VOLTAIRE: Écrasez l’Infame

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 8 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


VIII. Écrasez l’Infame

Under ordinary circumstances it is probable that Voltaire would never have passed out of the philosophic calm of this courteous skepticism to the arduous controversies of his later years. The aristocratic circles in which he moved agreed so readily with his point of view that there was no incentive to polemics; even the priests smiled with him over the difficulties of the faith, and cardinals considered whether, after all, they might not yet make him into a good Capuchin. What were the events that turned him from the polite persiflage of agnosticism to a bitter anti-clericalism which admitted no compromise, but waged relentless war to “crush the infamy” of ecclesiasticism?

In his later years, Voltaire turned from the polite persiflage of agnosticism to a bitter anti-clericalism, which admitted no compromise.

Not far from Ferney lay Toulouse, the seventh city of France. In Voltaire’s day the Catholic clergy enjoyed absolute sovereignty there; the city commemorated with frescoes the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (an edict which had given freedom of worship to Protestants), and celebrated as a great feast the day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. No Protestant in Toulouse could be a lawyer, or a physician, or an apothecary, or a grocer, or a book-seller, or a printer; nor could a Catholic keep a Protestant servant or clerk—in 1748 a woman had been fined 3000 francs for using a Protestant midwife. 

There was extreme discrimination of Protestants by Catholics in the city of Toulouse.

Now it happened that Jean Calas, a Protestant of Toulouse, had a daughter who became a Catholic, and a son who hanged himself, presumably because of disappointment in business. There was a law in Toulouse that every suicide should be placed naked on a hurdle, with face down, drawn thus through the streets, and then hanged on a gibbet. The father, to avert this, asked his relatives and his friends to testify to a natural death. In consequence, rumor began to talk of murder, and to hint that the father had killed the son to prevent his imminent conversion to Catholicism. Calas was arrested, put to the torture, and died soon after (1761). His family, ruined and hunted, fled to Ferney, and sought the aid of Voltaire. He took them into his home, comforted them, and marveled at the story of medieval persecution which they told. 

The Calas family was subjected to medieval persecution in Toulouse for being Protestants. They sought the aid of Voltaire.

About the same time (1762) came the death of Elizabeth Sirvens; again rumor charged that she had been pushed into a well just as she was about to announce her conversion to Catholicism. That a timid minority of Protestants would hardly dare to behave in this way was a rational consideration, and therefore out of the purview of rumor.—In 1765 a young man by the name of La Barre, aged sixteen, was arrested on the charge of having mutilated crucifixes. Subjected to torture, he confessed his guilt; his head was cut off, and his body was flung into the flames, while the crowd applauded. A copy of Voltaire’s Philosophic Dictionary, which had been found on the lad, was burned with him. 

More atrocities were committed by Catholics on Protestants.

For almost the first time in his life, Voltaire became a thoroughly serious man. When d’Alembert, disgusted equally with state, church and people, wrote that hereafter he would merely mock at everything, Voltaire answered, “This is not a time for jesting; wit does not harmonize with massacres. … Is this the country of philosophy and pleasure? It is rather the country of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.” It was with Voltaire now as with Zola and Anatole France in the case of Dreyfus; this tyrannous injustice lifted him up; he ceased to be merely a man of letters, and became a man of action too; he laid aside philosophy for war, or rather turned his philosophy into relentless dynamite. ”During this time not a smile escaped me without my reproaching myself for it as for a crime.” It was now that he adopted his famous motto, Écrasez l’Infame [crush the infamous], and stirred the soul of France against the abuses of the church. He began to pour forth such intellectual fire and brimstone as melted mitres and sceptres, broke the power of the priesthood in France, and helped to overthrow a throne. He sent out a call to his friends and followers, summoning them to battle: “Come, brave Diderot, intrepid d’Alembert, ally yourselves; … overwhelm the fanatics and the knaves, destroy the insipid declamations, the miserable sophistries, the lying history, … the absurdities without number; do not let those who have sense be subjected to those who have none; and the generation which is being born will owe to us its reason and its liberty.”

