Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

OVID.

Scholars have not failed to write volumes to inform us exactly to what corner of the earth Ovidius Naso was banished by Octavius Cepias, surnamed Augustus. All that we know of it is, that, born at Sulmo and brought up at Rome, he passed ten years on the right shore of the Danube, in the neighborhood of the Black Sea. Though he calls this land barbarous, we must not fancy that it was a land of savages. There were verses made there; Cotis, the petty king of a part of Thrace, made Getic verses for Ovid. The Latin poet learned Getic, and also composed lines in this language. It seems as if Greek poetry should have been understood in the ancient country of Orpheus, but this country was then peopled by nations from the North, who probably spoke a Tartar dialect, a language approaching to the ancient Slavonian. Ovid seemed not destined to make Tartar verses. The country of the Tomites, to which he was banished, was a part of Mysia, a Roman province, between Mount Hemus and the Danube. It is situated in forty-four and a half degrees north latitude, like one of the finest climates of France; but the mountains which are at the south, and the winds of the north and east, which blow from the Euxine, the cold and dampness of the forests, and of the Danube, rendered this country insupportable to a man born in Italy. Thus Ovid did not live long, but died there at the age of sixty. He complains in his “Elegies” of the climate, and not of the inhabitants. “Quos ego, cum loca sim vestra perosus, amo.”

These people crowned him with laurel, and gave him privileges, which prevented him not from regretting Rome. It was a great instance of the slavery of the Romans and of the extinction of all laws, when a man born of an equestrian family, like Octavius, exiled a man of another equestrian family, and when one citizen of Rome with one word sent another among the Scythians. Before this time, it required a “plebiscitum,” a law of the nation, to deprive a Roman of his country. Cicero, although banished by a cabal, had at least been exiled with the forms of law.

The crime of Ovid was incontestably that of having seen something shameful in the family of Octavius:

Cur aliquid vidi, cur noxia lumina feci?

Why saw I aught, or why discover crime?

The learned have not decided whether he had seen Augustus with a prettier boy than Mannius, whom he said he would not have because he was too ugly; whether he saw some page in the arms of the empress Livia, whom this Augustus had espoused, while pregnant by another; whether he had seen the said Augustus occupied with his daughter or granddaughter; or, finally, whether he saw him doing something still worse, “torva tu entibus hircis?” It is most probable that Ovid detected an incestuous correspondence, as an author, almost contemporary, named Minutionus Apuleius, says: “Pulsum quoque in exilium quod Augusti incestum vidisset.”

Octavius made a pretext of the innocent book of the “Art of Love,” a book very decently written, and in which there is not an obscene word, to send a Roman knight to the Black Sea. The pretence was ridiculous. How could Augustus, of whom we have still verses filled with obscenities, banish Ovid for having several years before given to his friends some copies of the “Art of Love”? How could he impudently reproach Ovid for a work written with decorum, while he approved of Horace, who lavishes allusions and phrases on the most infamous prostitution, and who proposed girls and boys, maid servants and valets indiscriminately? It is nothing less than impudence to blame Ovid and tolerate Horace. It is clear that Octavius alleged a very insufficient reason, because he dared not allude to the real one. One proof that it related to some secret adventure of the sacred imperial family is that the goat of Caprea — Tiberius, immortalized by medals for his debaucheries; Tiberius, that monster of lust and dissimulation — did not recall Ovid, who, rather than demand the favor from the author of the proscriptions and the poisoner of Germanicus, remained on the shores of the Danube.

If a Dutch, Polish, Swedish, English, or Venetian gentleman had by chance seen a stadtholder, or a king of Great Britain, Sweden, or Poland, or a doge of Venice, commit some great sin, even if it was not by chance that he saw it; if he had even sought the occasion, and was so indiscreet as to speak of it, this stadtholder, king, or doge could not legally banish him.

We can reproach Ovid almost as much as Augustus and Tiberius for having praised them. The eulogiums which he lavishes on them are so extravagant that at present they would excite indignation if he had even given them to legitimate princes, his benefactors, instead of to tyrants, and to his tyrants in particular. You may be pardoned for praising a little too much a prince who caresses you; but not for treating as a god one who persecutes you. It would have been a hundred times better for him to have embarked on the Black Sea and retired into Persia by the Palus Mæotis, than to have written his “Tristia.” He would have learned Persian as easily as Getic, and might have forgotten the master of Rome near the master of Ecbatana. Some strong minds will say that there was still another part to take, which was to go secretly to Rome, address himself to some relations of Brutus and Cassius, and get up a twelfth conspiracy against Octavius; but that was not in elegiac taste.

