On liberation, LGBT+ and libraries

I’ve enjoyed marking LGBT+ History Month at King’s, where we are fortunate to have our Queer@King’s research centre in the Faculty, a thriving LGBT+ Staff Network and an LGBT+ Student Society. The UK has come a long way in a relatively short time: it’s worth remembering that 2017 sees the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in this country. So we need both to celebrate and to protect the freedoms we now have; we also need to remember that there are still many LGBT+ people who live in fear and do not yet enjoy the freedoms that should be available to all. There’s a lingering prejudice, of course, that it’s not okay to be LGBT+, that being LGBT+ is a choice – and a mistaken one at that. I’m glad that we as a Faculty can play our part in liberating people by declaring loudly and clearly that being LGBT+ is not only okay, it’s wonderful, and by providing a space in which we are all empowered to express ourselves openly and to be who we are, without fear of judgment.

I’ve also spent time this month preparing to mark International Women’s Day. On Wednesday 8 March we as a Faculty will be responding to the worldwide challenge to #BeBoldForChange by hosting an Arts & Humanities reception in the Chapel, 3-4.30pm, when we’ll be hearing from women – both academic and Professional Services colleagues – about their experience of taking bold action to help improve or develop an aspect of their life or career, about how they did it, what motivated them, what difference they made and how we can learn from them; we’ll also be making pledges about new ways in which we, individually and collectively, can make a difference in the future.

And another pledge we’re making in the Faculty is to expand and diversify the holdings of the Maughan Library at King’s by encouraging students and staff to champion and celebrate the liberating effect of books and reading. We want to ensure we have more works by authors from groups underrepresented in academia and more works on topics relating to the Students’ Union’s Liberation themes (including, but not limited to, race, queer studies, gender studies, disability studies, international/global studies, class, and economic inequality). The Faculty will buy a copy of any book nominated by a student or member of staff that is not currently stocked in the Maughan Library, and there will be a competition to identify the ten most inspiring ‘Liberating Books’.

Step by step, we’re making a difference.

On politics, pain and playfulness

At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that the UK government will underwrite funding for successful applicants who are in the process of bidding for EU-funded projects: if applicants for EU funding secure multi-year funding before Brexit, the Treasury, he said, “will guarantee those payments after Britain has left the EU”.

The conference also saw the announcement by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, of plans for major new restrictions on overseas students, including two-tier visa rules affecting supposedly lower-quality universities and courses. And at the same conference the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March 2017, signalling that, in all likelihood, the UK will leave the EU in the spring of 2019; and as part of her pledge to transform Britain in the light of the referendum result, the Prime Minister noted: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement notwithstanding, much of what we’re currently hearing from government about Britain’s place in the world – and the place of the world in Britain – is, in my opinion, anathema to what those of us who work in universities believe in and represent. I’m proud to be Dean of a Faculty at the core of an international university at the heart of a city that looks outwards, and our determination to attract, retain and support talented students and staff from across Europe and around the world is undiminished.

I’m pleased to note, then, that the Commons Education Select Committee – chaired by the Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, who at the referendum campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU – has launched an inquiry into the potential impact of leaving the EU on UK Higher Education; the inquiry is accepting written submissions here until Friday 11 November 2016.

But we have to be frank, I think, about the emotional, psychological and physiological effects this time of change and uncertainty is having on so many of us. People’s feelings about the current situation will inevitably vary, but I’m increasingly aware of students and colleagues feeling shock, fear, anger and even depression. We have to allow for those feelings – they are, after all, natural – and we also have to support each other in our different stages of the process of coming to terms with what is going on.

Talking is important. My advice to those who, in the light of the referendum result, are considering their position in the UK is not to make a decision too quickly. We make good decisions, using both our mind and our emotions, when we are not alarmed or anxious. So talk to someone to help you think a decision through is vital.

It’s also important, I think, that we remember – indeed, that we celebrate – the things that we do really well. Trying to imagine a myriad of different futures is very difficult and exhausting. Instead, we need to try to minimise the wear and tear on our minds and bodies by working with the here and now as much as we can: we can and do manage what is around us very well indeed. We need to ground ourselves in our expertise, in our life-transforming education, in our inspiring research – and, for those of us at King’s, in our community here in the Faculty.

