Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LETTERS (MEN OF).

In the barbarous times when the Franks, Germans, Bretons, Lombards, and Spanish Mozarabians knew neither how to read nor write, we instituted schools and universities almost entirely composed of ecclesiastics, who, knowing only their own jargon, taught this jargon to those who would learn it. Academies were not founded until long after; the latter have despised the follies of the schools, but they have not always dared to oppose them, because there are follies which we respect when they are attached to respectable things.

Men of letters who have rendered the most service to the small number of thinking beings scattered over the earth are isolated scholars, true sages shut up in their closets, who have neither publicly disputed in the universities, nor said things by halves in the academies; and such have almost all been persecuted. Our miserable race is so created that those who walk in the beaten path always throw stones at those who would show them a new one.

Montesquieu says that the Scythians put out the eyes of their slaves that they might be more attentive to the making of their butter. It is thus that the Inquisition acts, and almost every one is blinded in the countries in which this monster reigns. In England people have had two eyes for more than a hundred years. The French are beginning to open one eye — but sometimes men in place will not even permit us to be one-eyed.

These miserable statesmen are like Doctor Balouard of the Italian comedy, who will only be served by the fool Harlequin, and who fears to have too penetrating a servant.

Compose odes in praise of Lord Superbus Fatus, madrigals for his mistress; dedicate a book of geography to his porter, and you will be well received. Enlighten men, and you will be crushed.

Descartes is obliged to quit his country; Gassendi is calumniated; Arnaud passes his days in exile; all the philosophers are treated as the prophets were among the Jews.

Who would believe that in the eighteenth century, a philosopher has been dragged before the secular tribunals, and treated as impious by reasoning theologians, for having said that men could not practise the arts if they had no hands? I expect that they will soon condemn to the galleys the first who shall have the insolence to say that a man could not think if he had no head; for a learned bachelor will say to him, the soul is a pure spirit, the head is only matter; God can place the soul in the heel as well as in the brain; therefore I denounce you as a blasphemer.

The great misfortune of a man of letters is not perhaps being the object of the jealousy of his brothers, the victim of cabals, and the contempt of the powerful of the world — it is being judged by fools. Fools sometimes go very far, particularly when fanaticism is joined to folly, and folly to the spirit of vengeance. Further, the great misfortune of a man of letters is generally to hold to nothing. A citizen buys a little situation, and is maintained by his fellow-citizens. If any injustice is done to him, he soon finds defenders. The literary man is without aid; he resembles the flying fish; if he rises a little, the birds devour him; if he dives, the fishes eat him up. Every public man pays tribute to malignity; but he is repaid in deniers and honors.

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