Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

AMBIGUITY— EQUIVOCATION.

For want of defining terms, and especially for want of a clear understanding, almost all laws, that should be as plain as arithmetic and geometry, are as obscure as logogriphs. The melancholy proof of this is that nearly all processes are founded on the sense of the laws, always differently understood by the pleaders, the advocates, and the judges.

The whole public law of Europe had its origin in equivocal expressions, beginning with the Salique law. She shall not inherit Salique land. But what is Salique land? And shall not a girl inherit money, or a necklace, left to her, which may be worth more than the land?

The citizens of Rome saluted Karl, son of the Austrasian Pepin le Bref, by the name of imperator. Did they understand thereby: We confer on you all the prerogatives of Octavius, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius? We give you all the country which they possessed? However, they could not give it; for so far were they from being masters of it that they were scarcely masters of their own city. There never was a more equivocal expression; and such as it was then it still is.

Did Leo III., the bishop of Rome who is said to have saluted Charlemagne emperor, comprehend the meaning of the words which he pronounced? The Germans assert that he understood by them that Charles should be his master. The Datary has asserted that he meant he should be master over Charlemagne.

Have not things the most venerable, the most sacred, the most divine, been obscured by the ambiguities of language? Ask two Christians of what religion they are. Each will answer, I am a Catholic. You think they are both of the same communion; yet one is of the Greek, the other of the Latin church; and they are irreconciable. If you seek to be further informed, you will find that by the word Catholic each of them understands universal, in which case universal signifies a part.

The soul of St. Francis is in heaven — is in paradise. One of these words signifies the air; the other means a garden. The word spirit is used alike to express extract, thought, distilled liquor, apparition. Ambiguity has been so necessary a vice in all languages, formed by what is called chance and by custom, that the author of all clearness and truth Himself condescended to speak after the manner of His people; whence is it that Elohim signifies in some places judges, at other times gods, and at others angels. “Tu es Petrus, et super hunc petrum ædificabo ecclesiam meam,” would be equivocal in a profane tongue, and on profane subject; but these words receive a divine sense from the mouth which utters them, and the subject to which they are applied.

“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob; now God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” In the ordinary sense these words might signify: “I am the same God that was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as the earth, which bore Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, likewise bears their descendants; the sun which shines to-day is the sun that shone on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the law of their children was their law.” This does not, however, signify that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still living. But when the Messiah speaks, there is no longer any ambiguity; the sense is as clear as it is divine. It is evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not among the dead, but live in glory, since this oracle is pronounced by the Messiah; but it was necessary that He and no one else should utter it.

The discourses of the Jewish prophets might seem equivocal to men of gross intellects, who could not perceive their meaning; but they were not so to minds illumined by the light of faith.

All the oracles of antiquity were equivocal. It was foretold to Crœsus that a powerful empire was to fall; but was it to be his own? or that of Cyrus? It was also foretold to Pyrrhus that the Romans might conquer him, and that he might conquer the Romans. It was impossible that this oracle should lie.

When Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, and Clodius Albinus were contending for the empire, the oracle of Delphos, being consulted (notwithstanding the assertion of the Jesuit Baltus that oracles had ceased), answered that the brown was very good, the white good for nothing, and the African tolerable. It is plain that there are more ways than one of explaining such an oracle.

When Aurelian consulted the god of Palmyra (still in spite of Baltus), the god said that the doves fear the falcon. Whatever might happen, the god would not be embarrassed; the falcon would be the conqueror, and the doves the conquered.

Sovereigns, as well as gods, have sometimes made use of equivocation. Some tyrant, whose name I forget, having sworn to one of his captives that he would not kill him, ordered that he should have nothing to eat, saying that he had promised not to put him to death, but he had not promised to keep him alive.

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