Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Justice is often done at last. Two or three authors, either venal or fanatical, eulogize the cruel and effeminate Constantine as if he had been a god, and treat as an absolute miscreant the just, the wise, and the great Julian. All other authors, copying from these, repeat both the flattery and the calumny. They become almost an article of faith. At length the age of sound criticism arrives; and at the end of fourteen hundred years, enlightened men revise the cause which had been decided by ignorance. In Constantine we see a man of successful ambition, internally scoffing at things divine as well as human. He has the insolence to pretend that God sent him a standard in the air to assure him of victory. He imbrues himself in the blood of all his relations, and is lulled to sleep in all the effeminacy of luxury; but he is a Christian — he is canonized.

Julian is sober, chaste, disinterested, brave, and clement; but he is not a Christian — he has long been considered a monster.

At the present day — after having compared facts, memorials and records, the writings of Julian and those of his enemies — we are compelled to acknowledge that, if he was not partial to Christianity, he was somewhat excusable in hating a sect stained with the blood of all his family; and that although he had been persecuted, imprisoned, exiled, and threatened with death by the Galileans, under the reign of the cruel and sanguinary Constantius, he never persecuted them, but on the contrary even pardoned ten Christian soldiers who had conspired against his life. His letters are read and admired: “The Galileans,” says he, “under my predecessor, suffered exile and imprisonment; and those who, according to the change of circumstances, were called heretics, were reciprocally massacred in their turn. I have called home their exiles, I have liberated their prisoners, I have restored their property to those who were proscribed, and have compelled them to live in peace; but such is the restless rage of these Galileans that they deplore their inability any longer to devour one another.” What a letter! What a sentence, dictated by philosophy, against persecuting fanaticism. Ten Christians conspiring against his life, he detects and he pardons them. How extraordinary a man! What dastardly fanatics must those be who attempt to throw disgrace on his memory!

In short, on investigating facts with impartiality, we are obliged to admit that Julian possessed all the qualities of Trajan, with the exception of that depraved taste too long pardoned to the Greeks and Romans; all the virtues of Cato, without either his obstinacy or ill-humor; everything that deserves admiration in Julius Cæsar, and none of his vices. He possessed the continence of Scipio. Finally, he was in all respects equal to Marcus Aurelius, who was reputed the first of men.

There are none who will now venture to repeat, after that slanderer Theodoret, that, in order to propitiate the gods, he sacrificed a woman in the temple of Carres; none who will repeat any longer the story of the death scene in which he is represented as throwing drops of blood from his hand towards heaven, calling out to Jesus Christ: “Galilean, thou hast conquered”; as if he had fought against Jesus in making war upon the Persians; as if this philosopher, who died with such perfect resignation, had with alarm and despair recognized Jesus; as if he had believed that Jesus was in the air, and that the air was heaven! These ridiculous absurdities of men, denominated fathers of the Church, are happily no longer current and respected.

Still, however, the effect of ridicule was, it seems, to be tried against him, as it was by the light and giddy citizens of Antioch. He is reproached for his ill-combed beard and the manner of his walk. But you, Mr. Abbé de la Bletterie, never saw him walk; you have, however, read his letters and his laws, the monuments of his virtues. Of what consequence was it, comparatively, that he had a slovenly beard and an abrupt, headlong walk, while his heart was full of magnanimity and all his steps tended to virtue!

One important fact remains to be examined at the present day. Julian is reproached with attempting to falsify the prophecy of Jesus Christ, by rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem. Fires, it is asserted, came out of the earth and prevented the continuance of the work. It is said that this was a miracle, and that this miracle did not convert Julian, nor Alypius, the superintendent of the enterprise, nor any individual of the imperial court; and upon this subject the Abbé de la Bletterie thus expresses himself: “The emperor and the philosophers of his court undoubtedly employed all their knowledge of natural philosophy to deprive the Deity of the honor of so striking and impressive a prodigy. Nature was always the favorite resource of unbelievers; but she serves the cause of religion so very seasonably, that they might surely suspect some collusion between them.”

1. It is not true that it is said in the Gospel, that the Jewish temple should not be rebuilt. The gospel of Matthew, which was evidently written after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, prophesies, certainly, that not one stone should remain upon another of the temple of the Idumæan Herod; but no evangelist says that it shall never be rebuilt. It is perfectly false that not one stone remained upon another when Titus demolished it. All its foundations remained together, with one entire wall and the tower Antonia.

2. Of what consequence could it be to the Supreme Being whether there was a Jewish temple, a magazine, or a mosque, on the spot where the Jews were in the habit of slaughtering bullocks and cows?

3. It is not ascertained whether it was from within the circuit of the walls of the city, or from within that of the temple, that those fires proceeded which burned the workmen. But it is not very obvious why the Jews should burn the workmen of the emperor Julian, and not those of the caliph Omar, who long afterwards built a mosque upon the ruins of the temple; or those of the great Saladin who rebuilt the same mosque. Had Jesus any particular predilection for the mosques of the Mussulmans?

