It is dangerous to be right when men in authority are wrong

“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (1)

As you may have noticed, I am rather fond of starting an article with a quotation.  This article starts with three, four if you include the title (2), all attributed to one man: Voltaire.  I’ll add a few more in the footnotes (3).

Voltaire (4) was probably the greatest figure of the French enlightenment (5): poet, historian, writer, scientist and philosopher; a campaigner for the freedom of speech and of religious tolerance; a fighter against the injustices of the word, particularly when merit was overruled by the privileges of birth, an affront he had experienced himself.

Voltaire admired the English and their liberty: “how I admire the boldness of the English; how I like the people who say what they think!” No doubt Voltaire had a vested interest in praising the English so that the injustices of French society suffered by comparison, but he also spoke from experience – he had lived in London for almost three years.  This article will look at what he discovered in that time, and how it influenced his outlook on religion, politics and individual liberty.

His time in England had been forced upon him.  He had unwisely picked an argument with a French aristocrat, the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, who not only set his henchmen on him, but also had him imprisoned without trial.  Such was the over-riding power of the French aristocracy.  This wasn’t the first time for Voltaire (6) and he accepted the offer of exile in England rather than stay imprisoned.

You cannot compare Voltaire’s circumstances in 1726 with those of the Huguenot refugees some 40 years earlier. He arrived in England with some advantages: a growing reputation as a writer; and letters of introduction to people of wealth, political influence and intellectual renown.    Nevertheless his abrupt introduction to English culture came as a shock.  He was astonished to find common people, even street walkers and apprentices, dressed up in their finery and imitating their betters in Greenwich Park; an impudence that would have been unthinkable in Paris (7).

He quickly adapted to his new surroundings and proved adept at learning the language; he was writing English essays within a year.  He almost certainly met and conversed with some of the great men of that age: Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Gay, author of The Beggars Opera.  He also met many leading political figures including Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, and was introduced to Queen Caroline. Edward Young, author of Night Thoughts, a Georgian best seller, penned a verse in his honour:

“You are so witty, profligate and thin,
At once we think thee Milton, Death and Sin,”

I wish I could write like that.

Religious tolerance (compared to France) also impressed him: “An Englishman, as a free man, goes to heaven by whatever path he chooses.”  He  noted that when it came to commerce, it was not a man’s religion, but his trustworthiness that mattered.  Referring to the Exchange, he wrote:

“You will see representatives of all the peoples gathered there for the benefit of humanity. There, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Christian deal with each other as if they shared the same religion and give the name ‘infidel’ only to those who go bankrupt.”

Another scene that affected him deeply was the funeral of Sir Isaac Newton, author of the Principia (8), originator of the spectrum, the discoverer of the laws of gravity (9), and planetary motion.  He recalled that “the honours paid Newton, were like those to a king who had benefited his subjects.”  It must have been a stark contrast to his own experience: a man of genius could be venerated in England, but cast into prison in France.

Voltaire’s account of his time in England (11) highlights the differences between the two countries, invariably in England’s favour: religious tolerance, the supremacy of Parliament; a constitutional monarchy; the sharing of the tax burden; a legal system that had some notion of justice; the opportunity for a man to make the most if his talents, and above all, to express his ideas and opinions without fearing for his life.  “It is impossible for a writer who thinks freely, not to be persecuted in France” he lamented.

In reality, these freedoms were limited; it still helped if you had money and the right connections. There was also resentment against French immigrants, but Voltaire had the wit to rise above that, as demonstrated by an ugly confrontation with the London mob when anti-Catholic passions were running high.  Voltaire was travelling in a coach when he was surrounded by an angry mob calling “Hang him! Hang the Frenchman!”. Voltaire faced the mob and called out: “Men of England! You wish to kill me because I am a Frenchman. Am I not punished enough in not being born an Englishman?” The mob could only agree, and cheered him (11).

Voltaire’s praise of the English concept of liberty was not impartial; he had an axe to grind.  He had suffered under the hand of the Ancien Régime, the aristocratic and religious establishment in France since the fifteenth century.  It favoured tradition and heredity at the expense of talent and enterprise; birth was valued more highly than ability.  The nobilty and the clergy dictated terms, yet paid no tax and were effectively above the law; very frustrating for a man like Voltaire who was making his way in the world and living by his wits.  Voltaire’s time in England had shown him that a society with different values was possible, where reason, tolerance and liberty (within prevailing limits) were superior to the absolutist authority of France.

Why am I writing about a French philosopher of the eighteenth century?  It is because he highlights the contrasts between French and English society at that time.  They were far greater than they are now; as different as the doctrines of communism and capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century.  When it came to the balance between the power of the state and the rights of the individual, Voltaire was firmly on the side of the latter.  As a result, he would spend much of his life evading ‘men in authority who are wrong’.

How is this relevant to the history of the canary?  The short answer is that the development of the canary moved decisively from France to England in the early years of that century.  Why did canary culture atrophy in one country, but blossom in another? Was that just a coincidence, or was it linked to their differing cultures?

These are questions I will explore in the next edition of the History series.


(1)  This is perhaps the most famous of all the quotations attributed to Voltaire, but it was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), as the encapsulation of his belief in the freedom of speech.

(2)  The title of this article is derived from Voltaire’s statement “il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort.”  There is more than one translation, none of them capture the spirit of what he was saying, so this is mine.

(3)  A few more Voltaire quotes:

“Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.”

“If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticise”.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

“It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.”

“Each player must accept the cards life deals him, but once they are in hand, he alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win.

“Common sense is not so common.”

(4)  He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, and only adopted the epithet Voltaire in 1718 following his release from the Bastille, the state prison of Paris.

(5)  The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that spread across the western world in the eighteenth century.  It sought to apply reason (rather than classical precedent) to the study of philosophy, history, science, politics, economics, religion, individual liberty, and society.

(6)  Voltaire had spent almost a year incarcerated in the Bastille, the state prison in Paris, in 1717 for having criticised the Regent.

(7)  An anecdote recalled by Derek Jarrett in England in The Age of Hogarth (1974) p.15.

(8)  The theorem of the Calculus, one of the most important works in the history of science.

(9)  It was Voltaire who published the story about Newton having discovered the principle of gravity having seen an apple fall from a tree.  He learned the story from Netwon’s niece.

(10)  Philosophical Letters on the English published in English in 1733, a year before the French edition known as Lettres philosophiques, which was seen as an attack on the French government and quickly banned.

(11)  I have come across this anecdote many times, but haven’t found a reliable source.

3 thoughts on “It is dangerous to be right when men in authority are wrong

  1. Voltaire had a remarcable mistress: Emilie du chatelet ://Émilie_du_Châtelet
    The first human, twohunderd years before womensemancipation and einstein’s law on energy, that understood Newton.
    Two identical cars crashing head on head: the energy of the cars shouldn’t be substracted leaving no energy but counted together remaining the total energy of the cars.

    1. A remarkable woman indeed, but I decided to limit the article to the time Voltaire spent in England, and how it influenced him.

  2. Interesting – but who determines right and wrong and what framework do they use to make the determination? A moral one, an ethical one or…?