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Voltaire on the Perils of Censorship, the Freedom of the Press, and the Rewards of Reading

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“The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.”

Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectuals on both sides of the English Channel and beyond. But more than a mere participant in literary culture, Voltaire was also its vocal proponent, unflinching custodian, and tireless crusader for its highest ideals. In a poignant and pointed 1733 letter to a high-ranking government commissioner, found in the volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection From His Correspondence (public library; public domain) by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire bemoans the extreme censorship of the press in 18th-century France. Making a brilliant addition to famous authors’ revolt against censorship and eloquently extolling the rewards of reading, he writes:

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar — slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

He then goes on to make an economic case against censorship, arguing that even the most meritless of literature should be allowed to exist for its economic and social value, whatever our moral judgment of it may be — an argument that could apply perfectly, depending on one’s disposition, to the Buzzfeeds and Huffington Posts of our time:

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier — and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things — profit and pleasure.

A year after Voltaire penned this missive, his own Letters on the English were publicly burned and he was compelled to flee the capital. But, as Hall writes, “the system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman’s fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous.”

Four decades later, writing to Rousseau in 1775 to discuss the perils of plagiarism, Voltaire revisits the subject of literature’s battles with his singular gift for separating the petty from the profound:

What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.

They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrants, Octavius Caesar — servilely entitled Augustus — he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

[…]

If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused — as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness. . .

More of Voltaire’s timeless wisdom and unwavering convictions can be found in Letters on the English, which is also available as a free download.

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