Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The world has long disputed about ancient chronology; but has there ever been any? Every considerable people must necessarily possess and preserve authentic, well-attested registers. But how few people were acquainted with the art of writing? and, among the small number of men who cultivated this very rare art, are any to be found who took the trouble to mark two dates with exactness?

We have, indeed, in very recent times the astronomical observations of the Chinese and the Chaldæans. They only go back about two thousand years, more or less, beyond our era. But when the early annals of a nation confine themselves simply to communicating the information that there was an eclipse in the reign of a certain prince, we learn, certainly, that such a prince existed, but not what he performed.

Moreover, the Chinese reckon the year in which an emperor dies as still constituting a part of his reign, until the end of it; even though he should die the first day of the year, his successor dates the year following his death with the name of his predecessor. It is not possible to show more respect for ancestors; nor is it possible to compute time in a manner more injudicious in comparison with modern nations.

We may add that the Chinese do not commence their sexagenary cycle, into which they have introduced arrangement, till the reign of the Emperor Iao, two thousand three hundred and fifty-seven years before our vulgar era. Profound obscurity hangs over the whole period of time which precedes that epoch.

Men are generally contented with an approximation — with the “pretty nearly” in every case. For example, before the invention of watches, people could learn the time of day or night only approximately. In building, the stones were pretty nearly hewn to a certain shape, the timber pretty nearly squared, and the limbs of the statue pretty nearly chipped to a proper finish; a man was only pretty nearly acquainted with his nearest neighbors; and, notwithstanding the perfection we have ourselves attained, such is the state of things at present throughout the greater part of the world.

Let us not then be astonished that there is nowhere to be found a correct ancient chronology. That which we have of the Chinese is of considerable value, when compared with the chronological labors of other nations. We have none of the Indians, nor of the Persians, and scarcely any of the ancient Egyptians. All our systems formed on the history of these people are as contradictory as our systems of metaphysics.

The Greek Olympiads do not commence till seven hundred and twenty-eight years before our era of reckoning. Until we arrive at them, we perceive only a few torches to lighten the darkness, such as the era of Nabonassar, the war between Lacedæmon and Messene; even those epochs themselves are subjects of dispute.

Livy took care not to state in what year Romulus began his pretended reign. The Romans, who well knew the uncertainty of that epoch, would have ridiculed him had he undertaken to decide it. It is proved that the duration of two hundred and forty years ascribed to the seven first kings of Rome is a very false calculation. The first four centuries of Rome are absolutely destitute of chronology.

If four centuries of the most memorable empire the world ever saw comprise only an undigested mass of events, mixed up with fables, and almost without a date, what must be the case with small nations, shut up in an obscure corner of the earth, that have never made any figure in the world, notwithstanding all their attempts to compensate, by prodigy and imposture, for their deficiency in real power and cultivation?

Of the Vanity of Systems, Particularly in Chronology.

The Abbé Condillac performed a most important service to the human mind when he displayed the false points of all systems. If we may ever hope that we shall one day find the road to truth, it can only be after we have detected all those which lead to error. It is at least a consolation to be at rest, to be no longer seeking, when we perceive that so many philosophers have sought in vain.

Chronology is a collection of bladders of wind. All who thought to pass over it as solid ground have been immersed. We have, at the present time, twenty-four systems, not one of which is true.

The Babylonians said, “We reckon four hundred and seventy-three thousand years of astronomical observations.” A Parisian, addressing him, says, “Your account is correct; your years consisted each of a solar day; they amount to twelve hundred and ninety-seven of ours, from the time of Atlas, the great astronomer, king of Africa, till the arrival of Alexander at Babylon.”

But, whatever our Parisian may say, no people in the world have ever confounded a day with a year; and the people of Babylon still less than any other. This Parisian stranger should have contented himself with merely observing to the Chaldæans: “You are exaggerators, and our ancestors were ignorant. Nations are exposed to too many revolutions to permit their keeping a series of four thousand seven hundred and thirty-six centuries of astronomical calculations. And, with respect to Atlas, king of the Moors, no one knows at what time he lived. Pythagoras might pretend to have been a cock, just as reasonably as you may boast of such a series of observations.”

The great point of ridicule in all fantastic chronologies is the arrangement of all the great events of a man’s life in precise order of time, without ascertaining that the man himself ever existed. Lenglet repeats after others, in his chronological compilation of universal history, that precisely in the time of Abraham, and six years after the death of Sarah, who was little known to the Greeks, Jupiter, at the age of sixty-two, began to reign in Thessaly; that his reign lasted sixty years; that he married his sister Juno; that he was obliged to cede the maritime coasts to his brother Neptune; and that the Titans made war against him. But was there ever a Jupiter? It never occurred to him that with this question he should have begun.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25