I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It

Voltaire? François-Marie Arouet? S. G. Tallentyre? Evelyn Beatrice Hall? Ignazio Silone? Douglas Young? Norbert Guterman?
voltaire08Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore a famous saying that apparently has been misattributed to Voltaire:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

The words above reportedly originated with an English author named Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906, but the situation is baffling because I have also seen a French version of the saying that some claim is authentic:

Monsieur l’abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerai ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire.

Here is one rendering in English:

Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Voltaire was the pen name of François-Marie Arouet who died in 1778. The earliest evidence of the saying appeared many years afterwards in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire” by S. G. Tallentyre which was the pseudonym of historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Her book described an incident involving the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius who in 1758 published a controversial work titled “De l’esprit” (“On the Mind”). The book was condemned in the Parlement of Paris and by the Collège de Sorbonne. Voltaire was unimpressed with the text, but he considered the attacks unjustified. After Voltaire learned that the book by Helvétius had been publicly incinerated he reacted as follows according to Hall: 1

‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.

The above passage was confusing because Hall enclosed the now famous statement in quotation marks. Yet, the elegant phrase depicted Hall’s conception of Voltaire’s internal mental attitude and not his actual spoken words. Indeed, Hall asserted that the words were hers and not Voltaire’s in a 1939 letter published in the journal “Modern Language Notes”. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding persists to this day.

The questioner highlighted a French version of the saying, and QI has located a new matching citation in 1950, but the origin of this French statement remains uncertain. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1919 Evelyn Beatrice Hall revisited this topic when she published a collection of letters from Voltaire which she had translated and edited. She included an instance of the well-known saying, but she did not assign the words to Voltaire. Instead, she labelled the expression a “Voltairean principle”, and she placed it within her own commentary about the relationship between Voltaire and Helvétius. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

When in 1759, On the Mind was burnt by the public hangman in company with Voltaire’s poem On Natural Law, though he had soundly hated (and roundly abused) Helvétius’ masterpiece, he fought for its right to live, tooth and nail, up hill and down dale, on the essentially Voltairean principle: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Hall’s phrasing in 1919 differed slightly from the phrasing in 1906, e.g., the word “wholly” was inserted. Also, the placement clearly indicated that the expression was hers and not Voltaire’s.

In 1920 a book titled “My Second Country (France)” by a Francophile named Robert Dell printed an instance of the remark. The author stated that the phrase with “wholly” appeared within a letter sent to Helvétius but no date was listed: 3

Voltaire’s tolerance finds its highest expression in the famous sentence of his letter to Helvetius: “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In June 1920 a newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota credited the version with “wholly” to Voltaire: 4

FREEDOM OF SPEECH
While lovers of liberty in all lands have urged the necessity of freedom of speech, none put the case more pointedly than Voltaire when he said: “I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In November 1922 the widely circulated periodical “Collier’s: The National Weekly” printed an article about free speech that included an instance of the saying with the word “contend” instead of “defend”. The article was reprinted in the “Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine” of Indianapolis, Indiana: 5 6

If you deny to anyone else the right to say what you think is wrong, it will not be long before you will lose the right to say what you think is right. Defense of the freedom of others is self-defense. Voltaire stated this fact as a genius can: “I wholly disagree with what you say and will contend to the death for your right to say it.”

In 1943 Burdette Kinne of Columbia University published a short article in “Modern Language Notes” which contained an important letter Hall sent to Kinne in 1939. Hall stated that she had crafted the saying and not Voltaire: 7

The phrase “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it” which you have found in my book “Voltaire in His Letters” is my own expression and should not have been put in inverted commas. Please accept my apologies for having, quite unintentionally, misled you into thinking I was quoting a sentence used by Voltaire (or anyone else but myself).

A memoir by Douglas Young published in 1950 mentioned a speech given by Ignazio Silone who was the President of the Italian Centre of P.E.N. (Poets, Essayists and Novelists). Young stated that Silone employed a French version of the saying attributed to Voltaire: 8

People in P.E.N. are fond of quoting Voltaire’s remark: “Monsieur l’Abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerais ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire”, and Silone duly quoted it, going on, however, to develop a criticism of the social, political and economic factors on which the freedom of expression is dependent.

