Misquotation: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'

In De l’esprit [‘On the Mind’], published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvetius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvetius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

Voltaire forgave him all the injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had eclaimed 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.

From the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. For other previous common misquotations, take a look at our Misquotation of the Week feature.

Image credit: Claude Adrien Helvétius, engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin after a painting by Michel van Loo (right) and Moreau le Jeune, Portrait Voltairs (left) via Wikimedia Commons.