Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


How many nations have long existed, and still exist, without annals. There were none in all America, that is, in one-half of our globe, excepting those of Mexico and Peru, which are not very ancient. Besides, knotted cords are a sort of books which cannot enter into very minute details. Three-fourths of Africa never had annals; and, at the present day, in the most learned nations, in those which have even used and abused the art of writing the most, ninety-nine out of a hundred persons may be regarded as not knowing anything that happened there farther back than four generations, and as ignorant almost of the names of their great-grandfathers. Such is the case with nearly all the inhabitants of towns and villages, very few families holding titles of their possessions. When a litigation arises respecting the limits of a field or a meadow, the judges decide according to the testimony of the old men; and possession constitutes the title. Some great events are transmitted from father to son, and are entirely altered in passing from mouth to mouth. They have no other annals.

Look at all the villages of our Europe, so polished, so enlightened, so full of immense libraries, and which now seem to groan under the enormous mass of books. In each village two men at most, on an average, can read and write. Society loses nothing in consequence. All works are performed — building, planting, sowing, reaping, as they were in the remotest times. The laborer has not even leisure to regret that he has not been taught to consume some hours of the day in reading. This proves that mankind had no need of historical monuments to cultivate the arts really necessary to life.

It is astonishing, not that so many tribes of people are without annals, but that three or four nations have preserved them for five thousand years or thereabouts, through so many violent revolutions which the earth has undergone. Not a line remains of the ancient Egyptian, Chaldæan, or Persian annals, nor of those of the Latins and Etruscans. The only annals that can boast of a little antiquity are the Indian, the Chinese, and the Hebrew.

We cannot give the name of annals to vague and rude fragments of history without date, order, or connection. They are riddles proposed by antiquity to posterity, who understand nothing at all of them. We venture to affirm that Sanchoniathon, who is said to have lived before the time of Moses, composed annals. He probably limited his researches to cosmogony, as Hesiod afterwards did in Greece. We advance this latter opinion only as a doubt; for we write only to be informed, and not to teach.

But what deserves the greatest attention is that Sanchoniathon quotes the books of the Egyptian Thoth, who, he tells us, lived eight hundred years before him. Now Sanchoniathon probably wrote in the age in which we place Joseph’s adventure in Egypt. We commonly place the epoch of the promotion of the Jew Joseph to the prime-ministry of Egypt at the year of the creation 2300.

If, then, the books of Thoth were written eight hundred years before, they were written in the year 1500 of the creation. Therefore, their date was a hundred and fifty-six years before the deluge. They must, then, have been engraved on stone, and preserved in the universal inundation. Another difficulty is that Sanchoniathon does not speak of the deluge, and that no Egyptian writer has ever been quoted who does speak of it. But these difficulties vanish before the Book of Genesis, inspired by the Holy Ghost.

We have no intention here to plunge into the chaos which eighty writers have sought to clear up, by inventing different chronologies; we always keep to the Old Testament. We only ask whether in the time of Thoth they wrote in hieroglyphics, or in alphabetical characters? whether stone and brick had yet been laid aside for vellum, or any other material? whether Thoth wrote annals, or only a cosmogony? whether there were some pyramids already built in the time of Thoth? whether Lower Egypt was already inhabited? whether canals had been constructed to receive the waters of the Nile? whether the Chaldæans had already taught the arts of the Egyptians, and whether the Chaldæans had received them from the Brahmins? There are persons who have resolved all these questions; which once occasioned a man of sense and wit to say of a grave doctor, “That man must be very ignorant, for he answers every question that is asked him.”

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