Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The first among the Westerns who spoke of the Trinity was Timæus of Locri, in his “Soul of the World.” First came the Idea, the perpetual model or archetype of all things engendered; that is to say, the first “Word,” the internal and intelligible “Word.” Afterwards, the unformed mode, the second word, or the word spoken. Lastly, the “son,” or sensible world, or the spirit of the world. These three qualities constitute the entire world, which world is the Son of God “Monogenes.” He has a soul and possessed reason; he is “empsukos, logikos.”

God, wishing to make a very fine God, has engendered one: “Touton epoie theon genaton.”

It is difficult clearly to comprehend the system of Timæus, which he perhaps derived from the Egyptians or Brahmins. I know not whether it was well understood in his time. It is like decayed and rusty medals, the motto of which is effaced: it could be read formerly; at present, we put what construction we please upon it.

It does not appear that this sublime balderdash made much progress until the time of Plato. It was buried in oblivion, and Plato raised it up. He constructed his edifice in the air, but on the model of Timæus. He admits three divine essences: the Father, the Supreme Creator, the Parent of other gods, is the first essence. The second is the visible God, the minister of the invisible one, the “Word,” the understanding, the great spirit. The third is the world.

It is true, that Plato sometimes says quite different and even quite contrary things; it is the privilege of the Greek philosophers; and Plato has made use of his right more than any of the ancients or moderns. A Greek wind wafted these philosophical clouds from Athens to Alexandria, a town prodigiously infatuated with two things — money and chimeras. There were Jews in Alexandria who, having made their fortunes, turned philosophers.

Metaphysics have this advantage, that they require no very troublesome preliminaries. We may know all about them without having learned anything; and a little to those who have at once subtle and very false minds, will go a great way. Philo the Jew was a philosopher of this kind; he was contemporary with Jesus Christ; but he has the misfortune of not knowing Him any more than Josephus the historian. These two considerable men, employed in the chaos of affairs of state, were too far distant from the dawning light. This Philo had quite a metaphysical, allegorical, mystical head. It was he who said that God must have formed the world in six days; he formed it, according to Zoroaster, in six times, “because three is the half of six and two is the third of it; and this number is male and female.”

This same man, infatuated with the ideas of Plato, says, in speaking of drunkenness, that God and wisdom married, and that wisdom was delivered of a well-beloved son, which son is the world. He calls the angels the words of God, and the world the word of God — “logon tou Theou.”

As to Flavius Josephus, he was a man of war who had never heard of the logos, and who held to the dogmas of the Pharisees, who were solely attached to their traditions. From the Jews of Alexandria, this Platonic philosophy proceeded to those of Jerusalem. Soon, all the school of Alexandria, which was the only learned one, was Platonic; and Christians who philosophized, no longer spoke of anything but the logos.

We know that it was in disputes of that time the same as in those of the present. To one badly understood passage, was tacked another unintelligible one to which it had no relation. A second was inferred from them, a third was falsified, and they fabricated whole books which they attributed to authors respected by the multitude. We have seen a hundred examples of it in the article on “Apocrypha.”

Dear reader, for heaven’s sake cast your eyes on this passage of Clement the Alexandrian: “When Plato says, that it is difficult to know the Father of the universe, he demonstrates by that, not only that the world has been engendered, but that it has been engendered as the Son of God.”

Do you understand these logomachies, these equivoques? Do you see the least light in this chaos of obscure expressions? Oh, Locke! Locke! come and define these terms. In all these Platonic disputes I believe there was not a single one understood. They distinguished two words, the “logos endiathetos” — the word in thought, and the word produced — “logos prophorikos.” They had the eternity from one word, and the prolation, the emanation from another word.

The book of “Apostolic Constitutions,” an ancient monument of fraud, but also an ancient depository of these obscure times, expresses itself thus: “The Father, who is anterior to all generation, all commencement, having created all by His only Son, has engendered this Son without a medium, by His will and His power.”

Afterwards Origen advanced, that the Holy Spirit was created by the Son, by the word. After that came Eusebius of Cæsarea, who taught that the spirit paraclete is neither of Father nor Son. The advocate Lactantius flourished in that time.

“The Son of God,” says he, “is the word, as the other angels are the spirits of God. The word is a spirit uttered by a significant voice, the spirit proceeding from the nose, and the word from the mouth. It follows, that there is a difference between the Son of God and the other angels; those being emanated like tacit and silent spirits; while the Son, being a spirit proceeding from the mouth, possesses sound and voice to preach to the people.”

It must be confessed, that Lactantius pleaded his cause in a strange manner. It was truly reasoning à la Plato, and very powerful reasoning. It was about this time that, among the very violent disputes on the Trinity, this famous verse was inserted in the First Epistle of St. John: “There are three that bear witness in earth — the word or spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three are one.”

Those who pretend that this verse is truly St. John’s, are much more embarrassed than those who deny it; for they must explain it. St. Augustine says, that the spirit signifies the Father, water the Holy Ghost, and by blood is meant the Word. This explanation is fine, but it still leaves a little confusion.

St Irenæus goes much farther; he says, that Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, in concealing three spies of the people of God, concealed the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; which is strong, but not consistent. On the other hand, the great and learned Origen confounds us in a different way. The following is one of many of his passages: “The Son is as much below the Father as He and the Holy Ghost are above the most noble creatures.”

What can be said after that? How can we help confessing, with grief, that nobody understands it? How can we help confessing, that from the first — from the primitive Christians, the Ebionites, those men so mortified and so pious, who always revered Jesus though they believed Him to be the son of Joseph — until the great controversy of Athanasius, the Platonism of the Trinity was always a subject of quarrels. A supreme judge was absolutely required to decide, and he was at last found in the Council of Nice, which council afterwards produced new factions and wars.

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