Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.
Definition of History.

History is the recital of facts represented as true. Fable, on the contrary, is the recital of facts represented as fiction. There is the history of human opinions, which is scarcely anything more than the history of human errors.

The history of the arts may be made the most useful of all, when to a knowledge of their invention and progress it adds a description of their mechanical means and processes.

Natural history, improperly designated “history,” is an essential part of natural philosophy. The history of events has been divided into sacred and profane. Sacred history is a series of divine and miraculous operations, by which it has pleased God formerly to direct and govern the Jewish nation, and, in the present day, to try our faith. “To learn Hebrew, the sciences, and history,” says La Fontaine, “is to drink up the sea.”

Si j’apprenois l’Hébreu, les sciences, l’histoire,

Tout cela, c’est la mer à boire.

— La Fontaine, book viii, fable 25.

The Foundations of History.

The foundations of all history are the recitals of events, made by fathers to their children, and afterwards transmitted from one generation to another. They are, at most, only probable in their origin when they do not shock common sense, and they lose a degree of probability at every successive transmission. With time the fabulous increases and the true disappears; hence it arises that the original traditions and records of all nations are absurd. Thus the Egyptians had been governed for many ages by the gods. They had next been under the government of demi-gods; and, finally, they had kings for eleven thousand three hundred and forty years, and during that period the sun had changed four times from east and west.

The Phœnicians, in the time of Alexander, pretended that they had been settled in their own country for thirty thousand years; and those thirty thousand years were as full of prodigies as the Egyptian chronology. I admit it to be perfectly consistent with physical possibility that Phœnicia may have existed, not merely for thirty thousand years, but thirty thousand millions of ages, and that it may have endured, as well as the other portions of the globe, thirty millions of revolutions. But of all this we possess no knowledge.

The ridiculous miracles which abound in the ancient history of Greece are universally known.

The Romans, although a serious and grave people, have, nevertheless, equally involved in fables the early periods of their history. That nation, so recent in comparison with those of Asia, was five hundred years without historians. It is impossible, therefore, to be surprised on finding that Romulus was the son of Mars; that a she-wolf was his nurse; that he marched with a thousand men from his own village, Rome, against twenty thousand warriors belonging to the city of the Sabines; that he afterwards became a god; that the elder Tarquin cut through a stone with a razor, and that a vestal drew a ship to land with her girdle, etc.

The first annals of modern nations are no less fabulous; things prodigious and improbable ought sometimes, undoubtedly, to be related, but only as proofs of human credulity. They constitute part of the history of human opinion and absurdities; but the field is too immense.

Of Monuments or Memorials.

The only proper method of endeavoring to acquire some knowledge of ancient history is to ascertain whether there remain any incontestable public monuments. We possess only three such, in the way of writing or inscription. The first is the collection of astronomical observations made during nineteen hundred successive years at Babylon, and transferred by Alexander to Greece. This series of observations, which goes back two thousand two hundred and thirty-four years beyond our vulgar era, decidedly proves that the Babylonians existed as an associated and incorporated people many ages before; for the arts are struck out and elaborated only in the slow course of time, and the indolence natural to mankind permits thousands of years to roll away without their acquiring any other knowledge or talents than what are required for food, clothing, shelter, and mutual destruction. Let the truth of these remarks be judged of from the state of the Germans and the English in the time of Cæsar, from that of the Tartars at the present day, from that of two-thirds of Africa, and from that of all the various nations found in the vast continent of America, excepting, in some respects, the kingdoms of Peru and Mexico, and the republic of Tlascala. Let it be recollected that in the whole of the new world not a single individual could write or read.

The second monument is the central eclipse of the sun, calculated in China two thousand one hundred and fifty-five years before our vulgar era, and admitted by all our astronomers to have actually occurred. We must apply the same remark to the Chinese as to the people of Babylon. They had undoubtedly, long before this period, constituted a vast empire and social polity. But what places the Chinese above all the other nations of the world is that neither their laws, nor manners, nor the language exclusively spoken by their men of learning, have experienced any change in the course of about four thousand years. Yet this nation and that of India, the most ancient of all that are now subsisting, those which possess the largest and most fertile tracts of territory, those which had invented nearly all the arts almost before we were in possession even of any of them, have been always omitted, down to our time, in our pretended universal histories. And whenever a Spaniard or a Frenchman enumerated the various nations of the globe, neither of them failed to represent his own country as the first monarchy on earth, and his king as the greatest sovereign, under the flattering hope, no doubt, that that greatest of sovereigns, after having read his book, would confer upon him a pension.

The third monument, but very inferior to the two others, is the Arundel Marbles. The chronicle of Athens was inscribed on these marbles two hundred and sixty-three years before our era, but it goes no further back than the time of Cecrops, thirteen hundred and nineteen years beyond the time of its inscription. In the history of all antiquity these are the only incontestable epochs that we possess.

Let us attend a little particularly to these marbles, which were brought from Greece by Lord Arundel. The chronicle contained in them commences fifteen hundred and seventy-seven years before our era. This, at the present time, makes an antiquity of 3,348 years, and in the course of that period you do not find a single miraculous or prodigious event on record. It is the same with the Olympiads. It must not be in reference to these that the expression can be applied of “Græcia mendax” (lying Greece). The Greeks well knew how to distinguish history from fable, and real facts from the tales of Herodotus; just as in relation to important public affairs, their orators borrowed nothing from the discourses of the sophists or the imagery of the poets.

