What is tolerance? it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed
of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's
folly--that is the first law of nature.
It is clear that the individual who persecutes a man, his brother,
because he is not of the same opinion, is a monster. That admits of no
difficulty. But the government! but the magistrates! but the princes!
how do they treat those who have another worship than theirs? If they
are powerful strangers, it is certain that a prince will make an
alliance with them. Francois I., very Christian, will unite with
Mussulmans against Charles V., very Catholic. Francois I. will give
money to the Lutherans of Germany to support them in their revolt
against the emperor; but, in accordance with custom, he will start by
having Lutherans burned at home. For political reasons he pays them in
Saxony; for political reasons he burns them in Paris. But what will
happen? Persecutions make proselytes? Soon France will be full of new
Protestants. At first they will let themselves be hanged, later they in
their turn will hang. There will be civil wars, then will come the St.
Bartholomew; and this corner of the world will be worse than all that
the ancients and moderns have ever told of hell.
Madmen, who have never been able to give worship to the God who made
you! Miscreants, whom the example of the Noachides, the learned Chinese,
the Parsees and all the sages, has never been able to lead! Monsters,
who need superstitions as crows' gizzards need carrion! you have been
told it already, and there is nothing else to tell you--if you have two
religions in your countries, they will cut each other's throat; if you
have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace. Look at the great Turk,
he governs Guebres, Banians, Greek Christians, Nestorians, Romans. The
first who tried to stir up tumult would be impaled; and everyone is
Of all religions, the Christian is without doubt the one which should
inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the
most intolerant of all men. The Christian Church was divided in its
cradle, and was divided even in the persecutions which under the first
emperors it sometimes endured. Often the martyr was regarded as an
apostate by his brethren, and the Carpocratian Christian expired beneath
the sword of the Roman executioners, excommunicated by the Ebionite
Christian, the which Ebionite was anathema to the Sabellian.
This horrible discord, which has lasted for so many centuries, is a very
striking lesson that we should pardon each other's errors; discord is
the great ill of mankind; and tolerance is the only remedy for it.
There is nobody who is not in agreement with this truth, whether he
meditates soberly in his study, or peaceably examines the truth with his
friends. Why then do the same men who admit in private indulgence,
kindness, justice, rise in public with so much fury against these
virtues? Why? it is that their own interest is their god, and that they
sacrifice everything to this monster that they worship.
I possess a dignity and a power founded on ignorance and credulity; I
walk on the heads of the men who lie prostrate at my feet; if they
should rise and look me in the face, I am lost; I must bind them to the
ground, therefore, with iron chains.
Thus have reasoned the men whom centuries of bigotry have made powerful.
They have other powerful men beneath them, and these have still others,
who all enrich themselves with the spoils of the poor, grow fat on their
blood, and laugh at their stupidity. They all detest tolerance, as
partisans grown rich at the public expense fear to render their
accounts, and as tyrants dread the word liberty. And then, to crown
everything, they hire fanatics to cry at the top of their voices:
"Respect my master's absurdities, tremble, pay, and keep your mouths
It is thus that a great part of the world long was treated; but to-day
when so many sects make a balance of power, what course to take with
them? Every sect, as one knows, is a ground of error; there are no sects
of geometers, algebraists, arithmeticians, because all the propositions
of geometry, algebra and arithmetic are true. In every other science one
may be deceived. What Thomist or Scotist theologian would dare say
seriously that he is sure of his case?
If it were permitted to reason consistently in religious matters, it is
clear that we all ought to become Jews, because Jesus Christ our Saviour
was born a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and that he said expressly that
he was accomplishing, that he was fulfilling the Jewish religion. But it
is clearer still that we ought to be tolerant of one another, because we
are all weak, inconsistent, liable to fickleness and error. Shall a reed
laid low in the mud by the wind say to a fellow reed fallen in the
opposite direction: "Crawl as I crawl, wretch, or I shall petition that
you be torn up by the roots and burned?"