Voltaire took this situation seriously and began to pour forth such intellectual fire and brimstone as melted mitres and sceptres, broke the power of the priesthood in France, and helped to overthrow a throne.

Just at this crisis an effort was made to buy him off; through Mme. de Pompadour he received an offer of a cardinal’s hat as the reward of reconciliation with the Church. As if the rule of a few tongue-tied bishops could interest a man who was the undisputed sovereign of the world of intellect! Voltaire refused; and like another Cato, began to end all his letters with “Crush the infamy.” He sent out his Treatise on Toleration: he said he would have borne with the absurdities of dogma had the clergy lived up to their sermons and had they tolerated differences; but “subtleties of which not a trace can be found in the Gospels are the source of the bloody quarrels of Christian history.” “The man who says to me, ‘Believe as I do, or God will damn you,’ will presently say, ‘Believe as I do, or I shall assassinate you.'” “By what right could a being created free force another to think like himself?” “A fanaticism composed of superstition and ignorance has been the sickness of all the centuries.” No such perpetual peace as the Abbé de St.-Pierre had pleaded for could ever be realized unless men learned to tolerate one another’s philosophic, political and religious differences. The very first step towards social health was the destruction of the ecclesiastical power in which intolerance had its root. 

Voltaire sent out his Treatise on Toleration: he said he would have borne with the absurdities of dogma had the clergy lived up to their sermons and had they tolerated differences.

The Treatise on Toleration was followed up with a Niagara of pamphlets, histories, dialogues, letters, catechisms, diatribes, squibs, sermons, verses, tales, fables, commentaries and essays, under Voltaire’s own name and under a hundred pseudonyms—“the most astonishing pell-mell of propaganda ever put out by one man.” Never was philosophy phrased so clearly, and with such life; Voltaire writes so well that one does not realize that he is writing philosophy. He said of himself, over-modestly, “I express myself clearly enough: I am like the little brooks, which are transparent because they are not deep.” And so he was read; soon everybody, even the clergy, had his, pamphlets; of some of them 300,000 copies were sold, though readers were far fewer then than now; nothing like it had ever been seen in the history of literature. “Big books,” he said, “are out of fashion.” And so he sent forth his little soldiers, week after week, month after month, resolute and tireless, surprising the world with the fertility of his thought and the magnificent energy of his seventy years. As Helvetius put it, Voltaire had crossed the Rubicon, and stood before Rome.

It was followed up with a Niagara of pamphlets, histories, dialogues, letters, etc. and he was read. Voltaire writes so well that one does not realize that he is writing philosophy. 

He began with a “higher criticism” of the authenticity and reliability of the Bible; he takes much of his material from Spinoza, more of it from the English Deists, most of it from the Critical Dictionary of Bayle (1647-1706); but how brilliant and fiery their material becomes in his hands! One pamphlet is called “The Questions of Zapata,” a candidate for the priesthood; Zapata asks, innocently, “How shall we proceed to show that the Jews, whom we burn by the hundred, were for four thousand years the chosen people of God?” [Voltaire himself was something of an anti-Semite, chiefly because of his not quite admirable dealings with the financiers.]—and he goes on with questions which lay bare the inconsistencies of narrative and chronology in the Old Testament. “When two Councils anathematize each other, as has often happened,. which of them is infallible?” At last, “Zapata, receiving no answer, took to preaching God in all simplicity. He announced to men the common Father, the rewarder, punisher, and pardoner. He extricated the truth from the lies, and separated religion from fanaticism; he taught and practiced virtue. He was gentle, kindly, and modest; and he was burned at Valladolid in the year of grace 1631.”

Voltaire begins with a “higher criticism” of the authenticity and reliability of the Bible, and he goes on with questions which lay bare the inconsistencies of narrative and chronology in the Old Testament.

