Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Voltaire and America

(This was an e-mail I sent to a well-known woman blogger from Iraq, who finds that her life now is far worse than it was under Saddam, and who never seems to pass up a chance to get in a dig at Americans. It seemed to me she shot and missed with this one. No, she didn't write back, of course.)

You wrote:

"Important note to those of you who are going to email me: The last few days, I have received at least 3 emails saying, "I read your blog and don't agree with what you say but we have a famous saying in America- I don't agree with what you say but I'll die for your right to say it." Just a note- it's not your famous American saying, it is French and it is Voltaire's famous saying:"I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it." "

Actually, you're wrong.

The quote usually appears as "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It's often attributed to Voltaire. But it's not from his writings. The quote is first used in 1906, by a woman named Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1919), who wrote a biography of Voltaire under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre.

Here's the relevant passage from her book:

...The men who had hated [the book], and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. 'What a fuss about an omelette!' he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' was his attitude now.

She said it was a paraphrase of Voltaire's words in his "Essay on Tolerance": "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."

This was the source of the quote that Americans reach for when they are troubled when someone uses the free speech that we cherish, to say things that we despise. It's often said through gritted teeth, by people who are working very hard to remind themselves that this whole free speech thing is a good idea. Everyone gets tested like that sooner or later.

It wasn't a Frenchman who said the thing that we like to repeat. It was an Englishwoman.

As a footnote, Norbert Guterman, in "A Book of French Quotations" (1963) found this line in a letter from Voltaire to M. le Riche (Feb. 6, 1770): "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." That's pretty close to the quote, and it may have been the source of Hell's quote, though she remembered it otherwise. It's a stronger statement than the usual quote, but it's a more ambivalent statement. What exactly does he mean? Especially for a man who would write, six years later, "I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom."

You're far from alone in misattributing this quote. So much so that one historical researcher has paraphrased it as, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to mis-attribute this quote to Voltaire."

You never said your despised American correspondents said it was "our" quote, one that was unique to us and invented by us. So what's the point of pointing out that it came from a Frenchman? It can still be famous and oft-heard over here, and not be indigenous. Really, very little of America is original, and almost none of the best of it is. We know that, and it doesn't bother us. Everyone here is from somewhere else, ultimately. Every idea that formed our Declaration of Independence and Constitution was first hatched in some European mind -- a considerable chunk of it from Voltaire, in fact. Doesn't bother us. Many of the men who led the colonies into independence were born overseas.

It can still be true, even if it's not ours. It can still be "a famous saying in America" even if it's not native. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a famous American governor, but he wasn't born here.

I read your blog daily. I like the passion and articulateness of it. I wince at your sarcasm and cynicism. I disagree with your views, but your experiences are important and cannot be dismissed by people like me, who thought the war to get rid of Saddam was a good idea. And I like to test my view of things against yours, which is invariably different, to see which holds up better.

Best wishes, and keep up the good work,

Doug Harper
Pennsylvania, U.S.