So it’s peculiarly apposite that today sees the start of our annual Arts & Humanities Festival, which this year is on the theme of play. Let’s celebrate together – playfully and irreverently – what it means to be students and scholars of the Humanities, what it means (in the words of Terence) to be indifferent to nothing that is human, what it means (in the words of Socrates) to be citizens of the world.

 

On conversation, disappointment and determination

What a week!

I hosted my first Dean’s Tea at King’s on Tuesday, when colleagues gathered for a very constructive conversation about what matters to us most as an intellectual community. Topics covered included the gender pay gap and support for staff returning from parental leave.

And on Wednesday colleagues in Modern Languages hosted a really productive forum for schoolteachers on ‘Transitions in Modern Languages Teaching’, which paves the way for further engagement activities planned as part of the ‘Language Acts and Worldmaking’ project, funded under the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI).

It’s all the more disappointing for me, then, that the week should end with the UK’s decision in yesterday’s referendum to leave the European Union.

My own view is that voluntarily cutting ourselves out of the world’s largest economic bloc may ultimately weaken British universities and reduce opportunities for our students and staff. Here in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s, more and more of our students come from EU member state countries, and we’ve reached a position where more than 50% of our research grant income is from the EU. So the Faculty looks set, I think, to be a much poorer place – intellectually as well as financially – as the UK distances itself from the EU.

That distancing is still some way off, of course, and it’s worth emphasising that, barring unilateral action from the UK Government, there will be no immediate change to our participation at King’s in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, nor to the immigration status of current and prospective EU students and staff.

And it’s on our students and staff that my thoughts are focused now, because I imagine that many in our community – especially those who have come from the rest of the EU to work and study with us, as well as those who have gone out from King’s to work and study in other European countries – will be feeling very uncertain about their place in the world.

In the midst of such uncertainty, it’s vital that we in the Faculty work together to find the best possible way forward. Our wisdom and expertise will enable us to come up with solutions to what look like intractable problems. We can and will deal well with the challenges that lie ahead. Our reputation as a Faculty is built, not simply on straightforward success, but on the way in which we cope with adversity.

On past, present and future

As term ends and Christmas approaches, I’m delighted to note that the 2015-16 academic year has got off to an exciting and eventful start.

Much has happened, certainly, with highlights for me including the spectacular Arts & Humanities Festival in October; the King’s Awards last month, at which Dr Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in Theology & Religious Studies, was named King’s Media Personality of the Year; a dinner earlier this week for this year’s Desmond Tutu Scholars, fourteen of whom are in Arts & Humanities, during which Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne gave a moving and inspiring speech; and the news just in that four of this year’s 33 Leverhulme Major Research Fellowships in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been awarded to colleagues in our Faculty. With such wonderful things going on in education and research, we shouldn’t have been surprised earlier this term to see ourselves rising in this year’s Times Higher Education subject rankings from 23rd in the world to 15th and from 5th to 4th in the UK. We have much to celebrate and to be proud of.

It has also been a difficult term, though, with a significant number of our students and staff having been affected by the atrocities in Paris last month. I’m grateful to all those, including members of the French Society, who rallied around and offered moral and practical support where they could. To break the copycat cycle of conflict and violence that seems inevitably to follow such events – a kind of ‘mimetic desire’, diagnosed in such devastating detail by the philosopher and literary critic René Girard, who died just days before the attacks in Paris and who would have been 92 on Christmas Day – I’m in no doubt that we need the Humanities now more than ever.

A Faculty such as ours has a key part to play in confronting inhumanity with humanity, in confronting the ideology of hatred and ignorance with the love and pursuit of knowledge: if studying Philosophy helps us to think better about ethical questions, if learning another language helps us to appreciate more acutely the similarities and differences between cultures, and if studying History helps us to understand better the past and to approach the future more thoughtfully, then in all these ways – and in many more besides – we as a scholarly community can dare to embody defiant, life-changing hope.

On education, empathy and employability

It appears that right across Japan universities are to close or downsize their Humanities departments in order to focus instead on offering students an education that, by dint of seemingly being more practical and vocational, is deemed to respond better to the needs of society.

The implication is that society does not need graduates with finely honed communication skills, analytical flexibility or rich imaginations. What possible use to big businesses are graduates who have learned to imagine sympathetically the position and predicament of others on a global scale, who have learned – and learned to evaluate – the art of empathy? If the success of a business is in direct proportion to its understanding of its market, what possible need can businesses have for graduates who have learned to be more self-aware – and more aware of others?

