Voltaire? François-Marie Arouet? S. G. Tallentyre? Evelyn Beatrice Hall? Ignazio Silone? Douglas Young? Norbert Guterman?
Dear 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. Continue reading