Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ORACLES.

§ I.

After the sect of the Pharisees among the Jews had become acquainted with the devil, some reasoners among them began to entertain the idea that the devil and his companions inspired, among all other nations, the priests and statues that delivered oracles. The Sadducees had no belief in such beings. They admitted neither angels nor demons. It appears that they were more philosophic than the Pharisees, and consequently less calculated to obtain influence and credit with the people.

The devil was the great agent with the Jewish populace in the time of Gamaliel, John the Baptist, James Oblia, and Jesus his brother, who was our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we perceive that the devil transports Jesus sometimes into the wilderness, sometimes to the pinnacle of the temple, and sometimes to a neighboring hill, from which might be discovered all the kingdoms of the world; the devil takes possession, when he pleases, of the persons of boys, girls, and animals.

The Christians, although mortal enemies of the Pharisees, adopted all that the Pharisees had imagined of the devil; as the Jews had long before introduced among themselves the customs and ceremonies of the Egyptians. Nothing is so common as to imitate the practices of enemies, and to use their weapons.

In a short time the fathers of the church ascribed to the devil all the religions which divided the earth, all pretended prodigies, all great events, comets, plagues, epilepsies, scrofula, etc. The poor devil, who was supposed to be roasting in a hole under the earth, was perfectly astonished to find himself master of the world. His power afterwards increased wonderfully from the institution of monks.

The motto or device of all these newcomers was, “Give me money and I will deliver you from the devil.” But both the celestial and terrestrial power of these gentry received at length a terrible check from the hand of one of their own brotherhood, Luther, who, quarreling with them about some beggarly trifle, disclosed to the world all the trick and villainy of their mysteries. Hondorf, an eye-witness, tells us that the reformed party having expelled the monks from a convent at Eisenach in Thuringia, found in it a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, contrived with such art that, when offerings were placed upon the altar, the Virgin and Child bent their heads in sign of grateful acknowledgment, but turned their backs on those who presented themselves with empty hands.

In England the case was much worse. When by order of Henry VIII., a judicial visitation took place of all the convents, half of the nuns were found in a state of pregnancy; and this, at least it may be supposed, was not by the operation of the devil. Bishop Burnet relates that in a hundred and forty-four convents the depositions taken by the king’s commissioners attested abominations which those of Sodom and Gomorrah did not even approach. In fact, the English monks might naturally be expected to be more dissolute than the inhabitants of Sodom, as they were richer. They were in possession of the best lands in the kingdom. The territory of Sodom and Gomorrah, on the contrary, produced neither grain, fruit, nor pulse; and being moreover deficient even in water fit to drink, could be neither more nor less than a frightful desert, inhabited by miserable wretches too much occupied in satisfying their absolute necessities to have much time to devote to pleasures.

In short, these superb asylums of laziness having been suppressed by act of parliament, all the instruments of their pious frauds were exposed in the public places; the famous crucifix of Brocksley, which moved and marched like a puppet; phials of a red liquid which was passed off for blood shed by the statues of saints when they were dissatisfied with the court; candlesticks of tinned iron, in which the lighted candles were carefully placed so as to make the people believe they were the same candles that were always burning; speaking tubes — sarbacans — which communicated between the sacristy and the roof of the church, and by which celestial voices were occasionally heard by apparently devotees, who were paid for hearing them; in short, everything that was ever invented by knavery to impose upon imbecility.

Many sensible persons who lived at this period, being perfectly convinced that the monks, and not the devils, had employed all these pious stratagems, began to entertain the idea that the case had been very similar with the religions of antiquity; that all the oracles and all the miracles so highly vaunted by ancient times had been merely the tricks of charlatans; that the devil had never had anything to do with such matters; and that the simple fact was, that the Greek, Roman, Syrian, and Egyptian priests had been still more expert than our modern monks.

The devil, therefore, thus lost much of his credit; insomuch that at length the honest Bekker, whose article you may consult, wrote his tiresome book against the devil, and proved by a hundred arguments that he had no existence. The devil himself made no answer to him, but the ministers of the holy gospel, as you have already seen, did answer him; they punished the honest author for having divulged their secret, and took away his living; so that Bekker fell a victim to the nullity of Beelzebub.

