Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

THEOCRACY.
Government of God or Gods.

I deceive myself every day; but I suspect that all the nations who have cultivated the arts have lived under a theocracy. I always except the Chinese, who appear learned as soon as they became a nation. They were free from superstition directly China was a kingdom. It is a great pity, that having been raised so high at first, they should remain stationary at the degree they have so long occupied in the sciences. It would seem that they have received from nature an ample allowance of good sense, and a very small one of industry. Yet in other things their industry is displayed more than ours.

The Japanese, their neighbors, of whose origin I know nothing whatever — for whose origin do we know? — were incontestably governed by a theocracy. The earliest well-ascertained sovereigns were the “dairos,” the high priests of their gods; this theocracy is well established. These priests reigned despotically about eight hundred years. In the middle of our twelfth century it came to pass that a captain, an “imperator,” a “seogon,” shared their authority; and in our sixteenth century the captains seized the whole power, and kept it. The “dairos” have remained the heads of religion; they were kings — they are now only saints; they regulate festivals, they bestow sacred titles, but they cannot give a company of infantry.

The Brahmins in India possessed for a long time the theocratical power; that is to say, they held the sovereign authority in the name of Brahma, the son of God; and even in their present humble condition they still believe their character indelible. These are the two principal among the certain theocracies.

The priests of Chaldæa, Persia, Syria, Phœnicia, and Egypt, were so powerful, had so great a share in the government, and carried the censer so loftily above the sceptre, that empire may be said, among those nations, to have been divided between theocracy and royalty.

The government of Numa Pompilius was evidently theocratical. When a man says: “I give you laws furnished by the gods; it is not I, it is a god who speaks to you”— then it is God who is king, and he who talks thus is lieutenant-general.

Among all the Celtic nations who had only elective chiefs, and not kings, the Druids and their sorceries governed everything. But I cannot venture to give the name of theocracy to the anarchy of these savages.

The little Jewish nation does not deserve to be considered politically, except on account of the prodigious revolution that has occurred in the world, of which it was the very obscure and unconscious cause.

Do but consider the history of this strange people. They have a conductor who undertakes to guide them in the name of his God to Phœnicia, which he calls Canaan. The way was direct and plain, from the country of Goshen as far as Tyre, from south to north; and there was no danger for six hundred and thirty thousand fighting men, having at their head a general like Moses, who, according to Flavius Josephus, had already vanquished an army of Ethiopians, and even an army of serpents.

Instead of taking this short and easy route, he conducts them from Rameses to Baal-Sephon, in an opposite direction, right into the middle of Egypt, due south. He crosses the sea; he marches for forty years in the most frightful deserts, where there is not a single spring of water, or a tree, or a cultivated field — nothing but sand and dreary rocks. It is evident that God alone could make the Jews, by a miracle, take this route, and support them there by a succession of miracles.

The Jewish government therefore was then a true theocracy. Moses, however, was never pontiff, and Aaron, who was pontiff, was never chief nor legislator. After that time we do not find any pontiff governing. Joshua, Jephthah, Samson, and the other chiefs of the people, except Elias and Samuel, were not priests. The Jewish republic, reduced to slavery so often, was anarchical rather than theocratical.

Under the kings of Judah and Israel, it was but a long succession of assassinations and civil wars. These horrors were interrupted only by the entire extinction of ten tribes, afterwards by the enslavement of two others, and by the destruction of the city amidst famine and pestilence. This was not then divine government.

When the Jewish slaves returned to Jerusalem, they were subdued by the kings of Persia, by the conqueror Alexandria and his successors. It appears that God did not then reign immediately over this nation, since a little before the invasion of Alexander, the pontiff John assassinated the priest Jesus, his brother, in the temple of Jerusalem, as Solomon had assassinated his brother Adonijah on the altar.

The government was still less theocratical when Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria, employed many of the Jews to punish those whom he regarded as rebels. He forbade them all, under pain of death, to circumcise their children; he compelled them to sacrifice swine in their temple, to burn the gates, to destroy the altar; and the whole enclosure was filled with thorns and brambles.

Matthias rose against him at the head of some citizens, but he was not king. His son, Judas Maccabæus, taken for the Messiah, perished after glorious struggles. To these bloody contests succeeded civil wars. The men of Jerusalem destroyed Samaria, which the Romans subsequently rebuilt under the name of Sebasta.

In this chaos of revolutions, Aristobulus, of the race of the Maccabees, and son of a high priest, made himself king, more than five hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem. He signalized his reign like some Turkish sultans, by cutting his brother’s throat, and causing his mother to be put to death. His successors followed his example, until the period when the Romans punished all these barbarians. Nothing in all this is theocratical.

If anything affords an idea of theocracy, it must be granted that it is the papacy of Rome; it never announces itself but in the name of God, and its subjects live in peace. For a long time Thibet enjoyed the same advantages under the Grand Lama; but that is a gross error striving to imitate a sublime truth.

The first Incas, by calling themselves descendants in a right line from the sun, established a theocracy; everything was done in the name of the sun. Theocracy ought to be universal; for every man, whether a prince or a boatman, should obey the natural and eternal laws which God has given him.

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