Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Voltaire or Not

This quote has been turning up a lot lately, in the wake of the "cartoon row" and the West's sudden discovery that its free speech isn't a very popular idea in other civilizations:

"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.

The quote's misattribution is so common, however, 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."

Here's the relevant passage from Hall's 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."

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."

Whether it was a Frenchman or an Englishwoman who coined the phrase, it has been taken to heart by Americans. It is what we say when we are troubled when someone uses the free speech 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.