It was the lot of Holland to produce the most formidable enemies of the devil. The physician Van Dale — a humane philosopher, a man of profound learning, a most charitable citizen, and one whose naturally bold mind became proportionately bolder, in consequence of his intrepidity being founded on virtue — undertook at length the task of enlightening mankind, always enslaved by ancient errors, and always spreading the bandage that covers their eyes, until at last some powerful flash of light discovers to them a corner of truth of which the greater number are completely unworthy. He proved, in a work abounding in the most recondite learning, that the devils had never delivered a single oracle, had never performed a single prodigy, and had never mingled in human affairs at all; and that there never had in reality been any demons but those impostors who had deceived their fellow men. The devil should never ridicule or despise a sensible physician. Those who know something of nature are very formidable enemies to all juggling performers of prodigies. If the devil would be advised by me, he would always address himself to the faculty of theology, and never to the faculty of medicine.

Van Dale proved, then, by numberless authorities, not merely that the Pagan oracles were mere tricks of the priests, but that these knaveries, consecrated all over the world, had not ceased at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, as was piously and generally thought to be the case. Nothing was more true, more clear, more decidedly demonstrated, than this doctrine announced by the physician Van Dale; and there is no man of education and respectability who now calls it in question.

The work of Van Dale is not, perhaps, very methodical, but it is one of the most curious works that ever came from the press. For, from the gross forgeries of the pretended Histape and the Sibyls; from the apocryphal history of the voyage of Simon Barjonas to Rome, and the compliments which Simon the magician sent him through the medium of his dog; from the miracles of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, and especially the letter which that saint wrote to the devil, and which was safely delivered according to its address, down to the miracles of the reverend fathers, the Jesuits, and the reverend fathers, the Capuchins, nothing is forgotten. The empire of imposture and stupidity is completely developed before the eyes of all who can read; but they, alas! are only a small number.

Far indeed was that empire, at that period, from being destroyed in Italy, France, Spain, the states of Austria, and more especially in Poland, where the Jesuits then bore absolute sway. Diabolical possessions and false miracles still inundated one-half of besotted and barbarized Europe. The following account is given by Van Dale of a singular oracle that was delivered in his time at Terni, in the States of the Pope, about the year 1650; and the narrative of which was printed at Venice by order of the government:

A hermit of the name of Pasquale, having heard that Jacovello, a citizen of Terni, was very covetous and rich, came to Terni to offer up his devotions in the church frequented by the opulent miser, soon formed an acquaintance with him, flattered him in his ruling passion, and persuaded him that it was a service highly acceptable to God to take as much care as possible of money; it was indeed expressly enjoined in the gospel, as the negligent servant who had not put out his lord’s money to interest at five hundred per cent was thrown into outer darkness.

In the conversations which the hermit had with Jacovello, he frequently entertained him with plausible discourses held by crucifixes and by a quantity of Italian Virgin Marys. Jacovello agreed that the statues of saints sometimes spoke to men, and told him that he should believe himself one of the elect if ever he could have the happiness to hear the image of a saint speak.

The friendly Pasquale replied that he had some hope he might be able to give him that satisfaction in a very little time; that he expected every day from Rome a death’s head, which the pope had presented to one of his brother hermits; and that this head spoke quite as distinctly and sensibly as the trees of Dodona, or even the ass of Balaam. He showed him the identical head, in fact, four days after this conversation. He requested of Jacovello the key of a small cave and an inner chamber, that no person might possibly be a witness of the awful mystery. The hermit, having introduced a tube from this cave into the head, and made every other suitable arrangement, went to prayer with his friend Jacovello, and the head at that moment uttered the following words: “Jacovello, I will recompense thy zeal. I announce to thee a treasure of a hundred thousand crowns under a yew tree in thy garden. But thou shalt die by a sudden death if thou makest any attempt to obtain this treasure until thou hast produced before me a pot containing coin amounting to ten gold marks.”

Jacovello ran speedily to his coffers and placed before the oracle a pot containing the ten marks. The good hermit had had the precaution to procure a similar vessel which he had filled with sand, and he dexterously substituted that for the pot of Jacovello, on his turning his back, and then left the pious miser with one death’s head more, and ten gold marks less, than he had before. Nearly such is the way in which all oracles have been delivered, beginning with those of Jupiter Ammon, and ending with that of Trophonius.

