Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ORIGINAL SIN.

§ I.

This is a subject on which the Socinians or Unitarians take occasion to exult and triumph. They denominate this foundation of Christianity its “original sin.” It is an insult to God, they say; it is accusing Him of the most absurd barbarity to have the hardihood to assert, that He formed all the successive generations of mankind to deliver them over to eternal tortures, under the pretext of their original ancestor having eaten of a particular fruit in a garden. This sacrilegious imputation is so much the more inexcusable among Christians, as there is not a single word respecting this same invention of original sin, either in the Pentateuch, or in the prophets, or the gospels, whether apocryphal or canonical, or in any of the writers who are called the “first fathers of the Church.”

It is not even related in the Book of Genesis that God condemned Adam to death for eating an apple. God says to him, indeed, “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” But the very same Book of Genesis makes Adam live nine hundred and thirty years after indulging in this criminal repast. The animals, the plants, which had not partaken of this fruit, died at the respective periods prescribed for them by nature. Man is evidently born to die, like all the rest.

Moreover, the punishment of Adam was never, in any way, introduced into the Jewish law. Adam was no more a Jew than he was a Persian or Chaldæan. The first chapters of Genesis — at whatever period they were composed — were regarded by all the learned Jews as an allegory, and even as a fable not a little dangerous, since that book was forbidden to be read by any before they had attained the age of twenty-one.

In a word, the Jews knew no more about original sin than they did about the Chinese ceremonies; and, although divines generally discover in the Scripture everything they wish to find there, either “totidem verbis,” or “totidem literis,” we may safely assert that no reasonable divine will ever discover in it this surprising and overwhelming mystery.

We admit that St. Augustine was the first who brought this strange notion into credit; a notion worthy of the warm and romantic brain of an African debauchee and penitent, Manichæan and Christian, tolerant and persecuting — who passed his life in perpetual self-contradiction.

What an abomination, exclaim the strict Unitarians, so atrociously to calumniate the Author of Nature as even to impute to Him perpetual miracles, in order that He may damn to all eternity the unhappy race of mankind, whom he introduces into the present life only for so short a span! Either He created souls from all eternity, upon which system, as they must be infinitely more ancient than the sin of Adam, they can have no possible connection with it; or these souls are formed whenever man and woman sexually associate; in which case the Supreme Being must be supposed continually watching for all the various associations of this nature that take place, to create spirits that He will render eternally miserable; or, finally, God is Himself the soul of all mankind, and upon this system damns Himself. Which of these three suppositions is the most absurd and abominable? There is no fourth. For the opinion that God waits six weeks before He creates a damned soul in a fœtus is, in fact, no other than that which creates it at the moment of sexual connection: the difference of six weeks cannot be of the slightest consequence in the argument. I have merely related the opinion of the Unitarians; but men have now attained such a degree of superstition that I can scarcely relate it without trembling.

§ II.

It must be acknowledged that we are not acquainted with any father of the Church before St. Augustine and St. Jerome, who taught the doctrine of original sin. St. Clement of Alexandria, notwithstanding his profound knowledge of antiquity, far from speaking in any one passage of his works of that corruption which has infected the whole human race, and rendered it guilty from its birth, says in express words, “What evil can a new-born infant commit? How could it possibly prevaricate? How could such a being, which has, in fact, as yet done no one thing, fall under the curse of Adam?”

And it is worth observing that he does not employ this language in order to combat the rigid opinion of original sin, which was not at that time developed, but merely to show that the passions, which are capable of corrupting all mankind, have, as yet, taken no hold of this innocent infant. He does not say: This creature of a day would not be damned if it should now die, for no one had yet conjectured that it would be damned. St. Clement could not combat a system absolutely unknown.

The great Origen is still more decisive than St. Clement of Alexandria. He admits, indeed, in his exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, that sin entered into the world by Adam, but he maintains that it is the inclination to sin that thus entered; that it is very easy to commit evil, but that it is not on that account said, man will always commit evil, and is guilty even as soon as he is born.

In short, original sin, in the time of Origen, consisted only in the misfortune of resembling the first man by being liable to sin like him. Baptism was a necessary ordinance; it was the seal of Christianity; it washed away all sins; but no man had yet said, that it washed away those which the subject of it had not committed. No one yet asserted that an infant would be damned, and burned in everlasting flames, in consequence of its dying within two minutes of its birth. And an unanswerable proof on this point is, that a long period passed away before the practice of baptizing infants became prevalent. Tertullian was averse to their being baptized; but, on the persuasion that original sin — of which these poor innocents could not possibly be guilty — would affect their reprobation, and expose them to suffer boundless and endless torture, for a deed of which it was impossible for them to have the slightest knowledge: to refuse them the consecrated bath of baptism, would be wilfully consigning them to eternal damnation. The souls of all the executioners in the world, condensed into the very essence of ingenious cruelty, could not have suggested a more execrable abomination. In a word, it is an incontestable fact that Christians did not for a certain period baptize their infants, and it is therefore equally incontestable that they were very far from damning them.

