khuram

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Posted by khuram on August 19, 2006

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When Rousseau sent his latest article to Voltaire for review; Voltaire after having read, wrote him, “Your latest work is the most intelligent effort, that I could never anticipate of its kind, to make us think that we actually are not humans at all, and that we should leave up our present day civilization and should go to Jungles and Deserts as naturally, really we are just like other animals and we in fact do wrong when we do such inferior and mean acts like thinking and living on the basis of our intellect and wisdom.” Voltaire was a profound advocate of using the light of intellect and wisdom. Rousseau on the other hand was known for his anti-rational philosophy. Despite being against using the intellect and wisdom, Rousseau however himself was a strong supporter of a kind of thoughtful dogmatism. Voltaire, being an advocate of using intellect and wisdom, was of the view that humans must be free in their thinking. That is, there should be, as he thought, complete liberty of thought because if there is any restriction on freethinking, we humans then cannot live a life, which would be based on the light of intellect and wisdom. The very tricky and “wise” attacks on wisdom by Rousseau however put Voltaire under a dilemma for he was very much against all what Rousseau wanted to preach and at the same time he could not ask Rousseau to stop his non-sense anti-rational preaches because if he asked him so, actually he would be putting a restriction on thinking of Rousseau. Obviously, if he tried to put any such restriction, he would go against his own point of view that was in support of full liberty in thinking.

How did Voltaire manage to come out of this dilemma? It was in the form of his famous reply to Rousseau, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Why Voltaire thought it necessary to disapprove of the Rousseau’s point of view but to still hold his right to preach whatever he wanted to say? Voltaire’s this position actually was an accurate reflection of all the intellectual environment of the west of his day. It is very important to mention however that the Voltaire’s intellectual environment was gradually so developed that now it was possible for him to take the position where he was disapproving and holding some that sort of things which really could not be so disapproved or hold out just a few centuries ago.

Such type of open hearts did not characterize the European history, earlier to the time of Voltaire where people could really hold the right to say of what they disapprove of. Actually there was the hold of quite an opposite point of view in those times. That point of view was something like that: “I disapprove of what you say, so I do not accept your right to even live in this world.”

This type of point of view had its roots in the Catholic religious dogmas of that time. There was no liberty of any kind of theoretical or other disagreement with the point of view of Church. Not only all the religious ideology of that time but every sort of knowledge including pure sciences were all in the form of very sacred religious dogmas to which church wanted to keep and exercise its sole authority and proprietorship.

Copernicus was very much aware of the fact that what new ideas about the structure of universe and solar system had he found, were going against the established point of view of his contemporary church. He was aware that church would not approve of his findings and therefore would not let him un-punished in response to his disagreement with them. Copernicus actually had found that the established view about the structure of universe, where earth was considered to be the center of universe and sun and planets were thought to be moving around the world, was wrong in fact. Copernicus had found the truth that earth was not the center of universe because actually earth itself was circling around the sun in the solar system, along with other planets. Copernicus was so much afraid of the anticipated response of church to this kind of disagreement that he could not dare to publish his great work in his own life.

“I disapprove of what you say, so I punish you for why you dared to say this”. This was the practical attitude of Catholic Church in the case of Galileo where he claimed to have confirmed the truth of the point of view of Copernicus by observing the night sky using his self-made telescope. Galileo happened to be bolder than Copernicus. This was not the first time when he disagreed the established dogmas. Previously he had successfully shown that all the objects, irrespective of their weights, fall toward earth at the same rate of pace. And this time again he made such a courageous stand of making claim of having an observable proof in support of the point of view of Copernicus. Church, in response, not only disapproved his claim but also compelled him to refute his own previous stand. Galileo could not bear the forceful anger of church. He did accept his ‘mistake’ before others but in his mind, he was still convinced of his own point of view. Society of his time could not give him his right to express his point of view, which was true.

Time passed by. Use of telescope became common. Wise people confirmed the truth of Galileo’s point of view at their own. Point of view of the Church was proved to be wrong. Johannes Capler successfully calculated the paths of earth and other planets in which they orbit about the sun. The method of observational proofs introduced by Galileo became popular. People started confirming the established dogmas using experimental method. Newton made his accurate observations of physical objects and found the laws of gravitation and motion. The observational or experimental method thus won the war against the religious ‘scientific’ dogmas of the Church. Ethically, point of view of the Church became weak. Now it was a bright fact that Church was wrong in the case of Galileo. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton became the heroes of modern time. It was generally accepted that Copernicus and Galileo were not rightfully treated by the societies of their time. The modern society was feeling guilty over it. Society, as a whole wanted to rectify its wrong doings. Modern progressive forces were in favor of accepting the superiority of rationality and experimental method in the process of knowing the truth. These progressive forces became so strong that now they openly and very easily could go against the traditional points of view. Now the patterns of liking and disliking of the society reversed. Society now would hate those who prefer traditional views to modern views. But still there was a class, which still was not ready to accept the truth and superiority of the modern scientific views.

