Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Idol is derived from the Greek word “eidos,” figure; “eidolos,” the representation of a figure, and “latreuein,” to serve, revere, or adore.

It does not appear that there was ever any people on earth who took the name of idolaters. This word is an offence, an insulting term, like that of “gavache,” which the Spaniards formerly gave to the French; and that of “maranes,” which the French gave to the Spaniards in return. If we had demanded of the senate of the Areopagus of Athens, or at the court of the kings of Persia: “Are you idolaters?” they would scarcely have understood the question. None would have answered: “We adore images and idols.” This word, idolater, idolatry, is found neither in Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, nor any other author of the religion of the Gentiles. There was never any edict, any law, which commanded that idols should be adored; that they should be treated as gods and regarded as gods.

When the Roman and Carthaginian captains made a treaty, they called all their gods to witness. “It is in their presence,” said they, “that we swear peace.” Yet the statues of these gods, whose number was very great, were not in the tents of the generals. They regarded, or pretended to regard, the gods as present at the actions of men as witnesses and judges. And assuredly it was not the image which constituted the divinity.

In what view, therefore, did they see the statues of their false gods in the temples? With the same view, if we may so express ourselves, that the Catholics see the images, the object of their veneration. The error was not in adoring a piece of wood or marble, but in adoring a false divinity, represented by this wood and marble. The difference between them and the Catholics is, not that they had images, and the Catholics had none; the difference is, that their images represented the fantastic beings of a false religion, and that the Christian images represent real beings in a true religion. The Greeks had the statue of Hercules, and we have that of St. Christopher; they had Æsculpius and his goat, we have St. Roch and his dog; they had Mars and his lance, and we have St. Anthony of Padua and St. James of Compostella.

When the consul Pliny addresses prayers to the immortal gods in the exordium of the panegyric of Trajan, it is not to images that he addresses them. These images were not immortal.

Neither the latest nor the most remote times of paganism offer a single fact which can lead to the conclusion that they adored idols. Homer speaks only of the gods who inhabited the high Olympus. The palladium, although fallen from heaven, was only a sacred token of the protection of Pallas; it was herself that was venerated in the palladium. It was our ampoule, or holy oil.

But the Romans and Greeks knelt before their statues, gave them crowns, incense, and flowers, and carried them in triumph in the public places. The Catholics have sanctified these customs, and yet are not called idolaters.

The women in times of drouth carried the statues of the Gods after having fasted. They walked barefooted with dishevelled hair, and it quickly rained bucketfuls, says Pretonius: “Et statim urceatim pluebat.” Has not this custom been consecrated; illegitimate indeed among the Gentiles, but legitimate among the Catholics? In how many towns are not images carried to obtain the blessings of heaven through their intercession? If a Turk, or a learned Chinese, were a witness of these ceremonies, he would, through ignorance, accuse the Italians of putting their trust in the figures which they thus promenade in possession.

§ II.
Examination of the Ancient Idolatry.

From the time of Charles I., the Catholic religion was declared idolatrous in England. All the Presbyterians are persuaded that the Catholics adore bread, which they eat, and figures, which are the work of their sculptors and painters. With that which one part of Europe reproaches the Catholics, they themselves reproach the Gentiles.

We are surprised at the prodigious number of declamations uttered in all times against the idolatry of the Romans and Greeks; and we are afterwards still more surprised when we see that they were not idolaters.

They had some temples more privileged than others. The great Diana of Ephesus had more reputation than a village Diana. There were more miracles performed in the temple of Æsculapius at Epidaurus, than in any other of his temples. The statue of the Olympian Jupiter attracted more offerings than that of the Paphlagonian Jupiter. But to oppose the customs of a true religion to those of a false one, have we not for several ages had more devotion to certain altars than to others?

Has not Our Lady of Loretto been preferred to Our Lady of Neiges, to that of Ardens, of Hall, etc.? That is not saying there is more virtue in a statue at Loretto than in a statue of the village of Hall, but we have felt more devotion to the one than to the other; we have believed that she whom we invoked, at the feet of her statues, would condescend, from the height of heaven, to diffuse more favors and to work more miracles in Loretto than in Hall. This multiplicity of images of the same person also proves that it is the images that we revere, and that the worship relates to the person who is represented; for it is not possible that every image can be the same thing. There are a thousand images of St. Francis, which have no resemblance to him, and which do not resemble one another; and all indicate a single Saint Francis, invoked, on the day of his feast, by those who are devoted to this saint.