Poetical panegyrics are strange things! It is very clear that Ovid wished with all his heart, that some Brutus would deliver Rome from that Augustus, to whom in his verses he wished immortality. I reproach Ovid with his “Tristia” alone. Bayle forms his system on the philosophy of chaos so ably exhibited in the commencement of the “Metamorphoses”:

Ante mare et terras, et quod tegit omnia cœlum,

Unus erat toto naturæ vultus in orbe.

Bayle thus translates these first lines: “Before there was a heaven, an earth, and a sea, nature was all homogeneous.” In Ovid it is, “The face of nature was the same throughout the universe,” which means not that all was homogeneous, but heterogeneous — this assemblage of different things appeared the same; “unus vultus.” Bayle criticises chaos throughout. Ovid, who in his verses is only the poet of the ancient philosophy, says that things hard and soft, light and heavy, were mixed together:

Mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus.

— Ovid’s Met., b. i., l. 20.

And this is the manner in which Bayle reasons against him: “There is nothing more absurd than to suppose a chaos which had been homogeneous from all eternity, though it had the elementary qualities, at least those which we call alteratives, which are heat, cold, humidity, and dryness, as those which we call matrices, which are lightness and weight, the former the cause of upper motion, the latter of lower. Matter of this nature cannot be homogeneous, and must necessarily contain all sorts of heterogeneousness. Heat and cold, humidity and dryness, cannot exist together, unless their action and reaction temper and convert them into other qualities which assume the form of mixed bodies; and as this temperament can be made according to innumerable diversities of combinations, chaos must contain an incredible number of compound species. The only manner of conceiving matter homogeneous is by saying that the alterative qualities of the elements modify all the molecules of matter in the same degree in such a way, that throughout there is the same warmth, the same softness, the same odor, etc. But this would be to destroy with one hand that which has been built up with the other; it would be by a contradiction in terms to call chaos the most regular, the most marvellous for its symmetry, and the most admirable in its proportions that it is possible to conceive. I allow that the taste of man approves of a diversified rather than of a regular work; but our reason teaches us that the harmony of contrary qualities, uniformly preserved throughout the universe, would be as admirable a perfection as the unequal division of them which has succeeded chaos. What knowledge and power would not the diffusion of this uniform harmony throughout nature demand! It would not be sufficient to place in any compound an equal quantity of all the four ingredients; of one there must be more and of another less, according as their force is greater or less for action or resistance; for we know that philosophers bestow action and reaction in a different degree on the elementary qualities. All would amount to an opinion that the power which metamorphosed chaos has withdrawn it, not from a state of strife and confusion as is pretended, but from a state of the most admirable harmony, which by the adjustment of the equilibrium of contrary forces, retained it in a repose equivalent to peace. It is certain, therefore, that if the poets will insist on the homogeneity of chaos, they must erase all which they have added concerning the wild confusion of contrary seeds, of the undigested mass, and of the perpetual combat of conflicting principles.

“Passing over this contradiction we shall find sufficient subject for opposing them in other particulars. Let us recommence the attack on eternity. There is nothing more absurd than to admit, for an infinite time, the mixture of the insensible particles of four elements; for as soon as you suppose in them the activity of heat, the action and reaction of the four primary qualities, and besides these, motion towards the centre in the elements of earth and water, and towards the circumference in those of fire and air, you establish a principle which necessarily separates these four kinds of bodies, the one from the other, and for which a definite period alone is necessary. Consider a little, that which is denominated ‘the vial of the four elements.’ There are put into it some small metallic particles, and then three liquids, the one much lighter than the other. Shake these well together, and you no longer discern any of these component parts singly; each is confounded with the other. But leave your vial at rest for a short time, and you will find every one of them resume its pristine situation. The metallic particles will reassemble at the bottom of the vial, the lightest liquid will rise to the top, and the others take their stations according to their respective degrees of gravity. Thus a very short time will suffice to restore them to the same relative situation which they occupied before the vial was shaken. In this vial you behold the laws which nature has given in this world to the four elements, and, comparing the universe to this vial, we may conclude, that if the earth reduced to powder had been mingled with the matter of the stars, and with that of air and of water, in such a way as that the compound exhibited none of the elements by themselves, all would have immediately operated to disengage themselves, and at the end of a certain time, the particles of earth would form one mass, those of fire another; and thus of the others in proportion to the lightness or heaviness of each of them.”

