Voltaire

(François Marie Arouet)

"Freedom of Thought"

[From the Philosophical Dictionary.  The PD first appeared in 1764 in Geneva.  The article "Freedom of Thought," however, first appeared in the third edition of the work, published in Amsterdam in 1765.]

Notes have been provided at the end of the text.  These should help explain some of the allusions in the piece.


Around the year 1707, when the English won the battle of Saragossa, made themselves Protectors of Portugal, and for a while gave a king to Spain, Milord Boldmind, a general who had been wounded in combat, was taking the waters at Bareges.  There he met Count Medroso <1> , who, having fallen off his horse at the rear of the supply lines a league and a half from the battlefield, had come to take the waters as well.  He was a familiar of the Inquisition <2>.  Milord Boldmind was familiar only in conversation; one day, after drinks, he and Medroso had the following exchange.

BOLDMIND

So you're a sergeant for the Dominicans <3>.  That's a vile job.

MEDROSO

That's true, but I'd rather be their valet than their victim, and I've preferred the misery of burning my neighbor to that of being cooked myself.

BOLDMIND

What a horrible choice! You'd be a hundred times happier under the yoke of the Moors <4> , who let you freely rot in all your superstitions, and who, conquerors though they may have been, never arrogated to themselves the unheard-of right to keep souls behind bars.

MEDROSO

What do you expect? It is not permitted us neither to write, nor to speak, nor even to think.  If we speak, it is easy to interpret our words, and still easier our writings.  In sum, since no one can condemn us to an auto da fé for our secret thoughts, they threaten us with eternal burning by the order of God Himself, if we don't think like the Jacobins <5>.  They have persuaded the government that if we were to have common sense, the whole state would be in flames, and that the nation would become the most miserable on earth.

BOLDMIND

Do we strike you as unhappy, we English who cover the world with ships and who've just won battles on your behalf all over Europe? Do you see that the Dutch, who have taken from you nearly all your discoveries in India and who today rank as your protectors, are accursed of God for having afforded complete freedom to the press and for doing business in men's thoughts? Was the Roman Empire any the less powerful because Cicero wrote with liberty?

MEDROSO

Who is this Cicero <6>? I've never heard speak of any such man? It's not a matter of Cicero; it's a matter of our Holy Father the Pope and of Saint Anthony of Padua, and I've always heard say that the Roman religion is doomed if people start thinking.

BOLDMIND

It's hardly for you to believe that.  For you are sure that your religion comes from God, and that the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against it.  If that's true, nothing will ever destroy it.

MEDROSO

No, but it might be reduced to little, and it's for having thought, that Sweden, Denmark, your whole island, and half of Germany are groaning in the horrible misery of no longer being subject to the Pope.  It is even said that if men keep on following their false lights, they will eventually end up in the simple worship of God and virtue.  If the Gates of Hell every prevail that far, what will become of the Holy Office?

BOLDMIND

If the first Christians had not had the freedom to think, is it not true that Christianity itself would never have come into being?

MEDROSO

What are you saying? I don't understand at all!

BOLDMIND

I believe you.  I mean that if Tiberius <7> and the first emperors had been Jacobins who had prevented the first Christians from having pen and ink, if it had not been long permitted within the Roman Empire to think freely, it would have been impossible for Christians to establish their dogmas.  So if Christianity emerged only in virtue of freedom of thought, by what contradiction, by what injustice would it annihilate today this liberty upon which it is itself founded?

When somebody proposes something to you on a matter involving your interests, don't you look it over a good while before you arrive at a decision? What greater interest have we in this world than our eternal happiness or our eternal misery? There are a hundred religions on earth that condemn you for believing in your dogmas, which they call absurd and impious.  Then look into these dogmas.

MEDROSO

How can I look into them? I'm no Jacobin.

BOLDMIND

You're a man, and that's enough.

MEDROSO

Alas! You are more man than I.

BOLDMIND

It rests entirely with you to learn to think.  You're born with a mind.  You are a bird in the cage of the Inquisition:  the Holy Office has clipped your wings, but they can grow back.  Whoever doesn't know geometry can learn it; every man can tutor himself:  it's shameful to put your soul in the hands of those to whom you'd never trust your money.  Dare to think for yourself.

MEDROSO

They say that if everyone thought for himself, there would be a strange confusion.

