Outrageous charges and indefensible political ideas are often hurled around in times of political turmoil and rhetorical strife. Commentators sometimes respond by wheeling out the old “quote” by the French philosopher and Enlightenment writer, Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in an attempt to calm things but also to support the principle of freedom of speech. Voltaire was indeed a champion of free speech and free-flowing political discourse. But did he actually write or say: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? Or is this another example of biographers and later scribes putting words in a great thinker’s mouth?
There is no evidence that Voltaire ever said it, or that he ever wrote it. This (admittedly admirable) phrase was penned by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who published The Friends of Voltaire in 1906. Initially writing under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre, Ms. Hall wrote The Friends of Voltaire as an anecdotal biography of a prominent circle of 18th century European intellectuals who knew and corresponded with Voltaire. In that book, Ms. Hall placed her summation of Voltaire’s attitude toward the writings of French philosopher, Helvetius, into the first-person quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But the man himself never said that.
Another version of the non-quote sometimes appears this way, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” The only time Voltaire himself expressed a similar sentiment appears in his Treatise on Tolerance. “Think for yourself,” he told his readers, “and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”