It was precisely the same with the pagans, who supposed the existence only of a single divinity, a single Apollo, and not as many Apollos and Dianas as they had temples and statues. It is therefore proved, as much as history can prove anything, that the ancients believed not the statue to be a divinity; that worship was not paid to this statue or image, and consequently that they were not idolaters. It is for us to ascertain how far the imputation has been a mere pretext to accuse them of idolatry.

A gross and superstitious populace who reason not, and who know neither how to doubt, deny, or believe; who visit the temples out of idleness, and because the lowly are there equal to the great; who make their contributions because it is the custom; who speak continually of miracles without examining any of them; and who are very little in point of intellect beyond the brutes whom they sacrifice — such a people, I repeat, in the sight of the great Diana, or of Jupiter the Thunderer, may well be seized with a religious horror, and adore, without consciousness, the statue itself. This is what happens now and then, in our own churches, to our ignorant peasantry, who, however, are informed that it is the blessed mortals received into heaven whose intercession they solicit, and not that of images of wood and stone.

The Greeks and Romans augment the number of their gods by their apotheoses. The Greeks deified conquerors like Bacchus, Hercules, and Perseus. Rome devoted altars to her emperors. Our apotheoses are of a different kind; we have infinitely more saints than they have secondary gods, but we pay respect neither to rank nor to conquest. We consecrate temples to the simply virtuous, who would have been unknown on earth if they had not been placed in heaven. The apotheoses of the ancients were the effect of flattery, ours are produced by a respect for virtue.

Cicero, in his philosophical works, only allows of a suspicion that the people may mistake the statues of the gods and confound them with the gods themselves. His interlocutors attack the established religion, but none of them think of accusing the Romans of taking marble and brass for divinities. Lucretius accuses no person of this stupidity, although he reproaches the superstitious of every class. This opinion, therefore, has never existed; there never have been idolaters.

Horace causes an image of Priapus to speak, and makes him say: “I was once the trunk of a fig tree, and a carpenter being doubtful whether he should make of me a god or a bench, at length determined to make me a divinity.” What are we to gather from this pleasantry? Priapus was one of the subaltern divinities, and a subject of raillery for the wits, and this pleasantry is a tolerable proof that a figure placed in the garden to frighten away the birds could not be very profoundly worshipped.

Dacier, giving way to the spirit of a commentator, observes that Baruch predicted this adventure. “They became what the workmen chose to make them:” but might not this be observed of all statues? Had Baruch a visionary anticipation of the “Satires of Horace”?

A block of marble may as well be hewn into a cistern, as into a figure of Alexander, Jupiter, or any being still more respectable. The matter which composed the cherubim of the Holy of Holies might have been equally appropriated to the vilest functions. Is a throne or altar the less revered because it might have been formed into a kitchen table?

Dacier, instead of concluding that the Romans adored the statue of Priapus, and that Baruch predicted it, should have perceived that the Romans laughed at it. Consult all the authors who speak of the statues of the gods, you will not find one of them allude to idolatry; their testimony amounts to the express contrary. “It is not the workman,” says Martial, “who makes the gods, but he who prays to them.”

Qui finxit sacros auro vel marmore vultus

Non facit ille deos, qui rogat ille facit.

“It is Jove whom we adore in the image of Jove,” writes Ovid: “Colitur pro Jove, forma Jovis.”

“The gods inhabit our minds and bosoms,” observes Statius, “and not images in the form of them:”

Nulla autem effigies, nulli commissa metallo.

Forma Dei, mentes habitare et pectora gaudet.

Lucan, too, calls the universe the abode and empire of God: “Estne Dei, sedes, nisi terra, et pontus, et aer?” A volume might be filled with passages asserting idols to be images alone.

There remains but the case in which statues became oracles; notions that might have led to an opinion that there was something divine about them. The predominant sentiment, however, was that the gods had chosen to visit certain altars and images, in order to give audience to mortals, and to reply to them. We read in Homer and in the chorus of the Greek tragedies, of prayers to Apollo, who delivered his responses on the mountains in such a temple, or such a town. There is not, in all antiquity, the least trace of a prayer addressed to a statue; and if it was believed that the divine spirit preferred certain temples and images, as he preferred certain men, it was simply an error in application. How many miraculous images have we? The ancients only boasted of possessing what we possess, and if we are not idolaters for using images, by what correct principle can we term them so?

