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The Origins of a Warning from Voltaire

An investigation.
December 20, 2020
The Origins of a Warning from Voltaire

“Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that famous quote, ordinarily attributed to Voltaire. When I brought up the quote on Twitter the other day, I was taken aback when a reader challenged its authenticity, citing this French-language Swiss source in which a Voltaire biographer writes it off as an internet myth. Had I, along with hundreds of others, gotten the origin of “absurdities . . . atrocities” wrong? Misattribution of famous quotes is rife online, after all, very much including the better-known line attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That most excellent maxim is best described as a paraphrase (rather than a translation) of the French philosopher’s views as rendered by English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906.

So I looked into the provenance of the “absurdities . . . atrocities” line, and here is what I found.

It appears to have originated as a loose translation of a passage from Voltaire’s ‘Questions sur les miracles’ (1765). The original is on the right page here, last paragraph, the one that begins “Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois. . .” The sentence in question is, “Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste.”

The English version—note that it differs slightly in wording from most internet versions—conventionally appears as part of the following longer paragraph translating the above [italics added]:

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is injust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

Which still leaves the question: where did the English translation come from? All sources I have seen attribute it to Norman Lewis Torrey, Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy (1961).

While I am in no way a French scholar, I don’t see how the slightly longer version of the sentence associated with the Torrey volume misrepresents the somewhat more terse and aphoristic original. And it is the context of the full paragraph that explains why: the person who has been led into absurdity of belief is led to be unjust not in some incidental, random, or trivial way, but because he or she falls under a kind of external “command” or domination that results in a “demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart,” from which follow “crimes.” 

In my view, the widely encountered internet quote does check out as very much what Voltaire was trying to warn us about in this passage. And as warnings go, this is one that remains timely at all places and times, including the United States as the year 2020 draws to a close.

Walter Olson

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies and the author of several books on the American legal system.