Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ESSENIANS.

The more superstitious and barbarous any nation is, the more obstinately bent on war, notwithstanding its defeats; the more divided into factions, floating between royal and priestly claims; and the more intoxicated it may be by fanaticism, the more certainly will be found among that nation a number of citizens associated together in order to live in peace.

It happens during a season of pestilence that a small canton forbids all communication with large cities. It preserves itself from the prevailing contagion, but remains a prey to other maladies.

Of this description of persons were the Gymnosophists in India, and certain sects of philosophers among the Greeks. Such also were the Pythagoreans in Italy and Greece, and the Therapeutæ in Egypt. Such at the present day are those primitive people called Quakers and Dunkards, in Pennsylvania, and very nearly such were the first Christians who lived together remote from cities.

Not one of these societies was acquainted with the dreadful custom of binding themselves by oath to the mode of life which they adopted, of involving themselves in perpetual chains, of depriving themselves, on a principle of religion, of the grand right and first principle of human nature, which is liberty; in short, of entering into what we call vows. St. Basil was the first who conceived the idea of those vows, of this oath of slavery. He introduced a new plague into the world, and converted into a poison that which had been invented as a remedy.

There were in Syria societies precisely similar to those of the Essenians. This we learn from the Jew Philo, in his treatise on the “Freedom of the Good.” Syria was always superstitious and factious, and always under the yoke of tyrants. The successors of Alexander made it a theatre of horrors. It is by no means extraordinary that among such numbers of oppressed and persecuted beings, some, more humane and judicious than the rest, should withdraw from all intercourse with great cities, in order to live in common, in honest poverty, far from the blasting eyes of tyranny.

During the civil wars of the latter Ptolemies, similar asylums were formed in Egypt, and when that country was subjugated by the Roman arms, the Therapeutæ established themselves in a sequestered spot in the neighborhood of Lake Mœris.

It appears highly probable that there were Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish Therapeutæ. Philo, after eulogizing Anaxagoras, Democritus, and other philosophers, who embraced their way of life, thus expresses himself:

“Similar societies are found in many countries; Greece and other regions enjoy institutions of this consoling character. They are common in Egypt in every district, and particularly in that of Alexandria. The most worthy and moral of the population have withdrawn beyond Lake Mœris to a secluded but convenient spot, forming a gentle declivity. The air is very salubrious, and the villages in the neighborhood sufficiently numerous,” etc.

Thus we perceive that there have everywhere existed societies of men who have endeavored to find a refuge from disturbances and factions, from the insolence and rapacity of oppressors. All, without exception, entertained a perfect horror of war, considering it precisely in the same light in which we contemplate highway robbery and murder.

Such, nearly, were the men of letters who united in France and founded the Academy. They quietly withdrew from the factious and cruel scenes which desolated the country in the reign of Louis XIII. Such also were the men who founded the Royal Society at London, while the barbarous idiots called Puritans and Episcopalians were cutting one another’s throats about the interpretation of a few passages from three or four old and unintelligible books.

Some learned men have been of opinion that Jesus Christ, who condescended to make his appearance for some time in the small district of Capernaum, in Nazareth, and some other small towns of Palestine, was one of those Essenians who fled from the tumult of affairs and cultivated virtue in peace. But the name “Essenian,” never even once occurs in the four Gospels, in the Apocrypha, or in the Acts, or the Epistles of the apostles.

Although, however, the name is not to be found, a resemblance is in various points observable — confraternity, community of property, strictness of moral conduct, manual labor, detachment from wealth and honors; and, above all, detestation of war. So great is this detestation, that Jesus Christ commands his disciples when struck upon one cheek to offer the other also, and when robbed of a cloak to deliver up the coat likewise. Upon this principle the Christians conducted themselves, during the two first centuries, without altars, temples, or magistracies — all employed in their respective trades or occupations, all leading secluded and quiet lives.

Their early writings attest that they were not permitted to carry arms. In this they perfectly resembled our Quakers, Anabaptists, and Mennonites of the present day, who take a pride in following the literal meaning of the gospel. For although there are in the gospel many passages which, when incorrectly understood, might breed violence — as the case of the merchants scourged out of the temple avenues, the phrase “compel them to come in,” the dangers into which they were thrown who had not converted their master’s one talent into five talents, and the treatment of those who came to the wedding without the wedding garment — although, I say, all these may seem contrary to the pacific spirit of the gospel, yet there are so many other passages which enjoin sufferance instead of contest, that it is by no means astonishing that, for a period of two hundred years, Christians held war in absolute execration.

Upon this foundation was the numerous and respectable society of Pennsylvanians established, as were also the minor sects which have imitated them. When I denominate them respectable, it is by no means in consequence of their aversion to the splendor of the Catholic church. I lament, undoubtedly, as I ought to do, their errors. It is their virtue, their modesty, and their spirit of peace, that I respect.

Was not the great philosopher Bayle right, then, when he remarked that a Christian of the earliest times of our religion would be a very bad soldier, or that a soldier would be a very bad Christian?

This dilemma appears to be unanswerable; and in this point, in my opinion, consists the great difference between ancient Christianity and ancient Judaism.

