Voltaire's Fight Against Dogma

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This famous quote has often been wrongly attributed to the much revered French Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire. The quotation is actually found in Evelyn Beatrice Hall's (pen name: S. G. Tallentyre) 1906 biographical work "The Friends of Voltaire". It is believed that she paraphrased one of Voltaire's maxims: "Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too."

From Voltaire's first major philosophical work "A Treatise on Tolerance" (1763) to his saying when he was 83 (in what he believed were his final hours) "I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition", one cannot but be awed at this intellectual's capacity for liberal thinking despite the dogmatist society that he lived in, his magnanimity and his empathic virtue. His free spirit and love of mankind never ceased to touch the French people as well as other peoples in the world.

In writing "A Treatise on Tolerance", Voltaire revealed a terrible story of gross injustice and subsequently, through his tireless campaigning, managed to exonerate the victim, albeit posthumously.

In Voltaire's times, France was a strictly Catholic nation and Protestantism was viewed as sacrilegious. On occasions, religious fanatics were able to lash unjust and totally groundless accusations against people whose only fault was that they didn't share Catholic beliefs. The Jean Calas case was one such occasion.

On October 13, 1761, Jean Calas' eldest son Marc Antoine was found hanged in Jean's textile shop in Toulouse. Hysteria erupted among the Roman Catholic populace and Jean was arrested and charged with having murdered his son to prevent him from or punish him for converting to Catholicism. He was found guilty by the local magistrates and sentenced to death "on the wheel" on March 9, 1762. The next day the sentence was carried out and Jean Calas died a torturous death by being first broken on the wheel and then strangled and burned to ashes. The body of Marc Antoine was buried as a martyr to the Catholic faith.

Voltaire learned about the case and started to use his influence to campaign for overturning the verdict which he and others found to be prejudiced by religion fanaticism. As a result, a 50-judge panel was appointed to review the case and on March 9, 1765, the verdict was reversed. The government also paid the family an indemnity. The Calas affair greatly strengthened the movement for criminal law reform and religious tolerance in France, although the reforms were not instituted until the 1780s.

We may all be, to some degree, dogmatist. It's easy to clutch at those thoughts and beliefs that we feel cosy about and familiar with, including those superstitions and customs that our ancestors pass down to us. The older we get, the more we tend to believe in our own infallibility and to reject outright others' rational opinions. Perhaps we can apply checks to our presumptuousness by keeping an open mind, engaging proactively in social discussions, reading uninhibitedly and exercising our power of critical thinking at all times. More importantly, as civilized human beings, while thinking for ourselves, we must "let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too".

Having said that, in the face of any repressive government machine trying to trample on press freedom and freedom of speech, which in fact is an exhibition of a kind of dogma, I am all for speaking up against and fighting relentlessly such an uncivilized attempt.

The French learned their lessons about dogma three centuries ago and they were lucky to have people like Voltaire and other great philosophers and writers as pioneers of civil society. The contemporary French education system has continually nurtured intellectuals and writers to become great politicians. Throughout the twentieth century, there was an easy blend between politics, education and culture, which reinforced the prestige of the cultural figures. Under the Third and Fourth Republics, culture was managed at state level through the Ministere de l'Education Nationale et des Beaux-Arts, which produced a republican leadership that included literary and artistic figures.

Two recent shining examples were George Pompidou and Andre Malraux. The former studied literature at the Ecole Normale Superieure and taught in the secondary school system before becoming, first de Gaulle's Prime Minister in the 1960s, and then his successor as Head of State in 1969. The latter, one of France's foremost novelists of the interwar years, became a leading Gaullist politician and then in 1959, Minister of Culture.

Hong Kongers have much to learn from the French.