In the aftermath of a cruel and horrific attack on the satirical news magazine Charlie Hebdo, French readers aren't turning to hate or cruelty themselves; instead they are seeking tolerance. Just a couple of weeks after the attacks in which the newspaper's editor, several cartoonists, and other staff members were killed, readers are sending Voltaire's 1763 book A Treatise on Tolerance up the French bestseller charts.
A Treatise on Tolerance, also known as A Treatise on Toleration, was written by French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian François-Marie Arouet — better known by his nom de plume Voltaire. And if Voltaire happened to appear in your 8 a.m. philosophy class in college and you need a refresher, just know this: He was an outspoken proponent of the freedom of speech and thought, and he was never afraid to challenge the status quo of the government, the church, or any other institution. Like Charlie Hebdo itself, satire was often his path of choice. He used his satirical writings often to take intolerance to task.
A Treatise on Tolerance was Voltaire's first major work of philosophy, and it was written in response to the biased trial of French Protestant Jean Calas, as Voltaire and many others believe that he was convicted because of his faith. The book notably seeks to expose and exorcise intolerance against any religion, and it showcases other faiths that have shown tolerance to those outside their religion.
In the book, Voltaire says:
La tolérance, c'est l'apanage de l'humanité; nous sommes tous pétris de faiblesse et d'erreurs; pardonnons-nous réciproquement nos sottises. C'est la première loi de la nature.
Or, in English:
Toleration is the prerogative of humanity; we are all full of weaknesses and mistakes; let us reciprocally forgive ourselves. It is the first law of nature.
Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane "Charb" Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, drew inspiration from Voltaire in his work and life. He wrote two books that borrowed from Voltaire's book title, one called Little Treatise on Intolerance: I laugh about what I want, when I want.
Clearly, watching A Treatise on Tolerance rise up the French bestseller list is a powerful reminder of not only the influence and inspiration words can have, but of the undeniable strength of the French people in the wake of such tragedy. We could all learn a little something from this reaction.