Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ARIANISM.

The great theological disputes, for twelve hundred years, were all Greek. What would Homer, Sophocles, Demosthenes, Archimedes, have said, had they witnessed the subtle cavillings which have cost so much blood.

Arius has, even at this day, the honor of being regarded as the inventor of his opinion, as Calvin is considered to have been the founder of Calvinism. The pride in being the head of a sect is the second of this world’s vanities; for that of conquest is said to be the first. However, it is certain that neither Arius nor Calvin is entitled to the melancholy glory of invention. The quarrel about the Trinity existed long before Arius took part in it, in the disputatious town of Alexandria, where it had been beyond the power of Euclid to make men think calmly and justly. There never was a people more frivolous than the Alexandrians; in this respect they far exceeded even the Parisians.

There must already have been warm disputes about the Trinity; since the patriarch, who composed the “Alexandrian Chronicle,” preserved at Oxford, assures us that the party embraced by Arius was supported by two thousand priests.

We will here, for the reader’s convenience, give what is said of Arius in a small book which every one may not have at hand: Here is an incomprehensible question, which, for more than sixteen hundred years, has furnished exercise for curiosity, for sophistic subtlety, for animosity, for the spirit of cabal, for the fury of dominion, for the rage of persecution, for blind and sanguinary fanaticism, for barbarous credulity, and which has produced more horrors than the ambition of princes, which ambition has occasioned very many. Is Jesus the Word? If He be the Word, did He emanate from God in time or before time? If He emanated from God, is He coeternal and consubstantial with Him, or is He of a similar substance? Is He distinct from Him, or is He not? Is He made or begotten? Can He beget in his turn? Has He paternity? or productive virtue without paternity? Is the Holy Ghost made? or begotten? or produced? or proceeding from the Father? or proceeding from the Son? or proceeding from both? Can He beget? can He produce? is His hypostasis consubstantial with the hypostasis of the Father and the Son? and how is it that, having the same nature — the same essence as the Father and the Son, He cannot do the same things done by these persons who are Himself?

These questions, so far above reason, certainly needed the decision of an infallible church. The Christians sophisticated, cavilled, hated, and excommunicated one another, for some of these dogmas inaccessible to human intellect, before the time of Arius and Athanasius. The Egyptian Greeks were remarkably clever; they would split a hair into four, but on this occasion they split it only into three. Alexandros, bishop of Alexandria, thought proper to preach that God, being necessarily individual — single — a monad in the strictest sense of the word, this monad is triune.

The priest Arius, whom we call Arius, was quite scandalized by Alexandros’s monad, and explained the thing in quite a different way. He cavilled in part like the priest Sabellius, who had cavilled like the Phrygian Praxeas, who was a great caviller. Alexandros quickly assembled a small council of those of his own opinion, and excommunicated his priest. Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, took the part of Arius. Thus the whole Church was in a flame.

The Emperor Constantine was a villain; I confess it — a parricide, who had smothered his wife in a bath, cut his son’s throat, assassinated his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, and his nephew; I cannot deny it — a man puffed up with pride and immersed in pleasure; granted — a detestable tyrant, like his children; transeat — but he was a man of sense. He would not have obtained the empire, and subdued all his rivals, had he not reasoned justly.

When he saw the flames of civil war lighted among the scholastic brains, he sent the celebrated Bishop Osius with dissuasive letters to the two belligerent parties. “You are great fools,” he expressly tells them in this letter, “to quarrel about things which you do not understand. It is unworthy the gravity of your ministry to make so much noise about so trifling a matter.”

By “so trifling a matter,” Constantine meant not what regards the Divinity, but the incomprehensible manner in which they were striving to explain the nature of the Divinity. The Arabian patriarch, who wrote the history of the Church of Alexandria, makes Osius, on presenting the emperor’s letter, speak in nearly the following words:

“My brethren, Christianity is just beginning to enjoy the blessings of peace, and you would plunge it into eternal discord. The emperor has but too much reason to tell you that you quarrel about a very trifling matter. Certainly, had the object of the dispute been essential, Jesus Christ, whom we all acknowledge as our legislator, would have mentioned it. God would not have sent His Son on earth, to return without teaching us our catechism. Whatever He has not expressly told us is the work of men and error is their portion. Jesus has commanded you to love one another, and you begin by hating one another and stirring up discord in the empire. Pride alone has given birth to these disputes, and Jesus, your Master, has commanded you to be humble. Not one among you can know whether Jesus is made or begotten. And in what does His nature concern you, provided your own is to be just and reasonable? What has the vain science of words to do with the morality which should guide your actions? You cloud our doctrines with mysteries — you, who were designed to strengthen religion by your virtues. Would you leave the Christian religion a mass of sophistry? Did Christ come for this? Cease to dispute, humble yourselves, edify one another, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and pacify the quarrels of families, instead of giving scandal to the whole empire by your dissensions.”

