Emile and a Treatise on Toleration: Intolerance, Fanaticism, & Reason

by Jessica Johns

This article was published in the Feb. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.

As notable Enlightenment era philosophes, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau both present arguments for tolerant political societies that are devoid of violent religious fanaticism. However, their respective means to this end differ importantly on their characterization of the role reason plays in human societies. For Voltaire, reason can eradicate fanaticism by enlightening man’s mind and making him moral. Rousseau, however, argues that fanatical energy is necessary to maintain man’s natural virtue in a society corrupted by reason. In this paper, I consider Voltaire and Rousseau’s arguments for religiously tolerant political societies in A Treatise on Toleration and Emile and present a comparison of the work that reason does in each conception. 


A Treatise on Toleration

Voltaire writes a Treatise on Toleration as a scathing denunciation of Catholicism, religious intolerance, and fanaticism in the wake of the French Revolution and millions of people slaughtered in religious warfare. As the head of the philosophes, Voltaire’s argument for the adoption of religious toleration in France is driven by his view of reason as an enlightening and progressive power. He posits that toleration is prudent, feasible, just, and, importantly, required by a proper understanding of Christianity. Finally, he concludes that through reason alone can humanity be persuaded to be compassionate toward their fellow humans and turn away from the grave injustice that is fanaticism.

First, Voltaire supports his claim that religious toleration is prudent by appealing to the irrationality of fanatical intolerance. Presumably, a zealot’s goal is to convert the greatest possible number of people to his faith to strengthen his own religion while subverting his enemies’. Voltaire asserts that not only is religious persecution inept at inspiring conversions, it is destructive to the persecutor’s cause.  Worse than merely being futile, persecution entrenches a martyr’s cause in his people and urges them to redouble efforts against their shared oppressor. Therefore, Voltaire asserts that toleration is the prudent choice, because as intolerance breeds political instability, so does tolerance breed stability (Voltaire 1994, 159, 162-165).

Second, Voltaire’s argument that religious toleration is finally feasible in France, where historically it was not, is couched in his progressive view of human nature as developing slowly over time through advances in reason. He claims that in previous centuries, reason had not yet adequately prepared man’s mind to understand or value the political and social outcome of tolerance compared to intolerance. Moreover, reason had not yet awoken compassion in man’s heart and taught him to feel remorse for past atrocities. “Philosophy,” Voltaire notes, “has disarmed the hands that superstition had so long stained with blood; and the human mind, awakening from its intoxication, is amazed at the excesses into which fanaticism had led it” (Voltaire 1994, 161).

Further, Voltaire argues that toleration is just according to natural law, while fanaticism and intolerance are unjust. Intolerance violates the natural law of reciprocity that obligates man to do unto others as he would have done unto himself; the intolerant man denies reciprocity and instead asserts an asymmetric right to persecute without the threat of just retaliation. Because human law must accord with natural law in Voltaire’s view, he asserts that “the supposed right of intolerance is absurd [,] barbaric,” and fundamentally unjust (Voltaire 1994, 168-169).

Finally, Voltaire asserts that rather than justifying intolerance, an accurate account of Christianity teaches man to value martyrdom and forgiveness. He points to the example of Jesus as a man who met hatred with “gentleness, patience, and indulgence;” he taught his followers that the strongest faith is found in he who forgives his enemy, and not in someone prone to violent disagreement. “If you wish to follow Jesus Christ,” Voltaire suggests, “be martyrs, not executioners” (Voltaire 1994, 202). The story of Socrates’ demise supports this conclusion; an enlightened man who embodied rational thought, Socrates chose to die for his cause with forgiveness for his executioners on his last breath. Voltaire uses this example to further his assertion that not only is tolerance supported by Christianity correctly understood, but it is also supported by those who value the power of reason. (Voltaire 1994, 198-203).

In summation, Voltaire’s argument is that generation by generation, reason is slowly improving human nature and making humanity more moral. He posits that “The great means to reduce the number of fanatics . . . is to submit that disease of the mind to the treatment of reason, which, slowly but infallibly, enlightens man. Reason is gentle and humane. It inspires liberality, suppresses discord, and strengthens virtue” (Voltaire 1994, 166). Fanaticism breeds intolerance, which fundamentally weakens society by occupying its citizens with killing one another in needless religious warfare. Reason is the cure for this disease – it eradicates fanaticism by opening man’s eyes to the injustice of intolerance and awakening a sense of compassion for others (Voltaire 1994, 161). Compassion, driven by reason, motivates virtuous relationships between citizens and becomes the foundation for their commitment to obey the state on Voltaire’s account.



Rousseau’s discussion of intolerance, fanaticism, and reason occurs in “The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar” in Book IV of Emile. Emile is the result of Rousseau’s project to understand the psychology of human development in a corrupt civil society, and the role that education plays in preserving humans’ natural goodness despite their circumstance (Delaney n.d.). In the “Profession of Faith,” the vicar introduces his conception of an intensely individualistic and natural religion to a young Emile (arguably a young Rousseau) who is struggling to square his belief in Christianity’s God with the existence of evil in the world.  In Rousseau’s view, the vicar’s natural religion provides the tools to imagine a tolerant, religious state that can adequately motivate citizens to lead moral lives.

