Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ALLEGORIES.

Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury, travelling one day in Thrace, called on a certain king named Hyreus, who entertained them very handsomely. After eating a good dinner, they asked him if they could render him any service. The good man, who was past the age at which it is usual for men to have children, told them he should be very much obliged to them if they would make him a boy. The three gods then urinated on the skin of a new flayed ox; and from these sprang Orion, who became one of the constellations known to the most remote antiquity. This constellation was named Orion by the ancient Chaldæans; it is spoken of in the Book of Job. It would be hard to discover a rational allegory in this pretty story, unless we are to infer from it that nothing was impossible to the gods.

There were in Greece two young rakes, who were told by the oracle to beware of the melampygos or sable posteriors. One day Hercules took them and tied them by the feet to the end of his club, so that they hung down his back with their heads downward, like a couple of rabbits, having a full view of his person. “Ah!” said they; “the oracle is accomplished; this is the melampygos.” Hercules fell alaughing, and let them go. Here again it would be rather difficult to divine the moral sense.

Among the fathers of mythology there were some who had only imagination; but the greater part of them possessed understandings of no mean order. Not all our academies, not all our makers of devices, not even they who compose the legends for the counters of the royal treasury, will ever invent allegories more true, more pleasing, or more ingenious, than those of the Nine Muses, of Venus, the Graces, the God of Love, and so many others, which will be the delight and instruction of all ages.

The ancients, it must be confessed, almost always spoke in allegories. The earlier fathers of the church, the greater part of whom were Platonists, imitated this method of Plato’s. They have, indeed, been reproached with having carried this taste for allegories and allusions a little too far.

St. Justin, in his “Apology,” says that the sign of the cross is marked in the limbs and features of man; that when he extends his arms there is a perfect cross; and that his nose and eyes form a cross upon his face.

According to Origen’s explanation of Leviticus, the fat of the victims signifies the Church, and the tail is a symbol of perseverance.

St. Augustine, in his sermon on the difference and agreement of the two genealogies of Christ, explains to his auditors why St. Matthew, although he reckons forty-two generations, enumerates only forty-one. It is, says he, because Jechonias must be reckoned twice, Jechonias having gone from Jerusalem to Babylon. This journey is to be considered as the corner-stone; and if the corner-stone is the first of one side of a building, it is also the first of the other side; consequently this stone must be reckoned twice; and therefore Jechonias must be reckoned twice. He adds that, in the forty-two generations, we must dwell on the number forty, because that number signifies life. The number ten denotes blessedness, and ten multiplied by four, which represents the four elements and the four seasons, produces forty.

In his fifty-third sermon, the dimensions of matter have astonishing properties. Breadth is the dilation of the heart, length is long-suffering, height is hope, and depth is faith. So that, besides the allegory, we have four dimensions of matter instead of three.

It is clear and indubitable (says he in his sermon on the 6th psalm) that the number four denotes the human body, because of the four elements, and the four qualities of hot, cold, moist, and dry; and as four relates to the body, so three relates to the soul; for we must love God with a triple love — with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds. Four also relates to the Old Testament, and three to the New. Four and three make up the number of seven days, and the eight is the day of judgment.

One cannot but feel that there is in these allegories an affectation but little compatible with true eloquence. The fathers, who sometimes made use of these figures, wrote in times and countries in which nearly all the arts were degenerating. Their learning and fine genius were warped by the imperfections of the age in which they lived. St. Augustine is not to be respected the less for having paid this tribute to the bad taste of Africa and the fourth century.

The discourses of our modern preachers are not disfigured by similar faults. Not that we dare prefer them to the fathers; but the present age is to be preferred to the ages in which they wrote. Eloquence, which became more and more corrupted, and was not revived until later times, fell, after them, into still greater extravagances; and the languages of all barbarous nations were alike ridiculous until the age of Louis XIV. Look at all the old collections of sermons; they are far below the dramatic pieces of the Passion, which used to be played at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. But the spirit of allegory, which has never been lost, may be traced throughout these barbarous discourses. The celebrated Ménot, who lived in the reign of Francis I., did more honor, perhaps, than any other to the allegorical style. “The worthy administrators of justice,” said he, “are like a cat set to take care of a cheese, lest it should be gnawed by the mice. One bite of the cat does more damage to the cheese than twenty mice can do.”

Here is another very curious passage: “The woodmen, in a forest, cut large and small branches, and bind them in faggots; just so do our ecclesiastics, with dispensations from Rome, heap together great and small benefices. The cardinal’s hat is garnished with bishoprics, the bishoprics are garnished with abbeys and priories, and the whole is garnished with devils. All these church possessions must pass through the three links of the Ave Maria; for benedicta tu stands for fat abbeys of Benedictines, in mulieribus for monsieur and madame, and fructus ventris for banquets and gormandizers.”

The sermons of Barlet and Maillard are all framed after this model, and were delivered half in bad Latin, and half in bad French. The Italian sermons were in the same taste; and the German were still worse. This monstrous medley gave birth to the macaroni style, the very climax of barbarism. The species of oratory, worthy only of the Indians on the banks of the Missouri, prevailed even so lately as the reign of Louis XIII. The Jesuit Garasse, one of the most distinguished enemies of common sense, never preached in any other style. He likened the celebrated Theophile to a calf, because Theophile’s family name was Viaud, something resembling veau (a calf). “But,” said he, “the flesh of a calf is good to roast and to boil, whereas thine is good for nothing but to burn.

All these allegories, used by our barbarians, fall infinitely short of those employed by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, which proves that if there be still some Goths and Vandals who despise ancient fable they are not altogether in the right.

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