Voltaire had a keen, but non-military involvement in the 1756 battle of Minorca. Although supportive of the French led by the Duc de Richelieu, Voltaire was sympathetic with the defeated British Admiral Byng, who was executed for his failure to defend the garrison at Minorca, which had subsequently surrendered to the French. Byng, who had led a fleet of thirteen ships against twelve French ships, apparently had insufficient supplies, and was probably ill equipped by the British Government for the venture upon which he had been sent. However, the British public and numbers of those in authority, including the king, were incensed by the loss of Minorca, which was considered a key military base.

The obvious scapegoat was Byng, and a convenient British law allowed for the death sentence on any British officer who was deemed not to have fought sufficiently earnestly when engaged in an act of war. Byng was sentenced to death and subsequently executed.

In Voltaire’s novel, Candide, whilst keeping close to the true account of the matter, he gave a report of the execution without actually naming Byng.

Candide and Martin touched upon the Coast of England, and what they saw there.

They arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.

What is all this?” said Candide; “and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?” He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered,” he was an Admiral”.

And why kill this Admiral?”

It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”

But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”

There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”

In writing this, Voltaire sought to focus the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses a battle, especially when he had been ill equipped to engage in it. But it is not merely the folly of such an action that is highlighted, but the fact of unjustly punishing one person in order to discourage others. This is not of course an isolated instance. Many dictatorships characteristically demand a few (or many) executions from time to time, often of randomly selected individuals, in order to maintain a level of compliance among the populace. That is one of the marks of a dictatorship. It should not however, be a mark of a Democracy, or indeed of any just society that claims to rule by a code of righteousness.

It should always be a matter of concern in any Democracy, when laws or ‘guidelines’ encourage punishments which do not relate directly to an action or lack of action on the part of an individual, but which are passed merely in order to discourage others from acting in a particular way. This becomes doubly inappropriate when the punishment is not simply to discourage others, but when it also serves the purpose of making it appear that the right thing has been done when in fact it is quite the opposite.

I do not intend to list any such actions that are happening in our society today as they are becoming so increasingly obvious that it would become tedious to relate them. However if you do want to explore the matter further, a few youtube reports and interviews from Christian Concern would give you a good starting point.

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