Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

APOSTATE.

It is still a question among the learned whether the Emperor Julian was really an apostate and whether he was ever truly a Christian. He was not six years old when the Emperor Constantius, still more barbarous than Constantine, had his father, his brother, and seven of his cousins murdered. He and his brother Gallus with difficulty escaped from this carnage, but he was always very harshly treated by Constantius. His life was for a long time threatened, and he soon beheld his only remaining brother assassinated by the tyrant’s order. The most barbarous of the Turkish sultans have never, I am sorry to say it, surpassed in cruelty or in villainy the Constantine family. From his tenderest years study was Julian’s only consolation. He communicated in secret with the most illustrious of the philosophers, who were of the ancient religion of Rome. It is very probable that he professed that of his uncle Constantius only to avoid assassination. Julian was obliged to conceal his mental powers, as Brutus had done under Tarquin. He was less likely to be a Christian, as his uncle had forced him to be a monk and to perform the office of reader in the church. A man is rarely of the religion of his persecutor, especially when the latter wishes to be ruler of his conscience.

Another circumstance which renders this probable is that he does not say in any of his works that he had been a Christian. He never asks pardon for it of the pontiffs of the ancient religion. He addresses them in his letters as if he had always been attached to the worship of the senate. It is not even proved that he practised the ceremonies of the Taurobolium, which might be regarded as a sort of expiation, and that he desired to wash out with bull’s blood that which he so unfortunately called the stain of his baptism. However, this was a pagan form of devotion, which is no more a proof than the assembling at the mysteries of Ceres. In short, neither his friends nor his enemies relate any fact, any words which can prove that he ever believed in Christianity, and that he passed from that sincere belief to the worship of the gods of the empire. If such be the case they who do not speak of him as an apostate appear very excusable.

Sound criticism being brought to perfection, all the world now acknowledges that the Emperor Julian was a hero and a wise man — a stoic, equal to Marcus Aurelius. His errors are condemned, but his virtues are admitted. He is now regarded, as he was by his contemporary, Prudentius, author of the hymn “Salvete flores martyrum.” He says of Julian:

Ductor fortissimus armis,

Conditor et legum celeberrimus; ore manuque

Consultor patriæ; sed non consultor habendus

Religionis; amans tercentum millia divum

Perfidus ille Deo, sed non est perfidus orbi.

Though great in arms, in virtues, and in laws —

Though ably zealous in his country’s cause,

He spurned religion in his lofty plan,

Rejecting God while benefiting man.

His detractors are reduced to the miserable expedient of striving to make him appear ridiculous. One historian, on the authority of St. Gregory Nazianzen, reproaches him with having worn too large a beard. But, my friend, if nature gave him a long beard why should he wear it short? He used to shake his head. Carry thy own better. His step was hurried. Bear in mind that the Abbé d’Aubignac, the king’s preacher, having been hissed at the play, laughs at the air and gait of the great Corneille. Could you hope to turn Marshal de Luxembourg into ridicule because he walked ill and his figure was singular? He could march very well against the enemy. Let us leave it to the ex-Jesuit Patouillet, the ex-Jesuit Nonotte, etc., to call the Emperor Julian — the Apostate. Poor creatures! His Christian successor, Jovian, called him Divus Julianus.

Let us treat this mistaken emperor as he himself treated us. He said, “We should pity and not hate them; they are already sufficiently unfortunate in erring on the most important of questions.” Let us have the same compassion for him, since we are sure that the truth is on our side. He rendered strict justice to his subjects, let us then render it to his memory. Some Alexandrians were incensed against a bishop, who, it is true, was a wicked man, chosen by a worthless cabal. His name was George Biordos, and he was the son of a mason. His manners were lower than his birth. He united the basest perfidy with the most brutal ferocity, and superstition with every vice. A calumniator, a persecutor, and an impostor — avaricious, sanguinary, and seditious, he was detested by every party and at last the people cudgelled him to death. The following is the letter which the Emperor Julian wrote to the Alexandrians on the subject of this popular commotion. Mark how he addresses them, like a father and a judge:

“What!” said he, “instead of reserving for me the knowledge of your wrongs you have suffered yourselves to be transported with anger! You have been guilty of the same excesses with which you reproach your enemies! George deserved to be so treated, but it was not for you to be his executioners. You have laws; you should have demanded justice,” etc.

Some have dared to brand Julian with the epithets intolerant and persecuting — the man who sought to extirpate persecution and intolerance! Peruse his fifty-second letter, and respect his memory. Is he not sufficiently unfortunate in not having been a Catholic, and consequently in being burned in hell, together with the innumerable multitude of those who have not been Catholics, without our insulting him so far as to accuse him of intolerance?

On the Globes of Fire said to have issued from the Earth to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem under the Emperor Julian.

