Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

FRAUD.
Whether pious Frauds should be practised upon the People.

Once upon a time the fakir Bambabef met one of the disciples of Confutzee (whom we call Confucius), and this disciple was named Whang. Bambabef maintained that the people require to be deceived, and Whang asserted that we should never deceive any one. Here is a sketch of their dispute:

Bambabef.

— We must imitate the Supreme Being, who does not show us things as they are. He makes us see the sun with a diameter of two or three feet, although it is a million of times larger than the earth. He makes us see the moon and the stars affixed to one and the same blue surface, while they are at different elevations; he chooses that a square tower should appear round to us at a distance; he chooses that fire should appear to us to be hot, although it is neither hot nor cold; in short, he surrounds us with errors, suitable to our nature.

Whang.

— What you call error is not so. The sun, such as it is, placed at millions of millions of lis from our globe, is not that which we see, that which we really perceive: we perceive only the sun which is painted on our retina, at a determinate angle. Our eyes were not given us to know sizes and distances: to know these, other aids and other operations are necessary.

Bambabef seemed much astonished at this position. Whang, being very patient, explained to him the theory of optics; and Bambabef, having some conception, was convinced by the demonstrations of the disciple of Confucius. He then resumed in these terms:

Bambabef.

— If God does not, as I thought, deceive us by the ministry of our senses, you will at least acknowledge that our physicians are constantly deceiving children for their good. They tell them that they are giving them sugar, when in reality they are giving them rhubarb. I, a fakir, may then deceive the people, who are as ignorant as children.

Whang.

— I have two sons; I have never deceived them. When they have been sick, I have said to them: “Here is a nauseous medicine; you must have the courage to take it; if it were pleasant, it would injure you.” I have never suffered their nurses and tutors to make them afraid of ghosts, goblins, and witches. I have thereby made them wise and courageous citizens.

Bambabef.

— The people are not born so happily as your family.

Whang.

— Men all nearly resemble one another; they are born with the same dispositions. Their nature ought not to be corrupted.

Bambabef.

— We teach them errors, I own; but it is for their good. We make them believe that if they do not buy our blessed nails, if they do not expiate their sins by giving us money, they will, in another life, become post-horses, dogs, or lizards. This intimidates them, and they become good people.

Whang.

— Do you not see that you are perverting these poor folks? There are among them many more than you think there are who reason, who make a jest of your miracles and your superstitions; who see very clearly that they will not be turned into lizards, nor into post-horses. What is the consequence? They have good sense enough to perceive that you talk to them very impertinently; but they have not enough to elevate themselves to a religion pure and untrammelled by superstition like ours. Their passions make them think there is no religion, because the only one that is taught them is ridiculous: thus you become guilty of all the vices into which they plunge.

Bambabef.

— Not at all, for we teach them none but good morals.

Whang.

— The people would stone you if you taught impure morals. Men are so constituted that they like very well to do evil, but they will not have it preached to them. But a wise morality should not be mixed up with absurd fables: for by these impostures, which you might do without, you weaken that morality which you are forced to teach.

Bambabef.

— What! do you think that truth can be taught to the people without the aid of fables?

Whang.

— I firmly believe it. Our literati are made of the same stuff as our tailors, our weavers, and our laborers. They worship a creating, rewarding, and avenging God. They do not sully their worship by absurd systems, nor by extravagant ceremonies. There are much fewer crimes among the lettered than among the people; why should we not condescend to instruct our working classes as we do our literati?

Bambabef.

— That would be great folly; as well might you wish them to have the same politeness, or to be all jurisconsults. It is neither possible nor desirable. There must be white bread for the master, and brown for the servant.

Whang.

— I own that men should not all have the same science; but there are things necessary to all. It is necessary that each one should be just; and the surest way of inspiring all men with justice is to inspire them with religion without superstition.

Bambabef.

— That is a fine project, but it is impracticable. Do you think it is sufficient for men to believe in a being that rewards and punishes? You have told me that the more acute among the people often revolt against fables. They will, in like manner, revolt against truth. They will say: Who shall assure me that God rewards and punishes? Where is the proof? What mission have you? What miracle have you worked that I should believe in you? They will laugh at you much more than at me.

Whang.

— Your error is this: You imagine that men will spurn an idea that is honest, likely, and useful to every one; an idea which accords with human reason, because they reject things which are dishonest, absurd, useless, dangerous, and shocking to good sense.

The people are much disposed to believe their magistrates; and when their magistrates propose to them only a rational belief, they embrace it willingly. There is no need of prodigies to believe in a just God, who reads the heart of man: this is an idea too natural, too necessary, to be combated. It is not necessary to know precisely how God rewards and punishes: to believe in His justice is enough. I assure you that I have seen whole towns with scarcely any other tenet; and that in them I have seen the most virtue.

Bambabef.

— Take heed what you say. You will find philosophers in these times, who will deny both pains and rewards.

Whang.

— But you will acknowledge that these philosophers will much more strongly deny your inventions; so you will gain nothing by that. Supposing that there are philosophers who do not agree with my principles, they are not the less honest men; they do not the less cultivate virtue, which should be embraced through love, and not through fear. Moreover, I maintain that no philosopher can ever be assured that Providence does not reserve pains for the wicked, and rewards for the good. For, if they ask me who has told me that God punishes, I shall ask them who has told them that God does not punish. In short, I maintain that the philosophers, far from contradicting, will aid me. Will you be a philosopher?

Bambabef.

— With all my heart. But do not tell the fakirs. And let us, above all, remember that if a philosopher would be of service to human society, he must announce a God.

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