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La tolerance de Voltaire a l'epreuve de la liberte de la presse: Une reconsideration de la notion des droits de l'homme du philosophe

Justin S Niati, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In spite of his record as a defender of religious minorities and his defense of press freedom, Voltaire has been taxed as not being consistent, especially in regard to journalists. For example, while he grounded religious tolerance in a broader notion of freedom of thought and expression, he had great difficulty “tolerating” journalists who supported the contemporary Church-State establishment or who disparaged his literary reputation. Although Voltaire's relationships with journalists have been extensively studied, this dissertation examines Voltaire's alleged inconsistencies in terms of human rights. Part I offers an overview of eighteenth-century French periodicals and surveys Voltaire's relationship with the press. Part II uses Lynn Hunt's discussion of the emergence of the modern concept of human rights during the Enlightenment as a prelude to Voltaire's views on tolerance and freedom of the press. While Voltaire agreed with the notion of universal tolerance founded on the rights of conscience proposed by Bayle, in practice he was willing to accept limits on tolerance in certain cases, as Locke had done for atheists and papists, when public order was endangered. Even though he opposed pre-censorship, he allowed for prosecuting writers guilty of calumny or disturbing public order especially when they repeated their offenses. Part III examines how Voltaire applied his notion of limited tolerance to Desfontaines and Berthier. Overly sensitive to attacks on his literary reputation, the philosophe accused Desfontaines of professional incompetence as a critic. Although he tried to maintain publicly a moderate image, he evoked Desfontaines' stay in prison for sodomy, and this despite Voltaire's condemnation of the recourse to personal insults as in his Conseils. The philosophe thought that it was his duty to expose the ingratitude of a recidivist. In the case of Berthier who accused the philosophe of irreligion, Voltaire did not respond with charges of incompetence but resorted again to personal attacks. Since he could not reveal any moral failings, Voltaire ridiculed Berthier as being boring and guilty of all the crimes of his Jesuit brothers. As for the charges of irreligion that Desfontaines initiated and Berthier expands, Voltaire took them as calumny. He tried to maintain a public mask of respect for the Church, and believed that his deistic principles were the foundation of all true religion.

Subject Area

Romance literature|Literature|Mass media

Recommended Citation

Niati, Justin S, "La tolerance de Voltaire a l'epreuve de la liberte de la presse: Une reconsideration de la notion des droits de l'homme du philosophe" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3180809.