The implication is that students should pursue a degree in a subject not simply because they love it and cannot imagine doing anything else, but only if it offers some kind of professional value, the assumption being that the professional value of a practical, vocational education is such that it offers a sure ticket to a job – whereas the honest answer might be that hardly any form of education is a sure ticket to a job these days.

That said, the professional value of the Humanities is widely recognised by employers – and precisely because of the flexibility and deliberately non-vocational nature of what we offer. The usefulness of the Humanities, in other words, derives from the very fact that they are not necessarily linked to any immediate, limited or limiting utility.

The wonderful paradox of the Humanities, then, is that their apparent irrelevance is what makes them most valuable. While Humanities graduates tend to become key players in the cultural and creative industries, for instance, we are not in the business of training people for a specific profession. Rather, we are in the business of enabling people to become who they are. It’s not so much about how to make a living as about how to live – and how to live well. It’s not so much about making sure our graduates earn the most money as about ensuring that they can think about how best to spend that money, how best to be happy and fulfilled.

That seems to me to be responding very effectively to the needs of a healthy society.

On memory, gratitude and new things under the sun

I spent part of the summer vacation in western Crete, indulging my interest in beaches, boureki and Byzantine churches. Travelling around by car, I was struck time and time again, particularly on winding mountain roads and usually where the edge of the road fell away most vertiginously, by the presence of little shrines, known as kandylakia. In varying states of repair, they almost invariably contained icons, candles and incense burners: even if the shrine on the outside was battered, the inside usually suggested that someone, somewhere, remembered it and tended to it from time to time. Many of the shrines are built as acts of remembrance for the victim of a traffic accident; others are built by the survivors of such accidents or publicly to thank a saint for a particular benefit. Be they in memory of loved ones lost or in gratitude for disaster averted and blessings received, these shrines are charged with private and public meaning, poignant signs of the enduring importance of family, faith and history.

This kind of memorialisation and thanksgiving need not be purely religious, of course; indeed, it finds its place in many institutions, not least universities, whatever the principles espoused by their founders or current custodians. The work we as academics are able to do now necessarily owes a debt, in both scholarly and institutional terms, to those who have gone before us, and we find a range of ways to signal this: through the naming of buildings, lecture theatres and seminar rooms on our campuses, for instance, and in the footnotes, acknowledgements and dedications to our published works. This work of memory could be said to be particularly prevalent in Humanities disciplines, where we equip our students with the necessary skills to read, reread and reread again all kinds of texts from the distant and more recent past, where we routinely seek to understand better the lives and works of people seemingly cut off from us in both time and space, all the better to understand ourselves, the world in which we live and the values we hold dear.

This awareness of the liveliness of the past in our present is uppermost in my mind as the new academic year starts and we welcome a new generation of undergraduate and postgraduate students to King’s. There’s an enormous sense of excitement about the place: I always think it’s a great privilege to share in the journey that our new students are embarking upon this week. As the year begins with an ecumenical service in the College Chapel on the Strand on Wednesday and as we and our students take the plunge and do new things, I’m reminded of the persistence of the past, of the extent to which, for instance, our seemingly very contemporary concern with the student experience is an important new expression of the founding principle of universities as scholarly communities, and of the wisdom of the old observation that ‘what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done’.

On busyness, leisure and learning

July and August are supposed to be quiet months for university academics in the UK. As Dr Lauren Redhead, a Senior Lecturer in Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, has recently observed on her blog, “if there is something that those of us who work in academia do look forward to about work over the summer, it is the chance to get ahead with our research”. July and August are the time for us to read, to think, maybe even to write – and certainly to recharge our mental batteries.

But in another sense, July and August are some of the noisiest, busiest months for academics. July in particular resounds with the applause, the whooping and the cheering of graduation ceremonies. My Faculty’s ceremonies at the Barbican last month were a riot of colour, the green of Dame Vivienne Westwood’s Arts & Humanities BA gowns contrasting gloriously with the multi-coloured doctoral robes from universities across the globe. The donning of gowns and the doffing of hats: all this might seem outdated nonsense. But for me, as I reflected here back in January after the winter ceremonies, all this is a very visible sign of community, the eloquent trappings of a ceremony of formal admission to a richly diverse society of scholars, a moment to recognise the achievements of students who have earned their stripes in the endless pursuit of new knowledge and deeper understanding.

