Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

WEAKNESS ON BOTH SIDES.

Weakness on both sides is, as we know, the motto of all quarrels. I speak not here of those which have caused blood to be shed — the Anabaptists, who ravaged Westphalia; the Calvinists, who kindled so many wars in France; the sanguinary factions of the Armagnacs and Burgundians; the punishment of the Maid of Orleans, whom one-half of France regarded as a celestial heroine, and the other as a sorceress; the Sorbonne, which presented a request to have her burned; the assassination of the duke of Orleans, justified by the doctors; subjects excused from the oath of fidelity by a decree of the sacred faculty; the executioners so often employed to enforce opinions; the piles lighted for unfortunates who persuaded others that they were sorcerers and heretics — all that is more than weakness. Yet these abominations were committed in the good times of honest Germanic faith and Gallic naïveté! I would send back to them all honest people who regret times past.

I will make here, simply for my own particular edification, a little instructive memoir of the fine things which divided the minds of our grandfathers. In the eleventh century — in that good time in which we knew not the art of war, which however we have always practised; nor that of governing towns, nor commerce, nor society, and in which we could neither read nor write — men of much mind disputed solemnly, at much length, and with great vivacity, on what happened at the water-closet, after having fulfilled a sacred duty, of which we must speak only with the most profound respect. This was called the dispute of the stercorists; and, not ending in a war, was in consequence one of the mildest impertinences of the human mind.

The dispute which divided learned Spain, in the same century, on the Mosarabic version, also terminated without ravaging provinces or shedding human blood. The spirit of chivalry, which then prevailed, permitted not the difficulty to be enlightened otherwise than in leaving the decision to two noble knights. As in that of the two Don Quixotes, whichever overthrew his adversary caused his own party to triumph. Don Ruis de Martanza, knight of the Mosarabic ritual, overthrew the Don Quixote of the Latin ritual; but as the laws of chivalry decided not positively that a ritual must be proscribed because its knight was unhorsed, a more certain and established secret was made use of, to know which of the books should be preferred. The expedient alluded to was that of throwing them both into the fire, it not being possible for the sound ritual to perish in the flames. I know not how it happened, however, but they were both burned, and the dispute remained undecided, to the great astonishment of the Spaniards. By degrees, the Latin ritual got the preference; and if any knight afterwards presented himself to maintain the Mosarabic, it was the knight and not the ritual which was thrown into the fire.

In these fine times, we and other polished people, when we were ill, were obliged to have recourse to an Arabian physician. When we would know what day of the moon it was, we referred to the Arabs. If we would buy a piece of cloth, we must pay a Jew for it; and when a farmer wanted rain, he addressed himself to a sorcerer. At last, however, when some of us learned Latin, and had a bad translation of Aristotle, we figured in the world with honor, passing three or four hundred years in deciphering some pages of the Stagyrite, and in adoring and condemning them. Some said that without him we should want articles of faith; others, that he was an atheist. A Spaniard proved that Aristotle was a saint, and that we should celebrate his anniversary; while a council in France caused his divine writings to be burned. Colleges, universities, whole orders of monks, were reciprocally anathematized, on the subject of some passages of this great man — which neither themselves, the judges who interposed their authority, nor the author himself, ever understood. There were many fisticuffs given in Germany in these grave quarrels, but there was not much bloodshed. It is a pity, for the glory of Aristotle, that they did not make civil war, and have some regular battles in favor of quiddities, and of the “universal of the part of the thing.” Our ancestors cut the throats of each other in disputes upon points which they understood very little better.

It is true that a much celebrated madman named Occam, surnamed the “invincible doctor,” chief of those who stood up for the “universal of the part of thought,” demanded from the emperor Louis of Bavaria, that he should defend his pen with his imperial sword against Scott, another Scottish madman, surnamed the “subtle doctor,” who fought for the “universal of the part of the thing.” Happily, the sword of Louis of Bavaria remained in its scabbard. Who would believe that these disputes have lasted until our days, and that the Parliament of Paris, in 1624, gave a fine sentence in favor of Aristotle?

Towards the time of the brave Occam and the intrepid Scott, a much more serious quarrel arose, into which the reverend father Cordeliers inveigled all the Christian world. This was to know if their kitchen garden belonged to themselves, or if they were merely simple tenants of it. The form of the cowls, and the size of the sleeves, were further subjects of this holy war. Pope John XXII., who interfered, found out to whom he was speaking. The Cordeliers quitted his party for that of Louis of Bavaria, who then drew his sword.

