Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This article relates to two powerful divinities, one ancient and the other modern, which have reigned in our hemisphere. The reverend father Dom Calmet, a great antiquarian, that is, a great compiler of what was said in former times and what is repeated at the present day, has confounded lues with leprosy. He maintains that it was the lues with which the worthy Job was afflicted, and he supposes, after a confident and arrogant commentator of the name of Pineida, that the lues and leprosy are precisely the same disorder. Calmet is not a physician, neither is he a reasoner, but he is a citer of authorities; and in his vocation of commentator, citations are always substituted for reasons. When Astruc, in his history of lues, quotes authorities that the disorder came in fact from San Domingo, and that the Spaniards brought it from America, his citations are somewhat more conclusive.

There are two circumstances which, in my opinion, prove that lues originated in America; the first is, the multitude of authors, both medical and surgical, of the sixteenth century, who attest the fact; and the second is, the silence of all the physicians and all the poets of antiquity, who never were acquainted with this disease, and never had even a name for it. I here speak of the silence of physicians and of poets as equally demonstrative. The former, beginning with Hippocrates, would not have failed to describe this malady, to state its symptoms, to apply to it a name, and suggest some remedy. The poets, equally as malicious and sarcastic as physicians are studious and investigative, would have detailed in their satires, with minute particularity, all the symptoms and consequences of this dreadful disorder; you do not find, however, a single verse in Horace or Catullus, in Martial or Juvenal, which has the slightest reference to lues, although they expatiate on all the effects of debauchery with the utmost freedom and delight.

It is very certain that smallpox was not known to the Romans before the sixth century; that the American lues was not introduced into Europe until the fifteenth century; and that leprosy is as different from those two maladies, as palsy from St. Guy’s or St. Vitus’ dance.

Leprosy was a scabious disease of a dreadful character. The Jews were more subject to it than any other people living in hot climates, because they had neither linen, nor domestic baths. These people were so negligent of cleanliness and the decencies of life that their legislators were obliged to make a law to compel them even to wash their hands.

All that we gained in the end by engaging in the crusades, was leprosy; and of all that we had taken, that was the only thing that remained with us. It was necessary everywhere to build lazarettos, in which to confine the unfortunate victims of a disease at once pestilential and incurable.

Leprosy, as well as fanaticism and usury, had been a distinguishing characteristic of the Jews. These wretched people having no physicians, the priests took upon themselves the management and regulation of leprosy, and made it a concern of religion. This has occasioned some indiscreet and profane critics to remark that the Jews were no better than a nation of savages under the direction of their jugglers. Their priests in fact never cured leprosy, but they cut off from society those who were infected by it, and thus acquired a power of the greatest importance. Every man laboring under this disease was imprisoned, like a thief or a robber; and thus a woman who was desirous of getting rid of her husband had only to secure the sanction of the priest, and the unfortunate husband was shut up — it was the “lettre de cachet” of the day. The Jews and those by whom they were governed were so ignorant that they imagined the moth-holes in garments, and the mildew upon walls, to be the effects of leprosy. They actually conceived their houses and clothes to have leprosy; thus the people themselves, and their very rags and hovels, were all brought under the rod of the priesthood.

One proof that, at the time of the first introduction of the lues, there was no connection between that disorder and leprosy, is that the few lepers that remained at the conclusion of the fifteenth century were offended at any kind of comparison between themselves and those who were affected by lues.

Some of the persons thus affected were in the first instance sent to the hospital for lepers, but were received by them with indignation. The lepers presented a petition to be separated from them; as persons imprisoned for debt or affairs of honor claim a right not to be confounded with the common herd of criminals.

We have already observed that the Parliament of Paris, on March 6, 1496, issued an order, by which all persons laboring under lues, unless they were citizens of Paris, were enjoined to depart within twenty-four hours, under pain of being hanged. This order was neither Christian, legal, nor judicious; but it proves that lues was regarded as a new plague which had nothing in common with leprosy; as lepers were not hanged for residing in Paris, while those afflicted by lues were so.

Men may bring the leprosy on themselves by their uncleanliness and filth, just as is done by a species of animals to which the very lowest of the vulgar may too naturally be compared; but with respect to lues, it was a present made to America by nature. We have already reproached this same nature, at once so kind and so malicious, so sagacious and yet so blind, with defeating her own object by thus poisoning the source of life; and we still sincerely regret that we have found no solution of this dreadful difficulty.

We have seen elsewhere that man in general, one with another, or (as it is expressed) on the average, does not live above two-and-twenty years; and during these two-and-twenty years he is liable to two-and-twenty thousand evils, many of which are incurable.

Yet even in this dreadful state men still strut and figure on the stage of life; they make love at the hazard of destruction; and intrigue, carry on war, and form projects, just as if they were to live in luxury and delight for a thousand ages.

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