Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2016

Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment (2016), an anthology compiled by the French Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, translated by students and tutors of French at Oxford University

ToleranceThis is a remarkable anthology.  I came across it via a Tweet from Emma @bookaround (Book Around the Corner) and I have enough French now to understand most of the article at Livres Hebdo to which the Tweet led.  It’s about initiatives at Harvard and Oxford in response to the attack on Free Speech in the Charlie Hebdo murders.  And down at the bottom of the article was this:

Dans le même souci de commémoration des attentats, une autre université anglo-saxonne prestigieuse, Oxford, a publié un essai autour du thème de la tolérance rédigé par 100 étudiants et professeurs. Le résultat: une traduction d’extraits d’œuvres des philosophes des lumières, initialement rassemblés dans Tolérance, le combat des lumières de la Société française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle.

L’ouvrage s’intitule Tolerance: The Beacon of the enlightment est gratuitement distribué au format PDF. Il comprend des nouvelles traductions de la Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen mais aussi d’œuvres de Voltaire, Condorcet, Montesquieu ou encore Saint-Simon.

What this means is that a team of 100 students at tutors of French at Oxford University have translated an anthology of excerpts from works of philosophers of the Enlightenment, which was first compiled by the French Society for Eighteenth Century Studies.  The book, entitled Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment  is available for purchase in print, but is also distributed free of charge in PDF format.  It includes new translations of the Declaration of Human Rights and the Citizen but also works of Voltaire, Condorcet, Montesquieu and Saint-Simon.

Curious, I went exploring and downloaded it.  I started reading, and couldn’t stop.  All the other things I should have been doing today have fallen by the wayside.

The introduction by Caroline Warman is excellent.  She explains why France was so appalled by the attack:

When, on 7 January 2015, the cartoonists and columnists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked in their offices in Paris and many killed, France went into shock.  One of its most deeply-held values, the right to free speech, had itself been attacked and it felt intolerable.  The context in which two vulnerable French Muslims had grown up marginalised, been radicalised, and become the Charlie Hebdo killers, also felt intolerable.

The Enlightenment – Voltaire in particular – was invoked, but the Enlightenment wasn’t, Warman says, a successful event which is now ‘over’.  The Enlightenment was a time when French intellectuals subjected their society to intense scrutiny, including the issue of how to live together despite, or even because of, conflicting views.  Clearly, still a contemporary issue, and the impassioned ideas of these great C18th thinkers have much to say to us in our current travails, doing so in this anthology with excerpts from the emerging novel, pamphlets, letters and poetry.   But their ideas can only live on if they are disseminated widely.  French academics contributed to bringing the debates of the Enlightenment onto the contemporary stage by assembling the anthology, now available to the English-speaking world thanks to the collaborative efforts of the team at Oxford.  But the intent is that Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment belongs not to academia, but to ordinary readers like you and me – to read, to think about, to consider which ideas apply, and to debate with our friends and colleagues.  Because it matters, oh yes, indeed it does, and to all of us…

The anthology begins with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – and includes Olympe de Gouges’ fruitless attempt to have women included in it.  She had a powerful offsider in Nicolas de Condorcet but French women did not get the vote till 1944, (almost half a century after Australian women did).  There are excerpts from anti-slavery advocates like Montesquieu, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and Voltaire in Candide.  There are aphorisms from Montequieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and others, all of which are powerful reminders of the values we hold dear.

Of particular importance in the context of Charlie Hebdo (which goes out of its way to offend all religions) is what Nicolas-Edme Rétif had to say in championing the freedom of the press: the entire, absolute, unrestricted freedom of the press must be upheld.  Rétif is mainly concerned about exposing the corrupt, but his principle is clear:

What danger could there be in allowing a journalist the freedom to write whatever he wants today, so long as he humbly retracts, the very next day, any falsehoods he happened to have spread the day before, on pain of a fortnight in jail on bread and water, and with increasing penalties should he reoffend, up to and including death? (p. 104)

(LOL I’m not so sure about the bread-and-water part and the death penalty.  But I can think of a few Australian journalists who might behave better if there were genuine penalties for barefaced lies in the media).

Condorcet, who wrote An Anti-Superstitious Almanack (1773-4) was insistent that the accumulated moral knowledge and experience of the past could be used for the benefit of the future.  He reminds his readers of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre two centuries ago, when Protestants were slaughtered by the Catholics, and a more recent atrocity by a handful of theology students who were convinced they had the right to do to.    Montesque, in his Persian Letters says that all religions require their adherents to abide by the law, to love mankind and to respect one’s parents.  He asks:

Is it not the primary aim of a religious man to please the deity who established the religion that he practises?  And is it not the surest method of achieving this aim to observe the rules of society and the duties of humanity? (p.100)

Most pertinently, José Cadalso y Vásquez de Andrade, defending Spain against accusations that could also be levelled at the French, has this to say:

It was the Spanish who… What? No.  These monsters and those like them are not French and they are not Spanish.  They come from a country of savages called fanatics and it is an insult unworthy of a noble pen to blame a whole nation for the abuses of a few.  Such men have existed in all places and in all times, in some centuries more than others, according to whether ignorance or enlightenment has the upper hand.  (p.102)

Some of the authors had to be circumspect.  Pierre Bayle wrote from exile exhorting moderation in religion, Diderot was more forthcoming in a private letter than he was in public.  But I’ll let Rousseau have the last word on this:

Whoever considers that they ought to turn a blind eye to one thing will soon have to keep their eyes permanently shut: the first abuse we tolerate allows another one in, and from one thing to the next, the chain never stops until the rule of order and law has been completely overturned and dismissed. (p.128)

The book contains colour portraits of the authors and images of the original manuscripts in their original form.

