Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities Can Make You Commit Atrocities

Voltaire? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? Desmond MacCarthy? Sissela Bok? Joseph Wood Krutch? Norman L. Torrey? Marvin Lowenthal? Henry Hazlitt? Richard Dawkins? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A system that forces people to embrace absurd beliefs causes damage to their processes of rational thought. These impaired people are more likely to act illogically and destructively. With encouragement they may act barbarously. Here are three instances from a family of related sayings:

(1) Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

(2) People will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities.

(3) If we believe absurdities we shall commit atrocities.

The famous French philosopher Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet) supposedly made one of these remarks, but I have been unable to find a precise citation. Would you please explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find an exact match for any of these statements in the works of Voltaire. There is a partial match using the word “unjust” instead of “atrocities”. Here is the original French statement followed by three possible translations: 1

1765: Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste

Translation 01: Certainly, whoever has the right to make you absurd has the right to make you unjust

Translation 02: Truly, whoever can make you look absurd can make you act unjustly

Translation 03: Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices

The line above appeared within letter number eleven published in 1765 in Voltaire’s work “Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles” (“Collection of Letters on Miracles”). A larger excerpt appears further below.

Pertinent matches in English using the word “atrocities” began to appear by 1914. Voltaire usually received credit for these sayings, and they form a natural family although the precise phrasings and meanings vary. The following overview with dates shows the evolution:

1914: As long as people continue to believe absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities (Spoken by a fictional version of Voltaire)

1933: Men will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities (Described as “formula of Voltaire”)

1936: Men will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities (Attributed to Voltaire)

1937: If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan)

1944: Men will be brutal so long as they believe absurdities (Attributed to Voltaire)

1946: People who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities (Attributed to a great thinker)

1960: Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. (Translation of Voltaire by Norman L. Torrey)

1963: Those who can persuade us to believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities (Described as a dictum of Voltaire by Norman L. Torrey)

1977: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities (Attributed to Voltaire)

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Voltaire’s 1765 work contained a series of fictional letters attributed to various people. “Mr. Théro” received credit for letter number eleven. Below is a French excerpt followed by one possible English rendition: 2

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnoient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste.

There have been people who once said, you believe incomprehensible, contradictory, impossible things, because we have ordered you to do so; therefore do unjust things because we order you to do so. These people reasoned wonderfully. Certainly, whoever has the right to make you absurd has the right to make you unjust.

In 1914 the British writer and influential literary critic Desmond MacCarthy published a short story titled “A Hermit’s Day” in “The New Statesman” of London. MacCarthy depicted an elderly fictional version of Voltaire who said the following: 3

“The poor Father, indeed! The poor Calas! Ah, my child, as long as people continue to believe absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities!”

A collection of pieces by Desmond MacCarthy appeared under the title “Remnants” in 1918. The book included a reprint of the 1914 story; hence, the fictional quotation achieved further circulation. 4

In 1933 commentator Joseph Wood Krutch published a piece in “Harper’s Magazine” of New York. He called the saying a “formula of Voltaire”, and he did not place it between quotation marks: 5

Perhaps good may come out of delusion, but the formula of Voltaire is to me convincing: Men will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities.

In 1936 Marvin Lowenthal published “The Jews Of Germany: A Story Of Sixteen Centuries”. He ascribed the saying to Voltaire and placed it between quotation marks: 6

Voltaire was soon to explain these witch-burnings and Jew-burnings, and indeed most of our history, in his single remark: “As long as people believe absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.”

Also, in 1936 “The New York Times” published a book review by Henry Hazlitt of a new biography of Voltaire by H. N. Brailsford. Hazlitt attributed the saying to Voltaire. The saying did not appear in the biography under review: 7

His work has not lost its meaning because the fanaticism and bigotry of our own day are essentially political, not religious. “Men will continue to commit atrocities,” he wrote, “as long as they continue to believe absurdities.” Could any sentence be more pertinent to what is happening in Nazi Germany today?

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a scholar of religion who later became the President of India. In 1937 he delivered a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in London, and he employed an instance of the saying without attribution: 8

Any ethical theory must be grounded in metaphysics, in a philosophical conception of the relation between human conduct and ultimate reality. As we think ultimate reality to be, so we behave. Vision and action go together. If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.

In 1938 an editorial in “The New York Times” again credited the saying to Voltaire: 9

More than ever we are in a position to realize the profound truth of Voltaire’s observation that “men will continue to commit atrocities as long as they continue to believe absurdities.”

In 1944 a columnist in the “Detroit Tribune” of Michigan printed the following: 10

The only cure for ignorance is knowledge. “Men will be brutal so long as they believe absurdities” Voltaire said.

In 1946 a columnist in Albany, Oregon published the following: 11

A great thinker once said: “People who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities.” How true, in view of what is taking place in certain sections of our country.

In 1955 Manmatha N. Chatterjee published a book review in “The Antioch Review”, and he recalled the linkage to Radhakrishnan: 12

As Professor Radhakrishnan has written: “If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities.”

In 1960 Norman L. Torrey published “Les Philosophes: The French Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy”. He included a translation of an excerpt from Voltaire’s letter number 11 from “Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles ” (“Collection of Letters on Miracles”): 13

In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of justice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil.

In 1963 Norman L. Torrey penned a preface for Diana Guiragossian’s book “Voltaire’s Facéties” (“Voltaire’s Jokes”). Torrey credited Voltaire with a dictum that closely matched the quotation under examination in this article: 14

Who could guess that the eleventh letter of the series of facéties entitled Questions sur les miracles is the source of the famous dictum that those who can persuade us to believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities?