This, however, is not all; Jesus Christ never said: “The infant that is not baptized will be damned.” He came on the contrary to expiate all sins, to redeem mankind by His blood; therefore, infants could not be damned. Infants would, of course, “a fortiori,” and, preferably, enjoy this privilege. Our divine Saviour never baptized any person. Paul circumcised his disciple Timothy, but is nowhere said to have baptized him.

In a word, during the two first centuries, the baptism of infants was not customary; it was not believed, therefore, that infants would become victims of the fault of Adam. At the end of four hundred years their salvation was considered in danger, and great uncertainty and apprehension existed on the subject.

In the fifth century appears Pelagius. He treated the opinion of original sin as monstrous. According to him, this dogma, like all others, was founded upon a mere ambiguity. God had said to Adam in the garden: “In the day in which thou shalt eat of the tree of knowledge, thou shalt die.” But, he did not die; and God pardoned him. Why, then, should He not spare His race to the thousandth generation? Why should He consign to infinite and eternal torments the innocent infants whose father He received back into forgiveness and favor?

Pelagius considered God, not merely as an absolute master, but as a parent, who left His children at perfect liberty, and rewarded them beyond their merits, and punished them less than their faults deserved. The language used by him and his disciples was: “If all men are born objects of the eternal wrath of that Being who confers on them life; if they can possibly be guilty before they can even think, it is then a fearful and execrable offence to give them being, and marriage is the most atrocious of crimes. Marriage, on this system, is nothing more or less than an emanation from the Manichæan principle of evil; and those who engage in it, instead of adoring God, adore the devil.”

Pelagius and his partisans propagated this doctrine in Africa, where the reputation and influence of St. Augustine were unbounded. He had been a Manichæan, and seemed to think himself called upon to enter the lists against Pelagius. The latter was ill able to resist either Augustine or Jerome; various points, however, were contested, and the dispute proceeded so far that Augustine pronounced his sentence of damnation upon all children born, or to be born, throughout the world, in the following terms: “The Catholic faith teaches that all men are born so guilty that even infants are certainly damned when they die without having been regenerated in Jesus.”

It would be but a wretched compliment of condolence to offer to a queen of China, or Japan, or India, Scythia, or Gothia, who had just lost her infant son to say: “Be comforted, madam; his highness the prince royal is now in the clutches of five hundred devils, who turn him round and round in a great furnace to all eternity, while his body rests embalmed and in peace within the precincts of your palace.”

The astonished and terrified queen inquires why these devils should eternally roast her dear son, the prince royal. She is answered that the reason of it is that his great-grandfather formerly ate of the fruit of knowledge, in a garden. Form an idea, if possible, of the looks and thoughts of the king, the queen, the whole council, and all the beautiful ladies of the court!

The sentence of the African bishop appeared to some divines — for there are some good souls to be found in every place and class — rather severe, and was therefore mitigated by one Peter Chrysologus, or Peter Golden-tongue, who invented a suburb to hell, called “limbo,” where all the little boys and girls that died before baptism might be disposed of. It is a place in which these innocents vegetate without sensation; the abode of apathy; the place that has been called “The paradise of fools.” We find this very expression in Milton. He places this paradise somewhere near the moon!

Explication of Original Sin.

The difficulty is the same with respect to this substituted limbo as with respect to hell. Why should these poor little wretches be placed in this limbo? what had they done? how could their souls, which they had not in their possession a single day, be guilty of a gormandizing that merited a punishment of six thousand years?

St. Augustine, who damns them, assigns as a reason, that the souls of all men being comprised in that of Adam, it is probable that they were all accomplices. But, as the Church subsequently decided that souls are not made before the bodies which they are to inhabit are originated, that system falls to the ground, notwithstanding the celebrity of its author.

Others said that original sin was transmitted from soul to soul, in the way of emanation, and that one soul, derived from another, came into the world with all the corruption of the mother-soul. This opinion was condemned.

After the divines had done with the question, the philosophers tried at it. Leibnitz, while sporting with his monads, amused himself with collecting together in Adam all the human monads with their little bodies of monads. This was going further than St. Augustine. But this idea, which was worthy of Cyrano de Bergerac, met with very few to adopt and defend it. Malebranche explains the matter by the influence of the imagination on mothers. Eve’s brain was so strongly inflamed with the desire of eating the fruit that her children had the same desire; just like the irresistibly authenticated case of the woman who, after having seen a man racked, was brought to bed of a dislocated infant.

Nicole reduced the affair to “a certain inclination, a certain tendency to concupiscence, which we have derived from our mothers. This inclination is not an act; but it will one day become such.” Well said, Nicole; bravo! But, in the meantime, why am I to be damned? Nicole does not even touch the difficulty, which consists in ascertaining how our own souls, which have but recently been formed, can be fairly made responsible for the fault of another soul that lived some thousands of years ago.

What, my good friends, ought to be said upon the subject? Nothing. Accordingly, I do not give my explication of the difficulty: I say not a single word.

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