A Summary of the Book "Treatise on Tolerance" by Voltaire

by Julia Barrus
Voltaire (1694-1778) was one of the most progressive thinkers of his time.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was one of the most progressive thinkers of his time.

Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

In these turbulent times, it's difficult to argue with the fact that religious tolerance is becoming more and more rare. The French outlaw wearing the Muslim hijab in public while Christians in many African nations lobby to outlaw homosexuality. Although written in 1763, Voltaire's "Treatise on Tolerance" continues to illustrate the poignant fact that freedom of religion, tolerance and free thought will always need to be protected by society's lawmakers. Voltaire's account of the murder of Jean Calas is both enlightening and horrific in its detail and analysis. It is also a grim reminder of a time not far removed from our own.

A Tolerant Family

Jean Calas was a 68-year-old merchant living in Toulouse during the latter half of the 1700s. His story is one of religion, suicide and, most shockingly, parricide. The "Treatise on Tolerance" begins with a description of his family. Jean had two sons, Louis (the younger) and Marc Antoine (the older). Louis converted to Catholicism with his father's consent. Marc Antoine, however, did not and apparently didn't possess proof of belonging to any religion, which caused considerable problems for him in his professional aspirations. Marc Antoine one evening, having lost all his money gambling, decided to hang himself after dinner with the family, to everyone's shock and horror. The family knew his death to be suicide. The town, having existed in a state of religious intolerance, decided the parents killed their son because of his unwillingness to prescribe to their religion and willingness to embrace Catholicism.

Saint Marc Antoine

The magistrate of Toulouse, in an effort to expand his reputation, then decided to throw the entire Calas family (including their Catholic maid) into jail on the basis of hearsay alone. As it turned out, Marc Antoine died a Calvinist and was therefore given a martyr's burial. After his funeral procession, the man who should have been buried in unconsecrated ground, due to death by his own hand, was canonized and given sainthood. Soon enough, miracles were reported at the site of Saint Marc Antoine's grave, including a semi-deaf woman reporting that she heard the sound of bells.

Trial and Conviction

As each family member testified during the trial, they were all together during the fateful night. The defense demanded, "How could such a murder take place without drawing the attention of neighbors or surrounding villagers?" The court would hear none of it and decided upon banishment to a nunnery for the females in the family, mandatory conversion to Catholicism for the youngest son and death by the wheel for the oldest son and Jean Calas himself. It is perhaps worth mentioning that all of this occurred around the same time of year that the villagers commemorated the massacre of 4,000 Huguenots; such remembrance fueled the fanaticism and rage against the Calas family.

Justice at Last

The Widow Calas appealed to the magistrate in Paris to avenge the unfair executions of her husband and son. A famous lawyer by the name of M. de Beaumont took up her case and was able to publicize it widely enough that her husband was cleared of all charges (although he was already dead). Her daughters were restored to her, and all remaining members of the family were declared innocent. However, the religious fanatics in France would not accept this reversal and refused to admit that the original judge and magistrates trying the case were biased and unjust in their sentencing.

Virtue and Learning

After the account of the death of Jean Calas, Voltaire discusses religious dogma as a scourge on society and how it leads to more disputes and vice than the virtue it is meant to inspire. He mentions the classical opinion held by Cato, Cisero and Socrates that men are fools to argue about what they cannot know. Voltaire also discusses the sad fact that reason was lost during the early days of Christendom when religious supremacy became radical doctrine. At last, he states that all the barbarians "civilized" Christians feared, such as the Goths, Vandals and Huns, have done far less damage and caused far less brutality than the Christian churches of the world in their quest to unite man by peace or by sword.

A Prayer for Tolerance

The "Treatise on Tolerance" ends with a description of the similarities between all of man's major religions and how they should work together for the good of mankind. Voltaire mentions the smallness of mankind in comparison to the vastness of space and the universe and questions the need for all the fighting and bickering in the face of so much man cannot know or explain. He asks those who dwell in an unenlightened state of intolerance whether they are sure that all the civilizations before and all of those that must come after the foundation of the Christian church are doomed to hell. Finally, he pleads with god that all mankind might come to know that they are brothers in the darkness and must learn to dwell together in peace before the end of all things. Also, he asks that all men, regardless of religious preference or cultural differences, might come together to praise life and love one another, to begin the process of healing and undoing all of the misery and death that has come from religious intolerance.

About the Author

I am a secondary English teacher on leave and using my writing talents to freelance. Most of my experience is in writing creatively, however, I am currently writing content for a website that encompases several topics and would love to employ my skills for you.

Photo Credits

  • Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images