January 04, 2004


Despite my best intentions, I still haven't finished reading the Bernard Cottret book, Calvin: A Biography (which, as reader Kristine helpfully pointed out, is still in print after all). I'm almost done, which is a cause for some sadness -- it's a wonderful work. Here's Cottret, a French historian, on Voltaire's "a pox on both your houses" stance toward Protestants and Catholics:

The Protestants were no better than the Catholics. This seemed obvious to Voltaire, who advocated a form of free thought that would find its end in natural religion. According to Voltaire, the revealed religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in all its lines, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, all presented the same distressing spectacle. The Christians themselves are in turn victims and executioners: persecute them, and they supply martyrs; give them power, and they persecute in their turn. The controversy between Jesuits and Jansenists in the France of his day seemed to Voltaire to epitomize this cross fire of intolerance and sectarianism.

So thought the author of Candide, using those flippant sallies that the volatile French usually take for granted. At some centuries' distance, we see clearly that the most secular societies have in their turn given birth to monstrosities and that atheistic totalitarianism has undoubtedly surpassed all revealed religions in horror.

I've noted the same phenomenon myself at times. And while it may seem, at first blush, harsh to condemn whole societies laboring under the totalitarian boot, I remembered a passage from Robert Conquest's work A Harvest of Sorrow:

The necessary hatreds were inflamed; the activists who helped the GPU [the forerunner of the KGB] in the arrests and the deportations

were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied...

They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children 'kulak bastards', screaming 'bloodsuckers!' ... They had sold themselves on the idea that the so-called 'kulaks' were pariahs, untouchables, vermin. They would not sit down at a 'parasite's' table; the 'kulak' child was loathsome, the young 'kulak' girl was lower than a louse. They looked on the so-called 'kulaks' as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive: they had no souls; they stank; they all had venereal diseases; they were enemies of the people and exploited the labor of others ... And there was no pity for them. They were not human beings; one had a hard time making out what they were -- vermin, evidently.

This last paragraph is from Vasily Grossman. Himself Jewish, and the Soviet Union's leading writer on Hitler's holocaust, he draws the analogy with the Nazis and the Jews. A woman activist explains, 'What I said to myself at the time was "they are not human beings, they are kulaks" ... Who thought up this word "kulak" anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed the Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.'

And thus did the bulk of their societies proudly participate in the horrors that followed.

Cottret (a French historian) raised Voltaire in the context of Calvin's (and Geneva's) persecution of Michael Servetus. Like Giordano Bruno, Servetus was, by the standards of the dominant religious group he ran up against, certainly a heretic -- he denied the trinity, among other things. Voltaire helpfully points out that, where the situation reversed, and Servetus ruling over Geneva, it would be Calvin and his fellow trinitarians with necks "squeezed in nooses." Cottret continues,

Calvin or Servetus? Following Voltaire's steps, we shall not choose, not from lack of humanity, but for the sake of historical precision -- and in the first place, to exclude all anachronism from our judgments. For neither the word "tolerance" nor the concept existed in the sixteenth century. Philosophical tolerance, which Voltaire was trading in, was an imported article which the French seized on with their customary love of new products. Tolerance was born in the 1680s, at the beginning of the Enlightenment; it developed in a single area, that of northwestern Europe, England and the United Provinces [i.e., the Netherlands]. Finally, it was the work of one man in particular, John Locke, to whom the eighteenth century devoted faithful worship.

Tolerance, then, did not exist in the sixteenth century. In fact, it appeared impious. Is an example wanted? Thomas More, the author of Utopia, who was faithful to the end to his ideal of Catholic humanism, preferring the ignominious death of a traitor to renouncing his principles -- the great Thomas More accepted the stake for heretics. Indeed, he could not very well see what one could do with heretics other than burn them.

Posted by Ideofact at January 4, 2004 11:37 PM

New reader to your corner of the blog world.

Earlier, your sometime commenter Abu Noor al-Irlandee shared his thoughts on "Tolerance" in the context of the Islamist movement. He differed with your view of Sayyid Qutb in the comments of an earlier post (2 Qutb 1, Dec. 16, '03), in an amazingly erudite and respectful manner.

From the tone of his writing, I would be delighted to have Abu Noor as a neighbor or friend. From the content--his sprited defense of the political philosophy of a maximally intolerant person--I would not wish to see him in any position of authority or influence.

I hope he reads your posts and is moved to offer his reflections on this general subject, in a non-Islamic context.

Posted by: AMac at January 5, 2004 05:19 PM

Thanks for the kind words, and welcome to one of the loneliest corners of the blogosphere.

Posted by: Bill at January 7, 2004 12:01 AM