Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PARADISE.

There is no word whose meaning is more remote from its etymology. It is well known that it originally meant a place planted with fruit trees; and afterwards, the name was given to gardens planted with trees for shade. Such, in distant antiquity, were those of Saana, near Eden, in Arabia Felix, known long before the hordes of the Hebrews had invaded a part of the territory of Palestine.

This word “paradise” is not celebrated among the Jews, except in the Book of Genesis. Some Jewish canonical writers speak of gardens; but not one of them has mentioned a word about the garden denominated the “earthly paradise.” How could it happen that no Jewish writer, no Jewish prophet, or Jewish psalmodist, should have once cited that terrestrial paradise which we are talking of every day of our lives? This is almost incomprehensible. It has induced many daring critics to believe that Genesis was not written till a very late period.

The Jews never took this orchard or plantation of trees — this garden, whether of plants or flowers — for heaven. St. Luke is the first who uses the word “paradise,” as signifying heaven, when Jesus Christ says to the good thief: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”

The ancients gave the name of “heaven” to the clouds. That name would not have been exactly appropriate, as the clouds actually touch the earth by the vapors of which they are formed, and as heaven is a vague word signifying an immense space in which exist innumerable suns, planets, and comets, which has certainly but little resemblance to an orchard.

St. Thomas says that there are three paradises — the terrestrial, the celestial, and the spiritual. I do not, I acknowledge, perfectly understand the difference between the spiritual and celestial. The spiritual orchard is according to him, the beatific vision. But it is precisely that which constitutes the celestial paradise, it is the enjoyment of God Himself. I do not presume to dispute against the “angel of the schools.” I merely say — Happy must he be who always resides in one of these three paradises!

Some curious critics have thought the paradise of the Hesperides, guarded by a dragon, was an imitation of the garden of Eden, kept by a winged ox or a cherub. Others, more rash, have ventured to assert that the ox was a bad copy of the dragon, and that the Jews were always gross plagiarists; but this will be admitted to be blasphemy, and that idea is insupportable.

Why has the name of paradise been applied to the square courts in the front of a church? Why has the third row of boxes at the theatre or opera house been called paradise? Is it because, as these places are less dear than others, it was thought they were intended for the poor, and because it is pretended that in the other paradise there are far more poor persons than rich? Is it because these boxes are so high that they have obtained a name which also signifies heaven? There is, however, some difference between ascending to heaven, and ascending to the third row of boxes. What would a stranger think on his arrival at Paris, when asked: “Are you inclined to go to paradise to see Pourceaugnac?”

What incongruities and equivoques are to be found in all languages! How strongly is human weakness manifested in every object that is presented around us! See the article “Paradise” in the great “Encyclopædia.” It is certainly better than this. We conclude with the Abbé de St. Pierre’s favorite sentiment —“Paradise to the beneficent.”

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