By Abdul Shaban
The writer is the Deputy Director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur Campus. Views expressed are personal.
Illiberalism, dogmatism and hate violence are rising at a worrisome pace in India. The killing of activists, journalists, and claims of sedition are an attempt to mute the voices of freedom. This climate of fear is also engulfing teachers and students in universities, whose trade is to think, reason, and rationalise freely.
Indian society has produced many Mahatmas, messiahs of the marginalised, social reformers, and gurus of different sorts, but they have not been able to rise beyond the contexts and groups that they belonged to. After Independence, the state did try to change its institutions and to modernise society without changing the thinking of its people. This is why state institutions are now failing and people are returning to their old exclusionary practices—be it related to gender, caste, religion, superstition or narrow nationalism.
Voltaire as an enlightenment figure
Our society now requires an Indian version of the French thinker François-Marie Arouet alias Voltaire (1694-1778) who, by a stroke of his pen, largely annihilated dogmatism in Europe. He fought battles against religious bigotry and injustice while facing exile, imprisonment, and the suppression of his many books by theocrats. Voltaire paved the way for the French enlightenment. It is said that with Voltaire, France began to think.
Voltaire wrote widely and critically on the bloody consequences of religious intolerance. He was not an atheist—unlike Nietzsche he did not believe that ‘God is dead’—but believed in deism or rational religion without any connection to traditional metaphysics. He loathed fanaticism, idolatry, and superstition and reviled even the thinking that men could kill each other to defend some piece of religious doctrine. He detested the clerics who exploited credulous believers to maintain their power base and greatly admired what he saw as the multicultural spirit of England, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could transact the day’s business with each other in peace before retreating to their own private spaces.
Voltaire believed that if there was only one religion it will be tyrannical, but a multitude of religions had lead to the social peace that was enjoyed in England, which he opposed to France’s Catholic society of the time. He also detested French patriotism of the time, which he felt was based on hating other countries.
The Philosophical Dictionary
In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote in a satirical style that a Gini had conveyed him to heaven. There, he saw heaps of bones of those killed for religion—twenty-three thousand Jews who danced before a calf, Christians slaughtered by each other in metaphysical disputes, twelve million native Americans killed because they had not been baptized.
It is anybody’s guess how he would have described today’s fanatic Islamists slaughtering people in many parts of the world. However, he did reserve some respect for Muslims in particular, saying, “The Mohammedans were sullied with the same inhumanities, but rarely; and when one asked amman, pity, of them and offered them tribute, they pardoned”.
Among other philosophers in the story, Voltaire meets Socrates and hears how he was killed by a conspiracy led by a wicked priest for the crime of believing in a universal god rather than in the divine Moon, Mercury, and Venus. At this, Voltaire expresses incredulity that people have had a habit of killing philosophers.
Next, Voltaire recounts the story of Numa Pompilius—the second king of Rome—about how he introduced virtue and the love of god to an uncivilised and warmongering people; and how the Romans forgot both these lessons after his death.
In the novel, Voltaire then he meets a man who is bleeding, has swollen feet, a pierced side and his ribs flayed with cuts made by a whip. Voltaire asks why he was treated in this way? Whether like Socrates he had refused to say that Venus, Mercury and the moon were gods? Or did he want to teach them a new religion?
The man replies this was not the case. He had always gone to the temple and was even circumcised; he had only told them to, ‘love god and your fellow-creature as yourself. Judge if I brought them a new religion’. And, they put me to death. Then Voltaire asks whether the man told them to bring peace by the sword. The man replied that he told them to bring peace and not the sword.
The lesson from Voltaire’s story
Voltaire writes that, once fanaticism has corrupted a mind, the malady is almost incurable. Such an infected person is liable to kill anyone who contradicts them. The only remedy for this malady is the philosophical spirit which tames men’s habits and prevents the disease from taking root. Laws and religion are not strong enough against the spiritual pest. Indeed, according to Voltaire, religion, far from being healthy food for infected brains turns to poison in them. Religion has great potential to do good in the world, as a conveyor of civilization and enlightenment, but it can also lead us to kill each other.
Voltaire once found a man who was to be sentenced to death by judges in a Catholic city who were acting out of religious bigotry. He acted by printed pamphlets and wrote to the authorities. Finally, the judgement was quashed by judges in Paris. In this, Voltaire shows how philosophers who are willing to act can change public opinion by their ideas.
Voltaire’s legacy remains an extraordinary one in the fight against religious intolerance, illiberalism, and fanaticism, and in defence of reason, rationality, multi-culturalism, and the freedom of speech. The impact of his ideas on French society was reflected even after two centuries when French President Charles de Gaulle refused a recommendation to arrest the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for his participation in the 1968 uprising, saying, “You don’t arrest Voltaire”. India can learn a lot from Voltaire’s example.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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