Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Have you not sometimes seen, in a village, Pierre Aoudri and his wife Peronelle striving to go before their neighbors in a procession? “Our grandfathers,” say they, “rung the bells before those who elbow us now had so much as a stable of their own.”

The vanity of Pierre Aoudri, his wife, and his neighbors knows no better. They grow warm. The quarrel is an important one, for honor is in question. Proofs must now be found. Some learned churchsinger discovers an old rusty iron pot, marked with an A, the initial of the brazier’s name who made the pot. Pierre Aoudri persuades himself that it was the helmet of one of his ancestors. So Cæsar descended from a hero and from the goddess Venus. Such is the history of nations; such is, very nearly, the knowledge of early antiquity.

The learned of Armenia demonstrate that the terrestrial paradise was in their country. Some profound Swedes demonstrate that it was somewhere about Lake Wenner, which exhibits visible remains of it. Some Spaniards, too, demonstrate that it was in Castile. While the Japanese, the Chinese, the Tartars, the Indians, the Africans, and the Americans, are so unfortunate as not even to know that a terrestrial paradise once existed at the sources of the Pison, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, or, which is the same thing, at the sources of the Guadalquivir, the Guadiana, the Douro, and the Ebro. For of Pison we easily make Phæris, and of Phæris we easily make the Bætis, which is the Guadalquivir. The Gihon, it is plain, is the Guadiana, for they both begin with a G. And the Ebro, which is in Catalonia, is unquestionably the Euphrates, both beginning with an E.

But a Scotchman comes, and in his turn demonstrates that the garden of Eden was at Edinburgh, which has retained its name; and it is not unlikely that, in a few centuries, this opinion will prevail.

The whole globe was once burned, says a man conversant with ancient and modern history; for I have read in a journal that charcoal quite black has been found a hundred feet deep, among mountains covered with wood. And it is also suspected that there were charcoal-burners in this place.

Phaeton’s adventure sufficiently shows that everything has been boiled, even to the bottom of the sea. The sulphur of Mount Vesuvius incontrovertibly proves that the banks of the Rhine, the Danube, the Ganges, the Nile, and the Great Yellow River, are nothing but sulphur, nitre, and oil of guiacum, which only wait for the moment of explosion to reduce the earth to ashes, as it has already once been. The sand on which we walk is an evident proof that the universe has vitrified, and that our globe is nothing but a ball of glass — like our ideas.

But if fire has changed our globe, water has produced still more wonderful revolutions. For it is plain that the sea, the tides of which in our latitudes rise eight feet, has produced the mountains, which are sixteen to seventeen thousand feet high. This is so true that some learned men, who never were in Switzerland, found a large vessel there, with all its rigging, petrified, either on Mount St. Gothard or at the bottom of a precipice — it is not positively known which; but it is quite certain that it was there. Therefore, men were originally fishes — Q. E. D.

Coming down to antiquity less ancient let us speak of the times when most barbarous nations quitted their own countries to seek others which were not much better. It is true, if there be anything true in ancient history, that there were Gaulish robbers who went to plunder Rome in the time of Camillus. Other robbers from Gaul had, it is said, passed through Illyria to sell their services as murderers to other murderers in the neighborhood of Thrace: they bartered their blood for bread, and at length settled in Galatia. But who were these Gauls? Were they natives of Berry and Anjou? They were, doubtless, some of those Gauls whom the Romans called Cisalpine, and whom we call Transalpine — famishing mountaineers, inhabiting the Alps and the Apennines. The Gauls of the Seine and the Marne did not then know that Rome existed, and could not resolve to cross Mont Cenis, as was afterwards done by Hannibal, to steal the wardrobes of the Roman senators, whose only movables were a gown of bad grey cloth, decorated with a band, the color of bull’s blood, two small knobs of ivory, or rather dog’s bone, fixed to the arms of a wooden chair, and a piece of rancid bacon in their kitchens.