The date of the taking of Troy is specified in these marbles, but there is no mention made of Apollo’s arrows, or the sacrifice of Iphigenia, or the ridiculous battles of the gods. The date of the inventions of Triptolemus and Ceres is given; but Ceres is not called goddess. Notice is taken of a poem upon the rape of Proserpine; but it is not said that she is the daughter of Jupiter and a goddess, and the wife of the god of hell.

Hercules is initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, but not a single word is mentioned of the twelve labors, nor of his passage to Africa in his cup, nor of his divinity, nor of the great fish by which he was swallowed, and which, according to Lycophron, kept him in its belly three days and three nights.

Among us, on the contrary, a standard is brought by an angel from heaven to the monks of St. Denis; a pigeon brings a bottle of oil to the church of Rheims; two armies of serpents engage in pitched battle in Germany; an archbishop of Mentz is besieged and devoured by rats; and to complete and crown the whole, the year in which these adventures occurred, is given with the most particular precision. The abbé Langlet, also condescending to compile, compiles these contemptible fooleries, while the almanacs, for the hundredth time, repeat them. In this manner are our youth instructed and enlightened; and all these trumpery fables are put in requisition even for the education of princes!

All history is comparatively recent. It is by no means astonishing to find that we have, in fact, no profane history that goes back beyond about four thousand years. The cause of this is to be found in the revolutions of the globe, and the long and universal ignorance of the art which transmits events by writing. There are still many nations totally unacquainted with the practice of this art. It existed only in a small number of civilized states, and even in them was confined to comparatively few hands. Nothing was more rare among the French and Germans than knowing how to write; down to the fourteenth century of our era, scarcely any public acts were attested by witnesses. It was not till the reign of Charles VII. in France, in 1454, that an attempt was made to reduce to writing some of the customs of France. The art was still more uncommon among the Spaniards, and hence it arises that their history is so dry and doubtful till the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. We perceive, from what has been said, with what facility the very small number of persons who possessed the art of writing might impose by means of it, and how easy it has been to produce a belief in the most enormous absurdities.

There have been nations who have subjugated a considerable part of the world, and who yet have not been acquainted with the use of characters. We know that Genghis Khan conquered a part of Asia in the beginning of the thirteenth century; but it is not from him, nor from the Tartars, that we have derived that knowledge. Their history, written by the Chinese, and translated by Father Gaubil, states that these Tartars were at that time unacquainted with the art of writing.

This art was, unquestionably, not likely to be less unknown to the Scythian Ogus-kan, called by the Persians and Greeks Madies, who conquered a part of Europe and Asia long before the reign of Cyrus. It is almost a certainty that at that time, out of a hundred nations, there were only two or three that employed characters. It is undoubtedly possible, that in an ancient world destroyed, mankind were acquainted with the art of writing and the other arts, but in our world they are all of recent date.

There remain monuments of another kind, which serve to prove merely the remote antiquity of certain nations, an antiquity preceding all known epochs, and all books; these are the prodigies of architecture, such as the pyramids and palaces of Egypt, which have resisted and wearied the power of time. Herodotus, who lived two thousand two hundred years ago, and who had seen them, was unable to learn from the Egyptian priests at what periods these structures were raised.

It is difficult to ascribe to the oldest of the pyramids an antiquity of less than four thousand years, and, it is necessary to consider, that those ostentatious piles, erected by monarchs, could not have been commenced till long after the establishment of cities. But, in order to build cities in a country every year inundated, it must always be recollected that it would have been previously necessary in this land of slime and mud, to lay the foundation upon piles, that they might thus be inaccessible to the inundation; it would have been necessary, even before taking this indispensable measure of precaution, and before the inhabitants could be in a state to engage in such important and even dangerous labors, that the people should have contrived retreats, during the swelling of the Nile, between the two chains of rocks which exist on the right and left banks of the river. It would have been necessary that these collected multitudes should have instruments of tillage, and of architecture, a knowledge of architecture and surveying, regular laws, and an active police. All these things require a space of time absolutely prodigious. We see, every day, by the long details which relate even to those of our undertakings, which are most necessary and most diminutive, how difficult it is to execute works of magnitude, and that they not only require unwearied perseverance, but many generations animated by the same spirit.

However, whether we admit that one or two of those immense masses were erected by Menes, or Thaut, or Cheops, or Rameses, we shall not, in consequence, have the slightest further insight into the ancient history of Egypt. The language of that people is lost; and all we know in reference to the subject is that before the most ancient historians existed, there existed materials for writing ancient history.

§ II.

As we already possess, I had almost said, twenty thousand works, the greater number of them extending to many volumes, on the subject, exclusively, of the history of France; and as, even a studious man, were he to live a hundred years, would find it impossible to read them, I think it a good thing to know where to stop. We are obliged to connect with the knowledge of our own country the history of our neighbors. We are still less permitted to remain ignorant of the Greeks and Romans, and their laws which are become ours; but, if to this laborious study we should resolve to add that of more remote antiquity, we should resemble the man who deserted Tacitus and Livy to study seriously the “Thousand and One Nights.” All the origins of nations are evidently fables. The reason is that men must have lived long in society, and have learned to make bread and clothing (which would be matters of some difficulty) before they acquired the art of transmitting all their thoughts to posterity (a matter of greater difficulty still). The art of writing is certainly not more than six thousand years old, even among the Chinese; and, whatever may be the boast of the Chaldæans and Egyptians, it appears not at all likely that they were able to read and write earlier.

