Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LENT.

§ I.

Our questions on Lent will merely regard the police. It appeared useful to have a time in the year in which we should eat fewer oxen, calves, lambs, and poultry. Young fowls and pigeons are not ready in February and March, the time in which Lent falls; and it is good to cease the carnage for some weeks in countries in which pastures are not so fertile as those of England and Holland.

The magistrates of police have very wisely ordered that meat should be a little dearer at Paris during this time, and that the profit should be given to the hospitals. It is an almost insensible tribute paid by luxury and gluttony to indigence; for it is the rich who are not able to keep Lent — the poor fast all the year.

There are very few farming men who eat meat once a month. If they ate of it every day, there would not be enough for the most flourishing kingdom. Twenty millions of pounds of meat a day would make seven thousand three hundred millions of pounds a year. This calculation is alarming.

The small number of the rich, financiers, prelates, principal magistrates, great lords, and great ladies who condescend to have maigre served at their tables, fast during six weeks on soles, salmon, turbots, sturgeons, etc.

One of our most famous financiers had couriers, who for a hundred crowns brought him fresh sea fish every day to Paris. This expense supported the couriers, the dealers who sold the horses, the fishermen who furnished the fish, the makers of nets, constructors of boats, and the druggists from whom were procured the refined spices which give to a fish a taste superior to that of meat. Lucullus could not have kept Lent more voluptuously.

It should further be remarked that fresh sea fish, in coming to Paris, pays a considerable tax. The secretaries of the rich, their valets de chambre, ladies’ maids, and stewards, partake of the dessert of Crœsus, and fast as deliciously as he.

It is not the same with the poor; not only if for four sous they partake of a small portion of tough mutton do they commit a great sin, but they seek in vain for this miserable aliment. What do they therefore feed upon? Chestnuts, rye bread, the cheeses which they have pressed from the milk of their cows, goats or sheep, and some few of the eggs of their poultry.

There are churches which forbid them the eggs and the milk. What then remains for them to eat? Nothing. They consent to fast; but they consent not to die. It is absolutely necessary that they should live, if it be only to cultivate the lands of the fat rectors and lazy monks.

We therefore ask, if it belongs not to the magistrates of the police of the kingdom, charged with watching over the health of the inhabitants, to give them permission to eat the cheeses which their own hands have formed, and the eggs which their fowls have laid?

It appears that milk, eggs, cheese, and all which can nourish the farmer, are regulated by the police, and not by a religious rule.

We hear not that Jesus Christ forbade omelets to His apostles; He said to them: “Eat such things as are set before you.”

The Holy Church has ordained Lent, but in quality of the Church it commands it only to the heart; it can inflict spiritual pains alone; it cannot as formerly burn a poor man, who, having only some rusty bacon, put a slice of it on a piece of black bread the day after Shrove Tuesday.

Sometimes in the provinces the pastors go beyond their duty, and forgetting the rights of the magistracy, undertake to go among the innkeepers and cooks, to see if they have not some ounces of meat in their saucepans, some old fowls on their hooks, or some eggs in a cupboard; for eggs are forbidden in Lent. They intimidate the poor people, and proceed to violence towards the unfortunates, who know not that it belongs alone to the magistracy to interfere. It is an odious and punishable inquisition.

The magistrates alone can be rightly informed of the more or less abundant provisions required by the poor people of the provinces. The clergy have occupations more sublime. Should it not therefore belong to the magistrates to regulate what the people eat in Lent? Who should pry into the legal consumption of a country if not the police of that country?

§ II.

Did the first who were advised to fast put themselves under this regimen by order of the physician, for indigestion? The want of appetite which we feel in grief — was it the first origin of fast-days prescribed in melancholy religions?

Did the Jews take the custom of fasting from the Egyptians, all of whose rites they imitated, including flagellation and the scape-goat? Why fasted Jesus for forty days in the desert, where He was tempted by the devil — by the “Chathbull”? St. Matthew remarks that after this Lent He was hungry; He was therefore not hungry during the fast.

Why, in days of abstinence, does the Roman Church consider it a crime to eat terrestrial animals, and a good work to be served with soles and salmon? The rich Papist who shall have five hundred francs’ worth of fish upon his table shall be saved, and the poor wretch dying with hunger, who shall have eaten four sous’ worth of salt pork, shall be damned.

Why must we ask permission of the bishop to eat eggs? If a king ordered his people never to eat eggs, would he not be thought the most ridiculous of tyrants? How strange the aversion of bishops to omelets!

Can we believe that among Papists there have been tribunals imbecile, dull, and barbarous enough to condemn to death poor citizens, who had no other crimes than that of having eaten of horseflesh in Lent? The fact is but too true; I have in my hands a sentence of this kind. What renders it still more strange is that the judges who passed such sentences believed themselves superior to the Iroquois.

Foolish and cruel priests, to whom do you order Lent? Is it to the rich? they take good care to observe it. Is it to the poor? they keep Lent all the year. The unhappy peasant scarcely ever eats meat, and has not wherewithal to buy fish. Fools that you are, when will you correct your absurd laws?

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