Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

The most ancient numberings that history has left us are those of the Israelites, which are indubitable, since they are extracted from the Jewish books. We believe that we must not reckon as a numbering the flight of the Israelites to the number of six hundred thousand men on foot, because the text specifies them not tribe by tribe; it adds, that an innumerable troop of people gathered together and joined them. This is only a relation.

The first circumstantial numbering is that which we see in the book of the “Viedaber,” which we call Numbers. By the reckoning which Moses and Aaron made of the people in the desert, we find, in counting all the tribes except that of Levi, six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty men capable of bearing arms; and if we add the tribe of Levi, supposing it equal in number to the others, the strong with the weak, we shall have six hundred and fifty-three thousand nine hundred and thirty-five men, to which we must add an equal number of old women and children, which will compose two millions six hundred and fifteen thousand seven hundred and forty-two persons, who departed from Egypt.

When David, after the example of Moses, ordered the numbering of all the people, he found eight hundred thousand warriors of the tribes of Israel, and five hundred thousand of that of Judah, according to the Book of Kings; but according to Chronicles they reckoned eleven hundred thousand warriors in Israel; and less than five hundred thousand in Judah.

The Book of Kings formally excludes Levi and Benjamin, and counts them not. If therefore we join these two tribes to the others in their proportion, the total of the warriors will amount to nineteen hundred and twenty thousand. This is a great number for the little country of Judæa, the half of which is composed of frightful rocks and caverns: but it was a miracle.

It is not for us to enter into the reasons for which the Sovereign Arbiter of kings and people punished David for an operation which he himself commanded to Moses. It still less becomes us to seek why God, being irritated against David, punished the people for being numbered. The prophet Gad ordered the king on the part of God to choose war, famine, or pestilence. David accepted the pestilence, and seventy thousand Jews died of it in three days.

St. Ambrosius, in his book of “Repentance,” and St. Augustine in his book against Faustus, acknowledged that pride and ambition led David to make this calculation. Their opinion is of great weight, and we can certainly submit to their decision by extinguishing all the deceitful lights of our own minds.

Scripture relates a new numbering in the time of Esdras, when the Jewish nation returned from captivity. “All this multitude (say equally Esdras and Nehemiah, being as one man) amounted to forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty persons.” They were all named by families, and they counted the number of Jews of each family, and the number of priests. But in these two authors there are not only differences between the numbers and the names of families, but we further see an error of calculation in both. By the calculation of Esdras, instead of forty-two thousand men, after computation we find but twenty-nine thousand eight hundred and eighteen; and by that of Nehemiah we find thirty-one thousand and eighty-nine.

We must consult the commentators on this apparent mistake, particularly Dom Calmet, who adding to one of these calculations what is wanting to the other, and further adding what is wanted to both of them, solves all the difficulty. To the computations of Esdras and Nehemiah, as reckoned by Calmet, are wanting ten thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven persons; but we find them in families which could not give their genealogy; besides, if there were any fault of the copyist, it could not destroy the veracity of the divinely inspired text.

It is to be believed that the great neighboring kings of Palestine made numberings of their people as frequently as possible. Herodotus gives us the amount of all those who followed Xerxes, without including his naval forces. He reckons seventeen hundred thousand men, and he pretends, that to arrive at this computation, they were sent in divisions of ten thousand into a place which would only hold this number of men closely crowded. This method is very faulty, for by crowding a little less, each division of ten thousand might easily contain only from eight to nine. Further, this method is not at all soldier-like, and it would have been much more easy to have counted the whole by making the soldiers march in rank and file.

It should further be observed, how difficult it was to support seventeen hundred thousand men in the country of Greece, which they went to conquer. We may very well doubt of this number, and the manner of reckoning it; of the whipping given to the Hellespont; and of the sacrifice of a thousand oxen made to Minerva by a Persian king, who knew her not, and who adored the sun alone as the only emblem of the Divinity. Besides, the numbering of seventeen hundred thousand men is not complete, even by the confession of Herodotus, since Xerxes further carried with him all the people of Thrace and Macedonia, whom he forced, he says, to follow him, apparently the sooner to starve his army. We should therefore do here what all wise men do in reading ancient, and even modern histories — suspend our judgment and doubt much.

The first numbering which we have of a profane nation is that made by Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. He found, says Titus Livius, eighty thousand combatants, all Roman citizens: that implies three hundred and twenty thousand citizens at least, as many old people, women and children, to which we must add at least twenty thousand domestics, slaves and freemen.

Now we may reasonably doubt whether the little Roman state contained this number. Romulus only reigned (if we may call him king) over about three thousand bandits, assembled in a little town between the mountains. This town was the worst land of Italy. The circuit of all his country was not three thousand paces. Servius was the sixth chief or king of this rising people. The rule of Newton, which is indubitable for elective kingdoms, gives twenty-one years’ reign to each king, and by that contradicts all the ancient historians, who have never observed the order of time, nor given any precise date. The five kings of Rome must have reigned about a hundred years.

