Voltaire was a racist anti-Semite. France should stop celebrating its ideas.


When a statue of François-Marie Arouet was dramatically removed from outside the French Academy in Paris this month, it was by no means the only members of the far right who expressed their outrage.

On the contrary, self-proclaimed moderates of all political stripes have said that the prolific eighteenth-century writer better known by his pen name, Voltaire, should be untouchable. They were angered when anti-racist graffiti continued to be sprayed on the stone depiction due to its links to the slave trade.

In turn, the accusations of those responsible for the vandalism were that Voltaire had personally invested in the French East India Company, founded in 1664 to exploit New World products, including Africans bought and sold as merchandise for profit.

Voltaire had many enemies, and there were certainly as many rumors as false documents linking him to the slave trade. However, he liked to define himself as a “merchant philosopher” and unmistakably financed the French East India Company in the 1740s, when its armed frigates were focused on triangular trade voyages to Africa.

Beyond owning corporate stock, Voltaire is recorded as having directly invested his own money in slave transport adventures by ships such as The Saint-Georges, who left Cadiz, Spain, in December 1751 for Guinea.

More than 250 years later, anger among those in Paris who dismissed this evidence as unimportant escalated when workers transported the Voltaire stone to a distant warehouse. The official explanation was that he needed a good cleanup, but conspiracy theorists still fear he’ll never come back. They accuse the authorities of bowing to Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and the so-called cancellation culture they propagate.

BLM is already an extremely influential movement in France. He was galvanized by the murder of black American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, but there have been numerous parallel cases of French ethnic minorities dying in police custody.

These include Adama Traoré, who died on his 24th birthday in a cell in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise in July 2016. There is no film on what happened, but family and other supporters say Traore – like Floyd – was suffocated after being cornered by three officers.

There have been regular BLM rallies in France – one on June 2 led to around 23,000 people appearing in court in Paris. Police used tear gas and baton charges in an attempt to disperse the illegal gathering. The slogans ” Justice for Adama“And” Black Lives Matter “were chanted everywhere.

Beyond street protests, questioning famous public figures – living or dead – because they are considered deeply reprehensible is becoming an increasingly powerful force in France.

Projections of J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy), the latest film by Roman Polanski, the French director who has fled American justice for decades for the rape of a child, has been shut down by feminist groups, for example. This follows new allegations of sexual assault by Polanski, who has denied the allegations.

Spraying red paint – to symbolize blood – on historic monuments is part of the same culture. Beyond Voltaire, the statues of various officials and generals have been vandalized. A bronze depiction of Hubert Lyautey, the late colonial administrator nicknamed “the Empire Builder”, was soiled in Paris on the same day as the stone image of Voltaire.

Voltaire, who was 83 when he died in 1778, was a man of his time, say his apologists. What if he invested in a company involved in transporting enslaved human beings to plantations? France had the right to compete with other imperial powers and in particular Great Britain. If that meant the brightest and the best had to meddle in an economic system that included a colonial slave sector, so be it, Voltaire’s staunch defenders would say.

According to sacred myths, the only theories of Voltaire that are important to humanity are those that informed the Enlightenment – the period of history that elevated science and reason above superstition and obscurantism. of religion and royalty. Individual freedom is the cornerstone of secular France, and names like Voltaire are now a shorthand for rational and liberal thought.

For far too many armchair supporters, Voltaire is thus like those who sit at the French Academy, the august institution made up of immortals (yes, that’s the word they use) who speak out on questions relating to the French language; he’s a reassuring establishment intellectual about whom not much is known, except that he’s never meant to be questioned.

It’s a cynical and lazy position – the kind that should bring shame on a modern republic that tries to live up to the ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood.

The truth is that Voltaire remains a role model for dangerously ill-educated and intellectually dishonest hypocrites – those who are very selective in their approach to his work, either because they have not studied him at all or because they choose. deliberately certain elements. .

This is not unusual among those who put men like Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill on a pedestal while glossing over darker facts about their lives. Jefferson, the third President of the United States, owned hundreds of slaves through his father’s Virginia plantation heritage. Emancipation became important to Jefferson later in his life, but – like Voltaire – financial considerations often took precedence over common decency, meaning he kept hold of his human assets.

