Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

SECT.

§ I.

Every sect, of whatever opinion it may be, is a rallying point for doubt and error. Scotists, Thomists, Realists, Nominalists, Papists, Calvinists, Molinists, and Jansenists, are only warlike appellations.

There is no sect in geometry; we never say: A Euclidian, an Archimedian. When truth is evident, it is impossible to divide people into parties and factions. Nobody disputes that it is broad day at noon.

That part of astronomy which determines the course of the stars, and the return of eclipses, being now known, there is no longer any dispute among astronomers.

It is similar with a small number of truths, which are similarly established; but if you are a Mahometan, as there are many men who are not Mahometans, you may possibly be in error.

What would be the true religion, if Christianity did not exist? That in which there would be no sects; that in which all minds necessarily agreed.

Now, in what doctrine are all minds agreed? In the adoration of one God, and in probity. All the philosophers who have professed a religion have said at all times: “There is a God, and He must be just.” Behold then the universal religion, established throughout all time and among all men! The point then in which all agree is true; the systems in regard to which all differ are false.

My sect is the best, says a Brahmin. But, my good friend, if thy sect is the best, it is necessary; for if not absolutely necessary, thou must confess that it is useless. If, on the contrary, it is necessary, it must be so to all men; how then is it that all men possess not what is absolutely necessary to them? How is it that the rest of the world laughs at thee and thy Brahma?

When Zoroaster, Hermes, Orpheus, Minos, and all the great men say: Let us worship God, and be just, no one laughs; but all the world sneers at him who pretends, that to please God it is proper to die holding a cow by the tail; at him who cuts off a particle of foreskin for the same purpose; at him who consecrates crocodiles and onions; at him who attaches eternal salvation to the bones of dead men carried underneath the shirt, or to a plenary indulgence purchased at Rome for two sous and a half.

Whence this universal assemblage of laughing and hissing from one end of the universe to the other? It must be that the things which all the world derides are not evident truths. What shall we say to a secretary of Sejanus, who dedicates to Petronius a book, in a confused and involved style, entitled “The Truth of the Sibylline Oracles, Proved from Facts.”

This secretary at first proves to you, that God sent upon earth many Sibyls, one after the other, having no other means of instructing men. It is demonstrated, that God communicated with these Sibyls, because the word “sibyl” signifies “Council of God.” They ought to live a long time, for this privilege at least belongs to persons with whom God communicates. They amounted to twelve, because this number is sacred. They certainly predicted all the events in the world, because Tarquin the Proud bought their book from an old woman for a hundred crowns. What unbeliever, exclaims the secretary, can deny all these evident facts, which took place in one corner of the earth, in the face of all the world? Who can deny the accomplishment of their prophecies? Has not Virgil himself cited the predictions of the Sibyls? If we have not the first copies of the Sibylline books, written at a time when no one could read and write, we have authentic copies. Impiety must be silent before such proofs. Thus spoke Houteville to Sejanus, and hoped to obtain by it the place of chief augur, with a revenue of fifty thousand livres; but he obtained nothing.

That which my sect teaches me is obscure, I confess it, exclaims a fanatic; and it is in consequence of that obscurity that I must believe it; for it says itself that it abounds in obscurities. My sect is extravagant, therefore it is divine; for how, appearing so insane, would it otherwise have been embraced by so many people. It is precisely like the Koran, which the Sonnites say presents at once the face of an angel and that of a beast. Be not scandalized at the muzzle of the beast, but revere the face of the angel. Thus spoke this madman; but a fanatic of another sect replied to the first fanatic: It is thou who art the beast, and I who am the angel.

Now who will judge this process, and decide between these two inspired personages? The reasonable and impartial man who is learned in a science which is not that of words; the man divested of prejudice, and a lover of truth and of justice; the man, in fine, who is not a beast, and who pretends not to be an angel.

§ II.

Sect and error are synonymous terms. Thou art a peripatetic and I a Platonist; we are therefore both in the wrong; for thou opposest Plato, because his chimeras repel thee; and I fly from Aristotle, because it appears to me that he knew not what he said. If the one or the other had demonstrated the truth, there would have been an end of sect. To declare for the opinion of one in opposition to that of another, is to take part in a civil war. There is no sect in mathematics or experimental philosophy: a man who examines the relation between a cone and a sphere is not of the sect of Archimedes; and he who perceived that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, is not in consequence a Pythagorean.

When we say that the blood circulates, that the air is weighty, that the rays of the sun are a bundle of seven refrangible rays, it follows not that we are of the sect of Harvey, of Torricelli, or of Newton; we simply acquiesce in the truths which they demonstrate, and the whole universe will be of the same opinion.

Such is the character of truth, which belongs to all time and to all men. It is only to be produced to be acknowledged, and admits of no opposition. A long dispute signifies that both parties are in error.

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