Under the article on “Prophecy” in the Philosophic Dictionary, he quotes Rabbin Isaac’s Bulwark of Faith against the application of Hebrew prophecies to Jesus, and then goes on, ironically: “Thus these blind interpreters of their own religion and their own language, combated with the Church, and obstinately maintained that this prophecy cannot in any manner regard Jesus Christ.” Those were dangerous days, in which one was compelled to say what one meant without saying it, and the shortest line to one’s purpose was anything but straight. Voltaire likes to trace Christian dogmas and rites to Greece, Egypt and India, and thinks that these adaptations were not the least cause of the success of Christianity in the ancient world. Under the article on “Religion” he asks, slyly, “After our own holy religion, which doubtless is the only good one, what religion would be the least objectionable?”—and he proceeds to describe a faith and worship directly opposed to the Catholicism of his day. “Christianity must be divine,” he says, in one of his most unmeasured sallies, “since it has lasted 1,700 years despite the fact that it is so full of Villainy and nonsense.” He shows how almost all ancient peoples had similar myths, and hastily concludes that the myths are thereby proved to have been the inventions of priests: “the first divine was the first rogue who met the first fool.” However, it is not religion itself which he attributes to the priests, but theology. It is slight differences in theology that have caused so many bitter disputes and religious wars. “It is not the ordinary people … who have raised these ridiculous and fatal quarrels, the sources of so many horrors. … Men fed by your labors in a comfortable idleness, enriched by your sweat and your misery, struggled for partisans and slaves; they inspired you with a destructive fanaticism, that they might be your masters; they made you superstitious not that you might fear God but that you might fear them.”

According to Voltaire, Catholicism of his day was the opposite of Jesus’s Christianity of the ancient world. The Christian priests had invented their own theology. It is slight differences in theology that have caused so many bitter disputes and religious wars.

Let it not be supposed from all this that Voltaire was quite without religion. He decisively rejects atheism; so much so that some of the Encyclopedists turned against him, saying, “Voltaire is a bigot, he believes in God.” In “The Ignorant Philosopher” he reasons towards Spinozist pantheism, but then recoils from it as almost atheism. He writes to Diderot: 

I confess that I am not at all of the opinion of Saunderson, who denies a God, because he was born sightless. I am, perhaps, mistaken; but in his place I should recognize a great Intelligence who had given me so many substitutes for sight; and perceiving, on reflection, the wonderful relations between all things, I should have suspected a Workman infinitely able. If it is very presumptuous to divine ‘What He is, and why He has made everything that exists, so it seems to me very presumptuous to deny that He exists. I am exceedingly anxious to meet and talk with you, whether you think yourself one of His works, or a particle drawn, of necessity, from eternal and necessary matter. Whatever you are, you are a worthy part of that great whole which I do not understand.

Voltaire did not deny God. He hoped that he could understand God better.

To Holbach he points out that the very title of his book, the System of Nature, indicates a divine organizing intelligence. On the other hand he stoutly denies miracles and the supernatural efficacy of prayer: 

I was at the gate of the convent when Sister Fessue said to Sister Confite: “Providence takes a visible care of me; you know how I love my sparrow; he would have been dead if I had not said nine Ave-Marias to obtain his cure.” … A metaphysician said to her: “Sister, there, is nothing so good as Ave-Marias, especially when a girl pronounces them in Latin in the suburbs of Paris; but I cannot believe that God has occupied himself so much with your sparrow, pretty as it is; I pray you to believe that he has other things to attend to. …” Sister Fessue: “Sir, this discourse savors of heresy. My confessor … will infer that you do not believe in Providence.” Metaphysician: ” I believe in a general Providence, dear Sister, which has laid down from all eternity the law which governs all things, like light from the sun; but I believe not that a particular Providence changes the economy of the world for your sparrow.”

To Voltaire, the system of nature indicated a divine organizing intelligence. But he stoutly denied miracles and the supernatural efficacy of prayer.

“His Sacred Majesty, Chance, decides everything.” True prayer lies not in asking for a violation of natural law but in the acceptance of natural law as the unchangeable will of God.

Similarly, he denies free will. As to the soul he is an agnostic: “Four thousand volumes of metaphysics will not teach us what the soul is.” Being an old man, he would like to believe in immortality, but he finds it difficult. 

