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Justice and tolerance: the secular struggles

Justice and tolerance: the secular struggles

The rehabilitation of Jean Calas and the Sirvens

During the debate in the Senate over the interment of Zola-the hero of the Dreyfus Affair-in the Pantheon, the philosopher Voltaire's name was specifically mentioned in terms of the struggle he waged in favor of Calas, Sirven et Chevalier de La Barre. Jean Calas, a merchant from Toulouse and a Protestant, had tried to cover up his son Marc Antoine's suicide on 12 October 1761. Calas was accused of having killed his son to prevent him from becoming a Catholic, and he was put on the wheel, strangled and burned on 10 March 1762. In 1763, alerted by Calas's family, Voltaire published his Treaty on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas. The decree by the Toulouse parliament was overturned in 1764, and Calas was rehabilitated in 1765. That same year, Voltaire supported the cause of the Sirvens, a Protestant family who had sought refuge in Switzerland. They were accused of the death of one of their daughters who had escaped from a convent. "Shaking his torch," he denounced the existence in Languedoc of a "infernal violence, formerly provoked by the Inquisition after Simon de Montfort." But the appeal to the King's Council was rejected in 1766, and the Sirvens were only rehabilitated by the Toulouse parliament in 1771, despite the mobilization of a number of European rulers, including Frederick II of Prussia and Russia's Catherine II.

As for Chevalier de La Barre, who was beheaded and burned on 1 July 1766, Voltaire's text An Account of the death of Chevalier de la Barre to Monsieur le Marquis de Beccaria had no effect prior to the French Revolution. It was the Convention that ruled in favor of the rehabilitation of Chevalier de La Barre, who had been wrongly accused of sacrilege. His only crime was that of impiety, for having not taken off his hat before a religious procession, and for having a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary in his library (the judges wanting to burn both the book and its author).

Voltaire and judicial errors

Twenty years before the Edict of Tolerance, Voltaire wrote repeated pleas not only for religious tolerance, but also in favor of justice that respected proof. In 1772, his Questions sur l'Encyclopédie discussed the case of two innocent people who were tortured on the wheel. In the section headed "Certain, certitude" he stated that every judge must ask himself: "Shall posterity and all of Europe condemn my verdict? Will I sleep easily, with my hands stained with innocent blood?" In his works Précis du siècle de Louis XIV and Fragments sur l'Inde, the philosopher also defended the memory of the lieutenant general of the French establishments in India. Learning that the conviction of the Count de Lally-Tollendal had been overturned by parliamentary decree, Voltaire wrote to his son: "The dying man revives upon receiving this great news (..) He will die content."

Voltaire died on 30 May 1778, four days after penning these words. He was buried in an abbey church before being transferred to the Pantheon on 11 July 1791. Against hatred, injustice and intolerance, the philosopher asked "unhappy human beings to celebrate beneficial and useful institutions (les Invalides, les demoiselles de Saint-Cyr, les gentilshommes de l'École militaire). May your celebrations be the commemorations of virtuous actions, and not of hatred, discord, mindlessness, murder or carnage!"


Voltaire, architect of the rehabilitation of the Calas and the Sirven families

The advocate of the abolition of the death penalty

Voltaire's tomb