There is a famous line, attributed to Voltaire and best known in a slightly misquoted form from S. G. Tallentyre’s biography “The Friends of Voltaire”, that runs like this:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
It is likely that Voltaire in fact never said those exact words and indeed, in “The Friends of Voltaire” the line is given not in verbatim, rather than simply to sum up his attitude at around 1770. There is no way of knowing if Voltaire would in fact have lived up to his now famous saying, as he died just eight years later and thus did not live to see the French Revolution that broke out in 1789.
The long and ever winding road that goes by the name of my dissertation has, as of late, taken me to the history of precisely that period, and reading up on Revolution and Terror has been a rather fascinating experience. Among other things, it has given me a newfound appreciation for Žižek’s controversial views on political violence — as perhaps most famously expressed in his 2009 book In Defense of Lost Causes. Reflecting upon Žižek’s insistence that the left should come to terms with la Terreur being a part of their history and heritage, I came to think that the truly interesting question about Voltaire is not whether he in fact would have been ready to die for someone’s right to express their opinion. If I had a chance to ask one question from Voltaire, I’d ask if he would have been ready to kill for it.
Because for Robespierre, the answer to this was clear — for him, there was no other way. In order for liberty, fraternity and equality to have a chance, a lot of people had to be repressed, and indeed, killed. Incidentally, this is also what Žižek has been arguing for, perhaps less the guillotine. We cannot have out freedoms, our rights and humanist ideals without really insisting upon them, without fighting for them — and pushing this insistence to its logical limit begs the question of dealing with violence.
Because, as Robespierre would no doubt have agreed, talk is cheap.