Nobody thinks of giving an immortal soul to the flea; why then to an elephant, or a monkey, or my valet? … A child dies in its mother’s womb, just at the moment when it has received a soul. Will it rise again foetus, or boy, or man? To rise again—to be the same person that you were—you must have your memory perfectly fresh and present; for it is memory that makes your identity. It your memory be lost, how will you be the same man? … Why do mankind flatter themselves that they alone are gifted with a spiritual and immortal principle? … Perhaps from their inordinate vanity. I am persuaded that if a peacock could speak he would boast of his soul, and would affirm that it inhabited his magnificent tail.

Voltaire has good logic because he doubts when there is lack of clarity. He recognizes anomalies. Therefore, he denies free will. As to the soul he is an agnostic.

And in this earlier mood he rejects also the view that belief in immortality is necessary for morality: the ancient Hebrews were without it, just when they were the “chosen people”; and Spinoza was a paragon of morality. 

In later days he changed his mind. He came to feel that belief in God has little moral value unless accompanied by belief in an immortality of punishment and reward. Perhaps, “for the common people (la canaille) a rewarding and avenging God” is necessary. Bayle had asked, If a society of atheists could subsist?—Voltaire answers, “Yes, if they are also philosophers.” But men are seldom philosophers; “if there is a hamlet, to be good it must have a religion.” “I want my lawyer, my tailor, and my wife to believe in God,” says “A” in “A, B, C”; “so, I imagine, I shall be less robbed and less deceived.” “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” “I begin to put more store on happiness and life than on truth”;—a remarkable anticipation, in the midst of the Enlightenment, of the very doctrine with which Immanuel Kant was later to combat the Enlightenment. He defends himself gently against his friends the atheists; he addresses Holbach in the article on “God;’ in the Dictionary: 

You yourself say that belief in God … has kept some men from crime; this alone suffices me. When this belief prevents even ten assassinations, ten calumnies, I hold that all the world should embrace it. Religion, you say, has produced countless misfortunes; say rather the superstition which reigns on our unhappy globe. This is the cruelest enemy of the pure worship due to the Supreme Being. Let us detest this monster which has always torn the bosom of its mother; those who, combat it are the benefactors of the human race; it is a serpent which chokes religion in its embrace; we must crush its head without wounding the mother whom it devours.” 

Voltaire favors a religion without superstition, a religion that brings understanding and happiness.

This distinction between superstition and religion is fundamental with him. He accepts gladly the theology of the Sermon on the Mount, and acclaims Jesus in tributes which could hardly be matched even with the pages of saintly ecstasy. He pictures Christ among the sages, weeping over the crimes that have been committed in his name. At last he built his own church, with the dedication, “Deo erexit Voltaire” [“God raised Voltaire”]; the only church in Europe, he said, that was erected to God. He addresses to God a magnificent prayer; and in the article “Theist” he expounds his faith finally and clearly:

The theist is a man firmly persuaded of the existence of a supreme being as good as he is powerful, who has formed all things … ; who punishes, without cruelty, all crimes, and recompenses with goodness all virtuous actions. … Re-united in this principle with the rest of the universe, he does not join any of the sects which all contradict one another. His religion is the most ancient and the most widespread; for the simple worship of a God preceded all the systems of the world. He speaks a language which all peoples understand, while they do not understand one another. He has brothers from Pekin to Cayenne, and he counts all the sages for his fellows. He believes that religion consists neither in the opinions of an unintelligible metaphysic, nor in vain shows, but in worship and in justice. To do good is his worship, to submit to God is his creed. The Mohammedan cries out to him, “Beware if you fail to make the pilgrimage to Mecca!”—the priest says to him, “Curses on you if you do not make the trip to Notre Dame de Lorette!” He laughs at Lorette and at Mecca: but he succors the indigent and defends the oppressed. 

Voltaire believes in a just and compassionate God. He call God a Supreme Being but it is not defined by any priest. It is how a person sees it. A person may see God as the laws of nature.


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