I deny to Bayle, that the experiment of the vial infers a definite period for the duration of chaos. I inform him, that by heavy and light things, Ovid and the philosophers intended those which became so after God had placed His hand on them. I say to him: “You take for granted that nature arranged all, and bestowed weight upon herself. You must begin by proving to me that gravity is an essential quality of matter, a position which has never been proved.” Descartes, in his romance has pretended that body never became heavy until his vortices of subtle matter began to push them from the centre. Newton, in his correct philosophy, never says that gravitation or attraction is a quality essential to matter. If Ovid had been able to divine the “Principia” of Newton, he would have said: “Matter was neither heavy nor in motion in my chaos; it was God who endowed it with these properties; my chaos includes not the forces you imagine — “nec quidquam nisi pondus iners”; it was a powerless mass; “pondus” here signifies not weight but mass.

Nothing could possess weight, before God bestowed on matter the principle of gravitation. In whatever degree one body is impelled towards the centre of another, would it be drawn or impelled by another, if the Supreme Power had not bestowed upon it this inexplicable virtue? Therefore Ovid will not only turn out a good philosopher but a passable theologian.

You say: “A scholastic theologian will admit without difficulty, that if the four elements had existed independently of God, with all the properties which they now possess, they would have formed of themselves the machine of the world, and have maintained it in the state which we now behold. There are therefore two great faults in the doctrine of chaos; the first of which is, that it takes away from God the creation of matter, and the production of the qualities proper to air, fire, earth, and water; the other, that after taking God away, He is made to appear unnecessarily on the theatre of the world, in order to assign their places to the four elements. Our modern philosophers, who have rejected the faculties and the qualities of the peripatetician physics, will find the same defects in the description of the chaos of Ovid; for that which they call general laws of motion, mechanical principles, modifications of matter, the form, situation, and arrangement of atoms, comprehends nothing beyond the active and passive virtue of nature, which the peripatetics understand by the alterative and formative qualities of the four elements. Seeing, therefore, that, according to the doctrine of this school, these four bodies, separated according to their natural heaviness and lightness, form a principle which suffices for all generation, the Cartesians, Gassendists, and other modern philosophers, ought to maintain that the motion, situation, and form of the particles of matter, are sufficient for the production of all natural effects, without excepting even the general arrangement which has placed the earth, the air, the water, and the stars where we see them. Thus, the true cause of the world, and of the effect which it produces, is not different from the cause which has bestowed motion on particles of matter — whether at the same time that it assigned to each atom a determinate figure, as the Gassendists assert, or that it has only given to particles entirely cubic, an impulsion which, by the duration of the motion according to certain laws, makes it ultimately take all sorts of forms — which is the hypothesis of the Cartesians. Both the one and the other consequently agree, that if matter had been, before the generation of the present world, as Ovid describes, it would have been capable of withdrawing itself from chaos by its own necessary operation, without the assistance of God. Ovid may therefore be accused of two oversights — having supposed, in the first place, that without the assistance of the Divinity, matter possessed the seeds of every compound, heat, motion, etc.; and in the second, that without the same assistance it could extricate itself from confusion. This is to give at once too much and too little to both God and matter; it is to pass over assistance when most needed, and to demand it when no longer necessary.”

Ovid may still reply: “You are wrong in supposing that my elements originally possessed all the qualities which they possess at present. They had no qualities; matter existed naked, unformed, and powerless; and when I say, that in my chaos, heat was mingled with cold, and dryness with humidity, I only employ these expressions to signify that there was neither cold, nor heat, nor wet, nor dry, which are qualities that God has placed in our sensations, and not in matter. I have not made the mistakes of which you accuse me. Your Cartesians and your Gassendists commit oversights with their atoms and their cubic particles; and their imaginations deal as little in truth as my “Metamorphoses.” I prefer Daphne changed into a laurel, and Narcissus into a flower, to subtile matter changed into suns, and denser matter transformed into earth and water. I have given you fables for fables, and your philosophers have given you fables for truth.”

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