Authors: The French Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Title: Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment
Edited and translated by Caroline Warman and 100 students and tutors of French at Oxford University
Publisher: Open Book Publishers, 2015
ISBN: 9781783742059
Source: Free online edition in PDF form available at Open Book Publishing.


  1. What a fascinating concept – and I do like Rousseau’s comment. Scary really about what we already turn a blind eye to.

    But I’m going to comment on something completely different. I notice in the French quote the phrase “un essai autour du thème”. A literal translation of that, to me is “an essay around the theme”. I’m wondering if that’s how the French have always written “an essay on the theme” or “about the theme”, because I hate the fact that here people are using “around” increasingly instead of “on” or “about”. Drives me nuts, partly because literally it implies we circle around the issue and never actually grappling with it! You know, you hear things like “discussion around domestic violence” and so on.


    • Another example of what Don Watson would call ‘weasel words’? Or is just an American usage which has crept into our language? I don’t think I ever hear people of our generation using it…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I certainly hear it on the radio and television regularly – and yes I think I do hear it from our generation, or at least those not too much younger. I’m not familiar with it as an American usage but it could be.


        • LOL Maybe the people of our generation that you know are more ‘hip’ than the ones I know?
          OTOH most of my friends are older than I am (they think I’m young!) so maybe I’m confusing my generations….
          But yes, the ABC, long gone are the days when presenters were expected to be good language models for people learning English as migrants. I don’t think anybody edits for grammar now, and especially at the moment while the B Team is auditioning over summer, I hear some awful clangers.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Haha Lisa, true about the B team. As for friends, I’m in some groups where I’m the youngest, some groups where I’m among the oldest, and some where I’m just right! But these aren’t the groups where I’m hearing this language.


    • I love the Rousseau quote as well. Should be reminded any time insults, racist ans sexist comments are shrugged off.

      About the “around” debate.
      “un essai autour du thème” is common way of saying “un essai sur le thème” in French. It doesn’t strike me as odd and the use of “autour” means you’ll look at the theme from all directions.
      Funny, but I would never have translated “un essai autour du thème” by “an essay around the theme”. I would have had the impression to translated blindly from the French without taking into account the English-speaking way of approaching things. (This is why I don’t write my posts in French first and then translate them into English)


      • Thanks for explaining how the French use “autour”, Emma I rather suspected that.


  2. Lisa thank you so much for the details of this book. I studied 18thC History for my HSC and still have some of the books – I fell in love with Rousseau although not his ideas of the ‘Noble Savage.’ I’ve downloaded the PDF and want to reblog your post so will give it a go – fingers crossed.


    • Wonderful, the more we spread the word, the better:)


  3. Reblogged this on Up the Creek with a pen … and commented:
    A timely post from my dear friend Lisa Hill and her remarkable blog.


  4. Reblogged this on Book Around The Corner and commented:
    Here’s a fascinating post by Lisa about an initiative to remind us what tolerance and freedom of speech mean for our societies.


  5. Thought-provoking post, Lisa. I’ve reblogged it too, I think you’re right, we have to promote that kind of initiative.

    Caroline Warman is right, the right to say what you want, to criticize religions of all kinds and make fun of the stupidity around us is deeply ingrained in our psyche. It’s the them of Molière’s play, Tartuffe, so it began before the 18thc. This is why there were millions of people in the streets last January, even if Charlie Hebdo had barely 10 000 readers. We can’t look somewhere else when something so fundamental was attacked.

    Our democraties are based upon the ideas of the Enlightenment and in troubled times like this, it can’t hurt to go back to the roots. Especially when these roots are beautiful.


    • There were many of us who understood this principle too, here in Australia, where people gathered for vigils right around the country.


  6. Dear Lisa,

    I am writing to you on behalf of Open Book Publishers and the University of Michigan Press. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are conducting a research project investigating how people find and use open access ebooks (

    I’m reaching out because of your review published here of Tolerance: the Beacon of Enlightenment, which was published by Open Book Publishers. We would like to invite you to participate in a semi-structured interview about your experiences discovering, obtaining, and using freely available ebooks.

    We anticipate that the interview will last no more than 30 minutes. Participation is completely voluntary. Even if you decide to participate, you may change your mind and stop at any time for any reason. Your feedback will be anonymized and aggregated with the responses from other interviewees, and will help to inform our decisions as a publisher about where and how we distribute our open-access ebooks so that we can better reach our audience and serve our readers.

    Would you be willing for our research assistant to contact you for an interview? If so, please let me know by email the best way to contact you directly, and I will ask her to reach out to you to schedule a mutually convenient time. Interviews will be conducted via Skype or a similar, mutually acceptable videoconferencing platform.

    Thank you for your interest in this book, and for considering this invitation.

    Rebecca Welzenbach
    Michigan Publishing
    University of Michigan Library


    • Hello Rebecca, I’d love to do this but I have no idea how to use Skype or any other vc platform. You can email me direct at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom


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