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François Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire, c. 1724-1721

François-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire, c. 1724-1721, Nicolas de Largillière (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Voltaire (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778)

“Those” are mainly members of the clergy of France, before it was nearly destroyed during the French Revolution. The Age of Enlightenment did not happen in France alone, but it was a time of liberation, rooted, among other texts, in René DescartesDiscourse on Method (1637). The reign of reason had begun.

Descartes: « Je pense, donc je suis » and the Tabula Rasa

We associate Descartes with the Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), his proof of his existence and, by extension, the existence of other human beings. The Je pense, donc je suis (The Discourse on the Method) is more easily understood if rewritten using the verb “to doubt.” If Descartes doubts, he is thinking, and if he is thinking, he is. By the way, the Discourse on Method, as it is usually referred to, was written in French. It was the first ever philosophical work written in the French language. However, his tabula rasa (cleared up table) sums up the Age of Enlightenment as it unfolded in 18th-century France. Built-in mental content was rejected.

The Age of Enlightenment did not happen in France alone. Voltaire was particularly impressed by England, where he was exiled and was inspired to write the Letters on England, first published in translation in England (London, 1733) and, one year later, in French (London, 1734). An unauthorized copy was published in France in 1734, and was censored. He escaped to Cirey-sur-Blaise, Madame du Châtelet‘s castle, which they refurbished. Madame du Châtelet, a mathematician and a physicist, was Voltaire’s companion until her premature death, at the age of 42, in 1749, which was before the Calas affair.

The Salons and Cafés

Brilliant men gathered in salons, a “key institution” (see Women’s Involvement in the French Salons) and French cafés. You will remember Madame de Geoffrin‘s salon, rue Saint-Honoré, and the Café Procope, the oldest café in Paris. Voltaire was an habitué, a regular, of salons and cafés, but he had to live away from Paris in order to escape  authorities who could have thrown him into the Bastille prison. Descartes chose to live in Holland, as reason was a tool feared by a repressive Church. As for Voltaire, having spent 11 months, maybe more, in the Bastille, he ended up living near the Swiss border.

Château de Ferney

Voltaire’s château de Ferney, Kassandra Kasparek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Philosophe needs Two Dens

As I wrote in the post where I discussed the Letters on England (1734), Voltaire  (François-Marie Arouet; 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778) was embastillé, thrown into the Bastille prison, because he had offended the Regent Louis-Philippe, duc d’Orléans. (See Voltaire: the Story begins.)

The lettre de cachet

At that time in the history of France, one could incarcerate a man without the benefit of a trial or the possibility for him to defend himself. One obtained a lettre de cachet, signed by the King or the Regent, countersigned by an official, and sealed: le cachet. In order to avoid imprisonment, Voltaire seldom resided in Paris. He claimed that philosophes (intellectuals) needed two dens or tanières, so they could flee easily from one to the other.

Voltaire expressed a philosophe‘s need for two lairs, deux tanières, in a letter he wrote to Madame Denis, his niece and companion.

« Rampant ainsi d’une tanière dans une autre, je me sauve des Rois…, car il faut toujours que les philosophes aient deux ou trois trous sous terre contre les chiens qui courent après eux. » (Voltaire, Lettre à madame Denis, 1745)

(“Thus crawling from one lair into another, I escape Kings…, for philosophes always need two or three holes underground against the dogs running after them.”)

Voltaire had transformed an inheritance into a fortune and could afford to own a château. He purchased Ferney, one hour away from Switzerland, where he bought a house, at Lausanne. After Madame du Châtelet’s death, to whose castle he had fled when the Lettres philosophiques were censored, Madame Denis, Voltaire’s niece, became his permanent companion.

Jean Calas

Jean Calas (19 March 1698, Lacabarède, Fr.—died 10 March 1762, in Toulouse) was a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant) merchant whose son, Marc-Antoine, committed suicide by hanging in his father’s cloth shop. His body was found on 14 October 1761. It appears Marc-Antoine planned to convert to Catholicism.

Suicide was a crime, punishable by death if one survived, and the bodies of persons who had committed suicides were defiled. The family therefore claimed they had found their son dead hanged. They made the suicide look like a murder.

Our cast is:

  • Marc-Antoine Calas, the victim, who planned to convert to Catholicism;
  • Jean Calas, his father and a Protestant (called Huguenot in France) merchant;
  • Anne-Rose Babibel, Jean Calas’ wife and a Protestant;
  • Pierre Calas, Marc-Antoine’s brother, a convert to Catholicism;
  • Jeanne Viguière, a governess and servant;
  • Gaubert Lavaysse, a guest.
The Body is discovered

The Body is discovered (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)


L’Affaire Calas, Casimir Destrem (1879). Musée Paul-Dupuy, Toulouse (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)