It is very likely that when Julian resolved to carry the war into Persia he wanted money. It is also very likely that the Jews gave him some for permission to rebuild their temple, which Titus had partly destroyed, but of which there still remained the foundations, an entire wall, and the Antonine tower. But is it as likely that globes of fire burst upon the works and the workmen and caused the undertaking to be relinquished? Is there not a palpable contradiction in what the historians relate?

1. How could it be that the Jews began by destroying (as they are said to have done) the foundations of the temple which it was their wish and their duty to rebuild on the same spot? The temple was necessarily to be on Mount Moriah. There it was that Solomon had built it. There it was that Herod had rebuilt it with greater solidity and magnificence, having previously erected a fine theatre at Jerusalem, and a temple to Augustus at Cæsarea. The foundations of this temple, enlarged by Herod, were, according to Josephus, as much as twenty-five feet broad. Could the Jews, in Julian’s time, possibly be mad enough to wish to disarrange these stones which were so well prepared to receive the rest of the edifice, and upon which the Mahometans afterwards built their mosque? What man was ever foolish and stupid enough thus to deprive himself at great cost and excessive labor of the greatest advantage that could present itself to his hands and eyes? Nothing is more incredible.

2. How could eruptions of flame burst forth from the interior of these stones? There might be an earthquake in the neighborhood, for they are frequent in Syria, but that great blocks of stone should have vomited clouds of fire! Is not this story entitled to just as much credit as all those of antiquity?

3. If this prodigy, or if an earthquake, which is not a prodigy, had really happened would not the Emperor Julian have spoken of it in the letter in which he says that he had intended to rebuild this temple? Would not his testimony have been triumphantly adduced? Is it not infinitely more probable that he changed his mind? Does not this letter contain these words:

“Quid de templo suo dicent, quod, quum tertio sit eversum, nondum hodiernam usque diem instauratur? Hæc ego, non ut illis exprobarem, in medium adduxi, utpote qui templum illud tanto intervallo a ruinis excitare voluerim; sed ideo commemoravi, ut ostenderem delirasse prophetas istos, quibus cum stolidis aniculis negotium erat.”

“What will they (the Jews) say of their temple which has been destroyed for the third time and is not yet restored? I speak of this, not for the purpose of reproaching them, for I myself had intended to raise it once more from its ruins, but to show the extravagance of their prophets who had none but old women to deal with.”

Is it not evident that the emperor having paid attention to the Jewish prophecies, that the temple should be rebuilt more beautiful than ever and that all the nations of the earth should come and worship in it, thought fit to revoke the permission to raise the edifice? The historical probability, then, from the emperor’s own words, is, that unfortunately holding the Jewish books, as well as our own, in abhorrence, he at length resolved to make the Jewish prophets lie.

The Abbé de la Blétrie, the historian of the Emperor Julian, does not understand how the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed three times. He says that apparently Julian reckoned as a third destruction the catastrophe which happened during his reign. A curious destruction this! the non-removal of the stones of an old foundation. What could prevent this writer from seeing that the temple, having been built by Solomon, reconstructed by Zorobabel, entirely destroyed by Herod, rebuilt by Herod himself with so much magnificence, and at last laid in ruins by Titus, manifestly made three destructions of the temple? The reckoning is correct. Julian should surely have escaped calumny on this point.

The Abbé de la Blétrie calumniates him sufficiently by saying that all his virtues were only seeming, while all his vices were real. But Julian was not hypocritical, nor avaricious, nor fraudulent, nor lying, nor ungrateful, nor cowardly, nor drunken, nor debauched, nor idle, nor vindictive. What then were his vices?

4. Let us now examine the redoubtable argument made use of to persuade us that globes of fire issued from stones. Ammianus Marcellinus a pagan writer, free from all suspicion, has said it. Be it so: but this Ammianus has also said that when the emperor was about to sacrifice ten oxen to his gods for his first victory over the Persians, nine of them fell to the earth before they were presented to the altar. He relates a hundred predictions — a hundred prodigies. Are we to believe in them? Are we to believe in all the ridiculous miracles related by Livy?

Besides, who can say that the text of Ammianus Marcellinus has not been falsified? Would it be the only instance in which this artifice has been employed?

I wonder that no mention is made of the little fiery crosses which all the workmen found on their bodies when they went to bed. They would have made an admirable figure along with the globes.

The fact is that the temple of the Jews was not rebuilt, and it may be presumed never will be so. Here let us hold, and not seek useless prodigies. Globi flammarum — globes of fire, issue neither from stones nor from earth. Ammianus, and those who have quoted him, were not natural philosophers. Let the Abbé de la Blétrie only look at the fire on St. John’s day, and he will see that flame always ascends with a point, or in a cloud, and never in a globe. This alone is sufficient to overturn the nonsense which he comes forward to defend with injudicious criticism and revolting pride.

After all, the thing is of very little importance. There is nothing in it that affects either faith or morals; and historical truth is all that is here sought for.

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