Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

NUDITY.

Why do we shut up a man or a woman whom we find naked in the streets? and why is no one offended at entirely naked statues, and with certain paintings of Jesus and of Magdalen which are to be seen in some of the churches? It is very likely that human beings existed for a considerable time without clothing. In more than one island and on the continent of America, people are still found who are ignorant of clothing.

The most civilized of them conceal the organs of generation by leaves, by interlaced rushes or mats, and by feathers. Whence this latter modesty? Is it the instinct of nature to provoke desire by the concealment of that which we are inclined to discover? Is it true that among nations somewhat more polished than the Jews and demi-Jews, there are entire sects who, when they worship God, deprive themselves of clothing. Such have been, it is said, the Adamites and the Abelians. They assembled, naked, to sing the praises of God. St. Epiphanius and St. Augustine say this, who, it is true, were not contemporaries, and who lived very distant from their country. But after all, this folly is possible, and is not more extraordinary or insane than a hundred other follies which have made the tour of the world, one after another.

We have seen, in the article “Emblem,” that the Mahometans still possess saints who are mad, and who go about naked as apes. It is very possible that crazy people have existed, who thought that it was more proper to present ourselves before the Deity in the state in which He has formed us, than under any disguise of our own invention. It is possible that these persons exposed themselves out of pure devotion. There are so few well-made people of either sex, that nudity may have inspired chastity, or rather disgust, instead of augmenting desire.

It is moreover asserted that the Abelians renounced marriage. If they abounded in youthful gallants and amorous maidens, they were the less comparable with St. Adhelm and the happy Robert D’Arbriselle, who lay with the most beautiful women, only in order to prove the strength of their continence. I confess, however, that it must be pleasant to witness a hundred naked Helens and Parises singing anthems, giving one another the kiss of peace, and performing the ceremonies of the agapæ.

All this proves that there is nothing so singular, so extravagant, or so superstitious, which has not been conceived by the head of man. Happy it is, when these follies do not trouble society, and make of it a scene of hate, of discord, and of fury. It is doubtless better to pray to God stark naked, than to soil His altars and the public places with human blood.

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