In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack yesterday a lot of people have been sharing this quote from Voltaire:
“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Unfortunately, the quote isn’t real — or at least, it’s not really Voltaire. It comes from a 1906 biography by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in which it was intended to represent a summary of his thinking on free speech issues. “I did not mean to imply,” she wrote later, “that Voltaire used these words verbatim.”
Some have claimed that the quote is a paraphrase of a similar statement from a 1770 letter of Voltaire’s:
“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
I myself made this “correction” in a blogpost a few years ago, and again on Twitter yesterday. But it turns out it’s a fake too — the letter from which it’s supposedly taken includes no such sentence.
Scholars pretty much agree that the sentiments in both passages are Voltairean, even if the language isn’t. So is there a third option we can use in good conscience?
Well, not really. So far I’ve found two candidates. First, there’s this:
“Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.”
Sadly, it has its doubters too, but it does appear in a 1901 published edition of Voltaire’s essays, so if it’s a fake it’s a fake of mistranslation. I’ve been trying to track down the French original to compare, but so far without success.
For a final option, we return to Hall, and to the page of her biography in which the original troublesome quote appeared. Its context was the burning of a book by a fellow French writer, to which Voltaire responded with the following:
“What a fuss about an omelette! How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!”
These two sentences are what inspired Hall to her gloss, and while they don’t carry the punch of “defend to the death,” they do fit neatly into 140 characters — with room left over for attribution and a URL.