One of the secrets of the priests of antiquity, as it is of our own, was confession in the mysteries. It was by this that they gained correct and particular information about the affairs of families, and qualified themselves in a great measure to give pertinent and suitable replies to those who came to consult them. To this subject applies the anecdote which Plutarch has rendered so celebrated. A priest once urging an initiated person to confession, that person said: “To whom should I confess?” “To God,” replied the priest. “Begone then, man,” said the desired penitent; “begone, and leave me alone with God.”

It would be almost endless to recount all the interesting facts and narratives with which Van Dale has enriched his book. Fontenelle did not translate it. But he extracted from it what he thought would be most suitable to his countrymen, who love sprightly anecdote and observation better than profound knowledge. He was eagerly read by what in France is called good company; and Van Dale, who had written in Latin and Greek, had been read only by the learned. The rough diamond of Van Dale shone with exquisite brilliancy after the cutting and polish of Fontenelle: the success of the work was such that the fanatics became alarmed. Notwithstanding all Fontenelle’s endeavors to soften down the expressions of Van Dale, and his explaining himself sometimes with the license of a Norman, he was too well understood by the monks, who never like to be told that their brethren have been impostors.

A certain Jesuit of the name of Baltus, born near Messina, one of that description of learned persons who know how to consult old books, and to falsify and cite them, although after all nothing to the purpose, took the part of the devil against Van Dale and Fontenelle. The devil could not have chosen a more tiresome and wretched advocate; his name is now known solely from the honor he had of writing against two celebrated men who advocated a good cause.

Baltus likewise, in his capacity of Jesuit, caballed with no little perseverance and bitterness on the occasion, in union with his brethren, who at that time were as high in credit and influence as they have since been plunged deep in ignominy. The Jansenists, on their part, more impassionate and exasperated than even the Jesuits, clamored in a still louder tone than they did. In short, all the fanatics were convinced that it would be all over with the Christian religion, if the devil were not supported in his rights.

In the course of time the books of Jansenists and Jesuits have all sunk into oblivion. That of Van Dale still remains for men of learning, and that of Fontenelle for men of wit. With respect to the devil, he resembles both Jesuits and Jansenists, and is losing credit from day to day.

§ II.

Some curious and surprising histories of oracles, which it was thought could be ascribed only to the power of genii, made the Christians think they were delivered by demons, and that they had ceased at the coming of Christ. They were thus enabled to save the time and trouble that would have been required by an investigation of the facts; and they thought to strengthen the religion which informed them of the existence of demons by referring to those beings such events.

The histories however that were circulated on the subject of oracles are exceedingly suspicious. That of Thamus, to which Eusebius gives credit, and which Plutarch alone relates, is followed in the same history by another story so ridiculous, that that would be sufficient to throw discredit upon it; but it is, besides, incapable of any reasonable interpretation. If this great Pan were a demon, can we suppose the demons incapable of communicating the event of his death to one another without employing Thamus about it? If the great Pan were Jesus Christ, how came it that not a single Pagan was undeceived with respect to his religion, and converted to the belief that this same Pan was in fact Jesus Christ who died in Judæa, if God Himself compelled the demons to announce this death to the pagans?

The history of Thulis, whose oracle is clear and positive on the subject of the Trinity, is related only by Suidas. This Thulis, king of Egypt, was not certainly one of the Ptolemies. What becomes of the whole oracle of Serapis, when it is ascertained that Herodotus does not speak of that god, while Tacitus relates at length how and why one of the Ptolemies brought the god Serapis from Pontus, where he had only until then been known?

The oracle delivered to Augustus about the Hebrew infant who should be obeyed by all the gods, is absolutely inadmissible. Cedrenus quotes it from Eusebius, but it is not now to be found in him. It certainly is not impossible that Cedrenus quotes it from Eusebius, but it is not now to be found in him. It certainly is not impossible that Cedrenus may have made a false quotation, or have quoted a work falsely ascribed to Eusebius; but how is it to be accounted for, that all the early apologists for Christianity should have preserved complete silence with respect to an oracle so favorable to their religion?