Churchill, the wartime British Prime Minister, was an avowed racist who once admitted: “I hate Indians. … They are bestial people with a bestial religion. Hence the spraying of his statue in Parliament Square in London by BLM activists in June.

The difference is that Jefferson and Churchill were not philosophers but intransigent politicians engaged in the practical necessities of the state, such as the continuation of major conflicts. Churchill is considered a hero of WWII and credited in part with the destruction of Nazism, while Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, paving the way for revolutionary war against British rule. Victory in wars perceived to be moral can be seen as outweighing much less glorious episodes.

Voltaire, on the other hand, was devoted to ideas, including those which have had a pernicious effect on the minds of historical actors through the ages. His virulent hatred of religious groups was easily enough to incite violence against them, while his biological racism argued that there were gradations of life forms and that black people were coming somewhere down, just above the ” monkeys ”. In Letters from Amabed (1769), Voltaire depicts Africans as “animals” with a “flat, black nose with little or no intelligence!”

Voltaire was also an obsessive anti-Semite, using multiple texts to place Jews well outside the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome that he admired – and even beyond redemption. For example, write about the Jews in his Letter from Memmius to Cicero in 1771, Voltaire was of the opinion: “They are all born with an unchained fanaticism in the heart, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with the blond hair. In an essay the following year, Voltaire passed judgment on the Jews in these terms: “You deserve to be punished, for it is your fate.

Contrary to the usual motivations of anti-Semitism – irrational fear combined with ignorance – Voltaire’s fearful beliefs were based on quasi-scientific reasoning.

This was typical of the Enlightenment philosophers, who provided disturbing justifications for the hatred of racial and religious groups. In National charactersDavid Hume wrote: “I tend to suspect negroes to be naturally inferior to whites.” Immanuel Kant called the Jews a “nation of cheaters”.

This systematic racism has created a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of life. This ensured that thinkers were inextricably linked with the imperialists who wanted to conquer and oppress supposedly inferior races.

Such wickedness of the Enlightenment was not marginal in the work of these ideologues. Their writings have been widely read across Europe, including by Voltaire’s great friend, King Frederick II of Prussia. Voltaire traveled from Paris to join the monarch’s court in Potsdam in 1750, at a time when Frederick II embraced his French resident as a mentor.

It is not difficult to draw the historical line between Voltaire’s anti-Semitism and a fanatically nationalist Germany wanting to assassinate enemies it considered sub-human. Adolf Hitler certainly became an avid student of the discussions between Frederick the Great and Voltaire as he formulated his plans for the Third Reich.

Frederick II ostensibly promoted the ideas behind works such as Voltaire’s 1763 Treaty of tolerance while issuing anti-Jewish decrees and focusing on militarist nationalism and the kind of thoughtless discipline that supported Nazism.

Importantly, there are recordings of Hitler’s private interviews in which he confirmed studying the correspondence and encounters between Voltaire and his hero Frederick II, whose portrait was in the Berlin Bunker de leadership where the dictator died in April 1945.

The stenographers noted Hitler in 1941 as saying: “A reading of the polemical writings of the 17th and 18th centuries, or of the conversations between Frederick II and Voltaire, inspires shame at our low intellectual level, especially among the military.

Like Voltaire, Hitler believed that the Jews did not have a culture worthy of praise and simply copied others. Hitler’s speeches were littered with phrases that plagiarized Voltaire, such as: “The Jewish people, with all their apparent intellectual qualities, are nonetheless devoid of any true culture of their own. … With this, the Jew does not have those qualities that creatively distinguish the culturally blessed races.

The problem is not simply that Voltaire failed to integrate persecuted groups such as blacks and Jews into his so-called progressive thinking; is that his advocacy for biological racism and white supremacy still offers a rationale for all kinds of extremists. These include Nazi sympathizers traditionally linked to the far-right French National Rally (formerly the National Front) as well as terrorists who target synagogues and mosques.

With such intellectual models, it’s no surprise that millions of people in France still vote for a party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen – a convicted anti-Semite and denialist.

French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that statues of men linked to highly reprehensible ideologies are part of French heritage and should not be removed. It’s a reactionary view that completely ignores a much more relevant question: why should Enlightenment racists remain sacrosanct? The complacent French have revered discredited philosophers for too long. It is time for them to learn to reject them, to move on to a new era of reason.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here