Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ALMANAC.

It is of little moment to know whether we have the word almanac from the ancient Saxons, who could not write, or from the Arabs, who are known to have been astronomers, and to have had some acquaintance with the courses of the planets, while the western nations were still wrapped in an ignorance as great as their barbarism. I shall here confine myself to one short observation.

Let an Indian philosopher, who has embarked at Meliapour, come to Bayonne. I shall suppose this philosopher to be a man of sense, which, you will say, is rare among the learned of India; to be divested of all scholastic prejudices — a thing that was rare everywhere not long ago — and I shall suppose him to meet with a blockhead in our part of the world — which is not quite so great a rarity.

Our blockhead, in order to make him conversant with our arts and sciences, presents him with a Liège almanac, composed by Matthew Lansberg, and the Lame Messenger (Messager boiteux) by Anthony Souci, astrologer and historian, printed every year at Basle, and sold to the number of 20,000 copies in eight days. There you behold the fine figure of a man, surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac, with certain indications most clearly demonstrating that the scales preside over the posteriors, the ram over the head, the fishes over the feet, etc.

Each day of the moon informs you when you must take Le Lievre’s balm of life, or Keiser’s pills; when you must be bled, have your nails cut, wean your children, plant, sow, go a journey, or put on a pair of new shoes. The Indian, when he hears these lessons, will do well to say to his guide that he will have none of his almanac.

So soon as our simpleton shall have shown the philosopher a few of our ceremonies, which every wise man disapproves, but which are tolerated in order to amuse the populace, through pure contempt for that populace, the traveller, seeing these mummeries, followed by a tambourine dance, will not fail to pity and take us for madmen, who are, nevertheless, very amusing and not absolutely cruel. He will write home to the president of the Grand College of Benares that we have not common sense; but that if His Paternity will send enlightened and discreet persons among us, something may, with the blessing of God, be made of us.

It was precisely in this way that our first missionaries, especially St. Francis Xavier, spoke of the people inhabiting the peninsula of India. They even fell into still grosser mistakes respecting the customs of the Indians, their sciences, their opinions, their manners, and their worship. The accounts which they sent to Europe were extremely curious. Every statue was a devil; every assembly a sabbath; every symbolical figure a talisman; every Brahmin a sorcerer; and these are made the subject of neverending lamentations. They hope that the harvest will be abundant; and add, by a rather incongruous metaphor, that they will labor effectually in the vineyard of the Lord, in a country where wine has always been unknown. Thus, or nearly thus, have every people judged, not only of distant nations, but of their neighbors.

The Chinese are said to be the most ancient almanac-makers. The finest of their emperor’s privileges is that of sending his calendar to his vassals and neighbors; their refusal of which would be considered as a bravado, and war would forthwith be made upon them, as it used to be in Europe on feudal lords who refused their homage.

If we have only twelve constellations, the Chinese have twenty-eight, the names of which have not the least affinity with ours — a sufficient proof that they have taken nothing from the Chaldæan Zodiac, that we have adopted. But though they have had a complete system of astrology for more than four thousand years, they resemble Matthew Lansberg and Anthony Souci in the fine predictions and secrets of health with which they stuff their Imperial Almanac. They divide the day into ten thousand minutes, and know, with the greatest precision, what minute is favorable or otherwise. When the Emperor Kamhi wished to employ the Jesuit missionaries in making the almanac, they are said to have excused themselves, at first, on account of the extravagant superstitions with which it must be filled. “I have much less faith than you in the superstitions,” replied the emperor; “only make me a good calendar, and leave it for my learned men to fill up the book with their foolery.”

The ingenious author of the “Plurality of Worlds” ridicules the Chinese, because, says he, they see a thousand stars fall at once into the sea. It is very likely that the Emperor Kamhi ridiculed this notion as well as Fontenelle. Some Chinese almanacmaker had, it would seem, been good-natured enough to speak of these meteors after the manner of the people, and to take them for stars. Every country has its foolish notions. All the nations of antiquity made the sun lie down in the sea, where for a long time we sent the stars. We have believed that the clouds touched the firmament, that the firmament was a hard substance, and that it supported a reservoir of water. It has not long been known in our towns that the Virgin-thread (fil de la vierge) so often found in the country, is nothing more than the thread spun by a spider. Let us not laugh at any people. Let us reflect that the Chinese had astrolabes and spheres before we could read, and that if they have made no great progress in astronomy, it is through that same respect for the ancients which we have had for Aristotle.

It is consoling to know that the Roman people, populus late rex, were, in this particular, far behind Matthew Lansberg, and the Lame Messenger, and the astrologers of China, until the period when Julius Cæsar reformed the Roman year, which we have received from him and still call by his name — the Julian Calendar, although we have no calends, and he was obliged to reform it himself.

The primitive Romans had, at first, a year of ten months, making three hundred and four days; this was neither solar nor lunar, nor anything except barbarous. The Roman year was afterwards composed of three hundred and fifty-five days — another mistake, which was corrected so imperfectly that, in Cæsar’s time, the summer festivals were held in winter. The Roman generals always triumphed, but never knew on what day they triumphed.

Cæsar reformed everything; he seemed to rule both heaven and earth. I know not through what complaisance for the Roman customs it was that he began the year at a time when it does not begin — that is, eight days after the winter solstice. All the nations composing the Roman Empire submitted to this innovation; even the Egyptians, who had until then given the law in all that related to almanacs, received it; but none of these different nations altered anything in the distribution of their feasts. The Jews, like the rest, celebrated their new moons; their phase or pascha, the fourteenth day of the moon of March, called the red-haired moon, which day often fell in April; their Pentecost, fifty days after the pascha; the feast of horns or trumpets, the first day of July; that of tabernacles on the fifteenth of the same month, and that of the great sabbath, seven days afterwards.

The first Christians followed the computations of the empire, and reckoned by calends, nones, and ides, like their masters; they likewise received the Bissextile, which we have still, although it was found necessary to correct it in the fifteenth century, and it must some day be corrected again; but they conformed to the Jewish methods in the celebration of their great feasts. They fixed their Easter for the fourteenth day of the red moon, until the Council of Nice determined that it should be the Sunday following. Those who celebrated it on the fourteenth were declared heretics; and both were mistaken in their calculation.

The feasts of the Blessed Virgin were, as far as possible, substituted for the new moons. The author of the “Roman Calendar” (Le Calendrier Romain) says the reason of this is drawn from the verse of the Canticle, pulchra ut luna, “fair as the moon”; but, by the same rule, these feasts should be held on a Sunday, for in the same verse we find electa ut sol, “chosen like the sun.” The Christians also kept the feast of Pentecost; it was fixed, like that of the Jews, precisely fifty days after Easter. The same author asserts that saint-days took the place of the feasts of tabernacles. He adds that St. John’s day was fixed for the 24th of June, only because the days then begin to shorten, and St. John had said, when speaking of Jesus Christ, “He must grow, and I must become less”— Oportet illum crescere, me autem minui. There is something very singular in the ancient ceremony of lighting a great fire on St. John’s day, in the hottest period of the year. It has been said to be a very old custom, originally designed to commemorate the ancient burning of the world, which awaited a second conflagration. The same writer assures us that the feast of the Assumption is kept on the 15th of August because the sun is then in the sign of the Virgin. He also certifies that St. Mathias’ day is in the month of February, because he was, as it were, intercalated among the twelve apostles, as a day is added to February every leap-year. There would, perhaps, be something in these astronomical imaginings to make our Indian philosopher smile; nevertheless, the author of them was mathematical master to the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV., and moreover, an engineer and a very worthy officer.

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