Those who profess magic, and who either believe, or affect to believe it, a science, pretend to possess the secret of making the gods descend into their statues, not indeed, the superior gods, but the secondary gods or genii. This is what Hermes Trismegistus calls “making” gods — a doctrine which is controverted by St. Augustine in his “City of God.” But even this clearly shows that the images were not thought to possess anything divine, since it required a magician to animate them, and it happened very rarely that a magician was successful in these sublime endeavors.

In a word, the images of the gods were not gods. Jupiter, and not his statue, launched his thunderbolts; it was not the statue of Neptune which stirred up tempests, nor that of Apollo which bestowed light. The Greeks and the Romans were Gentiles and Polytheists, but not idolaters.

We lavished this reproach upon them when we had neither statues nor temples, and have continued the injustice even after having employed painting and sculpture to honor and represent our truths, precisely in the same manner in which those we reproach employed them to honor and personify their fiction.

§ III.
Whether the Persians, the Sabæans, the Egyptians, the Tartars, or the Turks, have been Idolaters, and the Extent of the Antiquity of the Images Called Idols — History of Their Worship.

It is a great error to denominate those idolaters who worship the sun and the stars. These nations for a long time had neither images nor temples. If they were wrong, it was in rendering to the stars that which belonged only to the creator of the stars. Moreover, the dogma of Zoroaster, or Zerdusht, teaches a Supreme Being, an avenger and rewarder, which opinion is very distant from idolatry. The government of China possesses no idol, but has always preserved the simple worship of the master of heaven, Kien-tien.

Genghis Khan, among the Tartars, was not an idolater, and used no images. The Mahometans, who inhabit Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Persia, India, and Africa, call the Christians idolaters and giaours, because they imagine that Christians worship images. They break the statues which they find in Sancta Sophia, the church of the Holy Apostles; and others they convert into mosques. Appearances have deceived them, as they are eternally deceiving man, and have led them to believe that churches dedicated to saints who were formerly men, images of saints worshipped kneeling, and miracles worked in these churches, are invincible proofs of absolute idolatry; although all amount to nothing. Christians, in fact, adore one God only, and even in the blessed, only revere the virtues of God manifested in them. The image-breakers (iconoclasts), and the Protestants, who reproach the Catholic Church with idolatry, claim the same answer.

As men rarely form precise ideas, and still less express them with precision, we call the Gentiles, and still more the Polytheists, idolaters. An immense number of volumes have been written in order to develop the various opinions upon the origin of the worship rendered to the deity. This multitude of books and opinions proves nothing, except ignorance.

It is not known who invented coats, shoes, and stockings, and yet we would know who invented idols. What signifies a passage of Sanchoniathon, who lived before the battle of Troy? What does he teach us when he says that Chaos — the spirit, that is to say, the breath — in love with his principles, draws the veil from it, which renders the air luminous; that the wind Colp, and his wife Bau, engendered Eon; that Eon engendered Genos, that Chronos, their descendant, had two eyes behind as well as before; that he became a god, and that he gave Egypt to his son Thaut? Such is one of the most respectable monuments of antiquity.

Orpheus will teach us no more in his “Theogony,” than Damasius has preserved to us. He represents the principles of the world under the figure of a dragon with two heads, the one of a bull, the other of a lion; a face in the middle, which he calls the face of God, and golden wings to his shoulders.

But, from these fantastic ideas may be drawn two great truths — the one that sensible images and hieroglyphics are of the remotest antiquity; the other that all the ancient philosophers have recognized a First Principle.

As to polytheism, good sense will tell you that as long as men have existed — that is to say, weak animals capable of reason and folly, subject to all accidents, sickness and death — these men have felt their weakness and dependence. Obliged to acknowledge that there is something more powerful than themselves; having discovered a principle in the earth which furnishes their aliment; one in the air which often destroys them; one in fire which consumes; and in water which drowns them — what is more natural than for ignorant men to imagine beings which preside over these elements? What is more natural than to revere the invisible power which makes the sun and stars shine to our eyes? and, since they would form an idea of powers superior to man, what more natural than to figure them in a sensible manner? Could they think otherwise? The Jewish religion, which preceded ours, and which was given by God himself, was filled with these images, under which God is represented. He deigns to speak the human language in a bush; He appeared once on a mountain; the celestial spirits which he sends all come with a human form: finally, the sanctuary is covered with cherubs, which are the bodies of men with the wings and heads of animals. It is this which has given rise to the error of Plutarch, Tacitus, Appian, and so many others, of reproaching the Jews with adoring an ass’s head. God, in spite of his prohibition to paint or form likenesses, has, therefore, deigned to adapt himself to human weakness, which required the senses to be addressed by sensible beings.

