Here is still another “Everything you thought you knew about such-and-such is wrong” revelation. Voltaire DID NOT say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He never said it!
In fact, it is a double “everything you thought you knew is wrong” revelation for me because I had somehow got it into my head that Patrick Henry was the one who said it. He who said “Give me liberty of give me death!” must surely have said the latter phrase as well—if you would say one, surely you would say the other—throw it on the stack! and somewhere in popular folklore someone did just that. But he didn’t say it. When I went to verify it on the internet, I was re-directed to Voltaire as the true source.
Now I find out that he didn’t say it either! He said a lot of “enlightened” things, and so, here again, some revisionist thought: What is more enlightened than dying for free speech? Throw it on the stack! If he said other enlightened things, who’s not going to believe he said this one as well. He didn’t
The Great Courses professor, (I am on a Great Courses kick these days) says it is the bane of Voltaire schlolars—everyone thinks he said it—it is practically the defining declaration of his to many—and he didn’t.
This is pretty common—to append statements to famous others whose backgrounds suggest they might have said it because they have said other things like it. Any acerbic, pretension-deflating statement about human nature you can attribute to Mark Twain, for example, since he said a lot of stuff like that. One of my favorites, on how he would relate that when he was 16 his father was so ignorant he could barely stand to have around, but was amazed at 21 on how much the old man had picked up in those few short years—he never said it! Or at least there is no record of him saying it. This a great hazard for me, because I love to quote Mark Twain. Check before you quote.
It is similar to how David Splane said the Watchtower decided to no quote the Mahatma Gandhi line, supposedly made to British Viceroy to India Lord Irwin, that “when your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.” It’s a great quote, says Brother Splane—we love it. But we can’t use it because there is no record that the two ever met.
There’s a danger in attributing your lofty thoughts to someone else because you may find that they are not quite lofty enough to think that themselves. Alan Kors, the Great Courses professor, says Voltaire would never say something like that. He’s not going to fight to the death so someone else can say something stupid because he savored his life too much. It’s a pretentious statement—just a little too showy. I’ve always distrusted it. Who’s really going to do that? Let the merits of the fellow’s own argument cause him to rise or sink without dragging others down with him. Now—if you had a heads-up that what was going to be said was truly brilliant it might be another matter. But...
Well, if he didn’t say it, who did? His biographer. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym S. G Tallentyre. She wrote that line herself in ‘The Friends of Voltaire’ (1906) and served it up as an example of what Voltaire would have stood for. She’s drinking too much of her own Kool-Aid, apparently—no way would Voltaire have risked his neck to sponsor the cacaphonous mayhem of Twitter.
The professor does not mention Sturgeon’s Law—that is me who mentions it—but it fits in nicely. “People who say that 90 percent of science fiction is crap are correct, but then 90 percent of anything is crap,” Theodore Sturgeon said. This has been truncated into: “Ninety percent of anything is crap,” but the original quote included a reference to his own profession—that of writing science fiction. I know this, because he was the guest speaker on campus once upon a time, and I heard him say it.
Voltaire should throw his life away for 90 percent crap? I don’t think so. If a dolt can’t get his dopey message out, that’s his problem. I may not say: “Look, throw the idiot off the forum, won’t you?” but that’s a far cry from being willing to die so that the world may hear more 90 percent idiocy—there’s enough of it to go around as it is.
Does not the Word celebrate the right of anyone to be heard? Alas, at times the it celebrates shutting people up. “It is necessary to shut their mouths,” Paul says of some, who “keep on subverting entire households by teaching things they should not for the sake of dishonest gain.” Sure. “They want to be teachers of law, but they do not understand either the things they are saying or the things they insist on so strongly,” he says of others. (Titus 1:11, 1 Timothy 1:7)
Those 90 percent people cause a lot of trouble.