The progressive people, who were represented by people like Voltaire, identified that the main difference between old traditional world and modern scientific world was the acceptance of the superior role of human intellect and wisdom in the process of getting knowledge, in the modern world. For those progressive people, their contemporary world was better than the old traditional world. As already has been mentioned that some regressive forces in the society were also present. Since the tone of the mainstream society was totally changed, so the position of those regressive elements had become reversed. Now in the modern times, one who would take the side of traditional views, would be considered to be insane by the mainstream society because the experimental method had been proved so successful that it became synonym of truth itself, even for a layman.

Now the situation was opposite. Previously, it were the progressive people who could not openly express their views. Now this difficulty was for those who were still traditional in their approach and views. Previously those traditional minded people could easily abstain progressive people from openly expressing their views by just using the force. Now they were not in position to exercise force because by then, they had lost the support of general opinion. So those regressive elements could not effectively use the language of force to combat the widespread view of the superiority of human intellect and wisdom over the ancient traditions.

So the tasks before the regressive elements were to fight and reject the modern views and to again win the support of general opinion. They could not employ force for addressing to these objectives, so some of them tried to combat the modern views using the power of pen. Rousseau was prominent among them. He denied accepting the superiority of intellect and wisdom. He wrote, “those who think, are inferior animals”. He rejected the modern ideas of culture and civilization. He forwarded his own views about culture and civilization, which were based on ancient traditions. He tried to prove the authenticity of scientific nature religious dogmas. He was quite rational and he used strong arguments in support of his anti-rational views. He really made progressive people to seriously think about the negative aspects of accepting the superiority of human intellect and wisdom. Voltaire was his contemporary prominent progressive intellectual philosopher.

Now it was Rousseau, a regressive person, who was going against the general opinion of the society. Voltaire was the representative of that modern general opinion. He was against the points of view of Rousseau but at the same time he believed in the complete freedom of thought. Rousseau was thinking against freedom of thought, but after all he himself was ‘thinking’. Voltaire could not ask him to stop his negative thinking because he did not want to impose any restriction on thinking, even if it was negative.

In the modern world of his time, now he was able to approve or disapprove traditional views. He was in a stronger position, so he said to Rousseau, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This was the result of a complete turn of the course of history. This is a good rational treatment against the opposing ideas but still we should not accept this solution to all the similar type problems because there can actually be some very sensitive issues where it may not be possible to accept the right to say of others, where others cross their legitimate rational and moral limits.

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19 Responses to ““I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.””

  1. Conor said

    A great essay, too bad Voltaire is misquoted:

    How did Voltaire manage to come out of this dilemma? It was in the form of his famous reply to Rousseau, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    If my memory serves me correctly “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” is the historically accurate response from Voltaire.

    The “I disapprove…right to say it” quote was written in the early 1900s describing Voltaire’s attitude of the time.

    ~Conor

  2. khuram said

    conor,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes I have used the famous wording of this quote which can be seen in Philosophy books of our era. I am not confirmed whether it is historically accurate statement or not. May you be right in that. But I do think that both these wordings reflect almost same essence.

    regards!

  3. Russ said

    The whole direction navigated by of both Voltaire’s statement and your own essay is at odds with your concluding statement. Therefore “we should not accept this solution to all the similar type problems because there can actually be some very sensitive issues where it may not be possible to accept the right to say of others, where others cross their legitimate rational and moral limits;” thus sinks both his statement and your argument.

  4. Khuram

    what a great essay you have written.
    I am reading things on line because as Dutch persons we are all held hostage in the upcoming anti-islam movie one of our politicians is goiing to release on the Internet one of these days.
    we are very proud of our freedom of speech but we hate what this man is telling us what the movie is about.
    the ending of your essay, which in a way does contradict the rest is the moral issue in which we foind ourselves.

    thank you
    maartje

  5. […] Rousseau… I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” k… And as a member of NRA President’s Council…I defend The 2nd Amendment… __________________ […]

  6. davida said

    Conor is right. Voltaire never actually utter those words or wrote (as far as anybody has ever discovered). He did write, “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

    The well know version of Voltaire’s letter, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” was written by Beatrice Hall
    — The Friends of Voltaire, 1906

  7. My friend on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came here.

  8. Zenne said

    Apparently even the line “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” does not appear to have been written by Voltaire either.

  9. […] involve nice and easy black and white situations that invoke sympathy with the defendant. As the famous saying goes:“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”Whilst it […]

  10. […] involve nice and easy black and white situations that invoke sympathy with the defendant. As the famous saying goes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say […]

  11. tremors said

    I would like to advise everyone of a situation where the ‘right to use that freedom of speech’ is in jepoardy. Try posting something on the internet that is against military actions around the globe, and see how fast the government sets up camp in your neighbor. Alex Jones, radio talk show host explains in detail what will happen. Your house gets wired for illegal listening. You suddenly find strange people following you around. You are attacked with unusual virus’ and bacteria, such as H1N1. It one point I thought Alex’s experience was theory. I now know better, I too am experiencing such an invasion.

    • Tj Freezn said

      True, but when some people post things on the internet in support of military actions around the world, others try to then attack the messenger instead of the message, failing that they then try to prevent further discussion that supports that view, and failing that, they remove the previous comments about it.
      So unfairness/hypocrisy appears to apply to almost all opposing views’ groups…

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