4. Jesus, notwithstanding his having predicted that there would not remain one stone upon another in Jerusalem, did not prevent the rebuilding of that city.

5. Jesus predicted many things which God permitted never to come to pass. He predicted the end of the world, and his coming in the clouds with great power and majesty, before or about the end of the then existing generation. The world, however, has lasted to the present moment, and in all probability will last much longer.

6. If Julian had written an account of this miracle, I should say that he had been imposed upon by a false and ridiculous report; I should think that the Christians, his enemies, employed every artifice to oppose his enterprise, that they themselves killed the workmen, and excited and promoted the belief of their being destroyed by a miracle; but Julian does not say a single word on the subject. The war against the Persians at that time fully occupied his attention; he put off the rebuilding of the temple to some other time, and he died before he was able to commence the building.

7. This prodigy is related by Ammianus Marcellinus, who was a Pagan. It is very possible that it may have been an interpolation of the Christians. They have been charged with committing numberless others which have been clearly proved.

But it is not the less probable that at a time when nothing was spoken of but prodigies and stories of witchcraft, Ammianus Marcellinus may have reported this fable on the faith of some credulous narrator. From Titus Livius to de Thou, inclusively, all historians have been infected with prodigies.

8. Contemporary authors relate that at the same period there was in Syria a great convulsion of the earth, which in many places broke out in conflagrations and swallowed up many cities. There was therefore more miracle.

9. If Jesus performed miracles, would it be in order to prevent the rebuilding of a temple in which he had himself sacrificed, and in which he was circumcised? Or would he not rather perform miracles to convert to Christianity the various nations who at present ridicule it? Or rather still, to render more humane, more kind, Christians themselves, who, from Arius and Athanasius down to Roland and the Paladins of the Cévennes, have shed torrents of human blood, and conducted themselves nearly as might be expected from cannibals?

Hence I conclude that “nature” is not in “collusion,” as La Bletterie expresses it, with Christianity, but that La Bletterie is in collusion with some old women’s stories, one of those persons, as Julian phrases it, “quibus cum stolidis aniculis negotium erat.”

La Bletterie, after having done justice to some of Julian’s virtues, yet concludes the history of that great man by observing, that his death was the effect of “divine vengeance.” If that be the case, all the heroes who have died young, from Alexander to Gustavus Adolphus, have, we must infer, been punished by God. Julian died the noblest of deaths, in the pursuit of his enemies, after many victories. Jovian, who succeeded him, reigned a much shorter time than he did, and reigned in disgrace. I see no divine vengeance in the matter; and I see in La Bletterie himself nothing more than a disingenuous, dishonest declaimer. But where are the men to be found who will dare to speak out?

Libanius the Stoic was one of these extraordinary men. He celebrated the brave and clement Julian in the presence of Theodosius, the wholesale murderer of the Thessalonians; but Le Beau and La Bletterie fear to praise him in the hearing of their own puny parish officers.

§ II.

Let any one suppose for a moment that Julian had abandoned false gods for Christianity; then examine him as a man, a philosopher, and an emperor; and let the examiner then point out the man whom he will venture to prefer to him. If he had lived only ten years longer, there is great probability that he would have given a different form to Europe from that which it bears at present.

The Christian religion depended upon his life; the efforts which he made for its destruction rendered his name execrable to the nations who have embraced it. The Christian priests, who were his contemporaries, accuse him of almost every crime, because he had committed what in their eyes was the greatest of all — he had lowered and humiliated them. It is not long since his name was never quoted without the epithet of apostate attached to it; and it is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of reason that he has at length ceased to be mentioned under so opprobrious a designation. Who would imagine that in one of the “Mercuries of Paris,” for the year 1745, the author sharply rebukes a certain writer for failing in the common courtesies of life, by calling this emperor Julian “the apostate”? Not more than a hundred years ago the man that would not have treated him as an apostate would himself have been treated as an atheist.

What is very singular, and at the same time perfectly true, is that if you put out of consideration the various disputes between Pagans and Christians, in which this emperor was engaged; if you follow him neither to the Christian churches nor idolatrous temples, but observe him attentively in his own household, in camp, in battle, in his manners, his conduct, and his writings, you will find him in every respect equal to Marcus Aurelius.

Thus, the man who has been described as so abominable and execrable, is perhaps the first, or at least the second of mankind. Always sober, always temperate, indulging in no licentious pleasures, sleeping on a mere bear’s skin, devoting only a few hours, and even those with regret, to sleep; dividing his time between study and business, generous, susceptible of friendship, and an enemy to all pomp, and pride, and ostentation. Had he been merely a private individual he must have extorted universal admiration.