There were, moreover, three or four Cordeliers burned as heretics, which is rather strong; but after all, this affair having neither shaken thrones nor ruined provinces, we may place it in the rank of peaceable follies.

There have been always some of this kind, the greater part of whom have fallen into the most profound oblivion; and of four or five hundred sects which have appeared, there remain in the memory of men those only which have produced either extreme disorder or extreme folly — two things which they willingly retain. Who knows, in the present day, that there were Orebites, Osmites, and Insdorfians? Who is now acquainted with the Anointed, the Cornacians, or the Iscariots?

Dining one day at the house of a Dutch lady, I was charitably warned by one of the guests, to take care of myself, and not to praise Voetius. “I have no desire,’ said I, “to say either good or evil of your Voetius; but why do you give me this advice?” “Because madam is a Cocceian,” said my neighbor. “With all my heart,” said I. She added, that there were still four Cocceians in Holland, and that it was a great pity that the sect perished. A time will come in which the Jansenists, who have made so much noise among us, and who are unknown everywhere else, will have the fate of the Cocceians. An old doctor said to me: “Sir, in my youth, I have debated on the ‘mandata impossibilia volentibus et conantibus.’ I have written against the formulary and the pope, and I thought myself a confessor. I have been put in prison, and I thought myself a martyr. I now no longer interfere in anything, and I believe myself to be reasonable.” “What are your occupations?” said I to him. “Sir,” replied he, “I am very fond of money.” It is thus that almost all men in their old age inwardly laugh at the follies which they ardently embraced in their youth. Sects grow old, like men. Those which have not been supported by great princes, which have not caused great mischief, grow old much sooner than others. They are epidemic maladies, which pass over like the sweating sickness and the whooping-cough.

There is no longer any question on the pious reveries of Madame Guyon. We no longer read the most unintelligible book of Maxims of the Saints, but Telemachus. We no longer remember what the eloquent Bossuet wrote against the elegant and amiable Fénelon; we give the preference to his funeral orations. In all the dispute on what is called quietism, there has been nothing good but the old tale revived of the honest woman who brought a torch to burn paradise, and a cruse of water to extinguish the fire of hell, that God should no longer be served either through hope or fear.

I will only remark one singularity in this proceeding, which is not equal to the story of the good woman; it is, that the Jesuits, who were so much accused in France by the Jansenists of having been founded by St. Ignatius, expressly to destroy the love of God, warmly interfered at Rome in favor of the pure love of Fénelon. It happened to them as to M. de Langeais, who was pursued by his wife to the Parliament of Paris, on account of his impotence, and by a girl to the Parliament of Rennes, for having rendered her pregnant. He ought to have gained one of these two causes; he lost them both. Pure love, for which the Jesuits made so much stir, was condemned at Rome, and they were always supposed at Paris to be against loving God. This opinion was so rooted in the public mind that when, some years ago, an engraving was sold representing our Lord Jesus Christ dressed as a Jesuit, a wit — apparently the loustic of the Jansenist party — wrote lines under the print intimating that the ingenious fathers had habited God like themselves, as the surest means of preventing the love of him:

Admirez l’artifice extrême

Les ces pères ingénieux:

Ils vous ont habillé comme eux,

Mon Dieu, de peur qu’on ne vous aime.

At Rome, where such disputes never arise, and where they judge those that take place elsewhere, they were much annoyed with quarrels on pure love. Cardinal Carpegne, who was the reporter of the affairs of the archbishop of Cambray, was ill, and suffered much in a part which is not more spared in cardinals than in other men. His surgeon bandaged him with fine linen, which is called cambrai (cambric) in Italy as in many other places. The cardinal cried out, when the surgeon pleaded that it was the finest cambrai: “What! more cambrai still? Is it not enough to have one’s head fatigued with it?” Happy the disputes which end thus! Happy would man be if all the disputers of the world, if heresiarchs, submitted with so much moderation, such magnanimous mildness, as the great archbishop of Cambray, who had no desire to be an heresiarch! I know not whether he was right in wishing God to be loved for himself alone, but M. de Fénelon certainly deserved to be loved thus.

In purely literary disputes there is often as much snarling and party spirit as in more interesting quarrels. We should, if we could, renew the factions of the circus, which agitated the Roman Empire. Two rival actresses are capable of dividing a town. Men have all a secret fascination for faction. If we cannot cabal, pursue, and destroy one another for crowns, tiaras, and mitres, we fall upon one another for a dancer or a musician. Rameau had a violent party against him, who would have exterminated him; and he knew nothing of it. I had a violent party against me, and I knew it well.

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