The Gauls, who were dying of hunger, finding nothing to eat at home, went to try their fortune farther off; as the Romans afterwards did when they ravaged so many countries, and as the people of the North did at a later period when they destroyed the Roman Empire.

And whence have we received our vague information respecting these emigrations? From some lines written at a venture by the Romans; for, as for the Celts, Welsh, or Gauls, whom some would have us believe to have been eloquent, neither they nor their bards could at that time read or write.

But, to infer from these that the Gauls or Celts, afterwards conquered by a few of Cæsar’s legions, then by a horde of Goths, then by a horde of Burgundians, and lastly by a horde of Sicambri, under one Clodovic, had before subjugated the whole earth, and given their names and their laws to Asia, seems to me to be inferring a great deal. The thing, however, is not mathematically impossible; and if it be demonstrated, I assent: it would be very uncivil to refuse to the Welsh what is granted to the Tartars.

§ II.
On the Antiquity of Usages.

Who have been the greatest fools, and who the most ancient fools? Ourselves or the Egyptians, or the Syrians or some other people? What was signified by our misletoe? Who first consecrated a cat? It must have been he who was the most troubled with mice. In what nation did they first dance under the boughs of trees in honor of the gods? Who first made processions, and placed fools, with caps and bells, at the head of them? Who first carried a priapus through the streets, and fixed one like a knocker at the door? What Arab first took it into his head to hang his wife’s drawers out at the window, the day after his marriage?

All nations have formerly danced at the time of the new moon. Did they then give one another the word? No; no more than they did to rejoice at the birth of a son, or to mourn, or seem to mourn, at the death of a father. Every one is very glad to see the moon again, after having lost her for several nights. There are a hundred usages so natural to all men, that it cannot be said the Biscayans taught them to the Phrygians, or the Phrygians to the Biscayans.

Fire and water have been used in temples. This custom needed no introduction. A priest did not choose always to have his hands dirty. Fire was necessary to cook the immolated carcasses, and to burn slips of resinous wood and spices, in order to combat the odor of the sacerdotal shambles.

But the mysterious ceremonies which it is so difficult to understand, the usages which nature does not teach — in what place, when, where, how, why, were they invented? Who communicated them to other nations? It is not likely that it should, at the same time, have entered the head of an Arab and of an Egyptian to cut off one end of his son’s prepuce; nor that a Chinese and a Persian should, both at once, have resolved to castrate little boys.

It can never have been that two fathers, in different countries, have, at the same moment, formed the idea of cutting their sons’ throats to please God. Some nations must have communicated to others their follies, serious, ridiculous, or barbarous. In this antiquity men love to search, to discover, if possible, the first madman and the first scoundrel who perverted human nature.

But how are we to know whether Jehu, in Phœnicia, by immolating his son, was the inventor of sacrifices of human blood? How can we be assured that Lycaon was the first who ate human flesh, when we do not know who first began to eat fowls?

We seek to know the origin of ancient feasts. The most ancient and the finest is that of the emperors of China tilling and sowing the ground, together with their first mandarins. The second is that of the Thesmophoria at Athens. To celebrate at once agriculture and justice, to show men how necessary they both are, to unite the curb of law with the art which is the source of all wealth — nothing is more wise, more pious, or more useful.

There are old allegorical feasts to be found everywhere, as those of the return of the seasons. It was not necessary that one nation should come from afar off to teach another that marks of joy and friendship for one’s neighbors may be given on the first day of the year. This custom has been that of every people. The Saturnalia of the Romans are better known than those of the Allobroges and the Picts; because there are many Roman writings and monuments remaining, but there are none of the other nations of western Europe.

The feast of Saturn was the feast of Time. He had four wings; time flies quickly — his two faces evidently signifying the concluded and the commencing year. The Greeks said that he had devoured his father and that he devoured his children. No allegory is more reasonable. Time devours the past and the present, and will devour the future.

