Voltaire 1766

The de la Barre Affair


Source: Oeuvres de Voltaire, volume 63, Edited by M. Beuchot. Paris, Chez Lefevre, 1832;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.

See The Delabarre Affair for the background.


July 18, 1766
To M. D'Alembert

Brother Damilaville[1] no doubt sent you the “Relation” of Abbeville,[2] my dear philosopher. I don’t understand how thinking beings can remain in a country of monkeys who so often become tigers. For my part I'm ashamed to even be on the border. In truth, this is the time to break all ties and to carry elsewhere the horror with which we are filled. I wasn’t able to obtain the lawyers’ consultation. You doubtless saw it and shuddered. It’s no longer time for pleasantries: nice words aren’t appropriate to massacres. What? Busirises[3] in robes kill children of sixteen with the most horrible tortures, despite the opinions of ten honest and humane judges! And the nation allows this! People speak of it for hardly a moment and then they run to the Opéra-Comique, and tomorrow barbarism, grown more insolent because of our silence, will judicially murder whoever it cares to. And above all you, who raised your voice against this for two or three minutes. Here Calas[4] crushed on the wheel, there Sirven hung,[5] elsewhere a gag in the mouth of a lieutenant general, a fortnight later five young men condemned to the flames for a folly that deserved Saint-Lazare prison. What matters the King of Prussia’s foreword? Does he have the least remedy for these execrable ills? Is this the country of philosophy and life’s pleasures? Rather, it’s that of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The Inquisition would never have dared to do what these Jansenist judges just carried out. I beg you: send me what people are at least saying, since they do nothing. It’s a poor consolation to learn that these monsters are abhorred, but it’s all that’s left to our weakness, and this is what I ask from you. The Prince of Brunswick is mad with indignation, anger, and pity. Redouble these sentiments in my heart with two words of your hand that you will send via the post to brother Damilaville. Your friendship, as well as that of a few other thinking beings, is the sole pleasure to which I am sensible.

The misunderstanding of the foreword consists in people’s supposing that the words In principio erat etc were falsified. It is the two passages on the trinity that were interpolated into the epistle of John. What a pity all this is! We waste time in uncovering errors that would perhaps be used to reveal truths!

N.B. The theologian Vernet complained to the council of Geneva that people were mocking him. The council offered him an attestation of life and morals saying he had never been a highway robber or even a pickpocket. The latter portion of the attestation seems a bit bold.


Notes

1. Etienne Damilaville ( (1723-1768) – Man of letters, friend of Volatire, and author of three articles in the Encyclopédie. He held positions of trust under Louis XV and so was able to circulate documents without the censor’s knowledge.

2. Voltaire’s account of the de la Barre Affair, in which in 1766 a resident of Abbeville in Picardy, the Chevalier de la Barre, was beheaded for failing to salute a religious procession.

3. Brutal Egyptian king of Greek myth.

4. Jean Calas (1698-1762) -French Protestant merchant tortured and executed unjustly for the murder of his son.

5. Pierre-Paul Sirven (1709-1777) – Protestant accused of murdering his daughter. Thanks to Voltaire’s campaign to save him Sirven was not, in fact, hung.