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Sunday, December 22, 2002


What would Pilate do?

Well, LI learned, the other day, that we were not the first to spot the significance of Pilate in the controversy between Mill and Stephen -- a writer for the Economist, Ann Wroe, in her book on the figure of Pilate, alludes both to the controversy and to the colonial background:

"With this contemporary problem [of empire] in their minds, the Victorians turned again with some interest to the trial of Jesus. Had Pilate been justified in crucifying Christ, or not? On one side stood John Stuart Mill, the great liberal thinker, who naturally took the view that the trial itself was a travesty and Pilate's sentence an outrage against freedom of speech and freedom of religion. On the other side stood James FitzJames Stephen, the uncle of Virginia Woolf, who argued that Pilate's moral absolutes would have been different. If a ruler, he argued, was charged to keep the peace, that naturally became his first priority. He was not required to be tolerant of free speech or religion if that meant he would have a riot on his hands. Pilate's first concern was the glory of Rome; his second, the preserving of his own skin, and both depended absolutely on keeping the peace in Jerusalem."

Our notion is that there is much more to be squeezed out of the Pilate example, in this case, than Wroe gives us here; in a sense, the Trial of Jesus encompasses the whole paradox of Christian imperial governance in the age of democracy. However, we must (grudgingly) acknowledge Wroe's precedence (big of us, huh?).

Voltaire refers to Pilate in two crucial places: in his essay on Tolerance, and in his Philosophical Dictionary. The latter reference is in the entry on Truth. Pilate appears in the light of Voltaire's irony as a figure with whom the philosophea were all too familiar: the sympathizers within the state, the hangers-on of the enlightenment. The nobles, officials, churchmen who expressed, as is the way of the circles of the powerful under political tyranny, sympathy for dissent -- an enlightened view of official superstitions -- a discomfort with old institutions - and who, when the time came, would unhesitatingly betray their enlightened friends. Pilate, who, following an old convention, Voltaire obviously sees as a disenchanted old officer, is willing to surrender to establishment pressure rather than stand up against it. He knows the better thing, and does the worse. Truth, then, gets mixed up, from the very beginning, with resistance against the structure of falsehood. It is, in other words, politicized.

Voltaire's reading of Pilate comes from the famous passage in John 18:

Pilate said to him, "you are the king?"
Jesus responded, "you say that I am the king; it is for this that I was born and have come into the world -- to witness the truth; let every man who is of the truth listen to my voice." Pilate said to him, "what is the truth?" and having said this, he parted.

Voltaire's gloss on this passage is in the highest vein of his style -- sparse, dry, doublesided:

"Il est triste pour le genre humain que Pilate sort�t sans attendre la r�ponse; nous saurions ce que c�est que la v�rit�. Pilate �tait bien peu curieux."

It is as if Pilate and Jesus were actors in one of Perrault's folktales. But Voltaire soon drives home his liberal point. Conceding that the truth is to say that which is; and conceding that that which was, or will be, can only be said in terms of its probability, and never in terms of its certitude; then to kill a human being for speaking his mind is to kill him on what was, or on a probability; furthermore, it is to kill him without, oneself, knowing the truth, insofar as present certitude is surrounded by a gulf of doubt, is to commit an act of lese majeste with regard to the truth. Voltaire, of course, expresses these things with his usual astringent humor:

" Mais comme vous n�aurez jamais de certitude enti�re, vous ne pourrez vous flatter de conna�tre parfaitement la v�rit�.

Par cons�quent vous devez toujours pencher vers la cl�mence plus que vers la rigueur. S�il ne s�agit que de faits dont il n�ait r�sult� ni mort d�homme ni mutilation, il est �vident que vous ne devez faire mourir ni mutiler l�accus�. S�il n�est question que de paroles, il est encore plus �vident que vous ne devez point faire pendre un de vos semblables pour la mani�re dont il a remu� la langue; car toutes les paroles du monde n��tant que de l�air battu, � moins que ces paroles n�aient excit� au meurtre, il est ridicule de condamner un homme � mourir pour avoir battu l�air. Mettez dans une balance toutes les paroles oiseuses qu�on ait jamais dites, et dans l�autre balance le sang d�un homme, ce sang l�emportera. Or celui qu�on a traduit devant vous n��tant accus� que de quelques paroles que ses ennemis ont prises en un certain sens, tout ce que vous pourriez faire serait aussi de lui dire des paroles qu�il prendra dans le sens qu�il voudra; mais livrer un innocent au plus cruel et au plus ignominieux supplice pour des mots que ses ennemis ne comprennent pas, cela est trop barbare. Vous ne faites pas plus de cas de la vie d�un homme que de celle d�un l�zard, et trop de juges vous ressemblent."

("Since you will never possess the entire certainty of any state of affairs, you cannot flatter yourself to know, perfectly, the truth.

Consequently, you ought always to lean towards clemency, instead of rigor. If if it is only a question of facts which have not resulted in homicide or injury, it is evident that you should not, yourself, either kill or mutilate. If it is only a question of words, it is still more evident that you ought not to hang one of your kind for the manner in which he moved his tongue. For all the words in the world are only thrashings of the air, at least if they have not excited to murder, and it is ridiculous to condemn a man to death for thrashing the air. So, let's put into one side of the balance all the idle words one has ever spoken, and into the other side the blood of a man, and you will see that blood carries the point. Thus he who they have brought before you, being only accused of some words that his enemies have taken in a certain sense, all that you can do would be to have him say the words in the sense that he himself would have them taken; but to deliver an innocent to the most cruel and ignominious torture for words that his enemies doen't understand, that is too barbarous. Doing this, you are making no more of a case for the life of a man than the life of a lizard -- and too many judges are just like you."

Voltaire prefigures Mill's argument for liberty of opinion from the fallibility of all opinions. However, he's simply funnier than Mill.