On the Horrible Danger of Reading, by Voltaire

On the Horrible Danger of Reading[1]

by Voltaire

We, Joussouf-Chéribi, by the grace of God mufti of the Holy Ottoman Empire, light of Lights, chosen among the Chosen, to all of the faithful here gathered, folly and benediction.

Since it has come to pass, that Saïd-Effendi, the previous ambassador of the Sublime-Door to a small state called the Kindgom of France, situated between Spain and Italy, has brought among us the pernicious operation of the printing press, after having consulted on the subject of this new-fangled contraption our venerable brothers the caliphs and imams of the imperial city of Stambul, and especially the fakirs known for their zeal against the intellect, it has been deemed good for Muhammad and for us to condemn, outlaw and render anathema the said invention of the printing press, for the reasons enunciated forthwith:

1° This facility to communicate one’s thoughts tends evidently to dissipate ignorance, which is the custodian and the safeguard of well-policed States.

2° It is to be feared that, among the books brought from the West, there be some on agricultutre and on ways of improving the Mechanical Arts, such works could, in the long run, let it not please God, awake the genius of our farmers and our manufacturers, excite their industry, augment their wealth, and inspire in them a certain elevation of the soul, a certain love for the public weal, sentiments absolutely opposed to healthy Doctrine.

3° It would befall us that in the end we would have books on history unencumbered by the miraculous, which has entertained the nation in happy ignorance. We would have in these books the imprudence of rendering justice to good and to bad actions, and of recommending impartiality and love of the nation, which is visibly contrary to the rights of our land.

4° It could happen, in the fullness of time, that terrible philosophers, under the specious, although punishable, pretext of enlightening men and making them better, would come to teach us dangerous virtues about which the people should never have knowledge.

5° They could, while increasing the respect they have for God, and while printing scandalously that they fill all with His presence, diminish the number of Pilgrims to Mecca, to the great detriment of the salvation of those souls.

6° It could happen without a doubt that, due to reading the works of Western authors who write about contagious maladies, and about the manners of preventing them, we could become rather unfortunate in saving ourselves from the plague, which would be an enormous attack on the orders of Providence.

For these and other causes, for the edification of the faithful and for the good of their souls, we will prohibit them from ever reading any book, under pain of eternal damnation. And, for fear that the diabolical temptation will cause them to become educated, we prohibit fathers and mothers from teaching their children how to read. And, to prevent all violations to our edicts, we prohibit them expressly from thinking, under the same penalties; enjoin all true believers to denounce to our officials whoever would have pronounced four sentences stitched together, from which one could infer a clear and distinct meaning. Let’s command that in all conversations the people use terms that have no meaning, according to our ancient usage of the Sublime-Door.

And in order to keep any contraband idea from entering into the sacred Imperial City, let us commit especially to His Highness, the First Physician, born in a swamp of the Northern West, which physician, having already killed four august people of the Ottoman family, is more interested than anybody in preventing any introduction of knowledge into the country; we give him the power, by these present edicts, to seize any and all ideas which should be introduced either in written form or by mouth through the gates of the city, and to bring to us such ideas bound hand and foot, in order to inflict whatever punishment as we might like.

Presented in our Palace of Ignorance, the seventh Moon of Muharem, year 1143 of the Hegira.

[1] None of my students had ever stumbled on this jewel by Voltaire before coming to my class. I couldn’t find any English translations on the web, so here is my own interpretation. In French, it’s available at: bacdefrancais.net/lecture.php. If this is your first time reading Voltaire, mind the sarcasm.


About the author

Roy Luna: Roy Luna is a retired French professor who dabbles in the arts, tinkers with music, reads heavily in fiction and history, but does not neglect biographies or science. His main efforts these days are devoted to writing a trilogy of novels based on events occurring during the years between the death of Voltaire (1778) and the French Revolution (1789-94), years rich in both enlightened human progress and dark, evil terror. Three times a week he volunteers at Dunbar Old Books, making sure orphaned books find their way to other readers. His library at home may have surpassed the 10,000 mark, and he valiantly tries to read them all… The one important thing to retain about Roy is his horror at the sins, the injustice, the atrocities, the crimes against humanity that are perpetrated and justified in the name of religion. Any belief system that condones such savagery has discarded its humanity, abandoned its compassion, and forsaken its principles of empathy, tolerance and love of one’s neighbor.


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