The history, therefore, of preceding periods, could be transmitted by memory alone; and we well know how the memory of past events changes from one generation to another. The first histories were written only from the imagination. Not only did every people invent its own origin, but it invented also the origin of the whole world.

If we may believe Sanchoniathon, the origin of things was a thick air, which was rarified by the wind; hence sprang desire and love, and from the union of desire and love were formed animals. The stars were later productions, and intended merely to adorn the heavens, and to rejoice the sight of the animals upon earth.

The Knef of the Egyptians, their Oshiret and Ishet, which we call Osiris and Isis, are neither less ingenious nor ridiculous. The Greeks embellished all these fictions. Ovid collected them and ornamented them with the charms of the most beautiful poetry. What he says of a god who develops or disembroils chaos, and of the formation of man, is sublime.

Sanctius his animal, mentisque capacius altæ

Deerat adhuc, et quod dominari in cætera posset.

Natus homo est . . . .

— Ovid, Metam., i, v. 76.

A creature of a more exalted kind

Was wanting yet, and then was man designed;

Conscious of thought, of more capacious breast,

For empire formed, and fit to rule the rest.

— Dryden.

Pronaque cum spectent animalia cætera terram;

Os homini sublime dedit cælumque tueri

Jussit, et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.

Metam., i, v. 84.

Thus, while the mute creation downward bend

Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend,

Man looks aloft, and with erected eyes

Beholds his own hereditary skies.

— Dryden.

Hesiod, and other writers who lived so long before, would have been very far from expressing themselves with this elegant sublimity. But, from the interesting moment of man’s formation down to the era of the Olympiads, everything is plunged in profound obscurity.

Herodotus is present at the Olympic games, and, like an old woman to children, recites his narratives, or rather tales, to the assembled Greeks. He begins by saying that the Phœnicians sailed from the Red Sea into the Mediterranean; which, if true, must necessarily imply that they had doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and made the circuit of Africa.

Then comes the rape of Io; then the fable of Gyges and Candaules; then the wondrous stories of banditti, and that of the daughter of Cheops, king of Egypt, having required a hewn stone from each of her many lovers, and obtained, in consequence, a number large enough to build one of the pyramids.

To this, add the oracles, prodigies, and frauds of priests, and you have the history of the human race.

The first periods of the Roman history appear to have been written by Herodotus; our conquerors and legislators knew no other way of counting their years as they passed away, than by driving nails into a wall by the hand of the sacred pontiff.

The great Romulus, the king of a village, is the son of the god Mars, and a recluse, who was proceeding to a well to draw water in a pitcher. He has a god for his father, a woman of loose manners for his mother, and a she-wolf for his nurse. A buckler falls from heaven expressly for Numa. The invaluable books of the Sibyls are found by accident. An augur, by divine permission, divides a large flintstone with a razor. A vestal, with her mere girdle, draws into the water a large vessel that has been stranded. Castor and Pollux come down to fight for the Romans, and the marks of their horses’ feet are imprinted on the stones. The transalpine Gauls advanced to pillage Rome; some relate that they were driven away by geese, others that they carried away with them much gold and silver; but it is probable that, at that time in Italy, geese were far more abundant than silver. We have imitated the first Roman historians, at least in their taste for fables. We have our oriflamme, our great standard, brought from heaven by an angel, and the holy phial by a pigeon; and, when to these we add the mantle of St. Martin, we feel not a little formidable.

What would constitute useful history? That which should teach us our duties and our rights, without appearing to teach them.

It is often asked whether the fable of the sacrifice of Iphigenia is taken from the history of Jephthah; whether the deluge of Deucalion is invented in imitation of that of Noah; whether the adventure of Philemon and Baucis is copied from that of Lot and his wife. The Jews admit that they had no communication with strangers, that their books were unknown to the Greeks till the translation made by the order of Ptolemy. The Jews were, long before that period, money-brokers and usurers among the Greeks at Alexandria; but the Greeks never went to sell old clothes at Jerusalem. It is evident that no people imitated the Jews, and also that the Jews imitated or adopted many things from the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks.

All Jewish antiquities are sacred in our estimation, notwithstanding the hatred and contempt in which we hold that people. We cannot, indeed, believe them by reason, but we bring ourselves under subjection to the Jews by faith. There are about fourscore systems in existence on the subject of their chronology, and a far greater number of ways of explaining the events recorded in their histories; we know not which is the true one, but we reserve our faith for it in store against the time when that true one shall be discovered.

We have so many things to believe in this sensible and magnanimous people, that all our faith is exhausted by them, and we have none left for the prodigies with which the other nations abound. Rollin may go on repeating to us the oracles of Apollo, and the miraculous achievements of Semiramis; he may continue to transcribe all that has been narrated of the justice of those ancient Scythians who so frequently pillaged Africa, and occasionally ate men for their breakfast; yet sensible and well-educated people will still feel and express some degree of incredulity.