BOLDMIND

On the contrary.  When one attends a play or ballet, everyone freely states his opinion, and the peace is not disturbed.  But if some arrogant patron of a bad poet tried to force all people of taste to find good what seemed bad to them, well, whistles and boos would arise, and the two parties might start throwing fruit at each others' heads, as once happened in London.  Such are the tyrants of the mind who have brought about a good share of the world's sufferings.  We are not happy in England until each freely enjoys the right to express his opinion.

MEDROSO

We're also very peaceful at Lisbon, where no one can express his.

BOLDMIND

You are peaceful, but you aren't happy.  That is the peace of the galley-slaves, who row in cadence and in silence.

MEDROSO

You believe then that my soul is in the galleys?

BOLDMIND

Yes.  I should like to deliver it.

MEDROSO

But if I feel fine in the galleys?

BOLDMIND

In that case, you deserve to be there.


Notes

(1) Medroso:  In Spanish, medroso means fearful, timid, cowardly. Return.

(2) a familiar of the Inquisition:  Witches were thought to have cats or other animals as their "familiars," which did their bidding or kept them informed of goings-on of interest.  But some of the saints, too, had famous familiars.  (A case in point, mentioned soon, is Saint Anthony of Padua, who is often depicted in the company of his pig.)  One implication, then, is that Medroso is a kind of trained dog or bewitched pet of the Inquisition.  Another is that he is an informer.  Another is that he is "not his own man" but a tool, not a being with the dignity of an autonomous person, but a creature whose identity reduces to being "one who does his master's bidding."

Inquisition:  An investigative and judicial body for the prosecution of heresy, founded in the Thirteenth Century by Pope Gregory IX.  Heretics who refused to recant were handed over to the civil (that is, secular) authority for punishment. The original Inquisition was directed against the Walsensians in southern France, but was revived during the Counter-Reformation in the struggle against Protestantism.  In this form it is known as the "Roman Inquisition."  In the meanwhile, the Spanish monarchs had persuaded the pope to commission an inquisition there, to root out Jewish and muslim converts to Christianity but suspected of adhering to their traditional faiths in secret.  The "Spanish Inquisition" (of which the Portuguese Inquisition was an off-shoot) was especially famed for its impatience with due process and its predilection for torture as an interrogation technique.  Return.

(3) the Dominicans:  members of the monastic Order of St. Dominic. It was generally Dominicans who, from the beginning, were commissioned by the popes to administer the various inquisitions.  Return.

(4) the Moors:  These were the Arab muslim rulers of much of the Spanish peninsula for several centuries.  Their last stronghold fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 -- the same year as Columbus's first voyage.  Return.

(5) Jacobins:  Here, a Dominican, and by extension an activist in the Inquisition (whether lay or clerical).  The term jacobin had this meaning only in France, however, deriving from the fact that the first Dominican convent in Paris was in the Rue St. Jacques.  It was to the Dominican Order that Pope Gregory IX entrusted the Inquisition, Later in the Eighteenth Century, during the French Revolution, the meaning of the term there shifted to something quite different still:  the most radical faction of the National Assembly (because this faction met as a caucus in a coffeehouse located in the same Rue St. Jacques).  Return.

(6) Cicero:  Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was one of the greatest of the Roman senators.  He lived towards the very end of the Republican period before it turned into the Empire under the Caesars (first Julius and then his adopted nephew Augustus).  Cicero's writings -- including his addresses to the Roman Senate in several famous trials -- were considered models of Latin argument, and from the Renaissance forward were much favored as texts for study in the schools.  Cicero was also the author of a number of philosophical books, particularly on ethical matters.  His pagan stoicism was served as one impressive model of pagan virtue, much admired by Voltaire and other partisans of the idea that it was possible to be a non-Christian and be a noble man.  Cicero vehemently opposed what he saw as the subversion of republican political institutions in his day, wrought by the cunning of military strongmen like Julius Ceasar and Augustus.  He was eventually assassinated by the forces of Marcus Antonius in the power struggle that turned into the Civil War which brought an end to real republican government.  The fact that Medroso has never even heard of Cicero means that the Inquisition has successfully prevented the Renaissance from ever taking hold in Portugal, or rolling it back if it ever made any successful inroads in the first place.  Return.

(7) Tiberius:  Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (43 BC - AD 37) was the successor (14-37) to Augustus as Roman Emperor.  His reign thus encompasses the career of Jesus.  Return.


  Go to Voltaire's "Dogmas" (also from the Philosophical Dictionary).
  Go to the introduction to Kant's "What Is Enlightenment?"
  Go to Kant's "What Is Enlightenment?"

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1997 by Lyman A. Baker

Translation and notes by Lyman A. Baker.  Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 08 November 1999.