Charlie Hebdo: What would Voltaire have said?

Centuries before the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris shocked the world this week, Voltaire was defending the right to express opinions that may offend.

French satirist, philosopher, historian, dramatist, and poet Francois Marie Arouet is best known by his pen name Voltaire.

The terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo inspired many readers to think of Voltaire, perhaps the greatest champion of free speech in the history of France – and, quite arguably, the world.

Voltaire was the pen name of François Marie Arouet, the French satirist, philosopher, historian, dramatist, and poet who lived between 1694 and 1778. Voltaire’s legendary wit and his unorthodox views on many topics, including organized religion, often got him in trouble. Reaction against his writings forced him to leave France for long periods, but those hardships failed to silence his pen.

He’s widely credited with the famous formulation, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It’s a wonderful statement of principle, although apparently not exactly what Voltaire said, according to “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” The reference work cites one scholar who suggests that the line is probably a fanciful paraphrase of what Voltaire once told one of his correspondents: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Paris, there’s no better way to affirm the value of free expression than to take Voltaire from the shelf. Among his memorable prose works are “Letters Concerning the English Nation,” written during his exile in Britain; “The Portable Philosophical Dictionary,” a distillation of some of his wittiest observations; and “Candide,” his celebrated allegorical novel.

A great introduction to Voltaire is an Everyman edition called “Selected Writings,” which offers a concise survey of his work.

Here, in honor of Voltaire, liberty and the resilience of the French people – and right now, we all feel French – are five classic quotations from the classic writer:

1)      “Virtue debases itself in justifying itself.”

2)       “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.”

3)      “He who is merely just is severe.”

4)      “It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.”

5)      “Work keeps us from three great evils, boredom, vice, and poverty.”

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