Isaiah, in chapter vi., sees the Lord seated on a throne, and His train filled the temple. The Lord extends His hand, and touches the mouth of Jeremiah, in chap. i. of that prophet. Ezekiel, in chap. i., sees a throne of sapphire, and God appeared to him like a man seated on this throne. These images alter not the purity of the Jewish religion, which never employed pictures, statues, or idols, to represent God to the eyes of the people.

The learned Chinese, the Parsees, and the ancient Egyptians, had no idols; but Isis and Osiris were soon represented. Bel, at Babylon, was a great colossus. Brahma was a fantastic monster in the peninsula of India. Above all, the Greeks multiplied the names of the gods, statues, and temples, but always attributed the supreme power to their Zeus, called Jupiter by the Latins, the sovereign of gods and men. The Romans imitated the Greeks. These people always placed all the gods in heaven, without knowing what they understood by heaven.

The Romans had their twelve great gods, six male and six female, whom they called “Dii majorum gentium”; Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, Vulcar., Mars, Mercury, Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Venus, and Diana; Pluto was therefore forgotten: Vesta took his place.

Afterwards, came the gods “minorum gentium,” the gods of mortal origin; the heroes, as Bacchus, Hercules, and Æsculapius: the infernal gods, Pluto and Proserpine: those of the sea, as Tethys, Amphitrite, the Nereids, and Glaucus. The Dryads, Naiads, gods of gardens; those of shepherds, etc. They had them, indeed, for every profession, for every action of life, for children, marriageable girls, married, and lying-in women: they had even the god Peditum; and finally, they idolized their emperors. Neither these emperors nor the god Peditum, the goddess Pertunda, nor Priapus, nor Rumilia, the goddess of nipples; nor Stercutius, the god of the privy, were, in truth, regarded as the masters of heaven and earth. The emperors had sometimes temples, the petty gods — the penates — had none; but all had their representations, their images.

There were little images with which they ornamented their closets, the amusements of old women and children, which were not authorized by any public worship. The superstition of every individual was left to act according to his own taste. These small idols are still found in the ruins of ancient towns.

If no person knows when men began to make these images, they must know that they are of the greatest antiquity. Terah, the father of Abraham, made them at Ur in Chaldæa. Rachel stole and carried off the images of Laban, her father. We cannot go back further.

But what precise notion had the ancient nations of all these representations? What virtue, what power, was attributed to them? Believed they that the gods descended from heaven to conceal themselves in these statues; or that they communicated to them a part of the divine spirit; or that they communicated to them nothing at all? There has been much very uselessly written on this subject; it is clear that every man judged of it according to the degree of his reason, credulity, or fanaticism. It is evident that the priests attached as much divinity to their statues as they possibly could, to attract more offerings. We know that the philosophers reproved these superstitions, that warriors laughed at them, that the magistrates tolerated them, and that the people, always absurd, knew not what they did. In a word, this is the history of all nations to which God has not made himself known.

The same idea may be formed of the worship which all Egypt rendered to the cow, and that several towns paid to a dog, an ape, a cat, and to onions. It appears that these were first emblems. Afterwards, a certain ox Apis, and a certain dog Anubis, were adored; they always ate beef and onions; but it is difficult to know what the old women of Egypt thought of the holy cows and onions.

Idols also often spoke. On the day of the feast of Cybele at Rome, those fine words were commemorated which the statue pronounced when it was translated from the palace of King Attilus: “I wish to depart; take me away quickly; Rome is worthy the residence of every god.”

Ipsa peti volui; ne sit mora, mitte volentum;

Dignus Roma locus quo Deus omnis eat.

— Ovid’s Fasti, iv, 269-270.

The statue of Fortune spoke; the Scipios, the Ciceros, and the Cæsars, indeed, believed nothing of it; but the old woman, to whom Encolpus gave a crown to buy geese and gods, might credit it.

Idols also gave oracles, and priests hidden in the hollow of the statues spoke in the name of the divinity.

How happens it, in the midst of so many gods and different theogonies and particular worships, that there was never any religious war among the people called idolaters? This peace was a good produced from an evil, even from error; for each nation, acknowledging several inferior gods, found it good for his neighbors also to have theirs. If you except Cambyses, who is reproached with having killed the ox Apis, you will not see any conqueror in profane history who ill-treated the gods of a vanquished people. The heathens had no exclusive religion, and the priests thought only of multiplying the offerings and sacrifices.

