By Dennis Abrams
NPR reports that the French bookstore Emile, like most others in Paris, sold out all the
copies it had in stock of Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance on January 8, the day after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which killed eight journalists.
Since that attack as well as others, Voltaire’s classic 1763 statement on religious tolerance has been “flying off the shelves,” much to the surprise of bookstore employees such as Emlie employee Laurianne Ledus.
“It’s really, really weird,” says Ledus. “But I think it is an important book, even 200 hundred years later.”
She offered a suggestion for the book’s success, arguing that no one understands exactly why the attacks happened, but everyone is searching for reasons.
“Children need to understand life and events and I think parents need this book in order to explain,” she said.
Gallimard, which publishes the paperback edition of Voltaire’s book, told NPR that it is already on its second reprinting. Almost half as many copies have been sold in the last three weeks, they said than over the last 12 years.
Publicist Bertrand Mirande-Irieberry told NPR that the public finds the philosopher’s ideas reassuring.
“At a time when our way of live, of being and living together has come under attack, this book is like an antidote. It’s a way of resisting.”
He also made the case that the French turn to Voltaire in times of trouble “because he is part of their familiar landscape.”
“When we’re young, we all read Voltaire in school,” he said. “And whether you read or not, if you’re French, you’ve read Voltaire.”
The magazine Le Nouvel Economiste said, “In such somber times, we turn to Voltaire for solace, and a reminder of our long-standing devotion to tolerance.”
And, as Voltaire himself wrote:
“Human law must in every case be based on natural law. All over the earth the great principle of both is: Do not unto others what you would that they do not unto you. Now, in virtue of this principle, one man cannot say to another: ‘Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish.’ Thus do men speak in Portugal, Spain, and Goa. In some other countries they are now content to say: ‘Believe, or I detest thee; believe, or I will do thee all the harm I can. Monster, thou sharest not my religion, and therefore hast no religion; thou shalt be a thing of horror to thy neighbours, thy city, and thy province.’ … The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.”