The Story

  1. On the evening of 13 October 1761, Marc-Antoine left the dinner table and hanged himself in his father’s shop. His body was discovered the next day, 14 October;
  2. On 15 October 1761, the family and their guest were interrogated. At first, they lied, but were advised to tell the truth;
  3. They told the truth. Marc-Antoine had been found dead. He had studied Law, but had difficulty entering his profession. As noted above, he was planning to convert to Catholicism;
  4. On 18 November 1761, Toulouse magistrates concluded, rather summarily, that Marc-Antoine had been murdered by Jean Calas, Anne-Rose (mother), Pierre Calas (brother), Jeanne Viguière (governess, servant), and Gaubert Lavaysse, a guest;
  5. The accused appealed the decision to the Parlement de Toulouse
  6. On 9 March 1762, Jean Calas was tried and found guilty;
  7. On 10 March 1762 he was executed: he was broke to death on the wheel;
  8. On 18 March 1762, Pierre, Marc-Antoine’s brother, was banished, but the other suspects were acquitted.
Jean Calas, broke on the wheel

Jean Calas, broke on the wheel (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)

Enters Voltaire

Voltaire was informed of this event by Dominique Audibert, from Marseilles. He soon suspected an injustice. How could Jean Calas, aged 64, strangle his robust son alone? In fact, how could he lift his son’s body and hang him? Why was he the only person to be found guilty and “roué?” The monitoire or chefs d’accusation (the charges) did not make any sense. Besides, Jean Calas had claimed he was innocent until the very end.

For three months, Voltaire sought the truth: “cette vérité qui importe au genre humain,” (this truth which is important to humankind). By the middle of June, he was convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice.

« Je suis persuadé plus que jamais de l’innocence des Calas et de la cruelle bonne foi du Parlement de Toulouse qui a rendu le jugement le plus inique sur les indices les plus trompeurs ». (21 juin 1762)
Read more: http://www.site-magister.com/afcal.htm#ixzz3Ti70UVCz

(“I am persuaded more than ever of the innocence of the Calas family and of the cruel good faith of the Parliament of Toulouse who ruled most inequitably on the most deceptive evidence.” [21 June 1762])

Voltaire sent for Pierre and Donat, Donat being Pierre’s brother. They were refugees in Switzerland. This too was puzzling. Why had Pierre been banished? A person is either guilty or innocent.

“The only person Voltaire would incriminate was the magistrate, called a Capitoul, David de Beaudrige, who had been hostile to the Calas from the very start and had neglected to conduct a thorough enquiry.”

« Il incriminera le seul David de Beaudrigue, ce Capitoul [magistrate] qui, d’emblée [from the very start], s’était montré hostile aux Calas et avait négligé son enquête[.] »

In 1762, Voltaire would write Mémoire pour Dame Anne-Rose Cabibel… , texte de l’avocat Élie de Beaumont (1762). (consulter le document)
Read more: http://www.site-magister.com/afcal.htm#ixzz3Ti6lHBGC


Libelle (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)


Jean Calas bidding Farewell to his Family, Daniel Chodowiecki (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)


The Mother, the two Daughters, with Jeanne Viguière, their good maid, the Son and his young friend Lavaysse, Engraving by Jean-Baptiste Delafosse from a drawing by Carmontelle (1765). (Photo credit: l’Affaire Calas)

Voltaire’s Approach

Long before the twentieth century, Voltaire knew the effectiveness of publicity. He wrote to everyone, to Frederick the Great of Prussia, to Catherine the Great of Russia, to Stanisław I Leszczyński, the King of Poland.

He wrote anonymous pamphlets, libelles, as well as letters to Choiseul, the foreign minister, and Mme de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress. He also sent Madame Calas to Paris where she met ministers and was introduced at Court. Moreover, he published a print by Daniel Chodowiecki showing Jean Calas bidding farewell to his grieving family.

  • On 1 March 1763, the Callas’ appeal was deemed admissible;
  • In November 1764, Voltaire published his Traité sur la Tolérance à l’occasion de la mort de Jean Calas (Treatise on Toleration, on the Death of Jean Calas.);
  • On 4 June, the old verdict was nullified by the Court of Cassation, and the family returned to jail briefly to hear the new sentence;
  • A famous engraving, from a drawing by Carmontelle, was sold in order to raise money for the family;
  • In February 1765, David de Beaudrigue, the magistrate, was removed from office;
  • On 9 March 1765, the Calas family was fully rehabilitated.

Read more: http://www.site-magister.com/afcal.htm#ixzz3Ti81O9JP


Voltaire surrounded himself with royals and other influential people. He won the sympathy of French Protestants and Protestants outside France, thus advancing the cause for religious tolerance. He also discredited the judiciary. When Voltaire worked on a case, he was extremely persistent.

Montesquieu published his Spirit of the Laws in 1748, bringing absolutism into disrepute; it seemed despotic. Voltaire proved that the execution of Jean Calas was an injustice. He showed the merciless treatment of Huguenots, French Protestants. He mobilized the whole of Europe, yet, he never left home.

However, Europe was inundated with letters, etc.

I should note in closing that Voltaire loved the theater, he enjoyed acting, wrote several plays. In short, to rehabilitate Calas, it seems he staged a huge drama. He even sent the grieving widow to Paris and to Court. Having prints engraved to move people or to get donations was brilliant. But this is where I must stop.

My best regards to all of you. ♥


Sources and Resources

The Age of Reason (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Age of Reason (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
8 March 2015