Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

VISION.

When I speak of vision, I do not mean the admirable manner in which our eyes perceive objects, and in which the pictures of all that we see are painted on the retina — a divine picture designed according to all the laws of mathematics, which is, consequently, like everything else from the hand of the Eternal geometrician; in spite of those who explain it, and who pretend to believe, that the eye is not intended to see, the ear to hear, or the feet to walk. This matter has been so learnedly treated by so many great geniuses, that there is no further remnant to glean after their harvests.

I do not pretend to speak of the heresy of which Pope John XXII. was accused, who pretended that saints will not enjoy beatific vision until after the last judgment. I give up this vision. My subject is the innumerable multitude of visions with which so many holy personages have been favored or tormented; which so many idiots are believed to have seen; with which so many knavish men and women have duped the world, either to get the reputation of being favored by heaven, which is very flattering, or to gain money, which is still more so to rogues in general.

Calmet and Langlet have made ample collections of these visions. The most interesting in my opinion is the one which has produced the greatest effects, since it has tended to reform three parts of the Swiss — that of the young Jacobin Yetzer, with which I have already amused my dear reader. This Yetzer, as you know, saw the Holy Virgin and St. Barbara several times, who informed him of the marks of Jesus Christ. You are not ignorant of how he received, from a Jacobin confessor, a host powdered with arsenic, and how the bishop of Lausanne would have had him burned for complaining that he was poisoned. You have seen, that these abominations were one of the causes of the misfortune which happened to the Bernese, of ceasing to be Catholic, Apostolical, and Roman.

I am sorry that I have no visions of this consequence to tell you of. Yet you will confess, that the vision of the reverend father Cordeliers of Orleans, in 1534, approaches the nearest to it, though still very distant. The criminal process which it occasioned is still in manuscript in the library of the king of France, No. 1770.

The illustrious house of St. Memin did great good to the convent of the Cordeliers, and had their vault in the church. The wife of a lord of St. Memin, provost of Orleans, being dead, her husband, believing that his ancestors had sufficiently impoverished themselves by giving to the monks, gave the brothers a present which did not appear to them considerable enough. These good Franciscans conceived a plan for disinterring the deceased, to force the widower to have her buried again in their holy ground, and to pay them better. The project was not clever, for the lord of St. Memin would not have failed to bury her elsewhere. But folly often mixes with knavery.

At first, the soul of the lady of St. Memin appeared only to two brothers. She said to them: “I am damned, like Judas, because my husband has not given sufficient.” The two knaves who related these words perceived not, that they must do more harm to the convent than good. The aim of the convent was to extort money from the lord of St. Memin, for the repose of his wife’s soul. Now, if Madame de St. Memin was damned, all the money in the world could not save her. They got no more; the Cordeliers lost their labor.

At this time there was very little good sense in France: the nation had been brutalized by the invasion of the Franks, and afterwards by the invasion of scholastic theology; but in Orleans there were some persons who reasoned. If the Great Being permitted the soul of Madame de St. Memin to appear to two Franciscans, it was not natural, they thought, for this soul to declare itself damned like Judas. This comparison appeared to them to be unnatural. This lady had not sold our Lord Jesus Christ for thirty deniers; she was not hanged; her intestines had not obtruded themselves; and there was not the slightest pretext for comparing her to Judas.

This caused suspicion; and the rumor was still greater in Orleans, because there were already heretics there who believed not in certain visions, and who, in admitting absurd principles, did not always fail to draw good conclusions. The Cordeliers, therefore, changed their battery, and put the lady in purgatory.

She therefore appeared again, and declared that purgatory was her lot; but she demanded to be disinterred. It was not the custom to disinter those in purgatory; but they hoped that M. de St. Memin would prevent this extraordinary affront, by giving money. This demand of being thrown out of the church augmented the suspicions. It was well known, that souls often appeared, but they never demanded to be disinterred.

From this time the soul spoke no more, but it haunted everybody in the convent and church. The brother Cordeliers exorcised it. Brother Peter of Arras adopted a very awkward manner of conjuring it. He said to it: “If thou art the soul of the late Madame de St. Memin, strike four knocks;” and the four knocks were struck. “If thou are damned, strike six knocks;” and the six knocks were struck. “If thou art still tormented in hell, because thy body is buried in holy ground, knock six more times;” and the other six knocks were heard still more distinctly. “If we disinter thy body, and cease praying to God for thee, wilt thou be the less damned? Strike five knocks to certify it to us;” and the soul certified it by five knocks.

This interrogation of the soul, made by Peter of Arras, was signed by twenty-two Cordeliers, at the head of which was the reverend father provincial. This father provincial the next day asked it the same questions, and received the same answers.

It will be said, that the soul having declared that it was in purgatory, the Cordeliers should not have supposed that it was in hell; but it is not my fault if theologians contradict one another.

The lord of St. Memin presented a request to the king against the father Cordeliers. They presented a request on their sides; the king appointed judges, at the head of whom was Adrian Fumée, master of requests.

The procureur-general of the commission required that the said Cordeliers should be burned, but the sentence only condemned them to make the “amende honorable” with a torch in their bosom, and to be banished from the kingdom. This sentence is of February 18, 1535.

After such a vision, it is useless to relate any others: they are all a species either of knavery or folly. Visions of the first kind are under the province of justice; those of the second are either visions of diseased fools, or of fools in good health. The first belong to medicine, the second to Bedlam.

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