If we consider him in his military character, we see him constantly at the head of his troops, establishing or restoring discipline without rigor, beloved by his soldiers and at the same time restraining their excesses, conducting his armies almost always on foot, and showing them an example of enduring every species of hardship, ever victorious in all his expeditions even to the last moments of his life, and at length dying at the glorious crisis when the Persians were routed. His death was that of a hero, and his last words were those of a philosopher: “I submit,” says he, “willingly to the eternal decrees of heaven, convinced that he who is captivated with life, when his last hour is arrived, is more weak and pusillanimous than he who would rush to voluntary death when it is his duty still to live.” He converses to the last moment on the immortality of the soul; manifests no regrets, shows no weakness, and speaks only of his submission to the decrees of Providence. Let it be remembered that this is the death of an emperor at the age of thirty-two, and let it be then decided whether his memory should be insulted.

As an emperor, we see him refusing the title of “Dominus,” which Constantine affected; relieving his people from difficulties, diminishing taxes, encouraging the arts; reducing to the moderate amount of seventy ounces each those presents in crowns of gold, which had before been exacted from every city to the amount of three or four hundred marks; promoting the strict and general observance of the laws; restraining both his officers and ministers from oppression, and preventing as much as possible all corruption.

Ten Christian soldiers conspire to assassinate him; they are discovered, and Julian pardons them. The people of Antioch, who united insolence to voluptuousness, offer him an insult; he revenges himself only like a man of sense; and while he might have made them feel the weight of imperial power, he merely makes them feel the superiority of his mind. Compare with this conduct the executions which Theodosius (who was very near being made a saint) exhibited in Antioch, and the ever dreadful and memorable slaughter of all the inhabitants of Thessalonica, for an offence of a somewhat similar description; and then decide between these two celebrated characters.

Certain writers, called fathers of the Church — Gregory of Nazianzen, and Theodoret — thought it incumbent on them to calumniate him, because he had abandoned the Christian religion. They did not consider that it was the triumph of that religion to prevail over so great a man, and even over a sage, after having resisted tyrants. One of them says that he took a barbarous vengeance on Antioch and filled it with blood. How could a fact so public and atrocious escape the knowledge of all other historians? It is perfectly known that he shed no blood at Antioch but that of the victims sacrificed in the regular services of religion. Another ventures to assert that before his death he threw some of his own blood towards heaven, and exclaimed, “Galilean, thou hast conquered.” How could a tale so insipid and so improbable, even for a moment obtain credit? Was it against the Christians that he was then combating? and is such an act, are such expressions, in the slightest degree characteristic of the man?

Minds of a somewhat superior order to those of Julian’s detractors may perhaps inquire, how it could occur that a statesman like him, a man of so much intellect, a genuine philosopher, could quit the Christian religion, in which he was educated, for Paganism, of which, it is almost impossible not to suppose, he must have felt the folly and ridicule. It might be inferred that if Julian yielded too much to the suggestions of his reason against the mysteries of the Christian religion, he ought, at least in all consistency, to have yielded more readily to the dictates of the same reason, when more correctly and decidedly condemning the fables of Paganism.

Perhaps, by attending a little to the progress of his life, and the nature of his character, we may discover what it was that inspired him with so strong an aversion to Christianity. The emperor Constantine, his great-uncle, who had placed the new religion on the throne, was stained by the murder of his wife, his son, his brother-in-law, his nephew, and his father-in-law. The three children of Constantine began their bloody and baleful reign, with murdering their uncle and their cousins. From that time followed a series of civil wars and murders. The father, the brother, and all the relations of Julian, and even Julian himself, were marked down for destruction by Constantius, his uncle. He escaped this general massacre, but the first years of his life were passed in exile, and he at last owed the preservation of his life, his fortune, and the title of Cæsar, only to Eusebia, the wife of his uncle Constantius, who, after having had the cruelty to proscribe his infancy, had the imprudence to appoint him Cæsar, and the still further and greater imprudence of then persecuting him.

He was, in the first instance, a witness of the insolence with which a certain bishop treated his benefactress Eusebia. He was called Leontius, and was bishop of Tripoli. He sent information to the empress, “that he would not visit her unless she would consent to receive him in a manner corresponding to his episcopal dignity — that is, that she should advance to receive him at the door, that she should receive his benediction in a bending attitude, and that she should remain standing until he granted her permission to be seated.” The Pagan pontiffs were not in the habit of treating princesses precisely in this manner, and such brutal arrogance could not but make a deep impression on the mind of a young man attached at once to philosophy and simplicity.

