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.

On promotion, translation and dissembling

I spent much of last week reviewing drafts of promotion applications with academic colleagues in a series of short, intense and very productive one-to-one meetings. The meetings will continue for a little while yet, which is good, since I’m finding them immensely rewarding: it’s a great pleasure for me to find out so much about individual colleagues’ work and to be reminded of the significance of what we do in terms of education, research and academic leadership.

But the meetings are tiring, I have to admit. So I was pleased to be able to slip away to Choral Evensong in the College Chapel on Tuesday evening. The choir were in fine voice, not least in singing Psalm 18, where my attention was caught by verses 45–46: ‘As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: but the strange children shall dissemble with me. The strange children shall fail: and be afraid out of their prisons.’ Psalm 18 is one of those psalms of thanksgiving in which David acknowledges how the Lord helps him – primarily, it seems, by smiting all his enemies. But who are these strange children, I found myself wondering, and why will they dissemble?

In King’s Chapel, Evensong follows the order of the Book of Common Prayer, which includes the translation of the Psalms by Myles Coverdale (c.1488–1569), who was the first person to translate the entire Bible into English. Coverdale knew Latin and German, so he was able to turn to St Jerome and Luther for help, but he seems to have had little or no Hebrew, which leads him to offer some creative renderings of the Psalms in particular. In Psalm 18, Coverdale translates in an apparently over-literal way the Hebrew idiom whereby the phrase ‘son of …’ indicates the nature of a person; in verse 45 the phrase is ‘sons of strangeness’, but instead of giving ‘the strangers’ or ‘the foreigners’, as later and apparently more idiomatic translations do, he opts for ‘the strange children’. And while the Hebrew suggests that these children will ‘quake’ or ‘tremble’, Coverdale opts for the much more suggestive ‘dissemble’, reinforcing the portrait of the devious wickedness of David’s enemies. For me, ‘foreigners tremble before me’ is nowhere near as interesting as ‘the strange children shall dissemble with me’.

One approach to translation, of course, is to focus less on ‘fidelity’ and more on beauty. Objectively, Coverdale gets it wrong; subjectively, he’s spot on. And it’s worth remembering that it’s to him that we owe ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23:4), a rendering which, again, is not supported by the Hebrew – but it is supported by posterity.

Suitably refreshed and inspired by Choral Evensong, then, I duly put aside all thoughts of the dissembling of strange children and returned to reading promotion applications.

I am grateful to my colleagues The Revd Tim Ditchfield (College Chaplain) and Professor Paul Joyce (Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Head of the Department of Theology & Religious Studies) for helping me to appreciate Coverdale’s translation.

On Europe, history and harpsichords

I was delighted last week to see King’s hosting its annual ‘European Week’, organised by the European Society with support from, amongst others, the Faculty’s Department of European & International Studies. As part of the week’s events, on Tuesday evening there was a lively panel discussion in the Great Hall, chaired by my colleague Dr Lee Savage, on the topic ‘How Realistic is a Non-EU Britain?’, with contributions from Marc Glendening, Graham Stringer, Brendan Donnelly and Hugo Dixon.

It strikes me as particularly important to be debating this question as we approach the General Election in May, for our ongoing membership of the EU hangs in the balance. I think that for us as Faculty the UK’s continued membership of the EU is absolutely vital: more and more of our students come from EU member state countries, and last year alone nearly 40% of the Faculty’s research grant income was from the EU, with such funding being particularly important for us in bringing in higher-value grants. This Faculty would be a much poorer place – intellectually as well as financially – if the UK were to distance itself from the EU.

Last Tuesday’s debate coincided, of course, with Holocaust Memorial Day, which this year marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was an opportunity to remember the six million Jewish people who were murdered in Europe in the years leading up to 1945 as well as the five million other victims of the Nazi genocide, including gay people, gypsies and people with mental or physical disabilities. It was a good day on which to learn that the European Commission had confirmed its funding for the next phase of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, in which, I’m pleased to say, the Faculty’s Department of Digital Humanities plays a key role: EHRI is bringing together scholars from across the world and making available online a whole host of otherwise inaccessible sources relating to the Holocaust.

Last Tuesday was also a day on which I took the time to listen to my favourite recording of J S Bach’s Partitas, performed by Zuzana Růžičková, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. Born in 1927 in Plzeň in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish mother and an atheist father, she found herself, at the age of 15, being sent with her parents to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where her father died; in December 1943, after nearly two years in the camp, Růžičková and her mother were sent to Auschwitz; they were ultimately sent to Bergen-Belsen, from where they were liberated on 15 April 1945 by British and Canadian soldiers. Růžičková went on to become an award-winning harpsichordist, indeed one of the few harpsichordists to have recorded Bach’s complete works for harpsichord, which took her ten years to complete. Her extraordinary interpretation of his music is balm for the soul – and a timely reminder of humankind’s irrepressible capacity for life-enhancing creativity.

On blogging, community and irrelevance

I’ve been in post at King’s for exactly a year, so I thought I’d celebrate my first anniversary by setting up a blog. I shall update it regularly to keep colleagues, friends and anyone interested enough to read it informed about work I’m doing on behalf of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, issues I’m reflecting on, debates I’m contributing to and so on. (For more information, go to the ‘About’ page.)

My first year in post has been extraordinarily busy, and I’m aware that I’m still discovering day by the day the full range of what we do as a Faculty in terms of education and research. But a couple of things in the past week have reminded me about what lies at the heart of everything we do.

Last Wednesday I was delighted to attend our winter graduation ceremonies at the Barbican, where I presented a couple of hundred students for their degrees – undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from right across our Faculty. Sporting their Dame Vivienne Westwood gowns, the excited graduands stepped onto the stage and joined my colleagues and me in creating a riot of academic colour. The gowns and hoods of different styles and hues show off people’s different academic associations and qualifications – and so they celebrate the glorious diversity of the worldwide community of scholars of which the latest graduates are the newest members. For some, the pomp and ceremony of graduation are so much froth and outdated formality; for me, they’re a crucial sign of the shared endeavour and collective achievement that graduation properly underscores. At King’s our students are at the centre of what we do: undergraduates and postgraduates alike are fully integrated into our intellectual life, with education and research mutually benefiting and reinforcing each other.

Our students are the point, then, but what’s the point of what they do? The day before graduation last week I was interviewed for In Touch, a magazine aimed at former students of King’s, and one thing the interviewer focused on was precisely how we defend the value of a degree in the Arts & Humanities. My view is that the value of such a degree is best defined, not in the purely economic terms that the debate is so often framed in, but in terms of its intellectual, non-vocational, non-utilitarian benefits – benefits that, not coincidentally, make Humanities graduates highly employable. For it is precisely and paradoxically the apparent uselessness of a Humanities degree – or at least its resistance to being pinned down to any immediate or particular utility – that makes it so highly prized. Our graduates leave us with rich imaginations, intellectual agility and a critical flexibility that makes them both more aware of others and more self-aware. A Humanities degree from King’s helps people 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. If the growing pressure on university educators to be ‘relevant’ means our being expected to deal in what students are already familiar with when they come to King’s, then I’m proud to say that we’re in the business of the unfamiliar, the horizon-expanding, the life-changing. And if that’s ‘irrelevant’, then so be it.