The law of the first Jews expressly says, “As soon as you enter any country with a view to possess it, destroy everything by fire and sword; slay, without mercy, aged men, women, and children at the breast; kill even all the animals; sack everything and burn everything. It is your God who commands you so to do.” This injunction is not given in a single instance, but on twenty different occasions, and is always followed.

Mahomet, persecuted by the people of Mecca, defends himself like a brave man. He compels his vanquished persecutors to humble themselves at his feet, and become his disciples. He establishes his religion by proselytism and the sword.

Jesus, appearing between the times of Moses and Mahomet, in a corner of Galilee, preaches forgiveness of injuries, patience, mildness, and forbearance, dies himself under the infliction of capital punishment, and is desirous of the same fate for His first disciples.

I ask candidly, whether St. Bartholomew, St. Andrew, St. Matthew, and St. Barnabas, would have been received among the cuirassiers of the emperor, or among the royal guards of Charles XII.?

Would St. Peter himself, though he cut off Malchus’ ear, have made a good officer? Perhaps St. Paul, accustomed at first to carnage, and having had the misfortune to be a bloody persecutor, is the only one who could have been made a warrior. The impetuosity of his temperament and the fire of his imagination would have made him a formidable commander. But, notwithstanding these qualities, he made no effort to revenge himself on Gamaliel by arms. He did not act like the Judases, the Theudases, and the Barchochebases, who levied troops: he followed the precepts of Jesus Christ; he suffered; and, according to an account we have of his death, he was beheaded.

To compose an army of Christians, therefore, in the early period of Christianity, was a contradiction in terms.

It is certain that Christians were not enlisted among the troops of the empire till the spirit by which they were animated was changed. In the first two centuries they entertained a horror for temples, altars, tapers, incense, and lustral water. Porphyry compares them to the foxes who said “the grapes are sour.” “If,” said he, “you could have had beautiful temples burnished with gold, and large revenues for a clergy, you would then have been passionately fond of temples.” They afterwards addicted themselves to all that they had abhorred. Thus, having detested the profession of arms, they at length engaged in war. The Christians in the time of Diocletian were as different from those of the time of the apostles, as we are from the Christians of the third century.

I cannot conceive how a mind so enlightened and bold as Montesquieu’s could severely censure another genius much more accurate than his own, and oppose the following just remark made by Bayle: “a society of real Christians might live happily together, but they would make a bad defence on being attacked by an enemy.”

“They would,” says Montesquieu, “be citizens infinitely enlightened on the subject of their duties, and ardently zealous to discharge them. They would be fully sensible of the rights of natural defence. The more they thought they owed religion, the more they would think they owed their country. The principles of Christianity deeply engraved on their hearts would be infinitely more powerful than the false honor of monarchies, the human virtues of republics, or the servile fear which operates under despotism.”

Surely the author of the “Spirit of Laws” did not reflect upon the words of the gospel, when saying that real Christians would be fully sensible of the rights of natural defence. He did not recollect the command to deliver up the coat after the cloak had been taken; and, after having received a blow upon one cheek, to present the other also. Here the principle of natural defence is most decidedly annihilated. Those whom we call Quakers have always refused to fight; but in the war of 1756, if they had not received assistance from the other English, and suffered that assistance to operate, they would have been completely crushed.

Is it not unquestionable that men who thought and felt as martyrs would fight very ill as grenadiers? Every sentence of that chapter of the “Spirit of Laws” appears to me false. “The principles of Christianity deeply engraved on their hearts, would be infinitely more powerful,” etc. Yes, more powerful to prevent their exercise of the sword, to make them tremble at shedding their neighbor’s blood, to make them look on life as a burden of which it would be their highest happiness to be relieved.

“If,” says Bayle, “they were appointed to drive back veteran corps of infantry, or to charge regiments of cuirassiers, they would be seen like sheep in the midst of wolves.”

Bayle was perfectly right. Montesquieu did not perceive that, while attempting to refute him, he contemplated only the mercenary and sanguinary soldiers of the present day, and not the early Christians. It would seem as if he had been desirous of preventing the unjust accusations which he experienced from the fanatics, by sacrificing Bayle to them. But he gained nothing by it. They are two great men, who appear to be of different opinions, but who, if they had been equally free to speak, would have been found to have the same.

“The false honor of monarchies, the human virtues of republics, the servile fear which operates under despotism;” nothing at all of this goes towards the composition of a soldier, as the “Spirit of Laws” pretends. When we levy a regiment, of whom a quarter part will desert in the course of a fortnight, not one of the men enlisted thinks about the honor of the monarchy: they do not even know what it is. The mercenary troops of the republic of Venice know their country; but nothing about republican virtue, which no one ever speaks of in the place of St. Mark. In one word, I do not believe that there is a single man on the face of the earth who has enlisted in his regiment from a principle of virtue.

Neither, again, is it out of a servile fear that Turks and Russians fight with the fierceness and rage of lions and tigers. Fear does not inspire courage. Nor is it by devotion that the Russians have defeated the armies of Mustapha. It would, in my opinion, have been highly desirable that so ingenious a man should have sought for truth rather than display. When we wish to instruct mankind, we ought to forget ourselves, and have nothing in view but truth.

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