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2016-12-27
Calas

He did not believe in religion of any kind. Voltaire believed only in God—of whom he was always mindful because of God's hard, fundamental cruelty. And incessant.

Voltaire—writer, dramatist, essayist and prominent European philosopher—is compelling in the way he conveys his ideas, humorous in his satire. His writing is bright in tone, both his stories and his polemics. But from the 1760s, Voltaire lost his brightness; his pen produced pamphlets of anger.

Specifically, from March 1762 on, after a man named Jean Calas was sentenced to torture and death.

The story was that Calas, a successful textile merchant in Toulouse, was convicted at the age of 68 because of the death of his oldest child, Marc-Antoine. Calas was accused of plotting with his three other children and a servant to murder the young man. Allegation, or accusation, or rumor: the Huguenot Calas's were said to have done this deed after they discovered that Marc-Antoine had rejected Protestantism and intended to convert to Catholicism.

The Calas family denied it: Marc-Antoine died because he hanged himself. He had entered law school but had no prospect of work. The law in France at that time prohibited anyone working in the medical or legal professions unless they had a certificate to show they were Catholic. Marc-Antoine refused to change his religion, but he was also unable to find any other job and did not like working at his father's shop. Unemployed, his desk overflowed with gambling debts. It seems that frustrated with his lot, humiliated in his own family, or in despair—he chose to die.

Calas should have explained all this to the police. But when the police first interrogated him, he made up a story that Marc-Antoine had been murdered, and the murderer had escaped. This seems to have been his way of avoiding something else terrifying: in those days in France, the body of someone who had committed suicide was stripped naked and dragged through the streets. But by making up his story, Calas made the cause of his son's death even more confusing. The doctors who examined the body concluded that the young man had been 'hanged whilst alive, by himself or others'.

Thirty-six hours after he had been incarcerated in a dungeon, Calas finally spoke up: Marc-Antoine had 'hanged himself alive'.

The French legal system in the 18th century did not have the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' or any other way of protecting an accused from prejudice and slander. "A whisper can be as deadly as the plague," a writer said. And in those days, when the young man's cause of death confounded all, that plague festered through gossip and rumor.

Eventually, Calas was taken before the parlemen and the judges who tried him decided: the accused must be forced to name his accomplices—then his body 'put to the wheel' and burnt.

Calas mentioned not a single name, because indeed there were none. So the torture was carried out. One stage involved forcing his mouth open with two sticks while buckets of water were poured down his throat and his nostrils pinched. When still no confession was forthcoming, he was taken out in public, dragged into the square, led up a scaffold and tied to an X-shaped cross. An executioner broke his bones using a hot iron rod. When his body was crushed, he was then tied to a wheel facing the sky. For two hours. But still he would not confess his sin, nor give up his faith. "I die innocent," he said. He was strangled. His body was thrown on a pyre...

Écrasez l'infame! With those two words, the precise meaning of which is vague but the spirit of which is seething, Voltaire declared war on hatred ignited by religious fanaticism. "The man who says to me, 'Believe as I do, or God will damn you', will presently say, 'Believe as I do, or I shall assassinate you'."

Voltaire himself believed in a Supreme Being, but did not 'join any of the sects who all contradict themselves'. The religion of a 'deist', he said, is the most ancient religion: it worships one God who precedes 'all the systems in the world'.

Voltaire had seen how these 'systems'—systems of belief—not only bind, but also facilitate suspicion and paranoia. Further: enmity and prosecution. His Treatise on Tolerance ended with a prayer: "may all these tiny variations which differentiate the atoms called humans not be the triggers of hatred and persecution."

In the midst of the restrictive mood of France in the 18th century, Voltaire seems to be praying alongside us, here in Indonesia, today.

Goenawan Mohamad



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