Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


All that we had written on the subject of the grand schism between the Greeks and Latins, in the essay on the manners and spirit of nations, has been inserted in the great encyclopædic dictionary. We will not here repeat ourselves.

But when reflecting on the meaning of the word “schism,” which signifies a dividing or rending asunder, and considering also the present state of Poland, divided and rent as it is in a manner the most pitiable, we cannot help anew deploring that a malady so destructive should be peculiar to Christians. This malady, which we have not described with sufficient particularity, is a species of madness which first affects the eyes and the mouth; the patient looks with an impatient and resentful eye on the man who does not think exactly like himself, and soon begins to pour out all the abuse and reviling that his command of language will permit. The madness next seizes the hands; and the unfortunate maniac writes what exhibits, in the most decided manner, the inflamed and delirious state of the brain. He falls into demoniacal convulsions, draws his sword, and fights with fury and desperation to the last gasp. Medicine has never been able to find a remedy for this dreadful disease. Time and philosophy alone can effect a cure.

The Poles are now the only people among whom this contagion at present rages. We may almost believe that the disorder is born with them, like their frightful plica. They are both diseases of the head, and of a most noxious character. Cleanliness will cure the plica; wisdom alone can extirpate schism.

We are told that both these diseases were unknown to the Samartians while they were Pagans. The plica affects only the common people at present, but all the evils originating in schism are corroding and destroying the higher classes of the republic.

The cause of the evil is the fertility of their land, which produces too much corn. It is a melancholy and deplorable case that even the blessing of heaven should in fact have involved them in such direful calamity. Some of the provinces have contended that it was absolutely necessary to put leaven in their bread, but the greater part of the nation entertain an obstinate and unalterable belief, that, on certain days of the year, fermented bread is absolutely mortal.

Such is one of the principal causes of the schism or the rending asunder of Poland; the dispute has infused acrimony into their blood. Other causes have added to the effect.

Some have imagined, in the paroxysms and convulsions of the malady under which they labor, that the Holy Spirit proceeded both from the Father and the Son: and the others have exclaimed, that it proceeded from the Father only. The two parties, one of which is called the Roman party, and the other the Dissident, look upon each other as if they were absolutely infected by the plague; but, by a singular symptom peculiar to this complaint, the infected Dissidents have always shown an inclination to approach the Catholics, while the Catholics on the other hand have never manifested any to approach them.

There is no disease which does not vary in different circumstances and situations. The diet, which is generally esteemed salutary, has been so pernicious to this unhappy nation, that after the application of it in 1768, the cities of Uman, Zablotin, Tetiou, Zilianki, and Zafran were destroyed and inundated with blood; and more than two hundred thousand patients miserably perished.

On one side the empire of Russia, and on the other that of Turkey, have sent a hundred thousand surgeons provided with lancets, bistouries, and all sorts of instruments, adapted to cut off the morbid and gangrened parts; but the disease has only become more virulent. The delirium has even been so outrageous, that forty of the patients actually met together for the purpose of dissecting their king, who had never been attacked by the disease, and whose brain and all the vital and noble parts of his body were in a perfectly sound state, as we shall have to remark under the article on “Superstition.” It is thought that if the contending parties would refer the case entirely to him, he might effect a cure of the whole nation; but it is one of the symptoms of this cruel malady to be afraid of being cured, as persons laboring under hydrophobia dread even the sight of water.

There are some learned men among us who contend that the disease was brought, a long time ago, from Palestine, and that the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Samaria were long harassed by it. Others think that the original seat of the disease was Egypt, and that the dogs and cats, which were there held in the highest consideration, having become mad, communicated the madness of schism, or tearing asunder, to the greater part of the Egyptians, whose weak heads were but too susceptible to the disorder.

It is remarked also, that the Greeks who travelled to Egypt, as, for example, Timeus of Locris and Plato, somewhat injured their brains by the excursion. However, the injury by no means reached madness, or plague, properly so called; it was a sort of delirium which was not at all times easily to be perceived, and which was often concealed under a very plausible appearance of reason. But the Greeks having, in the course of time, carried the complaint among the western and northern nations, the malformation or unfortunate excitability of the brain in our unhappy countries occasioned the slight fever of Timeus and Plato to break out among us into the most frightful and fatal contagion, which the physicians sometimes called intolerance, and sometimes persecution; sometimes religious war, sometimes madness, and sometimes pestilence.

We have seen the fatal ravages committed by this infernal plague over the face of the earth. Many physicians have offered their services to destroy this frightful evil at its very root. But what will appear to many scarcely credible is, that there are entire faculties of medicine, at Salamanca and Coimbra, in Italy and even in Paris, which maintain that schism, division, or tearing asunder, is necessary for mankind; that corrupt humors are drawn off from them through the wounds which it occasions; that enthusiasm, which is one of the first symptoms of the complaint, exalts the soul, and produces the most beneficial consequences; that toleration is attended with innumerable inconveniences; that if the whole world were tolerant, great geniuses would want that powerful and irresistible impulse which has produced so many admirable works in theology; that peace is a great calamity to a state, because it brings back the pleasures in its train; and pleasures, after a course of time, soften down that noble ferocity which forms the hero; and that if the Greeks had made a treaty of commerce with the Trojans, instead of making war with them, there would never have been an Achilles, a Hector, or a Homer, and that the race of man would have stagnated in ignorance.

These reasons, I acknowledge, are not without force; and I request time for giving them due consideration.

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