Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CYRUS.

Many learned men, and Rollin among the number, in an age in which reason is cultivated, have assured us that Javan, who is supposed to be the father of the Greeks, was the grandson of Noah. I believe it precisely as I believe that Persius was the founder of the kingdom of Persia and Niger of Nigritia. The only thing which grieves me is that the Greeks have never known anything of Noah, the venerable author of their race. I have elsewhere noted my astonishment and chagrin that our father Adam should be absolutely unknown to everybody from Japan to the Strait of Le Maire, except to a small people to whom he was known too late. The science of genealogy is doubtless in the highest degree certain, but exceedingly difficult.

It is neither upon Javan, upon Noah, nor upon Adam that my doubts fall at present; it is upon Cyrus, and I seek not which of the fables in regard to him is preferable, that of Herodotus, of Ctesias, of Xenophon, of Diodorus, or of Justin, all of which contradict one another. Neither do I ask why it is obstinately determined to give the name of Cyrus to a barbarian called Khosrou, and those of Cyropolis and Persepolis to cities that never bore them.

I drop all that has been said of the grand Cyrus, including the romance of that name, and the travels which the Scottish Ramsay made him undertake, and simply inquire into some instructions of his to the Jews, of which that people make mention.

I remark, in the first place, that no author has said a word of the Jews in the history of Cyrus, and that the Jews alone venture to notice themselves, in speaking of this prince.

They resemble, in some degree, certain people, who, alluding to individuals of a rank superior to their own say, we know the gentlemen but the gentlemen know not us. It is the same with Alexander in the narratives of the Jews. No historian of Alexander has mixed up his name with that of the Jews, but Josephus fails not to assert that Alexander came to pay his respects at Jerusalem; that he worshipped, I know not what Jewish pontiff, called Jaddus, who had formerly predicted to him the conquest of Persia in a dream. Petty people are often visionary in this way: the great dream less of their greatness.

When Tarik conquered Spain the vanquished said they had foretold it. They would have said the same thing to Genghis, to Tamerlane, and to Mahomet II.

God forbid that I should compare the Jewish prophets to the predictors of good fortune, who pay their court to conquerors by foretelling them that which has come to pass. I merely observe that the Jews produce some testimony from their nation in respect to the actions of Cyrus about one hundred and sixty years before he was born.

It is said, in the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, “Thus saith the Lord to His anointed — His Christ — Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden to subdue nations before him, and I will loosen the loins of kings to open before him the two-leaved gates, and the gates shall not be shut. I will go before thee and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of brass and cut in sunder the bars of iron. And I will give thee the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places that thou mayest know that I the Lord, who call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel,” etc.

Some learned men have scarcely been able to digest the fact of the Lord honoring with the name of His Christ an idolater of the religion of Zoroaster. They even dare to say that the Jews, in the manner of all the weak who flatter the powerful, invented predictions in favor of Cyrus.

These learned persons respect Daniel no more than Isaiah, but treat all the prophecies attributed to the latter with similar contempt to that manifested by St. Jerome for the adventures of Susannah, of Bel and the Dragon, and of the three children in the fiery furnace.

The sages in question seem not to be penetrated with sufficient esteem for the prophets. Many of them even pretend that to see clearly the future is metaphysically impossible. To see that which is not, say they, is a contradiction in terms, and as the future exists not, it consequently cannot be seen. They add that frauds of this nature abound in all nations, and, finally, that everything is to be doubted which is recorded in ancient history.

They observe that if there was ever a formal prophecy it is that of the discovery of America in the tragedy of Seneca:

Venient annis

Sæcula seris quibus oceanus

Vincula rerum laxet, et ingens

Pateat tellus, . . . .

A time may arrive when ocean will loosen the chains of nature and lay open a vast world. The four stars of the southern pole are advanced still more clearly in Dante, yet no one takes either Seneca or Dante for diviners.

As to Cyrus, it is difficult to know whether he died nobly or had his head cut off by Tomyris, but I am anxious, I confess, that the learned men may be right who claim the head of Cyrus was cut off. It is not amiss that these illustrious robbers on the highway of nations who pillage and deluge the earth with blood, should be occasionally chastised.

Cyrus has always been the subject of remark, Xenophon began and, unfortunately, Ramsay ended. Lastly, to show the sad fate which sometimes attends heroes, Danchet has made him the subject of a tragedy.

This tragedy is entirely unknown; the “Cyropædia” of Xenophon is more popular because it is in Greek. The “Travels of Cyrus” are less so, although printed in French and English, and wonderfully erudite.

The pleasantry of the romance entitled “The Travels of Cyrus,” consists in its discovery of a Messiah everywhere — at Memphis, at Babylon, at Ecbatana, and at Tyre, as at Jerusalem, and as much in Plato as in the gospel. The author having been a Quaker, an Anabaptist, an Anglican, and a Presbyterian, had finally become a Fénelonist at Cambray, under the illustrious author of “Telemachus.” Having since been made preceptor to the child of a great nobleman, he thought himself born to instruct and govern the universe, and, in consequence, gives lessons to Cyrus in order to render him at once the best king and the most orthodox theologian in existence. These two rare qualities appear to lack the grace of congruity.

Ramsay leads his pupil to the school of Zoroaster and then to that of the young Jew, Daniel, the greatest philosopher who ever existed. He not only explained dreams, which is the acme of human science, but discovered and interpreted even such as had been forgotten, which none but he could ever accomplish. It might be expected that Daniel would present the beautiful Susannah to the prince, it being in the natural manner of romance, but he did nothing of the kind.

Cyrus, in return, has some very long conversations with Nebuchadnezzar while he was an ox, during which transformation Ramsay makes Nebuchadnezzar ruminate like a profound theologian.

How astonishing that the prince for whom this work was composed preferred the chase and the opera to perusing it!

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