Why seek for vain and gloomy explanations of a feast so universal, so gay, and so well known? When I look well into antiquity, I do not find a single annual festival of a melancholy character; or, at least, if they begin with lamentations, they end in dancing and revelry. If tears are shed for Adoni or Adonai, whom we call Adonis, he is soon resuscitated, and rejoicing takes place. It is the same with the feasts of Isis, Osiris, and Horus. The Greeks, too, did as much for Ceres as for Prosperine. The death of the serpent Python was celebrated with gayety. A feast day and a day of joy were one and the same thing. At the feasts of Bacchus this joy was only carried too far.

I do not find one general commemoration of an unfortunate event. The institutors of the feasts would have shown themselves to be devoid of common sense if they had established at Athens a celebration of the battle lost at Chæronea, and at Rome another of the battle of Cannæ.

They perpetuated the remembrance of what might encourage men, and not of that which might fill them with cowardice or despair. This is so true that fables were invented for the purpose of instituting feasts. Castor and Pollux did not fight for the Romans near Lake Regillus; but, at the end of three or four hundred years, some priests said so, and all the people danced. Hercules did not deliver Greece from a hydra with seven heads; but Hercules and his hydra were sung.

§ III.
Festivals Founded on Chimeras.

I do not know that there was, in all antiquity, a single festival founded on an established fact. It has been elsewhere remarked how extremely ridiculous those schoolmen appear who say to you, with a magisterial air: “Here is an ancient hymn in honor of Apollo, who visited Claros; therefore Apollo went to Claros; a chapel was erected to Perseus; therefore he delivered Andromeda.” Poor men! You should rather say, therefore there was no Andromeda.

But what, then, will become of that learned antiquity which preceded the olympiads? It will become what it is — an unknown time, a time lost, a time of allegories and lies, a time regarded with contempt by the wise, and profoundly discussed by blockheads, who like to float in a void, like Epicurus’ atoms.

There were everywhere days of penance, days of expiation in the temples; but these days were never called by a name answering to that of feasts. Every feast-day was sacred to diversion; so true is this that the Egyptian priests fasted on the eve in order to eat the more on the morrow — a custom which our monks have preserved. There were, no doubt, mournful ceremonies. It was not customary to dance the Greek brawl while interring or carrying to the funeral pile a son or a daughter; this was a public ceremony, but certainly not a feast.

§ IV.
On the Antiquity of Feasts, Which, It has been Asserted, were Always Mournful.

Men of ingenuity, profound searchers into antiquity, who would know how the earth was made a hundred thousand years ago, if genius could discover it, have asserted that mankind, reduced to a very small number in both continents, and still terrified at the innumerable revolutions which this sad globe had undergone, perpetuated the remembrance of their calamities by dismal and mournful commemorations.

“Every feast,” say they, “was a day of horror, instituted to remind men that their fathers had been destroyed by the fires of the volcanoes, by rocks falling from the mountains, by eruptions of the sea, by the teeth and claws of wild beasts, by war, pestilence and famine.”

Then we are not made as men were then. There was never so much rejoicing in London as after the plague and the burning of the whole city in the reign of Charles II. We made songs while the massacres of Bartholomew were still going on. Some pasquinades have been preserved which were made the day after the assassination of Coligni; there was printed in Paris, Passio Domini nostri Gaspardi Colignii secundum Bartholomæum.

It has a thousand times happened that the sultan who reigns in Constantinople has made his eunuchs and odalisks dance in apartments stained with the blood of his brothers and his viziers. What do the people of Paris do on the very day that they are apprised of the loss of a battle and the death of a hundred brave officers? They run to the play and the opera.

What did they when the wife of Marshal d’Ancre was given up in the Grève to the barbarity of her persecutors? When Marshal de Marillac was dragged to execution in a wagon, by virtue of a paper signed by robed lackeys in Cardinal de Richelieu’s ante-chamber? When a lieutenant-general of the army, a foreigner, who had shed his blood for the state, condemned by the cries of his infuriated enemies, was led to the scaffold in a dung-cart, with a gag in his mouth? When a young man of nineteen, full of candor, courage and modesty, but very imprudent, was carried to the most dreadful of punishments? They sang vaudevilles. Such is man, at least man on the banks of the Seine. Such has he been at all times, for the same reason that rabbits have always had hair, and larks feathers.