What I most admire in our modern compilers is the judgment and zeal with which they prove to us that whatever happened in former ages, in the most extensive and powerful empires of the world, took place solely for the instruction of the inhabitants of Palestine. If the kings of Babylon, in the course of their conquests, overrun the territories of the Hebrew people, it is only to correct that people for their sins. If the monarch, who has been commonly named Cyrus, becomes master of Babylon, it is that he may grant permission to some captive Jews to return home. If Alexander conquers Darius, it is for the settlement of some Jew old-clothesmen at Alexandria. When the Romans join Syria to their vast dominions, and round their empire with the little district of Judæa, this is still with a view to teach a moral lesson to the Jews. The Arabs and the Turks appear upon the stage of the world solely for the correction of this amiable people. We must acknowledge that they have had an excellent education; never had any pupil so many preceptors. Such is the utility of history.

But what is still more instructive is the exact justice which the clergy have dealt out to all those sovereigns with whom they were dissatisfied. Observe with what impartial candor St. Gregory of Nazianzen judges the emperor Julian, the philosopher. He declares that that prince, who did not believe in the existence of the devil, held secret communication with that personage, and that, on a particular occasion, when the demons appeared to him under the most hideous forms, and in the midst of the most raging flames, he drove them away by making inadvertently the sign of the cross.

He denominates him madman and wretch; he asserts that Julian immolated young men and women every night in caves. Such is the description he gives of the most candid and clement of men, and who never exercised the slightest revenge against this same Gregory, notwithstanding the abuse and invectives with which he pursued him throughout his reign.

To apologize for the guilty is a happy way of justifying calumny against the innocent. Compensation is thus effected; and such compensation was amply afforded by St. Gregory. The emperor Constantius, Julian’s uncle and predecessor, upon his accession to the throne, had massacred Julius, his mother’s brother, and his two sons, all three of whom had been declared august; this was a system which he had adopted from his father. He afterwards procured the assassination of Gallus, Julian’s brother. The cruelty which he thus displayed to his own family, he extended to the empire at large; but he was a man of prayer, and, even at the decisive battle with Maxentius, he was praying to God in a neighboring church during the whole time in which the armies were engaged. Such was the man who was eulogized by Gregory; and, if such is the way in which the saints make us acquainted with the truth, what may we not expect from the profane, particularly when they are ignorant, superstitious, and irritable?

At the present day the study of history is occasionally applied to a purpose somewhat whimsical and absurd. Certain charters of the time of Dagobert are discovered and brought forward, the greater part of them of a somewhat suspicious character in point of genuineness, and ill-understood; and from these it is inferred, that customs, rights, and prerogatives, which subsisted then, should be revived now. I would recommend it to those who adopt this method of study and reasoning, to say to the ocean, “You formerly extended to Aigues-Mortes, Fréjus, Ravenna, and Ferrara. Return to them immediately.”

§ III.
Of the Certainty of History.

All certainty which does not consist in mathematical demonstration is nothing more than the highest probability; there is no other historical certainty.

When Marco Polo described the greatness and population of China, being the first, and for a time the only writer who had described them, he could not obtain credit. The Portuguese, who for ages afterwards had communication and commerce with that vast empire, began to render the description probable. It is now a matter of absolute certainty; of that certainty which arises from the unanimous deposition of a thousand witnesses or different nations, unopposed by the testimony of a single individual.

If merely two or three historians had described the adventure of King Charles XII. when he persisted in remaining in the territories of his benefactor, the sultan, in opposition to the orders of that monarch, and absolutely fought, with the few domestics that attended his person, against an army of janissaries and Tartars, I should have suspended my judgment about its truth; but, having spoken to many who actually witnessed the fact, and having never heard it called in question, I cannot possibly do otherwise than believe it; because, after all, although such conduct is neither wise nor common, there is nothing in it contradictory to the laws of nature, or the character of the hero.

That which is in opposition to the ordinary course of nature ought not to be believed, unless it is attested by persons evidently inspired by the divine mind, and whose inspiration, indeed, it is impossible to doubt. Hence we are justified in considering as a paradox the assertion made under the article on “Certainty,” in the great “Encyclopædia,” that we are as much bound to believe in the resuscitation of a dead man, if all Paris were to affirm it, as to believe all Paris when it states that we gained the battle of Fontenoy. It is clear that the evidence of all Paris to a thing improbable can never be equal to that evidence in favor of a probable one. These are the first principles of genuine logic. Such a dictionary as the one in question should be consecrated only to truth.

Uncertainty of History.

Periods of time are distinguished as fabulous and historical. But even in the historical times themselves it is necessary to distinguish truths from fables. I am not here speaking of fables, now universally admitted to be such. There is no question, for example, respecting the prodigies with which Livy has embellished, or rather defaced, his history. But with respect to events generally admitted, how many reasons exist for doubt!

Let it be recollected that the Roman republic was five hundred years without historians; that Livy himself deplores the loss of various public monuments or records, as almost all, he says, were destroyed in the burning of Rome: “Pleraque interiere.” Let it be considered that, in the first three hundred years, the art of writing was very uncommon: “Raræ per eadem tempora literæ.” Reason will be then seen for entertaining doubt on all those events which do not correspond with the usual order of human affairs.