If he saw that he was in a Christian family, he saw, at the same time, that he was in a family rendered distinguished by parricides; if he looked at the court bishops, he perceived that they were at once audacious and intriguing, and that all anathematized each other in turn. The hostile parties of Arius and Athanasius filled the empire with confusion and carnage; the Pagans, on the contrary, never had any religious quarrels. It is natural therefore that Julian, who had been educated, let it be remembered, by philosophic Pagans, should have strengthened by their discourses the aversion he must necessarily have felt in his heart for the Christian religion. It is not more extraordinary to see Julian quit Christianity for false gods, than to see Constantine quit false gods for Christianity. It is highly probable that both changed for motives of state policy, and that this policy was mixed up in the mind of Julian with the stern loftiness of a stoic soul.

The Pagan priests had no dogmas; they did not compel men to believe that which was incredible; they required nothing but sacrifices, and even sacrifices were not enjoined under rigorous penalties; they did not set themselves up as the first order in the state, did not form a state within a state, and did not mix in affairs of government. These might well be considered motives to induce a man of Julian’s character to declare himself on their side; and if he had piqued himself upon being nothing besides a Stoic, he would have had against him the priests of both religions, and all the fanatics of each. The common people would not at that time have endured a prince who was content simply with the pure worship of a pure divinity and the strict observance of justice. It was necessary to side with one of the opposing parties. We must therefore believe that Julian submitted to the Pagan ceremonies, as the majority of princes and great men attend the forms of worship in the public temples. They are led thither by the people themselves, and are often obliged to appear what in fact they are not; and to be in public the first and greatest slaves of credulity. The Turkish sultan must bless the name of Omar. The Persian sophi must bless the name of Ali. Marcus Aurelius himself was initiated in the mysteries of Eleusis.

We ought not therefore to be surprised that Julian should have debased his reason by condescending to the forms and usages of superstition; but it is impossible not to feel indignant against Theodoret, as the only historian who relates that he sacrificed a woman in the temple of the moon at Carres. This infamous story must be classed with the absurd tale of Ammianus, that the genius of the empire appeared to Julian before his death, and with the other equally ridiculous one, that when Julian attempted to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, there came globes of fire out of the earth, and consumed all the works and workmen without distinction.

Iliacos intra muros peccatur et extra.

— Horace, book i, ep. ii, 16.

Both Christians and Pagans equally, circulated fables concerning Julian; but the fables of the Christians, who were his enemies, were filled with calumny. Who could ever be induced to believe that a philosopher sacrificed a woman to the moon, and tore out her entrails with his own hands? Is such atrocity compatible with the character of a rigid Stoic?

He never put any Christians to death. He granted them no favors, but he never persecuted them. He permitted them, like a just sovereign, to keep their own property; and he wrote in opposition to them like a philosopher. He forbade their teaching in the schools the profane authors, whom they endeavored to decry — this was not persecuting them; and he prevented them from tearing one another to pieces in their outrageous hatred and quarrels — this was protecting them. They had in fact therefore nothing with which they could reproach him, but with having abandoned them, and with not being of their opinion. They found means, however, of rendering execrable to posterity a prince, who, but for his change of religion, would have been admired and beloved by all the world.

Although we have already treated of Julian, under the article on “Apostate”; although, following the example of every sage, we have deplored the dreadful calamity he experienced in not being a Christian, and have done justice elsewhere to his various excellences, we must nevertheless say something more upon the subject.

We do this in consequence of an imposture equally absurd and atrocious, which we casually met with in one of those petty dictionaries with which France is now inundated, and which unfortunately are so easily compiled. This dictionary of theology which I am now alluding to proceeds from an ex-Jesuit, called Paulian, who repeats the story, so discredited and absurd, that the emperor Julian, after being mortally wounded in a battle with the Persians, threw some of his blood towards heaven, exclaiming, “Galilean, thou hast conquered”— a fable which destroys itself, as Julian was conqueror in the battle, and Jesus Christ certainly was not the God of the Persians.

Paulian, notwithstanding, dares to assert that the fact is incontestable. And upon what ground does he assert it? Upon the ground of its being related by Theodoret, the author of so many distinguished lies; and even this notorious writer himself relates it only as a vague report; he uses the expression, “It is said.” This story is worthy of the calumniators who stated that Julian had sacrificed a woman to the moon, and that after his death a large chest was found among his movables filled with human heads.

This is not the only falsehood and calumny with which this ex-Jesuit Paulian is chargeable. If these contemptible wretches knew what injury they did to our holy religion, by endeavoring to support it by imposture, and by the abominable abuse with which they assail the most respectable characters, they would be less audacious and infuriated. They care not, however, for supporting religion; what they want is to gain money by their libels; and despairing of being read by persons of sense, and taste, and fashion, they go on gathering and compiling theological trash, in hopes that their productions will be adopted in the seminaries.

We sincerely ask pardon of our well-informed and respectable readers for introducing such names as those of the ex-Jesuits Paulian, Nonnotte, and Patouillet; but after having trampled to death serpents, we shall probably be excused for crushing fleas.

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