Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The reading of the whole poem of the late Cardinal Polignac has confirmed me in the idea which I formed of it when he read to me the first book. I am moreover astonished that amidst the dissipations of the world and the troubles in public life, he should have been able to write a long work in verse, in a foreign language; he, who could hardly have made four good lines in his own tongue. It seems to me that he often united the strength of Lucretius and the elegance of Virgil. I admire him, above all, for that facility with which he expresses such difficult things.

Perhaps, indeed, his “Anti-Lucretius” is too diffuse, and too little diversified, but he is here to be examined as a philosopher, not as a poet. It appears to me that so fine a mind as his should have done more justice to the morals of Epicurus, who, though he was a very bad natural philosopher, was, nevertheless, a very worthy man and always taught mildness, temperance, moderation, and justice, virtues which his example inculcated still more forcibly.

In the “Anti-Lucretius,” this great man is thus apostrophized:

Si virtutis eras avidus, rectique bonique

Tam sitiens, quid relligio tibi sancta nocebat?

Aspera quippe nimis visa est. Asperrima certe

Gaudenti vitiis, sed non virtutis amanti.

Ergo perfugium culpa, solisque benignus

Perjuris ac fœdifragis, Epicure, parabas.

Solam hominum faecem poteras, devotaque fureis

Corpora, etc.

If virtue, justice, goodness, were thy care,

Why didst thou tremble at Religion’s call? —

Whose laws are harsh to vicious minds alone —

Not to the spirit that delights in virtue.

No, no — the worst of men, the worst of crimes

Has thy solicitude — thy dearest aim

To find a refuge for the guilty soul, etc.

But Epicurus might reply to the cardinal: “If I had had the happiness of knowing, like you, the true God, of being born, like you, in a pure and holy religion, I should certainly not have rejected that revealed God, whose tenets were necessarily unknown to my mind, but whose morality was in my heart. I could not admit the existence of such gods as were announced to me by paganism. I was too rational to adore divinities, made to spring from a father and a mother, like mortals, and like them, to make war upon one another. I was too great a friend to virtue not to hate a religion which now invited to crime by the example of those gods themselves, and now sold for money the remission of the most horrible enormities. I beheld, on one hand, infatuated men, stained with vices, and seeking to purify themselves before impure gods; and on the other, knaves who boasted that they could justify the most perverse by initiating them in mysteries, by dropping bullock’s blood on their heads, or by dipping them in the waters of the Ganges. I beheld the most unjust wars undertaken with perfect sanctity, so soon as a ram’s liver was found unspotted, or a woman, with hair dishevelled and rolling eyes, uttered words of which neither she nor any one else knew the meaning. In short, I beheld all the countries of the earth stained with the blood of human victims, sacrificed by barbarous pontiffs to barbarous gods. I consider that I did well to detest such religions. Mine is virtue. I exhorted my disciples not to meddle with the affairs of this world, because they were horribly governed. A true Epicurean was mild, moderate, just, amiable — a man of whom no society had to complain — one who did not pay executioners to assassinate in public those who thought differently from himself. From hence to the holy religion in which you have been bred there is but one step. I destroyed the false gods, and, had I lived in your day, I would have recognized the true ones.”

Thus might Epicurus justify himself concerning his error. He might even entitle himself to pardon respecting the dogma of the immortality of the soul, by saying: “Pity me for having combated a truth which God revealed five hundred years after my birth. I thought like all the first Pagan legislators of the world; and they were all ignorant of this truth.”

I wish, then, that Cardinal Polignac had pitied while he condemned Epicurus; it would have been no detriment to fine poetry. With regard to physics it appears to me that the author has lost much time and many verses in refuting the declination of atoms and the other absurdities which swarm in the poem of Lucretius. This is employing artillery to destroy a cottage. Besides, why remove Lucretius’ reveries to substitute those of Descartes?

Cardinal Polignac has inserted in his poem some very fine lines on the discoveries of Newton; but in these, unfortunately for himself, he combats demonstrated truths. The philosophy of Newton is not to be discussed in verse; it is scarcely to be approached in prose. Founded altogether on geometry, the genius of poetry is not fit to assail it. The surface of these truths may be decorated with fine verses but to fathom them, calculation is requisite, and not verse.

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