Can it be considered very likely that Romulus, the grandson of the king of the Sabines, was compelled to carry off the Sabine women in order to obtain for his people wives? Is the history of Lucretia highly probable; can we easily believe, on the credit of Livy, that the king Porsenna betook himself to flight, full of admiration for the Romans, because a fanatic had pledged himself to assassinate him? Should we not rather be inclined to rely upon Polybius, who was two hundred years earlier than Livy? Polybius informs us that Porsenna subjugated the Romans. This is far more probable than the adventure of Scævola’s burning off his hand for failing in the attempt to assassinate him. I would have defied Poltrot to do as much.

Does the adventure of Regulus, inclosed within a hogshead or tub stuck round with iron spikes, deserve belief? Would not Polybius, a contemporary, have recorded it had it been true? He says not a single word upon the subject. Is not this a striking presumption that the story was trumped up long afterwards to gratify the popular hatred against the Carthaginians?

Open “Moréri’s Dictionary,” at the article on “Regulus.” He informs you that the torments inflicted on that Roman are recorded in Livy. The particular decade, however, in which Livy would have recorded it, if at all, is lost; and in lieu of it, we have only the supplement of Freinsheim; and thus it appears that Dictionary has merely cited a German writer of the seventeenth century, under the idea of citing a Roman of the Augustan age. Volumes might be composed out of all the celebrated events which have been generally admitted, but which may be more fairly doubted. But the limits allowed for this article will not permit us to enlarge.

Whether Temples, Festivals, Annual Ceremonies, and even Medals, are Historic Proofs.

We might be naturally led to imagine that a monument raised by any nation in celebration of a particular event, would attest the certainty of that event; if, however, these monuments were not erected by contemporaries, or if they celebrate events that carry with them but little probability, they may often be regarded as proving nothing more than a wish to consecrate a popular opinion.

The rostral column, erected in Rome by the contemporaries of Duilius, is undoubtedly a proof of the naval victory obtained by Duilius; but does the statue of the augur Nævius, who is said to have divided a large flint with a razor, prove that Nævius in reality performed that prodigy? Were the statues of Ceres and Triptolemus, at Athens, decisive evidences that Ceres came down from I know not what particular planet, to instruct the Athenians in agriculture? Or does the famous Laocoon, which exists perfect to the present day, furnish incontestable evidence of the truth of the story of the Trojan horse?

Ceremonies and annual festivals observed universally throughout any nation, are, in like manner, no better proofs of the reality of the events to which they are attributed. The festival of Orion, carried on the back of a dolphin, was celebrated among the Romans as well as the Greeks. That of Faunus was in celebration of his adventure with Hercules and Omphale, when that god, being enamored of Omphale, mistook the bed of Hercules for that of his mistress.

The famous feast of the Lupercals was instituted in honor of the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus.

What was the origin of the feast of Orion, which was observed on the fifth of the ides of May? It was neither more nor less than the following adventure: Hyreus once entertained at his house the gods Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury, and when his high and mighty guests were about to depart, the worthy host, who had no wife, and was very desirous of having a son, lamented his unfortunate fate, and expressed his anxious desire to the three divinities. We dare not exactly detail what they did to the hide of an ox which Hyreus had killed for their entertainment; however, they afterwards covered the well-soaked hide with a little earth; and thence, at the end of nine months, was born Orion.

Almost all the Roman, Syrian, Grecian, and Egyptian festivals, were founded on similar legends, as well as the temples and statues of ancient heroes. They were monuments consecrated by credulity to error.

One of our most ancient monuments is the statue of St. Denis carrying his head in his arms.

Even a medal, and a contemporary medal, is sometimes no proof. How many medals has flattery struck in celebration of battles very indecisive in themselves, but thus exalted into victories; and of enterprises, in fact, baffled and abortive, and completed only in the inscription on the medal? Finally, during the war in 1740, between the Spaniards and the English, was there not a medal struck, attesting the capture of Carthagena by Admiral Vernon, although that admiral was obliged to raise the siege?

Medals are then unexceptionable testimonies only when the event they celebrate is attested by contemporary authors; these evidences thus corroborating each other, verify the event described.

Should an Historian ascribe Fictitious Speeches to his Characters, and sketch Portraits of them?

If on any particular occasion the commander of an army, or a public minister, has spoken in a powerful and impressive manner, characteristic of his genius and his age, his discourse should unquestionably be given with the most literal exactness. Speeches of this description are perhaps the most valuable part of history. But for what purpose represent a man as saying what he never did say? It would be just as correct to attribute to him acts which he never performed. It is a fiction imitated from Homer; but that which is fiction in a poem, in strict language, is a lie in the historian. Many of the ancients adopted the method in question, which merely proves that many of the ancients were fond of parading their eloquence at the expense of truth.

Of Historical Portraiture.

Portraits, also, frequently manifest a stronger desire for display, than to communicate information. Contemporaries are justifiable in drawing the portraits of statesmen with whom they have negotiated, or of generals under whom they have fought. But how much is it to be apprehended that the pencil will in many cases be guided by the feelings? The portraits given by Lord Clarendon appear to be drawn with more impartiality, gravity, and judgment, than those which we peruse with so much delight in Cardinal de Retz.

