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L'Affaire Calas by Voltaire
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Aug 15, 12

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Read in August, 2012

THE CALAS AFFAIR. (1763; this ed. 1994). Voltaire. ****.
Voltaire, the pen name of Francois-Marie Arouet, was always quick to pick up and act on causes of injustice. The Calas Affair was one of these. In many ways, it foreshadowed the Dreyfus Affair and Zola’s response to that. On March 9, 1762, Jean Calas was executed on the wheel after being convicted of murdering his son. The trial and execution took place in Toulouse, then a small provincial town of mainly Catholic faith. Voltaire describes the setting right off: “Jean Calas, aged sixty-eight, had been a merchant in Toulouse for more than forty years and was acknowledged by all who had lived with him to be a good father. He was a Protestant, as were his wife and all his children, save one who had abjured the heresy and to whom he made a small allowance.” When one of his sons told his parents that he was converting to Catholicism, his decision was respected by the rest of the family. Later, after much brooding, although not about his religious convictions – more about the significant amount of money he had lost by gambling – he was found hanged in one of the rooms of the house. When the body was discovered, one of the neighbors started the rumor that his family had killed him because of his intended switch of religions. Soon, the crowd took up the cries, and the police were called. All of the family were put in jail, and the father was put to the “test” to see if he would not confess. He did not do so, so that the judgemental group decided to find him guilty of this crime in spite of the lack of evidence. He was sentenced to be put to death on the wheel – a particularly nasty way of being killed – and his sons were banished and all the family’s property seized. When Voltaire learned of this miscarriage of justice, he began with a letter writing campaign – sending missives off to all of his important friends throughout France and abroad to let them know of what had happened. In this short book, he put together a history of bigotry and intolerance that accompanied religion throughout the ages, and donated the proceeds to the family. It took a while, but soon he gained supporters for his cause, including the king of France. He was ultimately able to gain enough of a following so that the sentence was revoked – too late for M. Calas – and was able to have some restitution for the family. This text is a marvelous exposition on religious intolerance, one that should be read by all persons with an interest in the so-called unifying advance provided by religion throughout the ages. Recommended.
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