A brief reconstruction of Rousseau’s view of human nature and society is necessary to understand what gave rise to intolerance and fanaticism on his view and to further advance my interpretation of the role of reason. In part one of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau posits that man is naturally simple, good because he lacks knowledge of evil, and prone to pity fellow humans’ suffering (Rousseau 2004, 3-26). Opposed to Voltaire’s progressive view of human history, he asserts that the move from an individualistic state of nature into cooperative society corrupted man for a variety of reasons; two of these reasons are particularly relevant to my discussion.

First, the close proximity and necessary cooperation of society awakens in man the other-regarding sentiment amour propre. Fredrick Neuhouser posits the following: “What amour propre seeks is some form of recognition, an acknowledgement by others of one’s status as a valued subject … [and is the] desire to be esteemed [or] admired” (Neuhouser 2014, 65). This selfish desire to make oneself worthy of esteem, coupled with the rational ability to achieve one’s ends, overrides natural man’s pity for his fellow humans. Necessarily, amour propre is a “positional” sentiment that makes one think about one’s own success, status, or failure relative to that of others (Neuhouser 2014, 67). In terms of religious intolerance, amour propre drives one to establish the preeminence of his religion over all others, often by violent means.

Second, society engenders a degree of dependence on others that makes humanity epistemically lazy. Here, Rousseau is especially concerned with the dogmatic nature of Christianity that requires man to rely on past people to provide him with the content of his faith and which relieves him of any responsibility to independently seek or verify religion. The philosophe is skeptical of a psychology that encourages unverified belief in centuries old teachings about a god who has been silent for the same amount of time. This kind of dependence necessarily breeds intolerance and fanaticism (Rousseau 1979, 301-310). On this, Rousseau says the following:

If the son of a Christian does well in following his father’s religion without a profound and impartial examination, why would the son of a Turk do wrong in similarly following his father’s religion? . . . to what absurdity pride and intolerance lead, when each man is so sure of his position and believes he is right to the exclusion of the rest of mankind (Rousseau 1979, 306).

However, it is important to note that though Rousseau condemns dependence as opposed to human nature, he concedes that it is a necessary evil to preserve man’s natural virtue given that he must exist in a civil society corrupted by reason (Rousseau 1979, 306, 312fn).

The interaction between amour propre and dependence foundationally informs Rousseau’s story about the emergence of religious intolerance and violent fanaticism. Dependence allows one to believe absolutely and uncritically in his religion. Fueled by an esteem-seeking desire to prove the superiority of his religion above all others, he becomes intolerant of any who deny this claim. Inevitably, this cycle devolves into the kind of religiously motivated slaughter that Rousseau was privy to most of his life.

Given his story on the rise of intolerance and fanaticism, Rousseau offers a much less charitable account than Voltaire of the effect reason has on these phenomena. Reason, he argues, does not make one compassionate, as Voltaire suggests; rather, it magnifies amour propre, dulls the ability to feel pity for others, and emotionally isolates citizens from one another (Rousseau 1979, 312fn). Rousseau’s negative view of reason is in the context of his overarching argument in favor of unifying religion and the state. He argues that religion is fundamentally important to human nature because it creates a worldview in which this life has purpose and has consequences for the fate of a person’s salvation in the next life. This is a powerful source of moral motivation that Rousseau believes the state can harness to create a more stable society. This view drives Rousseau’s defense of fanaticism. He denounces the historic brutality that religious fanatics committed but defends fanaticism by arguing that those acts were the consequence of poorly directed moral energy:

. . . fanaticism, although sanguinary and cruel, is nevertheless a grand and strong passion which elevates the heart of man, makes him despise death, and gives him a prodigious energy that need only be better directed to produce the most sublime virtues (Rousseau 1979, 312fn).

Further, he argues that this moral energy can be redirected toward caring passionately about treating others justly and supporting a government that accomplishes this. The energy and dependence that drove fanatics to commit to a cause absolutely and without reservation can be replicated with respect to a moral state and ought to be preserved on Rousseau’s account (Rousseau 1979, 312fn).

Voltaire’s argument for the eradication of fanaticism through reason fails on Rousseau’s view because philosophical reason alone cannot sufficiently motivate citizens to function effectively in a political society. Further, more than just lacking motivation, reason makes the kind of absolute commitment that Rousseau’s redirected fanaticism engenders unlikely. It robs man of his passion for right and wrong, his appeal to an eternal life, his pity for fellow humans, and leaves his heart cold and indifferent with nothing but earthly intellectual motivation to lead a virtuous life. Rousseau fundamentally denies Voltaire’s claim that the human capacity for rationality and reason is capable of producing the same degree of commitment to being a moral people that redirected fanatical energy can (Rousseau 1979, 312fn).

As philosophers writing in a period characterized by politically and religiously motivated violence and unrest, Rousseau and Voltaire share a common goal in their arguments for a religiously tolerant society. Both view religious fanaticism as deeply destabilizing and a threat to natural justice but differ importantly on their proposed treatment for this disease in civil society. Driving this difference is the philosophers’ fundamentally contrasting view of reason: while Voltaire champions the enlightening power it has over human history, Rousseau likens reason to “philosophic indifference” to the “tranquility of death” (Rousseau 1979, 312fn). ~


Works Cited

Delaney, James J. n.d. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/#SH5a.

Neuhouser, Frederick. 2014. Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality: Reconstructing the Second Discourse. Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2004. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Dover Publications.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1979. Emile or On Education. Translated by Allan Bloom, Basic Books.

Voltaire. 1994. Treatise on Toleration and Other Essays. Translated by Joseph McCabe, Prometheus Books.

Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism” by William Hogarth is in the public domain (CC0
1.0 Universal). Cropped.

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