But to attempt to paint the ancients; to elaborate in this way the development of their minds; to regard events as characters in which we may accurately read the most sacred feelings and intents of their hearts — this is an undertaking of no ordinary difficulty and discrimination, although as frequently conducted, both childish and trifling.

Of Cicero’s Maxim Concerning History, that an Historian should never dare to relate a Falsehood or to Conceal a Truth.

The first part of this precept is incontestable; we must stop for a moment to examine the other. If a particular truth may be of any service to the state, your silence is censurable. But I will suppose you to write the history of a prince who had reposed in you a secret — ought you to reveal that secret? Ought you to say to all posterity what you would be criminal in disclosing to a single individual? Should the duty of an historian prevail over the higher and more imperative duty of a man?

I will suppose again, that you have witnessed a failing or weakness which has not had the slightest influence on public affairs — ought you to publish such weakness? In such a case history becomes satire.

It must be allowed, indeed, that the greater part of anecdote writers are more indiscreet than they are useful. But what opinion must we entertain of those impudent compilers who appear to glory in scattering about them calumny and slander, and print and sell scandals as Voisin sold poisons?

Of Satirical History.

If Plutarch censured Herodotus for not having sufficiently extolled the fame of some of the Grecian cities, and for omitting many known facts worthy of being recorded, how much more censurable are certain of our modern writers, who, without any of the merits of Herodotus, impute both to princes and to nations acts of the most odious character, without the slightest proof or evidence? The history of the war in 1741 has been written in England; and it relates, “that at the battle of Fontenoy the French fired at the English balls and pieces of glass which had been prepared with poison; and that the duke of Cumberland sent to the king of France a box full of those alleged poisonous articles, which had been found in the bodies of the wounded English.” The same author adds, that the French having lost in that battle forty thousand men, the parliament issued an order to prevent people from talking on the subject, under pain of corporal punishment.

The fraudulent memoirs published not long since under the name of Madame de Maintenon, abound with similar absurdities. We are told in them, that at the siege of Lille the allies threw placards into the city, containing these words: “Frenchmen, be comforted — Maintenon shall never be your queen.”

Almost every page is polluted by false statements and abuse of the royal family and other leading families in the kingdom, without the author’s making out the smallest probability to give a color to his calumnies. This is not writing history; it is writing slanders which deserve the pillory.

A vast number of works have been printed in Holland, under the name of history, of which the style is as vulgar and coarse as the abuse, and the facts as false as they are ill-narrated. This, it has been observed, is a bad fruit of the noble tree of liberty. But if the contemptible authors of this trash have the liberty thus to deceive their readers, it becomes us here to take the liberty to undeceive them.

A thirst for despicable gain, and the insolence of vulgar and grovelling manners, were the only motives which led that Protestant refugee from Languedoc, of the name of Langlevieux, but commonly called La Beaumelle, to attempt the most infamous trick that ever disgraced literature. He sold to Eslinger, the bookseller of Frankfort, in 1751, for seventeen louis d’or, the “History of the Age of Louis XIV.,” which is not his; and, either to make it believed that he was the proprietor, or to earn his money, he loaded it with abusive and abominable notes against Louis XIV., his son, and his grandson, the duke of Burgundy, whom he abuses in the most unmeasured terms, and calls a traitor to his grandfather and his country. He pours upon the duke of Orleans, the regent, calumnies at once the most horrible and the most absurd; no person of consequence is spared, and yet no person of consequence did he ever know. He retails against the marshals Villars and Villeroi, against ministers, and even against ladies, all the petty, dirty, and scandalous tales that could be collected from the lowest taverns and wine-houses; and he speaks of the greatest princes as if they were amenable to himself, and under his own personal jurisdiction. He expresses himself, indeed, as if he were a formal and authorized judge of kings: “Give me,” says he, “a Stuart, and I will make him king of England.”

This most ridiculous and abominable conduct, proceeding from an author obscure and unknown, has incurred no prosecution; it would have been severely punished in a man whose words would have carried any weight. But we must here observe, that these works of darkness frequently circulate through all Europe; they are sold at the fairs of Frankfort and Leipsic, and the whole of the North is overrun with them. Foreigners, who are not well informed, derive from books of this description their knowledge of modern history. German authors are not always sufficiently on their guard against memoirs of this character, but employ them as materials; which has been the case with the memoirs of Pontis, Montbrun, Rochefort, and Pordac; with all the pretended political testaments of ministers of state, which have proceeded from the pen of forgery; with the “Royal Tenth” of Boisguillebert, impudently published under the name of Marshal Vauban; and with innumerable compilations of anas and anecdotes.

History is sometimes even still more shamefully abused in England. As there are always two parties in furious hostility against each other, until some common danger for a season unites them, the writers of one faction condemn everything that the others approve. The same individual is represented as a Cato and a Catiline. How is truth to be extricated from this adulation and satire? Perhaps there is only one rule to be depended upon, which is, to believe all the good which the historian of a party ventures to allow to the leaders of the opposite faction; and all the ills which he ventures to impute to the chiefs of his own — a rule, of which neither party can severely complain.

