Friday, November 30, 2007


"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." An eloquent defence of tolerance, or a cosy assumption from people who don't have to face the consequences of what they defend?

Had the Oxford Debating Society students known their onions they may have been surprised to learn that the saying attributed to French writer François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire was actually written by Stephen G Tallentyre, a pseudonym for (female) writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall. She added it to her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. It was only intended to summarise Voltaire's attitude and were not words that he himself actually uttered.

Renowned for his satirical wit, Voltaire, a millionaire at forty, did not occupy the moral high ground - and even if he had uttered 'his' famous expression he would not have extended it to all.
It was Voltaire's (erroneously based) free speech ideals that led to the Oxford Union Debating Society's controversial invitation to two 'racists'. However, Voltaire believed that Africans were a separate species, inferior to the Europeans and that ancient Jews were "an ignorant and barbarous people".
Paradoxically an atheist-in-religious-guise, Voltaire used 'faith'. In his day freedom of expression came with the caveats not against the Church and not against the State - he fell foul to both. Little wonder that a biographer - writing under a male pseudonym - placed an often misunderstood ideal in his mouth. Women did not have the same rights as men circa 1906.

So was female writer Hall was secretly lobbying for the rights of women at the beginning of the 20th Century through an early liberal racist philosopher?

Ironically the Oxford Two are a symbol of Voltaire himself. He was in complete accord with what both had to say and would no doubt defend... to the death.
What is even more ironic - something the free-speech-brigade avoids - Voltaire shared the same self-absorbed belief that his 'race' alone was at the pinnacle of species, rather than a fractious part of humankind.

But freedom is not democracy and democracy is not free.

No comments: