Freedom Defenders: Voltaire and the Virtues of Free Speech
In many respects, the modern world in which we now live was formed during a period of dramatic socio-political shifts, commonly known as the Enlightenment. It was an era that redefined the ways in which we approach knowledge, and infused radical new concepts of justice, education, and inalienable rights into western society. A pivotal shift was created in our priorities and perspectives: no longer content to be passive citizens under omnipotent Church and State authority, people began to demand the right to affect the influences over their lives. They demanded social consciousness, personal sovereignty, and of course, liberty in all forms. These demands are largely responsible for the relatively free world in which we now live, but they were not met easily (or, as the subsequent French and American Revolutions prove, peacefully).
In the mid 18th century, these Enlightenment ideals reached a fevered pitch, and France saw an unprecedented social and literary revolt arise against the oppressive structures of government and religious authority. Writers and philosophers challenged the conventions of their world in a way that revolutionized the relationship between citizen and government, with results that would change the face of the western world - results that we feel to this day.
One of these daring writers was Voltaire, an eminent philosopher who passionately and audaciously defended reason in an age of archaic traditions. Today, he is remembered mostly for his satirical novel Candide, but he was a prolific and disciplined man of letters, churning out a steady stream of essays, poetry, plays, histories and pamphlets. Perhaps, the most fascinating body of his literature is the one which is also the most overlooked - his collected correspondence. These letters offer keen insights into both the philosopher himself and the times in which he lived. Here we'll explore one particularly interesting letter, in which Voltaire attempts to persuade the Monarchy of the virtues of a free and uncensored press.
Voltaire - "On the Liberty of the Press and of Theaters", to a First Commissioner - June 20th, 1733
“As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar--slavery makes it creep.”
[NOTE] - All quotations taken from the Tallentyre translation. See link at end for the full letter.
Click the link below to view Voltaire's original letter in the classic Tallentyre translation, courtesy of the Voltaire Society of America at Whitman College
Voltaire’s imploring letter to an unidentified French first-commissioner, dated June 20th, 1733, was written during a time of tremendous intellectual vitality. It was a time when authors and philosophers took great personal risk to propagate new, challenging ideas, in the belief that reason and intelligence were the ingredients of civilization's progress. This belief which seems so obvious to us now was not obvious then. The will of rulers was absolute, and the word of the Church unquestionable. Notions which challenged this hierarchy were considered extremely dangerous, and they were!
Towards the beginning of the long reign of Louis XV, reactionary censorship was a matter of course in France. Voltaire, only in his late thirties, had by this time already been exiled for writing a poetic satire, imprisoned (falsely) in the Bastille for writing insulting verses against the Regent, banished to his hometown of Châtenay, imprisoned in the Bastille again after a quarrel with an aristocrat, and subsequently exiled to England. Despite these obstacles, he had built a tremendous reputation for himself, having written successful plays and numerous letters and verses, which garnered attention from the intellectual elite of France, England and beyond. With the aid of his growing notoriety and irrepressible spirit, Voltaire composed a letter entitled “On the Liberty of the Press and of Theaters, to a First Commissioner”, in hopes of lifting the politically-motivated censorship in France of author Pierre Bayle’s influential Enlightenment work, Dictionnaire Historique et Critique. This eloquent letter serves as an excellent example of the growing rebellion against censorship in the 18th century, and an embracement of new ideas of the freedom of information.
By the time of Voltaire's letter, France had built a long and repressive legacy of censorship. Religious censors had been active since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th c., and Louis XIV had since reassigned censorship duties to the state, in order to better control the dissemination of conflicting ideologies. Publishers and booksellers faced severe penalties for dealing with banned material, and authors even more so (as Voltaire knew first-hand). The letter he wrote in defense of Bayle’s Dictionnaire is indicative of a changing time, when people were becoming less willing to blindly submit to the will of authority. Yet Voltaire, being a clever and capable wordsmith, knew the best way to approach the issue of censorship. He did not presume to make declarations of tyranny or abuses of power (in fact, Voltaire ultimately believed in the necessity of enlightened, pragmatic leadership, so long as it was dedicated to the well-being of the people). Rather, Voltaire addresses the particular components of the issue that would truly be of greatest interest to the state itself, knowing that, to the omnipotent monarchy, freedom in itself would not be a great enough cause for reform.
He begins with a comparison between France and ancient Rome, explaining how it is due to literary freedom that we have “…Horace, Juvenal, [and] the philosophical works of Cicero.” He continues with a similar comparison to England, citing the freedoms of “Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke” as responsible for England’s subsequent successes in arts and literature. Voltaire greatly admired England, and that admiration would cause him trouble more than once. By drawing these comparisons, though, he hoped perhaps to ignite a competitive response in his home country of France, and compel a relaxation of its literary and artistic censorship.
Adept at stirring up reactions, Voltaire seems to always understand the best way to reach his audience. Thus in his letter he brings up the many financial pitfalls of censorship, reminding the reader that “men's thoughts have become an important article of commerce.” This sort of financial argument would appeal greatly to the Crown, as Louis XV’s France was quite financially weakened, and approaching economic ruin. He goes on to list the many people who benefit from the publication and distribution of a book, from the printer to the carrier to the “bad wine-shop where they all take their money.” In the times of the Enlightenment, books were becoming big business, something that would have been well-understood by a government in constant need of revenue.
He goes on to defend the importance of an unencumbered public theater. He talks about how the arts attract foreigners and intellectuals, adding to the wealth of the nation. He again invokes ancient Rome, pointing to the grandeur of its amphitheaters as evidence of its proper respect for the arts. Voltaire pleads that “a hundredth part of the money spent on cards would be enough to build theatres finer than Pompey's.” These references to ancient Rome would not only appeal to the romantic sentiments people had of the classical era, but also to the lofty and imperialistic ambitions of Louis XV. He ends his letter with a final plea for those with the power to “…rouse us from this stupid lethargy…” (revealing here some of his characteristic satirical bite). His style, even when dealing with the most serious matters, never fails to contain his unique tone. He likely did not expect for his letter to actually result in a lifting of the ban on Bayle’s book (it didn’t), or to instigate a wave of theater building. It was Voltaire’s nature though to cast a critical eye on the world around him, and share his ideas, fearless of the consequences. It is the very act of defiance, however unsuccessful, which defines the progressive values of Voltaire's changing world.
Voltaire’s collected correspondence is a valuable trove of source material, as it spans an era which saw monumental changes in the Western world, and offers a glimpse into the complex mind of one of history's most vital philosophers. From the last years of Louis XIV to a decade before the French Revolution, his letters offer a vital perspective on the changing attitudes leading up to the modern era. They tell a story of how we in the west came to be who we are, how we came to cherish justice, reason and liberty. It's the story of progress, and the struggle to maintain these rights of free speech, free arts, and free information is as important now as it has ever been.
For further reading:
The best translation of Voltaire's classic, written in a rollicking style which truly captures the philosopher's satirical wit.