With regard to memoirs actually written by agents in the events recorded, as those of Clarendon, Ludlow, and Burnet, in England, and de la Rochefoucauld and de Retz in France, if they agree, they are true; if they contradict each other, doubt them.

With respect to anas and anecdotes, there may perhaps be one in a hundred of them that contain some shadow of truth.

§ IV.
Of the Method or Manner of Writing History, and of Style.

We have said so much upon this subject, that we must here say very little. It is sufficiently known and fully admitted, that the method and style of Livy — his gravity, and instructive eloquence, are suitable to the majesty of the Roman republic; that Tacitus is more calculated to portray tyrants, Polybius to give lessons on war, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus to investigate antiquities.

But, while he forms himself on the general model of these great masters, a weighty responsibility is attached to the modern historian from which they were exempt. He is required to give more minute details, facts more completely authenticated, correct dates, precise authorities, more attention to customs, laws, manners, commerce, finance, agriculture, and population. It is with history, as it is with mathematics and natural philosophy; the field of it is immensely enlarged. The more easy it is to compile newspapers, the more difficult it is at the present day to write history.

Daniel thought himself a historian, because he transcribed dates and narratives of battles, of which I can understand nothing. He should have informed me of the rights of the nation, the rights of the chief corporate establishments in it; its laws, usages, manners, with the alterations by which they have been affected in the progress of time. This nation might not improperly address him in some such language as the following:— I want from you my own history rather than that of Louis le Gros and Louis Hutin; you tell me, copying from some old, unauthenticated, and carelessly-written chronicle, that when Louis VIII. was attacked by a mortal disease, and lay languishing and powerless, the physicians ordered the more than half-dead monarch to take to his bed a blooming damsel, who might cherish the few sparks of remaining life; and that the pious king rejected the unholy advice with indignation. Alas! Daniel, you are unacquainted, it seems, with the Italian proverb —“Donna ignuda manda l’uomo sotto la terra.” You ought to possess a little stronger tincture of political and natural history.

The history of a foreign country should be formed on a different model to that of our own.

If we compose a history of France, we are under no necessity to describe the course of the Seine and the Loire; but if we publish a history of the conquests of the Portuguese in Asia, a topographical description of the recently explored country is required. It is desirable that we should, as it were, conduct the reader by the hand round Africa, and along the coasts of Persia and India; and it is expected that we should treat with information and judgment, of manners, laws, and customs so new to Europe.

We have a great variety of histories of the establishment of the Portuguese in India, written by our countrymen, but not one of them has made us acquainted with the different governments of that country, with its religious antiquities, Brahmins, disciples of St. John, Guebers, and Banians. Some letters of Xavier and his successors have, it is true, been preserved to us. We have had histories of the Indies composed at Paris, from the accounts of those missionaries who were unacquainted with the language of the Brahmins. We have it repeated, in a hundred works, that the Indians worship the devil. The chaplains of a company of merchants quit our country under these impressions, and, as soon as they perceive on the coast some symbolical figures, they fail not to write home that they are the portraits and likenesses of the devil, that they are in the devil’s empire, and that they are going to engage in battle with him. They do not reflect that we are the real worshippers of the devil Mammon, and that we travel six thousand leagues from our native land to offer our vows at his shrine, and to obtain the grant of some portion of his treasures.

As to those who hire themselves out at Paris to some bookseller in the Rue de St. Jacques, and at so much per job, and who are ordered to write a history of Japan, Canada, or the Canaries, as the case requires and opportunity suggests, from the memoirs of a few Capuchin friars — to such I have nothing to say.

It is sufficient, if it be clearly understood, that the method which would be proper in writing a history of our own country is not suitable in describing the discoveries of the new world; that we should not write on a small city as on a great empire; and that the private history of a prince should be composed in a very different manner from the history of France and England.

If you have nothing to tell us, but that on the banks of the Oxus and the Jaxartes, one barbarian has been succeeded by another barbarian, in what respect do you benefit the public?

These rules are well known; but the art of writing history well will always be very uncommon. It obviously requires a style grave, pure, varied, and smooth. But we may say with respect to rules for writing history, as in reference to those for all the intellectual arts — there are many precepts, but few masters.

§ V.
History of the Jewish Kings, and of the “Paralipomena.”

Every nation, as soon as it was able to write, has written its own history, and the Jews have accordingly written theirs. Before they had kings, they lived under a theocracy; it was their destiny to be governed by God himself.

When the Jews were desirous of having a king, like the adjoining nations, the prophet Samuel, who was exceedingly interested in preventing it, declared to them, on the part of God, that they were rejecting God himself. Thus the Jewish theocracy ceased when the monarchy commenced.

We may therefore remark, without the imputation of blasphemy, that the history of the Jewish kings was written like that of other nations, and that God did not take the pains Himself to dictate the history of a people whom He no longer governed.

We advance this opinion with the greatest diffidence. What may perhaps be considered as confirming it, is, that the “Paralipomena” very frequently contradict the Book of Kings, both with respect to chronology and facts, just as profane historians sometimes contradict one another. Moreover, if God always wrote the history of the Jews, it seems only consistent and natural to think that He writes it still; for the Jews are always His cherished people. They are on some future day to be converted, and it seems that whenever that event happens, they will have as complete a right to consider the history of their dispersion as sacred, as they have now to say, that God wrote the history of their kings.

