Denis Diderot 1760

Letter to My Brother

Source: Ouevres Complètes. Paris, Garnier Frères, 1875.
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2005.

December 29, 1760

Humani juris et naturalis est unicuique
Quod putaverit, colore, nec alii obest aut
Prodest alterius religio. Sed nec religionis est
Cogere religionemm, quae sponte suscipi debeat
Non vi; cum et hostiae ab animo lubenti

– Tertul. Aplolog. Ad scapula.

That, dear brother, is what the weak and persecuted Christians said to the idolaters who dragged them to the foot of their altars.

It is impious to expose religion to the odious imputations of tyranny, hardness, injustice, unsociability, even with the design of bringing back to it those who unfortunately had left it.

The spirit can only acquiesce to that which seem to it to be true, the heart can only love that which seems to it to be good. Constraint will make a hypocrite of man if he is weak, a martyr if he is courageous. Weak or courageous, he will feel the injustice of persecution, and he will become indignant.

Instruction, persuasion, and prayer; these are the only methods for the expansion of religion.

Any method that excites hatred, indignation, or contempt is impious.

Any method that awakens the passions and holds to interested views is impious.

Any method that loosens natural ties and distances fathers from children, brother from brother and sister from sister is impious.

Any method tending to raise men up in revolt, to arm nations and to drench the earth with blood is impious.

It is impious to want to impose laws on conscience, the universal rule for action. It must be enlightened and not constrained.

One should feel sorrow for those who err in good faith, not punish them.

Neither men of good or bad faith should be tormented; rather judgment of this should be abandoned to God.

If the tie is broken with those called impious, the tie will be broken with he who is called vicious. This rupture will be recommended to others, and two or three holy personages would suffice to tear society apart.

If we can tear out a hair from he who thinks differently from us we can also dispose of his head, for there are no limits to injustice. It would be interest, fanaticism, the moment or the circumstances that would decide the more or the less.

If an infidel prince were to demand of the missionaries of an intolerant religion how they deal with those who don’t believe at all, they would either have to confess to something odious, or lie, or maintain a shameful silence.

What did Christ recommend to his disciples in sending them among the nations? Was it to die or to kill? To persecute or to suffer?

St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “If someone comes to you announcing another Christ, proposing to you another spirit, preaching to you another gospel you shall suffer him.” Is this what you do with he who announces nothing, proposes nothing. Preaches nothing?

He wrote: “Do not treat as an enemy he who does not have the same sentiments as you, rather warn him like a brother.” Is this what you are doing with me?

If your opinions authorize you to hate me, why would my opinions not authorize me to hate you as well?

If you cry out: It is I who have the truth on my side, I will cry out as loudly as you: It is I who have the truth on my side. But I will add: what does it matter who is wrong, you or I, as long as there be peace between us? If I am blind, must you strike a blind man in the face?

If an intolerant being were to clearly explain what he is what corner of the earth wouldn’t be closed to him?

We read in Originus, in Minucuis-Felix, in the Fathers of the first three centuries: “Religion is subject of persuasion and not of command. Man must be free in the choice of his cult. The persecutor makes his God hated, the persecutor slanders his religion.” Tell me if it was ignorance or deception that invented these maxims?

In an intolerant state the prince will be naught but the paid executioner of the priest.

If it were enough to publish a law in order to have the right to punish, there would not exist a tyrant.

There are circumstances in which one is as convinced of error as of truth. This can only be contested by he who has never sincerely erred.

If your truth proscribes me, my error, which I take for the truth, proscribes you.

Cease to be violent, or cease to reproach pagans and Muslims for violence.

Is it the spirit of God that inspires you when you hate your brother and preach hatred to your sister?

Christ said: ‘My kingdom is not of his world,’ and you, his disciple, want to tyrannize this world.

He said: “I am gentle and humble of heart.” Are you gentle and humble of heart?

He said; “Blessed are the good-natured, the peaceful and the forgiving.” In good conscience, do you deserve this benediction? Are you good-natured, peaceful, and forgiving?

He said: “I am the lamb brought uncomplainingly to the slaughter.” Are you ready to take up the butcher’s knife and slaughter he for whom the lamb’s blood was spilled?

He said: “If you are persecuted, flee.” Yet you chase those who you let speak and who ask else than to peacefully graze at your side.

He said: “You want me to make the fires of heaven rain down on your enemies.” You know what spirit animates you.

Listen to St. John: “My children, love each other.”

St. Athanasius: “If they persecute, this alone is manifest proof that they have neither piety nor fear of God. It is the essence of piety not to constrain, but to persuade in the path of imitation of the Savior, who allowed to each the freedom to follow him. Since the devil doesn’t possess the truth, he comes with hatchets and axes.”

St John Chrysostomos: “Jesus Christ asks his disciples if they want to go forth as well, for these should be the words of he who never did violence.”

Salvien: “Those men are in error, but they are so without knowing it. They are wrong among us, but not amongst themselves. They consider themselves such good Catholics that they call us heretics. That which they are in our eyes, we are in theirs. They err, but with good intentions. What will their future sort be? Only the judge knows. In the meanwhile, he tolerates them.”

St. Augustine: “Let them mistreat you, they who know not with what difficulty the truth is found, and how hard it is to guarantee oneself against error. Let them mistreat you, they who know not how rare and difficult it is to overcome the phantoms of the flesh. Let them mistreat you, they who know not how much one must groan and sigh in order to understand something of God. Let them mistreat you, they who have not fallen into error.”

St. Hilarion: “You make use of constraint in a cause where reason alone is needed. You use force where only enlightenment is needed”

The constitutions of Pope St. Clement: “The savior has allowed men the use of their free will, not punishing them with a temporal death, but assigning them another world in which to render accounts for their actions.”

The Fathers of a Council of Toledo: “Do not do violence to anyone in order to bring him to the faith. For God has pity on who he wills, and he hardens whoever it pleases him to do so.”

Volumes could be filled with these forgotten quotations.

St. Martin repented his entire lifetime for having communicated with the persecutors of heretics.

Wise men disapproved the violence the Emperor Justinian did to the Samaritans.

Those writers who advised penal laws against unbelief were detested.

Lately, the apologist for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes was taken for a blood-soaked man, as one with whom one should not stay under the same roof.

What is the voice of humanity? Is it that of the persecutor who strikes, or the persecuted who groans?

If an infidel prince has an incontestable right to his subjects’ obedience, a disbelieving subject has the incontestable right to his prince’s protection: this is a reciprocal obligation.

If authority punishes an individual whose obscure conduct signifies nothing, what will fanaticism not undertake against a sovereign whose example is so powerful?

Does charity demand that the small be tormented and the great spared?

If the prince says that the unbelieving subject is not worthy of life, should it not be feared that the subject will say that the unbelieving prince is not worthy to rule?

Look upon the logical conclusion of your principles and tremble.

Here, dear brother, are a few ideas I have gathered and that I forward to you. Think about them and you will abdicate an atrocious system that is appropriate neither to the uprightness of your spirit nor the goodness of your heart.

Work on your salvation, pray for mine, and believe that all that you will permit yourself beyond this is an abominable injustice in the eyes of God.