The first offerings were fruits. Soon after, animals were required for the table of the priests; they killed them themselves, and became cruel butchers; finally, they introduced the horrible custom of sacrificing human victims, and above all, children and young girls. The Chinese, Parsees, and Indians, were never guilty of these abominations; but at Hieropolis, in Egypt, according to Porphyrius, they immolated men.

Strangers were sacrificed at Taurida: happily, the priests of Taurida had not much practice. The first Greeks, the Cypriots, Phœnicians, Tyrians, and Carthaginians, possessed this abominable superstition. The Romans themselves fell into this religious crime; and Plutarch relates, that they immolated two Greeks and two Gauls to expiate the gallantries of three vestals. Procopius, contemporary with the king of the Franks, Theodobert, says that the Franks sacrificed men when they entered Italy with that prince. The Gauls and Germans commonly made these frightful sacrifices. We can scarcely read history without conceiving horror at mankind.

It is true that among the Jews, Jeptha sacrificed his daughter, and Saul was ready to immolate his son; it is also true that those who were devoted to the Lord by anathema could not be redeemed, as other beasts were, but were doomed to perish.

We will now speak of the human victims sacrificed in all religions.

To console mankind for the horrible picture of these pious sacrifices, it is important to know, that amongst almost all nations called idolatrous, there have been holy theologies and popular error, secret worship and public ceremonies; the religion of sages, and that of the vulgar. To know that one God alone was taught to those initiated into the mysteries, it is only necessary to look at the hymn attributed to the ancient Orpheus, which was sung in the mysteries of the Eleusinian Ceres, so celebrated in Europe and Asia: “Contemplate divine nature; illuminate thy mind; govern thy heart; walk in the path of justice, that the God of heaven and earth may be always present to thy eyes: He only self-exists, all beings derive their existence from Him; He sustains them all; He has never been seen by mortals, and He sees all things.”

We may also read the passage of the philosopher Maximus, whom we have already quoted: “What man is so gross and stupid as to doubt that there is a supreme, eternal, and infinite God, who has engendered nothing like Himself, and who is the common father of all things?”

There are a thousand proofs that the ancient sages not only abhorred idolatry, but polytheism.

Epictetus, that model of resignation and patience, that man so great in a humble condition, never speaks of but one God. Read over these maxims: “God has created me; God is within me; I carry Him everywhere. Can I defile Him by obscene thoughts, unjust actions, or infamous desires? My duty is to thank God for all, to praise Him for all; and only to cease blessing Him in ceasing to live.” All the ideas of Epictetus turn on this principle. Is this an idolater?

Marcus Aurelius, perhaps as great on the throne of the Roman Empire as Epictetus was in slavery, often speaks, indeed, of the gods, either to conform himself to the received language, or to express intermediate beings between the Supreme Being and men; but in how many places does he show that he recognizes one eternal, infinite God alone? “Our soul,” says he, “is an emanation from the divinity. My children, my body, my mind, are derived from God.”

The Stoics and Platonics admitted a divine and universal nature; the Epicureans denied it. The pontiffs spoke only of a single God in their mysteries. Where then were the idolaters? All our declaimers exclaim against idolatry like little dogs, that yelp when they hear a great one bark.

As to the rest, it is one of the greatest errors of the “Dictionary” of Moreri to say, that in the time of Theodosius the younger, there remained no idolaters except in the retired countries of Asia and Africa. Even in the seventh century there were many people still heathen in Italy. The north of Germany, from the Weser, was not Christian in the time of Charlemagne. Poland and all the south remained a long time after him in what was called idolatry; the half of Africa, all the kingdoms beyond the Ganges, Japan, the populace of China, and a hundred hordes of Tartars, have preserved their ancient religion. In Europe there are only a few Laplanders, Samoyedes, and Tartars, who have persevered in the religion of their ancestors.

Let us conclude with remarking, that in the time which we call the middle ages, we dominated the country of the Mahometans pagan; we treated as idolaters and adorers of images, a people who hold all images in abhorrence. Let us once more avow, that the Turks are more excusable in believing us idolaters, when they see our altars loaded with images and statues.

A gentleman belonging to Prince Ragotski assured me upon his honor, that being in a coffee-house at Constantinople, the mistress ordered that he should not be served because he was an idolater. He was a Protestant, and swore to her that he adored neither host nor images. “Ah! if that is the case,” said the woman, “come to me every day, and you shall be served for nothing.”

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