We may be allowed here to make one reflection; which is, that as God was for a very long period their king, and afterwards became their historian, we are bound to entertain for all Jews the most profound respect. There is not a single Jew broker, or slop-man, who is not infinitely superior to Cæsar and Alexander. How can we avoid bending in prostration before an old-clothes man, who proves to us that his history has been written by God Himself, while the histories of Greece and Rome have been transmitted to us merely by the profane hand of man?

If the style of the history of the kings, and of the “Paralipomena,” is divine, it may nevertheless be true that the acts recorded in these histories are not divine. David murders Uriah; Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth are murdered; Absalom murders Ammon; Joab murders Absalom; Solomon murders his brother Adonijah; Baasha murders Nadab; Zimri murders Ela; Omri murders Zimri; Ahab murders Naboth; Jehu murders Ahab and Joram; the inhabitants of Jerusalem murder Amaziah, son of Joash; Shallum, son of Jabesh, murders Zachariah, son of Jeroboam; Menahhem murders Shallum, son of Jabesh; Pekah, son of Remaliah, murders Pekahiah, son of Manehem; and Hoshea, son of Elah, murders Pekah, son of Remaliah. We pass over, in silence, many other minor murders. It must be acknowledged, that, if the Holy Spirit did write this history, He did not choose a subject particularly edifying.

§ VI.
Of bad Actions which have been consecrated or excused in History.

It is but too common for historians to praise very depraved and abandoned characters, who have done service either to a dominant sect, or to their nation at large. The praises thus bestowed, come perhaps from a loyal and zealous citizen; but zeal of this description is injurious to the great society of mankind. Romulus murders his brother, and he is made a god. Constantine cuts the throat of his son, strangles his wife, and murders almost all his family: he has been eulogized in general councils, but history should ever hold up such barbarities to detestation. It is undoubtedly fortunate for us that Clovis was a Catholic. It is fortunate for the Anglican church that Henry VIII. abolished monks, but we must at the same time admit that Clovis and Henry VIII. were monsters of cruelty.

When first the Jesuit Berruyer, who although a Jesuit, was a fool, undertook to paraphrase the Old and New Testaments in the style of the lowest populace, with no other intention than that of having them read; he scattered some flowers of rhetoric over the two-edged knife which the Jew Ehud thrust up to the hilt in the stomach of the king Eglon; and over the sabre with which Judith cut off the head of Holofernes after having prostituted herself to his pleasures; and also over many other acts recorded, of a similar description. The parliament, respecting the Bible which narrates these histories, nevertheless condemned the Jesuit who extolled them, and ordered the Old and New Testaments to be burned:— I mean merely those of the Jesuit.

But as the judgments of mankind are ever different in similar cases, the same thing happened to Bayle in circumstances totally different. He was condemned for not praising all the actions of David, king of the province of Judæa. A man of the name of Jurieu, a refugee preacher in Holland, associated with some other refugee preachers, were desirous of obliging him to recant. But how could he recant with reference to facts delivered in the scripture? Had not Bayle some reason to conclude that all the facts recorded in the Jewish books are not the actions of saints; that David, like other men, had committed some criminal acts; and that if he is called a man after God’s own heart, he is called so in consequence of his penitence, and not of his crimes?

Let us disregard names and confine our consideration to things only. Let us suppose, that during the reign of Henry IV. a clergyman of the League party secretly poured out a phial of oil on the head of a shepherd of Brie; that the shepherd comes to court; that the clergyman presents him to Henry IV. as an excellent violin player who can completely drive away all care and melancholy; that the king makes him his equerry, and bestows on him one of his daughters in marriage; that afterwards, the king having quarrelled with the shepherd, the latter takes refuge with one of the princes of Germany, his father-in-law’s enemy; that he enlists and arms six hundred banditti overwhelmed by debt and debauchery; that with this regiment of brigands he rushes to the field, slays friends as well as enemies, exterminating all, even to women with children at the breast, in order to prevent a single individual’s remaining to give intelligence of the horrid butchery. I farther suppose this same shepherd of Brie to become king of France after the death of Henry IV.; that he procures the murder of that king’s grandson, after having invited him to sit at meat at his own table, and delivers over to death seven other younger children of his king and benefactor. Who is the man that will not conceive the shepherd of Brie to act rather harshly?

Commentators are agreed that the adultery of David, and his murder of Uriah, are faults which God pardoned. We may therefore conclude that the massacres above mentioned are faults which God also pardoned.

However, Bayle had no quarter given him; but at length some preachers at London having compared George II. to David, one of that monarch’s servants prints and publishes a small book, in which he censures the comparison. He examines the whole conduct of David; he goes infinitely farther than Bayle, and treats David with more severity than Tacitus applies to Domitian. This book did not raise in England the slightest murmur; every reader felt that bad actions are always bad; that God may pardon them when repentance is proportioned to guilt, but that certainly no man can ever approve of them.

There was more reason, therefore, prevailing in England than there was in Holland in the time of Bayle. We now perceive clearly and without difficulty, that we ought not to hold up as a model of sanctity what, in fact, deserves the severest punishment; and we see with equal clearness that, as we ought not to consecrate guilt, so we ought not to believe absurdity.

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