Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Is the mould broken of those who loved virtue for itself, of a Confucius, a Pythagoras, a Thales, a Socrates? In their time, there were crowds of devotees to their pagods and divinities; minds struck with fear of Cerberus and of the Furies, who underwent initiations, pilgrimages, and mysteries, who ruined themselves in offerings of black sheep. All times have seen those unfortunates of whom Lucretius speaks:

Qui quocumque tamen miseri venere parentant,

Et nigras mactant pecudes, et manibu Divis

In ferias mittunt; multoque in rebus acerbis

Acrius advertunt animus ad religionem.

— Lucretius, iii, 51-54.

Who sacrifice black sheep on every tomb

To please the manes; and of all the rout

When cares and dangers press, grow most devout.

— Creech.

Mortifications were in use; the priests of Cybele castrated themselves to preserve continence. How comes it, that among all the martyrs of superstition, antiquity reckons not a single great man — a sage? It is, that fear could never make virtue, and that great men have been enthusiasts in moral good. Wisdom was their predominant passion; they were sages as Alexander was a warrior, as Homer was a poet, and Apelles a painter — by a superior energy and nature; which is all that is meant by the demon of Socrates.

One day, two citizens of Athens, returning from the temple of Mercury, perceived Socrates in the public place. One said to the other: “Is not that the rascal who says that one can be virtuous without going every day to offer up sheep and geese?” “Yes,” said the other, “that is the sage who has no religion; that is the atheist who says there is only one God.” Socrates approached them with his simple air, his dæmon, and his irony, which Madame Dacier has so highly exalted. “My friends,” said he to them, “one word, if you please: a man who prays to God, who adores Him, who seeks to resemble Him as much as human weakness can do, and who does all the good which lies in his power, what would you call him?” “A very religious soul,” said they. “Very well; we may therefore adore the Supreme Being, and have a great deal of religion?” “Granted,” said the two Athenians. “But do you believe,” pursued Socrates, “that when the Divine Architect of the world arranged all the globes which roll over our heads, when He gave motion and life to so many different beings, He made use of the arm of Hercules, the lyre of Apollo, or the flute of Pan?” “It is not probable,” said they. “But if it is not likely that He called in the aid of others to construct that which we see, it is not probable that He preserves it through others rather than through Himself. If Neptune was the absolute master of the sea, Juno of the air, Æolus of the winds, Ceres of harvests — and one would have a calm, when the other would have rain — you feel clearly, that the order of nature could not exist as it is. You will confess, that all depends upon Him who has made all. You give four white horses to the sun, and four black ones to the moon; but is it not more likely, that day and night are the effect of the motion given to the stars by their Master, than that they were produced by eight horses?” The two citizens looked at him, but answered nothing. In short, Socrates concluded by proving to them, that they might have harvests without giving money to the priests of Ceres; go to the chase without offering little silver statues to the temple of Diana; that Pomona gave not fruits; that Neptune gave not horses; and that they should thank the Sovereign who had made all.

His discourse was most exactly logical. Xenophon, his disciple, a man who knew the world, and who afterwards sacrificed to the wind, in the retreat of the ten thousand, took Socrates by the sleeve, and said to him: “Your discourse is admirable; you have spoken better than an oracle; you are lost; one of these honest people to whom you speak is a butcher, who sells sheep and geese for sacrifices; and the other a goldsmith, who gains much by making little gods of silver and brass for women. They will accuse you of being a blasphemer, who would diminish their trade; they will depose against you to Melitus and Anitus, your enemies, who have resolved upon your ruin: have a care of hemlock; your familiar spirit should have warned you not to say to a butcher and a goldsmith what you should only say to Plato and Xenophon.”

Some time after, the enemies of Socrates caused him to be condemned by the council of five hundred. He had two hundred and twenty voices in his favor, which may cause it to be presumed that there were two hundred and twenty philosophers in this tribunal; but it shows that, in all companies, the number of philosophers is always the minority.

Socrates therefore drank hemlock, for having spoken in favor of the unity of God; and the Athenians afterwards consecrated a temple to Socrates — to him who disputed against all temples dedicated to inferior beings.

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