Our newest graduates are also those who create more excitement still for academics in August, when we receive the results of the latest National Student Survey, which were published today. I’m delighted that, once again, finalists in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s have recognised the quality of the teaching we offer, with most of our departments achieving a satisfaction rating on that aspect of the student learning experience of over 90%. The results also give us pause for thought, though, as they suggest, for instance, that our students want us to do more to support them in their personal development. It’s important for me that we address this head-on, since it’s my firm belief that a Humanities degree from King’s should help our students to become who they are: it’s less about how to make a living and more about how to live – and how to live well.

Living well, of course, involves taking time for leisure – and leisure is vital for academics in particular. Our English word ‘leisure’ comes from the Latin ‘licere’, meaning ‘to be permitted’, the Greek equivalent of which is ‘schole’, from which we in turn derive our word ‘school’. So learning is about leisure, about having time and space for reflection and conversation, for celebration and recuperation. My Faculty at King’s aspires to offer such a space, to be a place of knowledge, wisdom and humanity.

And so – and this is the final reason why the summer months are anything but quiet for academics – I’m excited that we’re about to welcome into this space a whole new generation of undergraduate students, with A-level results being published tomorrow and places to study with us being confirmed for those who have met the offers we made them some months ago. Tomorrow will be a day of celebration for thousands of students across the country and beyond. For others, though, not meeting the conditions of their offers will mean that it is instead a time for reflection on what, where and how to study further. My advice to you if you’re in that position: don’t panic! Focus on what you’re passionate about studying and find a place to study where you can have the confidence to be yourself – a place where you have the leisure to learn.

On thorns, mindfulness and mockery

Writing to Luneau de Boisjermain on 21 October 1769, Voltaire reflects on the difficulties faced by writers in eighteenth-century France, citing the example of the attempts made by his enemies to cause trouble for him with the royal authorities, before observing with admirable calm and poise: ‘Life is full of such thorns, and I know of no better remedy for them than cultivating one’s garden.’ [1] He moves nimbly between green-fingered metaphors, echoing as he does so the conclusion to Candide, his famous short story published a decade earlier. The letter and the short story share a concern with the here and now, with enjoying the present, with worrying less about the things outside one’s control, such as other people and the future.

This is of a piece with Voltaire’s critique of institutionalised religion and metaphysics. Life in the here and now matters more than whatever life there might be in the hereafter, as he suggests to the marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759: ‘I urge you to enjoy, as much as you can, life, which is a slight thing, without fearing death, which is nothing at all.’ [2] And in his Chinese Letters (Lettres chinoises, 1776) he presents Emperor Kangxi as the very model of right thinking in questioning the religious orthodoxy of the Jesuit missionaries: ‘The emperor is surprised to see you so obstinately committed to your ideas. Why are you so preoccupied with a world that you are yet to enter? Enjoy the here and now. All your efforts make no difference to your God. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’ [3]

Whatever the specifically religious implications, Voltaire’s call to enjoy the here and now is one that is worth attending to again, especially for those of us who find ourselves living and working in cultures of constant competition, ceaseless striving and restless dissatisfaction. The invitation open to us is to single-task, as it were, not to multitask; to think about what really matters to us here and now; and to avoid getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future, focusing instead on the moment-to-moment experience. This approach is now often referred to as mindfulness, which is all about paying attention deliberately, in the present moment and in a non-judgemental way. Wherever, whenever and however people practise such mindfulness, it demonstrably helps them to become more aware of the way they think and feel about their experiences, whether good or bad, and it is proven to help people manage stressful situations and to stay mentally healthy.

This call to pay attention to the present moment is particularly timely as today is the start of the Mental Health Foundation’s sixteenth annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year is focusing on mindfulness; and this in turn coincides with the second week of the Take Time Out campaign at King’s College London, the aim of which is to promote student wellbeing during the exam period. Of course, there are many different ways of maintaining one’s mental health – mindfulness is just one of them – so the last word goes to Voltaire, who has another suggestion to make when he writes to Charles Jean François Hénault on 20 June 1760: ‘I make a point of mocking everything, of laughing at everything; this rule of life is very good for your health.’ [4]

 

[1] ‘La vie est hérissée de ces épines, et je n’y sais d’autre remède que de cultiver son jardin.’

[2] ‘Je vous exhorte à jouir, autant que vous pourrez, de la vie qui est peu de chose, sans craindre la mort qui n’est rien.’

