Allegorical bust of Voltaire; from 1901 text

One of the vexing paradoxes of modernity is whether or not intolerance can be tolerated. Should dictators be cuddled if they play up to the foreign policy concerns of a democracy? Should anyone — man, woman or child — be forced to live by religious dogma? How much of the intolerable actions in this world should we tolerate? Some wise words on the problem were offered two and a half centuries ago by the French savant, Voltaire, as brilliantly said in his Philosophical Dictionary. Here is what Voltaire said:

What is tolerance? it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly–that is the first law of nature.

It is clear that the individual who persecutes a man, his brother, because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster. That admits of no difficulty. But the government! but the magistrates! but the princes! how do they treat those who have another worship than theirs? If they are powerful strangers, it is certain that a prince will make an alliance with them. Franois I., very Christian, will unite with Mussulmans against Charles V., very Catholic. Francois I. will give money to the Lutherans of Germany to support them in their revolt against the emperor; but, in accordance with custom, he will start by having Lutherans burned at home. For political reasons he pays them in Saxony; for political reasons he burns them in Paris. But what will happen? Persecutions make proselytes? Soon France will be full of new Protestants. At first they will let themselves be hanged, later they in their turn will hang. There will be civil wars, then will come the St. Bartholomew; and this corner of the world will be worse than all that the ancients and moderns have ever told of hell.

Madmen, who have never been able to give worship to the God who made you! Miscreants, whom the example of the Noachides, the learned Chinese, the Parsees and all the sages, has never been able to lead! Monsters, who need superstitions as crows’ gizzards need carrion! you have been told it already, and there is nothing else to tell you-if you have two religions in your countries, they will cut each other’s throat ; if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace. Look at the great Turk, he governs Guebres, Banians, Creek Christians, Nestorians, Romans. The first who tried to stir up tumult would be impaled; and everyone is tranquil.