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‘On the Mind’…

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior parliamentarian and a member of the Opposition Indian National Congress Party, recently claimed that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, once said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Singhvi made the claim while criticising the Narendra Modi Government for suppressing the Freedom of Speech.
The fact of the matter is that Pandit Nehru was not the person who was reported to have said this. It is not even a quote of French Enlightenment Philosopher Voltaire, although most of the people think so. The words above reportedly originated with English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (pseudonym: S G Tallentyre ) in 1906. She penned Voltaire’s biography ‘The Life of Voltaire‘ in 1903. Three years later, she published another book, titled: ‘The Friends of Voltaire‘. In this book, the British historian discussed about 8-10 eminent personalities, who were Voltaire’s contemporary, as well as his friends. One of them was the French Philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius.

Voltaire & Pandit Nehru.jpg
Voltaire & Pandit Nehru

Helvétius had authored the book ‘On the Mind‘ in 1758 in which he claimed that self-interest is the only motivation and driving force in human society. He also claimed that there is nothing, such as Good or Evil… what is there in the society is Competitive Happiness! The publication triggered a controversy in Europe, with the Priests declaring that it was atheist, and naturally dangerous! The protesters publicly burned the book. Even Voltaire said that Helvétius’ publication lacked originality. The frightened author, then, withdrew his comment!

Claude-Adrien Helvétius.jpg
Claude-Adrien Helvétius

In the Helvétius-related chapter in her The Friends of Voltaire, Hall had mentioned the famous line that apparently has been mis-attributed to Voltaire! She wrote: “What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. ‘On the Mind’ became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall.jpg
Evelyn Beatrice Hall

In fact, those words were Hall’s expression about Voltaire’s attitude towards the incident related to Helvétius’ book. And, people have been mis-attributing Hall’s famous saying to Voltaire for years. Undoubtedly, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a lawyer by profession, is one of them!

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