Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Misquoting Voltaire

The internet is an amazing thing. Why don't Adventist leaders use it? It is not hard to use if you pay attention you can easily tell who has substantiated facts from the drivel. Take the following column from

A Tale—or Two—For Our Time Aug 27, 2012 by Cindy Tutsch. She writes after asserting that a particular sermon she gave was all true she just might not have expressed herself better she writes:
Maybe the skeptic Voltaire is the “stones crying out” to us today when he wrote, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
A brief internet search would have shown that the quote as she expressed it within the quotation marks is not from Voltaire and not even from the person who recorded her interpretation of what Voltaire believed. The following is from
A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred
to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to
the death your right to say it.” ’

In De l’esprit [‘On the Mind’], published in 1758, the French philosopher
Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation:
a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result.
The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was
condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed
to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary
of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of
Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for
them both. ‘On the Mind’ became not the success of a season, but one of the most
famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved
Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or
unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the
burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I
disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his
attitude now.

(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in
James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)

Reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations,
edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55.
By permission of Oxford University Press (
Now I am used to journalists being lazy today and just asserting things that aren't true but at least the Daily Telegraph got the actual words of the book for the quotation right. Though not necessarily a provable statement by Voltaire, it is not even written as a quote of Voltaire but of his attitude.

Why does this matter. I think it reflects a common religious narrowness where people don't really analyze what they are saying. They don't check their sources and they are certain they are right even when wrong. Then they assume the truth of what they deliver in sermons as all true. I having read many of the above AToday's authors columns, am pretty sure that she has never given even one sermon that is all true.

Religion in general and  Adventism really needs to re-examine itself and its writers and leaders. You won't see the comments on the column pointing out this error because errors have become so common that the readers only look at the general tone or position and agree or disagree but rarely get involved in the details. This allows poor research and reasoning to continue and that ultimately harms us all.