§ V.
On the Origin of the Arts.

What! we would know the precise theology of Thoth, Zerdusht, or Sanchoniathon, although we know not who invented the shuttle. The first weaver, the first mason, the first smith were undoubtedly great geniuses; yet no account has been made of them. And why? Because not one of them invented a perfect art. He who first hollowed the trunk of an oak for the purpose of crossing a river did not build galleys; nor did they who piled up unhewn stones, and laid pieces of wood across them, dream of the pyramids. Everything is done by degrees, and the glory belongs to no one.

All was done in the dark, until philosophers, aided by geometry, taught men to proceed with accuracy and safety.

It was left for Pythagoras, on his return from his travels, to show workmen the way to make an exact square. He took three rules: one three, one four, and one five feet long, and with these he made a right-angled triangle. Moreover, it was found that the side 5 furnished a square just equal to the two squares produced by the sides 4 and 3; a method of importance in all regular works.

This is the famous theorem which he had brought from India, and which we have elsewhere said was known in China long before, according to the relation of the Emperor Cam-hi. Long before Plato, the Greeks made use of a single geometrical figure to double the square.

Archytas and Erastothenes invented a method of doubling the cube, which was impracticable by ordinary geometry, and which would have done honor to Archimedes.

This Archimedes found the method of calculating exactly the quantity of alloy mixed with gold; for gold had been worked for ages before the fraud of the workers could be discovered. Knavery existed long before mathematics. The pyramids, built with the square, and corresponding exactly with the four cardinal points, sufficiently show that geometry was known in Egypt from time immemorial; and yet it is proved that Egypt is quite a new country.

Without philosophy we should be little above the animals that dig or erect their habitations, prepare their food in them, take care of their little ones in their dwellings, and have besides the good fortune, which we have not, of being born ready clothed. Vitruvius, who had travelled in Gaul and Spain, tells us that in his time the houses were built of a sort of mortar, covered with thatch or oak shingles, and that the people did not make use of tiles. What was the time of Vitruvius? It was that of Augustus. The arts had scarcely yet reached the Spaniards, who had mines of gold and silver; or the Gauls, who had fought for ten years against Cæsar.

The same Vitruvius informs us that in the opulent and ingenious town of Marseilles, which traded with so many nations, the roofs were only of a kind of clay mixed with straw.

He says that the Phrygians dug themselves habitations in the ground; they stuck poles round the hollow, brought them together at the top, and laid earth over them. The Hurons and the Algonquins are better lodged. This gives us no very lofty idea of Troy, built by the gods, and the palace of Priam:

Apparet domus intus, et atria longa patescunt;

Apparent Priami et veterum penetralia regum.

A mighty breach is made; the rooms concealed

Appear, and all the palace is revealed —

The halls of audience, and of public state.

— Dryden.

To be sure, the people are not lodged like kings; huts are to be seen near the Vatican and near Versailles. Besides, industry rises and falls among nations by a thousand revolutions:

Et campus ubi Troja fuit.

. . . . the plain where Troy once stood.

We have our arts, the ancients had theirs. We could not make a galley with three benches of oars, but we can build ships with a hundred pieces of cannon. We cannot raise obelisks a hundred feet high in a single piece, but our meridians are more exact. The byssus is unknown to us, but the stuffs of Lyons are more valuable. The Capitol was worthy of admiration, the church of St. Peter is larger and more beautiful. The Louvre is a masterpiece when compared with the palace of Persepolis, the situation and ruins of which do but tell of a vast monument to barbaric wealth. Rameau’s music is probably better than that of Timotheus; and there is not a picture presented at Paris in the Hall of Apollo (salon d’Apollon) which does not excel the paintings dug out of Herculaneum.

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