[3] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’

[4] ‘Je prends le parti de me moquer de tout, de rire de tout; ce régime est très bon pour la santé.’

On poetry, the inarticulate and business-speak

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot. Earlier this term we were fortunate to welcome to King’s Christopher Southgate, who gave a reading in Chapel, on a dark Wednesday evening, of his extraordinary verse biography of Eliot, A Love and its Sounding. The next day I was pleased to chair a lunchtime discussion with Christopher, again in Chapel, which took as its starting point these striking lines from ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

The lines point to Eliot’s abiding concern with the very nature of the poetic voice, the voice who experiences life and dares to articulate something of that experience, however fleetingly, however ephemerally: ‘you are the music / While the music lasts.’

Since then I’ve enjoyed rereading the rest of the Four Quartets and have found myself coming back again and again to ‘East Coker’, where Eliot gives a wonderfully vivid account of the inadequacies of language:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

The middle-aged poet battles to recover language, to wrest words back from the inanity of the everyday, to redeem those words by giving them new birth, ‘a new beginning’. And here, for me, Eliot puts his finger on the very essence of poetry. For poetry is at once rooted in life and at a jaunty angle to it, it is both common and strange, it works unsettlingly on the everyday, on the common ways of thinking to which we have unthinkingly become accustomed.

I couldn’t help remembering Eliot’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’ a couple of weeks ago when I found myself, on a long train journey, sitting next to two businessmen, whose seemingly unthinking absorption in, and glib articulation of, the very worst of business-speak I found fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. Their spirited talk was of ‘trading on high-end people’ and ‘letting low-performance people go’; the challenge, apparently, was to ‘differentiate our propositions as we build up a sustainable model’, the ultimate aim being to ‘build a business, ramp it, sell it, get out’. I was relieved to get out at the next station: this inarticulate prose seemed a far cry from the poetry of Eliot.

But such business-speak thrives – and universities are by no means immune. English universities in particular, at least under the current funding regime, necessarily operate as businesses: competing for fee-paying students necessarily requires us to develop strategic plans, to have marketing campaigns, to develop metrics, to focus on enhancing the services we offer our students while reducing where possible our burgeoning operating costs. And in a sense none of this is a bad thing if the end goal is ensuring maximum accessibility for talented students, regardless of their backgrounds, to the best possible education, one that helps them lead more meaningful, even happier lives. Talking about how we increase the efficiency and quality of our professional services structures, in other words, has to be framed within an ongoing conversation about the intellectual importance of learning, scholarship, diversity and wellbeing. Business-speak that does not help us to talk about the core values of higher education is akin to Eliot’s ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. If launching ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ helps us to articulate better what is distinctive – and distinctively important – about the work that we do in universities, then perhaps we’ll restore some of the poetry that characterises that work – not least the capacity to make a difference to people’s lives – while we still have a chance to do so, ‘while the music lasts’.

On poison, fanaticism and freethinking

Last Tuesday I was very pleased to be able to attend a research paper given at King’s by Dr Emma Spary (University of Cambridge) under the auspices of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine, which is part of our Department of History. In her paper, entitled ‘Poisons and Providence in Old Regime Paris’, Dr Spary considered the ways in which making, controlling and writing about poisons in Paris between 1670 and 1789 created opportunities and crises for those who laid claim to scientific and medical expertise. Many of the writers she discussed were new to me – including Anne-Charles Lorry (1726–83), Achille-Guillaume Le Bègue de Presle (1735–1807) and Pierre Bulliard (1742–93) – though her discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau brought me back to more familiar territory, not least as earlier that day I had given a lecture on the Rêveries to first-year French students.

It was a thought-provoking paper and, for me, one of those papers that sends you away on the lookout for further examples. So my mind turned to Voltaire, who showed an interest in some of the high-profile cases of poisoning – or suspected poisoning – in the eighteenth century. Early in 1774, for instance, his attention was caught by the accusations then being levelled at the comic dramatist Beaumarchais, who was said to have poisoned his first two wives in order to get his hands on their money. Voltaire wrote to the comte d’Argental about the scandal on 17 January: ‘Caron [de Beaumarchais] is so delightful, […] so impulsive, so capricious and so witty that I’d go so far as to put my hand in the fire to convince you that he never poisoned his wives. Poisoners don’t make you burst out laughing; they’re usually chemists who are very serious and not very amusing’ [1].