In 1963 a collection of French quotations with English translations was released by Norbert Guterman. The French statement listed above was included in the compilation, but no citation was provided. Within Guterman’s book there was a citation to a letter dated February 6, 1770, but that citation was for an adjacent Voltaire quotation about God and large battalions. Some readers became confused: 9

On dit que Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons.
Id., A M. le Riche, 6 février 1770

Monsieur l’abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerais ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire.
Id.

The 1968 edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” contained an entry for the saying attributed to Voltaire: 10

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Attributed

A footnote attached to the quotation in “Bartlett’s” contained some flawed information about Guterman’s book. The incorrect suggestion that the quotation could be found in a 1770 letter has also been transmitted in other reference works:

Norbert Guterman, in A Book of French Quotations [1963], suggests that the probable source for the quotation is from a line in a letter to M. le Riche [February 6, 1770]: “Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

The French Wikipedia page for Voltaire also ascribes the saying to Hall and not to Voltaire. In addition, the webpage notes that the citation to a letter dated February 6, 1770 was spurious. 11

In conclusion, many researchers have attempted to find the quotation in the works of Voltaire, but it has never been located. Evelyn Beatrice Hall probably crafted the statement which was disseminated in her 1906 work titled “The Friends of Voltaire”. Hall’s words memorably and gracefully reflected her conception of Voltaire’s viewpoint.

The French version of the saying was in circulation by 1950, a very late date. Douglas Young wrote that he heard it in a speech delivered by Ignazio Silone. The saying was printed in a quotation collection in 1963 and then it appeared in the fourteenth edition of the important reference “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”.

(Great thanks to Lidia Freitas whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Conor Walsh who asked about a related quotation attributed to Oscar Wilde. Special thanks to Tom Sawallis who pointed to some useful French language webpages on this topic. One source contained the important 1943 citation in which Hall ascribed the quotation to herself. Many thanks to Joel S. Berson who accessed the 1950 book “Chasing an Ancient Greek”.)

Notes:

  1. 1906, The Friends of Voltaire by S. G. Tallentyre (Actual author: Evelyn Beatrice Hall), Quote Page 198 and 199, Published be John Murray, Albemarle Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1919, Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence, Translated and Edited by S. G. Tallentyre (Actual author and translator: Evelyn Beatrice Hall), (Commentary on letter 22 from Voltaire to Helvétius), Quote Page 65, Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Boks Full View) link
  3. 1920, My Second Country (France) by Robert Dell, Quote Page 289 and 290, Published by John Lane, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1920 June 3, Daily North-West Square Deal, Freedom of Speech, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1922 November 4, Collier’s: The National Weekly, Volume 70, Number 19, “Let the People Know the Truth”: A Brief for Free Speech by Henry E. Jackson, Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Published by P. F. Collier and Son Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1923 March, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine, Volume 74, Number 1, Let the People Know the Truth: A Brief for Free Speech by Henry E. Jackson, (Acknowledgement to Collier’s, The National Weekly), Start Page 101, Quote Page 101, Published by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1943 November, Modern Language Notes, Volume 58, Number 7, Voltaire Never Said it! by Burdette Kinne, (Letter dated May 9, 1939 from E. Beatrice Hall (S. G. Tallentyre)), Start Page 534, Quote Page 534 and 535, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1950, Chasing an Ancient Greek: Discursive Reminiscences of an European Journey by Douglas Young, Quote Page 117, Published by Hollis & Carter, London. (Verified with scans thanks to Joel S. Berson and the Widener Library of Harvard University)
  9. 1990 (Originally published in 1963), The Anchor Book of French Quotations with English Translations, Compiled by Norbert Guterman, Section: Voltaire, Quote Page 188, Published by Anchor Books: Doubleday, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1968, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Edited by Emily Morison Beck, Fourteenth Edition, Section: Voltaire, Quote Page 418, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  11. Website: Wikipedia (French), Article title: Voltaire, Website description: Encyclopedia edited by volunteers, (Accessed fr.wikipedia.org on May 30, 2016) link