The oracles which Eusebius relates from Porphyry, who was attached to paganism, are not of a more embarrassing nature than those just noticed. He gives them to us stripped of all the accompanying circumstances that attended them in the writings of Porphyry. How do we know whether that pagan did not refute them. For the interest of his cause it would naturally have been an object for him to do so; and if he did not do it, most assuredly it was from some concealed motive, such, for instance, as presenting them to the Christians only for an occasion to prove and deride their credulity, if they should really receive them as true and rest their religion on such weak foundations.

Besides, some of the ancient Christians reproached the pagans with being the dupes of their priests. Observe how Clement of Alexandria speaks of them: “Boast as long as you please of your childish and impertinent oracles, whether of Claros or the Pythian Apollo, of Dindymus or Amphilocus; and add to these your augurs and interpreters of dreams and prodigies. Bring forward also those clever gentry who, in the presence of the mighty Pythian Apollo, effect their divinations through the medium of meal or barley, and those also who, by a certain talent of ventriloquism, have obtained such high reputation. Let the secrets of the Egyptian temples, and the necromancy of the Etruscans, remain in darkness; all these things are most certainly nothing more than decided impostures, as completely tricks as those of a juggler with his cups and balls. The goats carefully trained for the divination, the ravens elaborately instructed to deliver the oracles, are — if we may use the expression — merely accomplices of the charlatans by whom the whole world has thus been cheated.”

Eusebius, in his turn, displays a number of excellent reasons to prove that oracles could be nothing but impostures; and if he attributes them to demons, it is the result of deplorable prejudices or of an affected respect for general opinion. The pagans would never admit that their oracles were merely the artifices of their priests; it was imagined therefore, by rather an awkward process of reasoning, that a little was gained in the dispute by admitting the possibility, that there might be something supernatural in their oracles, and insisting at the same time, that if there were, it was the operation, not of the deity, but of demons.

It is no longer necessary now, in order to expose the finesse and stratagems of priests, to resort to means which might themselves appear too strongly marked by those qualities. A time has already been when they were completely exhibited to the eyes of the whole world — the time, I mean when the Christian religion proudly triumphed over paganism under Christian emperors.

Theodoret says that Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, exhibited to the inhabitants of that city the hollow statues into which the priests entered, from secret passages, to deliver the oracles. When, by Constantine’s order, the temple of Æsculapius at Ægea, in Cilicia, was pulled down, there was driven out of it, says Eusebius in his life of that emperor, not a god, nor a demon, but the human impostor who had so long duped the credulity of nations. To this he adds the general observation that, in the statues of the gods that were thrown down, not the slightest appearance was found of gods, or demons, or even any wretched and gloomy spectres, but only hay, straw, or the bones of the dead.

The greatest difficulty respecting oracles is surmounted, when it is ascertained and admitted, that demons had no concern with them. There is no longer any reason why they should cease precisely at the coming of Jesus Christ. And moreover, there are many proofs that oracles continued more than four hundred years after Jesus Christ, and that they were not totally silenced but by the total destruction of paganism.

Suetonius, in the life of Nero, says the oracle of Delphi warned that emperor to be aware of seventy-three years, and that Nero concluded he was to die at that age, never thinking upon old Galba, who, at the age of seventy-three, deprived him of the empire.

Philostratus, in his life of Apollonius of Tyana, who saw Domitian, informs us that Apollonius visited all the oracles of Greece, and that of Dodona, and that of Delphos; and that of Amphiaraus. Plutarch, who lived under Trajan, tells us that the oracles of Delphos still subsisted, although there was then only one priestess, instead of two or three. Under Adrian, Dion Chrysostom relates that he consulted the oracle of Delphos; he obtained from it an answer which appeared to him not a little perplexed, and which in fact was so.

Under the Antonines, Lucian asserts that a priest of Tyana went to inquire of the false prophet Alexander, whether the oracles which were then delivered at Dindymus, Claros, and Delphos, were really answers of Apollo, or impostures? Alexander had some fellow-feeling for these oracles, which were of a similar description to his own, and replied to the priest, that that was not permitted to be known; but when the same wise inquirer asked what he should be after his death, he was boldly answered, “You will be a camel, then a horse, afterwards a philosopher, and at length a prophet as great as Alexander.”