But Osius addressed an obstinate audience. The Council of Nice was assembled and the Roman Empire was torn by a spiritual civil war. This war brought on others and mutual persecution has continued from age to age, unto this day.

The melancholy part of the affair was that as soon as the council was ended the persecution began; but Constantine, when he opened it, did not yet know how he should act, nor upon whom the persecution should fall. He was not a Christian, though he was at the head of the Christians. Baptism alone then constituted Christianity, and he had not been baptized; he had even rebuilt the Temple of Concord at Rome. It was, doubtless, perfectly indifferent to him whether Alexander of Alexandria, or Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the priest Arius, were right or wrong; it is quite evident, from the letter given above, that he had a profound contempt for the dispute.

But there happened that which always happens and always will happen in every court. The enemies of those who were afterwards named Arians accused Eusebius of Nicomedia of having formerly taken part with Licinius against the emperor. “I have proofs of it,” said Constantine in his letter to the Church of Nicomedia, “from the priests and deacons in his train whom I have taken,” etc.

Thus, from the time of the first great council, intrigue, cabal, and persecution were established, together with the tenets of the Church, without the power to derogate from their sanctity. Constantine gave the chapels of those who did not believe in the consubstantiality to those who did believe in it; confiscated the property of the dissenters to his own profit, and used his despotic power to exile Arius and his partisans, who were not then the strongest. It has even been said that of his own private authority he condemned to death whosoever should not burn the writings of Arius; but this is not true. Constantine, prodigal as he was of human blood, did not carry his cruelty to so mad and absurd an excess as to order his executioners to assassinate the man who should keep an heretical book, while he suffered the heresiarch to live.

At court everything soon changes. Several non-consubstantial bishops, with some of the eunuchs and the women, spoke in favor of Arius, and obtained the reversal of the lettre de cachet. The same thing has repeatedly happened in our modern courts on similar occasions.

The celebrated Eusebius, bishop of Cæsarea, known by his writings, which evince no great discernment, strongly accused Eustatius, bishop of Antioch, of being a Sabellian; and Eustatius accused Eusebius of being an Arian. A council was assembled at Antioch; Eusebius gained his cause; Eustatius was displaced; and the See of Antioch was offered to Eusebius, who would not accept it; the two parties armed against each other, and this was the prelude to controversial warfare. Constantine, who had banished Arius for not believing in the consubstantial Son, now banished Eustatius for believing in Him; nor are such revolutions uncommon.

St. Athanasius was then bishop of Alexandria. He would not admit Arius, whom the emperor had sent thither, into the town, saying that “Arius was excommunicated; that an excommunicated man ought no longer to have either home or country; that he could neither eat nor sleep anywhere; and that it was better to obey God than man.” A new council was forthwith held at Tyre, and new lettres de cachet were issued. Athanasius was removed by the Tyrian fathers and banished to Treves. Thus Arius, and Athanasius, his greatest enemy, were condemned in turn by a man who was not yet a Christian.

The two factions alike employed artifice, fraud, and calumny, according to the old and eternal usage. Constantine left them to dispute and cabal, for he had other occupations. It was at that time that this good prince assassinated his son, his wife, and his nephew, the young Licinius, the hope of the empire, who was not yet twelve years old.

Under Constantine, Arius’ party was constantly victorious. The opposite party has unblushingly written that one day St. Macarius, one of the most ardent followers of Athanasius, knowing that Arius was on the way to the cathedral of Constantinople, followed by several of his brethren, prayed so ardently to God to confound this heresiarch that God could not resist the prayer; and immediately all Arius’ bowels passed through his fundament — which is impossible. But at length Arius died.

Constantine followed him a year afterwards, and it is said he died of leprosy. Julian, in his “Cæsars,” says that baptism, which this emperor received a few hours before his death, cured no one of this distemper.

As his children reigned after him the flattery of the Roman people, who had long been slaves, was carried to such an excess that those of the old religion made him a god, and those of the new made him a saint. His feast was long kept, together with that of his mother.