As a freethinker Voltaire was also very interested in the metaphorical potential of poison, particularly in his fight against all forms of religious superstition and fanaticism. Writing to Frederick the Great on 20 December 1740, for instance, he explains that he does not share the optimistic view held by many that religious conflict is a thing of the past: ‘Those who say that the days of such crimes are over are, it seems to me, putting too much trust in human nature. The same poison still exists, albeit in a less developed form. This plague which seems to have been wiped out occasionally produces new shoots that are capable of infecting the whole earth’ [2]. In the face of growing fanaticism, it is to Voltaire and his fellow freethinkers – the philosophes – that people must turn for the antidote, as he observes in a letter to d’Alembert – the co-editor, with Diderot, of the famous Encyclopédie – on 9 November 1764: ‘They alone have preached tolerance at a time when all the religious sects are being as intolerant as they can be. The freethinkers are the doctors of the very souls which the fanatics poison’ [3]. And writing to both d’Alembert and Condorcet on 11 October 1770 about the virtue of freethinking – la philosophie – Voltaire notes: ‘When all is said and done, freethinking is the only consolation in life, while its opposite is what poisons life. Let things be, it is impossible to prevent people from thinking, and the more they think, the less unhappy they will be’ [4].

Voltaire’s confidence in the remedy of reasonable and reasoned behaviour finds perhaps its most memorable expression in his article on fanaticism in his famous Dictionnaire philosophique: ‘The only cure for this epidemic is the philosophical cast of mind which, as it spreads from one person to the next, eventually makes us gentler in our ways and prevents all attacks of this evil; because as soon as this evil starts making progress, we have to flee and wait for the air to clear. The law and religion are too weak a defence against the plague of souls; for these souls religion, far from being health-giving nourishment, turns into a poison in infected brains. These wretched people have continually in mind the example of Ehud, King Eglon’s assassin; of Judith, who slept with Holophernes and cut off his head; and of Samuel, who chopped King Agag into pieces: they fail to see that these examples, which are respectable in antiquity, are abominable in the present day; they justify their fury by invoking a religion that in fact condemns it’ [5].

Voltaire’s diagnosis – more’s the pity – stands the test of time. In Paris, Copenhagen and Sirte – to mention just a few of the most recent examples – fanatics justify their madness by invoking a religion that in fact condemns it. The challenge to freethinking and freedom of speech remains as poisonous as ever; the antidote needs cultivating now more than ever.

 

[1] Caron [de Beaumarchais] est si plaisant, […] si impétueux, si extravagant et si drôle, que je mettrais ma main au feu qu’il n’a jamais empoisonné ses femmes. Les empoisonneurs ne font point pouffer de rire; ce sont d’ordinaire des chimistes très sérieux, et très peu amusants.

[2] Ceux qui diront que les temps de ces crimes sont passés font ce me semble trop d’honneur à la nature humaine. Le même poison subsiste encore quoique moins développé. Cette peste qui semble étouffée reproduit de temps en temps des germes capables d’infecter la Terre.

[3] Eux seuls ont prêché la tolérance dans le temps que toutes les sectes sont intolérantes autant qu’elles le peuvent. Les philosophes sont les médecins des âmes dont les fanatiques sont les empoisonneurs.

[4] Au bout du compte elle est la consolatrice de la vie, et son contraire en est le poison. Laissez faire, il est impossible d’empêcher de penser et plus on pensera, moins les hommes seront malheureux.

[5] Il n’y a d’autre remède à cette maladie épidémique que l’esprit philosophique, qui répandu de proche en proche adoucit enfin les mœurs des hommes, et qui prévient les accès du mal; car dès que ce mal fait des progrès, il faut fuir, et attendre que l’air soit purifié. Les lois et la religion ne suffisent pas contre la peste des âmes; la religion loin d’être pour elles un aliment salutaire, se tourne en poison dans les cerveaux infectés. Ces misérables ont sans cesse présent à l’esprit l’exemple d’Aod, qui assassine le roi Eglon; de Judith, qui coupe la tête d’Holopherne en couchant avec lui; de Samuel qui hache en morceaux le roi Agag: ils ne voient pas que ces exemples qui sont respectables dans l’antiquité, sont abominables dans le temps présent; ils puisent leurs fureurs dans la religion même qui les condamne.