After the Antonines, three emperors contended for the empire. The oracle of Delphos was consulted, says Spartian, to ascertain which of the three the republic might expect as its head. The oracle answered in a single verse to the following purport: The black is better; the African is good; the white is the worst. By the black was understood Pescennius Niger; by the African, Severus Septimus, who was from Africa; and by the white, Claudius Albinus.

Dion, who did not conclude his history before the eighth year of Alexander Severus, that is, the year 230, relates that in his time Amphilocus still delivered oracles in dreams. He informs us also, that there was in the city of Apollonia an oracle which declared future events by the manner in which the fire caught and consumed the incense thrown upon an altar.

Under Aurelian, about the year 272, the people of Palmyra, having revolted, consulted an oracle of Sarpedonian Apollo in Cilicia; they again consulted that of the Aphacian Venus. Licinus, according to the account of Sozomen, designing to renew the war against Constantine, consulted the oracle of Apollo of Dindymus, and received from it in answer two verses of Homer, of which the sense is — Unhappy old man, it becomes not you to combat with the young! you have no strength, and are sinking under the weight of age.

A certain god, scarcely if at all known, of the name of Besa, if we may credit Ammianus Marcellinus, still delivered oracles on billets at Abydos, in the extremity of the Thebais, under the reign of Constantius. Finally, Macrobius, who lived under Arcadius and Honorius, sons of Theodosius, speaks of the god of Heliopolis of Syria and his oracle, and of the fortunes of Antium, in terms which distinctly imply that they all still subsisted in his time.

We may observe that it is not of the slightest consequence whether these histories are true or whether the oracles in fact delivered the answers attributed to them; it is completely sufficient for the purpose that false answers could be attributed only to oracles which were in fact known still to subsist; and the histories which so many authors have published clearly prove that they did not cease but with the cessation of paganism itself.

Constantine pulled down but few temples, nor indeed could he venture to pull them down but on a pretext of crimes committed in them. It was on this ground that he ordered the demolition of those of the Aphacian Venus, and of Æsculapius which was at Ægea in Cilicia, both of them temples in which oracles were delivered. But he forbade sacrifices to the gods, and by that edict began to render temples useless.

Many oracles still subsisted when Julian assumed the reins of empire. He re-established some that were in a state of ruin; and he was even desirous of being the prophet of that of Dindymus. Jovian, his successor, began his reign with great zeal for the destruction of paganism; but in the short space of seven months, which comprised the whole time he reigned, he was unable to make any great progress. Theodosius, in order to attain the same object, ordered all the temples of the pagans to be shut up. At last, the exercise of that religion was prohibited under pain of death by an edict of the emperors Valentinian and Marcian, in the year 451 of the vulgar era; and the destruction of paganism necessarily involved that of oracles.

This conclusion has nothing in it surprising or extraordinary: it is the natural consequence of the establishment of a new worship. Miraculous facts, or rather what it is desired should be considered as such, diminish in a false religion, either in proportion as it becomes firmly established and has no longer occasion for them, or in proportion as it gradually becomes weaker and weaker, because they no longer obtain credit. The ardent but useless desire to pry into futurity gave birth to oracles; imposture encouraged and sanctioned them; and fanaticism set the seal; for an infallible method of making fanatics is to persuade before you instruct. The poverty of the people, who had no longer anything left them to give; the imposture detected in many oracles, and thence naturally concluded to exist in all; and finally the edicts of the Christian emperors; such are the real causes of the establishment, and of the cessation, of this species of imposture. The introduction of an opposite state of circumstances into human affairs made it completely disappear; and oracles thus became involved in the vicissitudes accompanying all human institutions.

Some limit themselves to observing that the birth of Jesus Christ is the first epoch of the cessation of oracles. But why, on such an occasion, should some demons have fled, while others remained? Besides, ancient history proves decidedly that many oracles had been destroyed before this birth. All the distinguished oracles of Greece no longer existed, or scarcely existed, and the oracle was occasionally interrupted by the silence of an honest priest who would not consent to deceive the people. “The oracle of Delphi,” says Lucian, “remains dumb since princes have become afraid of futurity; they have prohibited the gods from speaking, and the gods have obeyed them.”

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