Conspiracy Cafe

Conspiracy, alternative news, history, intelligence agencies


Theatre 625 S5.E20 The Fanatics

Episode aired Apr 29, 1968

An account of the famous "Calas case", in which Voltaire managed, at great personal risk, to set right an injustice.

Jean Calas (1698 – 10 March 1762) was a merchant living in Toulouse, France, who was tried, tortured and executed for the murder of his son, despite his protestations of innocence. Calas was a Protestant in an officially Catholic society. Doubts about his guilt were raised by opponents of the Catholic Church and he was exonerated in 1764. In France, he became a symbolic victim of religious intolerance, along with François-Jean de la Barre and Pierre-Paul Sirven.


Calas, along with his wife, was a Protestant. France was then a Catholic country; Catholicism was the state religion, with no legal right for individuals to practice different faiths. While the harsh oppression of Protestantism initiated by King Louis XIV had largely receded, Protestants were, at best, tolerated. Louis, one of Calas' sons, converted to Catholicism in 1756.

On 13–14 October 1761, another of the Calas sons, Marc-Antoine, was found dead on the ground floor of the family's home. Rumors had it that Jean Calas had killed his son because he intended to convert to Catholicism. When interrogated, the family initially claimed that Marc-Antoine had been killed by a murderer. Then they declared that they had found Marc-Antoine dead, hanged; because suicide was considered a heinous crime against oneself, and the dead bodies of suicides were defiled, they had arranged for their son's suicide to look like a murder.

Trial and execution

Despite Jean Calas claiming that the death was a suicide, and the testimony of Jeanne Vigneire, Calas' Catholic governess, the court in Toulouse held that Jean Calas had murdered his son. Calas was also sentenced to be tortured after being judged and found guilty. His arms and legs were stretched until they were pulled out of their sockets. Thirty pints (more than 17 litres) of water were poured down his throat. He was tied to a cross in the cathedral square where each of his limbs were broken twice by an iron bar. Even with all this torture, he continued to declare his innocence.


On 9 March 1762 the parliament of Toulouse (regional court) of Toulouse sentenced Jean Calas to death on the wheel. On 10 March, at the age of 64, he died tortured on the wheel, while still firmly claiming his innocence.

Voltaire's intervention and posthumous exoneration

Voltaire (1694–1778)

French philosopher Voltaire was contacted about the case, and after initial suspicions that Calas was guilty of anti-Catholic fanaticism were dispelled by his allegations, he began a campaign to get Calas' sentence overturned, claiming that Marc-Antoine had committed suicide because of gambling debts and not being able to finish his university studies due to his denomination.

Voltaire's efforts were successful, and King Louis XV received the family and had the sentence annulled in 1764. The king fired the chief magistrate of Toulouse, the Capitoul, the trial was done over, and in 1765 Jean Calas posthumously was exonerated on a "vice de procedure", not on the original charges, with the family paid 36,000 livres by the king in compensation. Voltaire, an outspoken critic of the Catholic church, cited the instance as an example of the church's severity in his 1763 work Treatise on Tolerance.


Vol. 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper, published in 1945

The paradox of tolerance states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant. Karl Popper described it as the seemingly self-contradictory idea that in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance.

In 1945, philosopher Karl Popper attributed the paradox to Plato's defense of "benevolent despotism" and defined it in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Less well known [than other paradoxes] is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

The term "paradox of tolerance" does not appear anywhere in the main text of The Open Society and Its Enemies. Rather, Popper lists the above as a note to chapter 7, among the mentioned paradoxes proposed by Plato in his apologia for "benevolent despotism"—i.e., true tolerance would inevitably lead to intolerance, so autocratic rule of an enlightened "philosopher-king" would be preferable to leaving the question of tolerance up to majority rule. In the context of chapter 7 of Popper's work, specifically, section II, the note on the paradox of tolerance is intended as further explanation of Popper's rebuttal specific to the paradox as a rationale for autocracy: why political institutions within liberal democracies are preferable to Plato's vision of despotism, and through such institutions, the paradox can be avoided. Nonetheless, alternative interpretations are often misattributed to Popper in defense of extra-judicial (including violent) suppression of intolerance such as hate speech, outside of democratic institutions, an idea which Popper himself never espoused. The chapter in question explicitly defines the context to that of political institutions and the democratic process, and rejects the notion of "the will of the people" having valid meaning outside of those institutions. Thus, in context, Popper's acquiescence to suppression when all else has failed applies only to the state in a liberal democracy with a constitutional rule of law that must be just in its foundations, but will necessarily be imperfect.

Thomas Jefferson had already addressed the notion of a tolerant society in his first inaugural speech, concerning those who might destabilize the United States and its unity, saying, "let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

In 1971, philosopher John Rawls concluded in A Theory of Justice that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls qualifies this with the assertion that under extraordinary circumstances in which constitutional safeguards do not suffice to ensure the security of the tolerant and the institutions of liberty, tolerant society has a reasonable right of self-preservation against acts of intolerance that would limit the liberty of others under a just constitution, and this supersedes the principle of tolerance. This should be done, however, only to preserve equal liberty – i.e., the liberties of the intolerant should be limited only insofar as they demonstrably limit the liberties of others: "While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger."

In On Toleration (1997), Michael Walzer asked, "Should we tolerate the intolerant?" He claims that most minority religious groups who are the beneficiaries of tolerance are themselves intolerant, at least in some respects. In a tolerant regime, such (intolerant) people may learn to tolerate, or at least to behave "as if they possessed this virtue".

Posted by George Freund on June 23, 2022 at 12:28 PM 41 Views