In 1977 an opinion piece by Madsen Pirie printed in a Panama City, Florida newspaper attributed the quotation to Voltaire: 15

Voltaire once said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” He was right. More atrocities have been committed in the name of “working together” than for any other absurdity.

Also, in 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” compiled by Laurence J. Peter included the following: 16

If we believe absurdities we shall commit atrocities.
—Voltaire (François Marie Arouet) (1694-1778)

In 1982 U.S. philosopher Sissela Bok published “Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation” and she included an instance attributed to Voltaire: 17

Nowhere is the link between belief and action so direct as when the loss of personal judgment and of the capacity to deliberate freely removes all restraints on what human beings may do to one another. It is to this link that a remark attributed to Voltaire points: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

In 1994 “The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy” by Simon Blackburn included an entry for Voltaire which contained the following: 18

Himself a deist, he became famous as the implacable opponent of organized Christian religion, whose baleful effects were all too visible in the world of his time (‘those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’).

In 2006 evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published the best-seller “The God Delusion”, and he attributed the saying to Voltaire: 19

Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

In conclusion, Voltaire deserves credit for the statement he wrote in French in “Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles” in 1765. Multiple translations of the remark into English have appeared, but none contain the word “atrocities”. The original French word was “injuste” (“unjust”). In 1914 a fictional version of Voltaire delivered a remark containing the word “atrocities” in a short story. During subsequent years a variety of statements with the word “atrocities” began to circulate.

Image Notes: Public domain portrait of Voltaire by Baquoy circa 1795 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe, Sue Ferrara, Chapps, and Fake History Hunter whose email and tweets led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Fake History Hunter pointed to a helpful piece by Walter Olson which pointed to Norman L. Torrey’s book “Les Philosophes”. Thanks also to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who pointed to the germane passage in Voltaire’s “Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles”.)

Notes:

  1. 1767 (Letters dated 1765), Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles: Écrites a Geneve, et a Neufchatel, Voltaire, Letter XI, Ecrite par Mr. Théro à Mr. Covelle (Robert Covelle), Start Page 145, Quote Page 150 and 151, Published A Neufchatel.(Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1767 (Letters dated 1765), Collection des Lettres sur les Miracles: Écrites a Geneve, et a Neufchatel, Voltaire, Letter XI, Ecrite par Mr. Théro à Mr. Covelle (Robert Covelle), Start Page 145, Quote Page 150 and 151, Published A Neufchatel.(Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1914 May 23, The New Statesman, Volume 3, Number 59, Section: Literary Supplement, A Hermit’s Day by Desmond MacCarthy, Start Page 3, The Statesman Publishing Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1918, Remnants by Desmond MacCarthy, Chapter: A Hermit’s Day, Start Page 22, Quote Page 29, Constable & Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1933 June, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 167, Issue 997, Jam To-Morrow by Joseph Wood Krutch, Start Page 85, Quote Page 90 and 91, Harper & Brothers, Concord, New Hampshire and New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 1936, The Jews Of Germany: A Story Of Sixteen Centuries by Marvin Lowenthal, Chapter 12: Grand Dukes in Jewry, Quote Page 194 and 195, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1936 February 2, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, A Portrait of Voltaire, Foe of All Bigots by Henry Hazlitt (Book review of H. N. Brailsford’s Voltaire), Quote Page BR4, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1940 (1939 First Published), Eastern Religions and Western Thought by S. Radhakrishnan (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan), Second Edition, Chapter 3: Mysticism and Ethics in Hindu Thought, (The Sir George Birdwood Memorial Lecture given at the Royal Society of Arts, London, on 30 April 1937), Start Page 58, Quote Page 80, Oxford University Press, London. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1938 June 20, The New York Times, Editorial: “Give a Dog an Ill Name”, Quote Page 14, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1944 September 16, Detroit Tribune, On Ignorance by Ruth Taylor, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Detroit, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1946 September 6, Greater Oregon, Take It OR Leave It By I. R. (Herb) Schultz, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Albany, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1955 Spring, The Antioch Review, Volume 15, Number 1, Article: The Captains and the Kings, Author: Manmatha N. Chatterjee, Book Review of: Philip Woodruff’s “Men Who Ruled India” and Polla Tirupati Raju’s “Idealistic Thought of India”, Start Page 118, Quote Page 120, Published in association with Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio. (JSTOR) link
  13. 1960 Copyright, Les Philosophes: The French Philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modern Democracy Edited by Norman L. Torrey (Professor Emeritus of French, Columbia University), Chapter: Miscellanies, Section: On Absurdities and Atrocities, (Voltaire, Questions on the Miracles, Letter XI), Quote Page 277 and 278, Capricorn Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1963, Voltaire’s Facéties by Diana Guiragossian, Section: Preface by Norman L. Torrey, Quote Page 11, Librairie Droz, Genève. (Google Books Preview)
  15. 1977 April 18, Panama City News-Herald, Divided We Stand by Madsen Pirie (Fellow Hillsdale College, Michigan), Quote Page 2B, Column 2, Panama City, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Prejudice, Quote Page 402, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1982: Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation by Sissela Bok, Chapter 4: Secret Societies, Quote Page 58, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  18. 1994, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn, Entry: Voltaire (1694—1778), Start Page 395, Quote Page 396, Column 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)
  19. 2006, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Chapter 8: What’s Wrong With Religion? Why Be So Hostile?, Quote Page 306, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)