Holy Ottoman Empire, light of Lights, chosen amongst the Chosen, say to all the faithful here who will see the following, stupidity and benediction.

3Since it has come to pass that Saïd-Effendi, former ambassador of the Sublime Porte to a small state called France, situated between Spain and Italy, has brought among us that pernicious practice of printing, having consulted upon this new-fangled concept our venerable brothers the qadis and imams of the imperial city of Istanbul, and especially the fakirs, known for their zeal against reason, it has been deemed good by Mohammed and by us to condemn, forbid, and render anathema the aforementioned infernal invention of the printing press, for the reasons set out below.

  1. This means of communicating one’s thoughts evidently leads to the dissipation of ignorance, which is the custodian and the safeguard of well-policed states.

  2. It is a concern that, among the books brought from the West, there may be some on agriculture and on ways of improving the mechanical arts. Such works could, in the long run, God forbid, awaken the ingenuity of our farmers and our manufacturers, stimulate their industry, increase their wealth and one day inspire them with a certain elevation of the soul, a love for the public good, sentiments which are absolutely opposed to the holy doctrine.

  3. It would eventually happen that we would have history books free from the miraculous that suspends the nation in blissful ignorance. These books would unwisely explain what had been done that was good and what had been done that was bad, and would encourage fairness and patriotism. This is visibly contrary to the rights of our station.

  4. Over the course of time, it might happen that some miserable philosophers, under the specious, but punishable pretext of enlightening mankind and making us better, would start teaching us dangerous virtues of which the population must forever remain ignorant.

  5. They might, while increasing the respect they have for God, and while printing scandalously that He fills everywhere with His presence, diminish the number of pilgrims to Mecca, to the significant detriment of the salvation of those souls.

  6. It would undoubtedly come to pass that, as a result of reading the works of those Western authors who have discussed infectious diseases and the ways in which to prevent them, we would be unhappy enough to safeguard ourselves from the plague, and this would be an enormous attack on the dictates of Providence.

4For these and other reasons, for the edification of the faithful and for the good of their souls, we forbid them to ever read any book at all, under pain of eternal damnation. And, for fear that the diabolical temptation to educate themselves might take hold of them, we hereby ban fathers and mothers from teaching their children to read. And, to prevent all violations to our edict, we prohibit them expressly from thinking, under the same penalties; we enjoin all true believers to denounce to our officials anyone who strings together any four sentences from which a clear and distinct meaning can be inferred. Let us decree that, in all conversations, one must use terms that mean nothing, according to the ancient custom of the Sublime Porte.

5And to prevent any such thought being smuggled into the sacred Imperial City, let us especially commit his Highness’s First Physician to the cause, born in a bog in the north west of Europe; this physician who, having already killed four eminent members of the Ottoman family, has a stronger interest than anyone in preventing any introduction of knowledge into the country. Through these edicts, let us invest him with the power to seize any idea that might present itself in writing or in speech at the gates of the city, and to bring us the aforementioned idea bound hand and foot, that we might inflict upon it whatever punishment it so please us.
Presented in our palace of ignorance, the seventh Moon of Muharem, in the year 1143 of the Hegira.

Read the free original text online, 1765 edition:​wiki/​De_l’horrible_danger_de_la_lecture


1 Voltaire, De l’horrible danger de la lecture, in his Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, 1765.


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