After his death, the troubles caused by the single word “consubstantial” agitated the empire with renewed violence. Constantius, son and successor to Constantine, imitated all his father’s cruelties, and, like him, held councils — which councils anathematized one another. Athanasius went over all Europe and Asia to support his party, but the Eusebians overwhelmed him. Banishment, imprisonment, tumult, murder, and assassination signalized the close of the reign of Constantius. Julian, the Church’s mortal enemy, did his utmost to restore peace to the Church, but was unsuccessful. Jovian, and after him Valentinian, gave entire liberty of conscience, but the two parties accepted it only as the liberty to exercise their hatred and their fury.

Theodosius declared for the Council of Nice, but the Empress Justina, who reigned in Italy, Illyria, and Africa, as guardian of the young Valentinian, proscribed the great Council of Nice; and soon after the Goths, Vandals, and Burgundians, who spread themselves over so many provinces, finding Arianism established in them, embraced it in order to govern the conquered nations by the religion of those nations.

But the Nicæan faith having been received by the Gauls, their conqueror, Clovis, followed that communion for the very same reason that the other barbarians had professed the faith of Arius.

In Italy, the great Theodoric kept peace between the two parties, and at last the Nicæan formula prevailed in the east and in the west. Arianism reappeared about the middle of the sixteenth century, favored by the religious disputes which then divided Europe; and it reappeared, armed with new strength and a still greater incredulity. Forty gentlemen of Vicenza formed an academy, in which such tenets only were established as appeared necessary to make men Christians. Jesus was acknowledged as the Word, as Saviour, and as Judge; but His divinity, His consubstantiality, and even the Trinity, were denied.

Of these dogmatizers, the principal were Lælius Socinus, Ochin, Pazuta, and Gentilis, who were joined by Servetus. The unfortunate dispute of the latter with Calvin is well known; they carried on for some time an interchange of abuse by letter. Servetus was so imprudent as to pass through Geneva, on his way to Germany. Calvin was cowardly enough to have him arrested, and barbarous enough to have him condemned to be roasted by a slow fire — the same punishment which Calvin himself had narrowly escaped in France. Nearly all the theologians of that time were by turns persecuting and persecuted, executioners and victims.

The same Calvin solicited the death of Gentilis at Geneva. He found five advocates to subscribe that Gentilis deserved to perish in the flames. Such horrors were worthy of that abominable age. Gentilis was put in prison, and was on the point of being burned like Servetus, but he was better advised than the Spaniard; he retracted, bestowed the most ridiculous praises on Calvin, and was saved. But he had afterwards the ill fortune, through not having made terms with a bailiff of the canton of Berne, to be arrested as an Arian. There were witnesses who deposed that he had said that the words trinity, essence, hypostasis were not to be found in the Scriptures, and on this deposition the judges, who were as ignorant of the meaning of hypostasis as himself, condemned him, without at all arguing the question, to lose his head.

Faustus Socinus, nephew to Lælius Socinus, and his companions were more fortunate in Germany. They penetrated into Silesia and Poland, founded churches there, wrote, preached, and were successful, but at length, their religion being divested of almost every mystery, and a philosophical and peaceful, rather than a militant sect, they were abandoned; and the Jesuits, who had more influence, persecuted and dispersed them.

The remains of this sect in Poland, Germany, and Holland keep quiet and concealed; but in England the sect has reappeared with greater strength and éclat. The great Newton and Locke embraced it. Samuel Clarke, the celebrated rector of St. James, and author of an excellent book on the existence of God, openly declared himself an Arian, and his disciples are very numerous. He would never attend his parish church on the day when the Athanasian Creed was recited. In the course of this work will be seen the subtleties which all these obstinate persons, who were not so much Christians as philosophers, opposed to the purity of the Catholic faith.

Although among the theologians of London there was a large flock of Arians, the public mind there has been more occupied by the great mathematical truths discovered by Newton, and the metaphysical wisdom of Locke. Disputes on consubstantiality appear very dull to philosophers. The same thing happened to Newton in England as to Corneille in France, whose “Pertharite,” “Théodore,” and “Récueil de Vers” were forgotten, while “Cinna” was alone thought of. Newton was looked upon as God’s interpreter, in the calculation of fluxions, the laws of gravitation, and the nature of light. On his death, his pall was borne by the peers and the chancellor of the realm, and his remains were laid near the tombs of the kings — than whom he is more revered. Servetus, who is said to have discovered the circulation of the blood, was roasted by a slow fire, in a little town of the Allobroges, ruled by a theologian of Picardy.

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