It is certainly not in the order of nature that an ungrateful soil, which was not five leagues in length or three in breadth, and which must have lost many of its inhabitants in its almost continual little wars, could be peopled with three hundred and forty thousand souls. There is not half the number in the same territory at present, when Rome is the metropolis of the Christian world; when the affluence of foreigners and the ambassadors of so many nations must serve to people the towns; when gold flows from Poland, Hungary, half of Germany, Spain, and France, by a thousand channels into the purse of the treasury, and must further facilitate population, if other causes intercept it.

As the history of Rome was not written until more than five hundred years after its foundation, it would not be at all surprising if the historians had liberally given Servius Tullius eighty thousand warriors instead of eight thousand, through false zeal for their country. Their zeal would have been much more judicious if they had confessed the weak commencement of their republic. It is much more noble to be raised from so poor an origin to so much greatness, than to have had double the soldiers of Alexander to conquer about fifteen leagues of country in four hundred years.

The census was never taken except of Roman citizens. It is pretended that under Augustus it amounted to four millions one hundred and thirty-seven thousand in the year 29 before our vulgar era, according to Tillemont, who is very exact, and Dion Cassius, who is no less so.

Lawrence Echard admits but one numbering, of four millions one hundred and thirty-seven thousand men, in the year 14 of our era. The same Echard speaks of a general numbering of the empire for the first year of the same era; but he quotes no Roman author, nor specifies any calculation of the number of citizens. Tillemont does not speak in any way of this numbering.

We have quoted Tacitus and Suetonius, but to very little purpose. The census of which Suetonius speaks is not a numbering of citizens; it is only a list of those to whom the public furnished corn. Tacitus only speaks, in book ii., of a census established among the Gauls, for the purpose of raising more tribute on each head. Augustus never made a calculation of the other subjects of his empire, because they paid not the poll-tax, which he wished to establish in Gaul.

Tacitus says that Augustus had a memoir, written in his own hand, which contained the revenues of the empire, the fleets and contributary kingdoms. He speaks not of any numbering. Dion Cassius speaks of a census, but he specifies no number.

Josephus, in his “Antiquities,” says that in the year 759 of Rome — the time answering to the eleventh year of our era — Cyrenius, then constituted governor of Syria, caused a list to be made of all the property of the Jews, which caused a revolt. This has no relation to a general numbering, and merely proves that this Cyrenius was not governor of Judæa — which was then a little province of Syria — until ten years after, and not at the birth of our Saviour.

These seem to me to be all the principal passages that we can collect in profane histories, touching the numberings attributed to Augustus. If we refer to them, Jesus Christ would be born under the government of Varus, and not under that of Cyrenius; and there could have been no universal numbering. But St. Luke, whose authority should prevail over that of Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dion Cassius, and all the writers of Rome — St. Luke affirms positively that there was a universal numbering of all the earth, and that Cyrenius was governor of Judæa. We must therefore refer solely to him, without even seeking to reconcile him with Flavius Josephus, or with any other historian. As to the rest, neither the New nor the Old Testament has been given to us to enlighten points of history, but to announce salutary truths, before which all events and opinions should vanish. It is thus that we always reply to the false calculations, contradictions, absurdities, enormous faults of geography, chronology, physics, and even common sense, with which philosophers tell us the Holy Scripture is filled; we cease not to reply that there is here no question of reason, but of faith and piety.

§ II.

With regard to the numbers of the moderns, kings fear not at present that a doctor Gad should propose to them on the part of God, either famine, war, or pestilence, to punish them for wishing to know the amount of their subjects. None of them know it. We conjecture and guess, and always possibly within a few millions of men.

I have carried the number of inhabitants which compose the empire of Russia to twenty-four millions, in the statements which have been sent to me; but I have not guaranteed this valuation, because I know very little about it. I believe that Germany possessed as many people, reckoning the Hungarians. If I am deceived by one or two millions, we know it is a trifle in such a case.

I beg pardon of the King of Spain, if I have only awarded him seven millions of subjects in our continent. It is a very small number; but Don Ustaris, employed in the ministry, gives him no more. We reckon from about nine to ten millions of free beings in the three kingdoms of Great Britain. In France we count between sixteen and twenty millions. This is a proof that Doctor Gad has nothing wherewith to reproach the ministry of France.

As to the capital towns, opinions are further divided. According to some calculators, Paris has seven hundred thousand inhabitants, and according to others five hundred thousand. It is thus with London, Constantinople, and Grand Cairo.

As to the subjects of the pope, they will make a crowd in paradise, but the multitude is moderate on earth. Why so? — because they are subjects of the pope. Would Cato the Censor have ever believed the Romans would come to that pass?

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