Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

POETS.

A young man on leaving college deliberates whether he shall be an advocate, a physician, a theologian, or a poet — whether he shall take care of our body, our soul, or our entertainment. We have already spoken of advocates and physicians; we will now speak of the prodigious fortune which is sometimes made by the theologian.

The theologian becomes pope, and has not only his theological valets, cooks, singers, chamberlains, physicians, surgeons, sweepers, agnus dei makers, confectioners, and preachers, but also his poet. I know not what inspired personage was the poet of Leo X., as David was for some time the poet of Saul.

It is surely of all the employments in a great house, that which is the most useless. The kings of England, who have preserved in their island many of the ancient usages which are lost on the continent, have their official poet. He is obliged once a year to make an ode in praise of St. Cecilia, who played so marvellously on the organ or psalterium that an angel descended from the ninth heaven to listen to her more conveniently — the harmony of the psaltery, in ascending from this place to the land of angels, necessarily losing a small portion of its volume.

Moses is the first poet that we know of; but it is thought that before him the Chaldæans, the Syrians, and the Indians practised poetry, since they possessed music. Nevertheless, the fine canticle which Moses chanted with his sister Miriam, when they came out of the Red Sea, is the most ancient poetical monument in hexameter verse that we possess. I am not of the opinion of those impious and ignorant rogues, Newton, Le Clerc, and others, who prove that all this was written about eight hundred years after the event, and who insolently maintain that Moses could not write in Hebrew, since Hebrew is only a comparatively modern dialect of the Phœnician, of which Moses could know nothing at all. I examine not with the learned Huet how Moses was able to sing so well, who stammered and could not speak.

If we listened to many of these authors, Moses would be less ancient than Orpheus, Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod. We perceive at the first glance the absurdity of this opinion; as if a Greek could be an ancient as a Jew!

Neither will I reply to those impertinent persons who suspect that Moses is only an imaginary personage, a fabulous imitation of the fable of the ancient Bacchus; and that all the prodigies of Bacchus, since attributed to Moses, were sung in orgies before it was known that Jews existed in the world. This idea refutes itself; it is obvious to good sense that it is impossible that Bacchus could have existed before Moses.

We have still, however, an excellent Jewish poet undeniably anterior to Horace — King David; and we know well how infinitely superior the “Miserere,” is to the “Justum ac tenacem propositi virum.” But what is most astonishing, legislators and kings have been our earliest poets. We find even at present people so good as to become poets for kings. Virgil indeed had not the office of poet to Augustus, nor Lucan that of poet to Nero; but I confess that it would have debased the profession not a little to make gods of either the one or the other.

It is asked, why poetry, being so unnecessary to the world, occupies so high a rank among the fine arts? The same question may be put with regard to music. Poetry is the music of the soul, and above all of great and of feeling souls. One merit of poetry few persons will deny; it says more and in fewer words than prose. Who was ever able to translate the following Latin words with the brevity with which they came from the brain of the poet: “Vive memor lethi, fugit hora, hoc quod loquor inde est?”

I speak not of the other charms of poetry, as they are well known; but I insist upon the grand precept of Horace, “Sapere est principium et fons.” There can be no great poetry without great wisdom; but how connect this wisdom with enthusiasm, like Cæsar, who formed his plan of battle with circumspection, and fought with all possible ardor?

There have no doubt been ignorant poets, but then they have been bad poets. A man acquainted only with dactyls and spondees, and with a head full of rhymes, is rarely a man of sense; but Virgil is endowed with superior reason.

Lucretius, in common with all the ancients, was miserably ignorant of physical laws, a knowledge of which is not to be acquired by wit. It is a knowledge which is only to be obtained by instruments, which in his time had not been invented. Glasses are necessary — microscopes, pneumatic machines, barometers, etc., to have even a distant idea of the operations of nature.

Descartes knew little more than Lucretius, when his keys opened the sanctuary; and an hundred times more of the path has been trodden from the time of Galileo, who was better instructed physically than Descartes, to the present day, than from the first Hermes to Lucretius.

All ancient physics are absurd: it was not thus with the philosophy of mind, and that good sense which, assisted by strength of intellect, can acutely balance between doubts and appearances. This is the chief merit of Lucretius; his third book is a masterpiece of reasoning. He argues like Cicero, and expresses himself like Virgil; and it must be confessed that when our illustrious Polignac attacked his third book, he refuted it only like a cardinal.

When I say, that Lucretius reasons in his third book like an able metaphysician, I do not say that he was right. We may argue very soundly, and deceive ourselves, if not instructed by revelation. Lucretius was not a Jew, and we know that Jews alone were in the right in the days of Cicero, of Posidonius, of Cæsar, and of Cato. Lastly, under Tiberius, the Jews were no longer in the right, and common sense was possessed by the Christians exclusively.

Thus it was impossible that Lucretius, Cicero, and Cæsar could be anything but imbecile, in comparison with the Jews and ourselves; but it must be allowed that in the eyes of the rest of the world they were very great men. I allow that Lucretius killed himself, as also did Cato, Cassius, and Brutus, but they might very well kill themselves, and still reason like men of intellect during their lives.

In every author let us distinguish the man from his works. Racine wrote like Virgil, but he became Jansenist through weakness, and he died in consequence of weakness equally great — because a man in passing through a gallery did not bestow a look upon him. I am very sorry for all this; but the part of Phædra is not therefore the less admirable.

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