Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


If it is Zoroaster who first announced to mankind that fine maxim: “In the doubt whether an action be good or bad, abstain from it,” Zoroaster was the first of men after Confucius.

If this beautiful lesson of morality is found only in the hundred gates of the “Sadder,” let us bless the author of the “Sadder.” There may be very ridiculous dogmas and rites united with an excellent morality.

Who was this Zoroaster? The name has something of Greek in it, and it is said he was a Mede. The Parsees of the present day call him Zerdust, or Zerdast, or Zaradast, or Zarathrust. He is not reckoned to have been the first of the name. We are told of two other Zoroasters, the former of whom has an antiquity of nine thousand years — which is much for us, but may be very little for the world. We are acquainted with only the latest Zoroaster.

The French travellers, Chardin and Tavernier, have given us some information respecting this great prophet, by means of the Guebers or Parsees, who are still scattered through India and Persia, and who are excessively ignorant. Dr. Hyde, Arabic professor of Oxford, has given us a hundred times more without leaving home. Living in the west of England, he must have conjectured the language which the Persians spoke in the time of Cyrus, and must have compared it with the modern language of the worshippers of fire. It is to him, moreover, that we owe those hundred gates of the “Sadder,” which contain all the principal precepts of the pious fire-worshippers.

For my own part, I confess I have found nothing in their ancient rites more curious than the two Persian verses of Sadi, as given by Hyde; signifying that, although a person may preserve the sacred fire for a hundred years, he is burned when he falls into it.

The learned researches of Hyde kindled, a few years ago in the breast of a young Frenchman, the desire to learn for himself the dogmas of the Guebers. He traversed the Great Indies, in order to learn at Surat, among the poor modern Parsees, the language of the ancient Persians, and to read in that language the books of the so-much celebrated Zoroaster, supposing that he has in fact written any.

The Pythagorases, the Platos, the Appolloniuses of Thyana, went in former times to seek in the East wisdom that was not there; but no one has run after this hidden divinity through so many sufferings and perils as this new French translator of the books attributed to Zoroaster. Neither disease nor war, nor obstacles renewed at every step, nor poverty itself, the first and greatest of obstacles, could repel his courage.

It is glorious for Zoroaster that an Englishman wrote his life, at the end of so many centuries, and that afterwards a Frenchman wrote it in an entirely different manner. But it is still finer, that among the ancient biographers of the poet we have two principal Arabian authors, each of whom had previously written his history; and all these four histories contradict one another marvellously. This is not done by concert; and nothing is more conducive to the knowledge of the truth.

The first Arabian historian, Abu-Mohammed Mustapha, allows that the father of Zoroaster was called Espintaman; but he also says that Espintaman was not his father, but his great-great-grandfather. In regard to his mother, there are not two opinions; she was named Dogdu, or Dodo, or Dodu — that is, a very fine turkey hen; she is very well portrayed in Doctor Hyde.

Bundari, the second historian, relates that Zoroaster was a Jew, and that he had been valet to Jeremiah; that he told lies to his master; that, in order to punish him, Jeremiah gave him the leprosy; that the valet, to purify himself, went to preach a new religion in Persia, and caused the sun to be adored instead of the stars.

Attend now to what the third historian relates, and what the Englishman, Hyde, has recorded somewhat at length: The prophet Zoroaster having come from Paradise to preach his religion to the king of Persia, Gustaph, the king said to the prophet: “Give me a sign.” Upon this, the prophet caused a cedar to grow up before the gate of the palace, so large and so tall, that no cord could either go round it or reach its top. Upon the cedar he placed a fine cabinet, to which no man could ascend. Struck with this miracle, Gustaph believed in Zoroaster.

Four magi, or four sages — it is the same thing — envious and wicked persons, borrowed from the royal porter the key of the prophet’s chamber during his absence, and threw among his books the bones of dogs and cats, the nails and hair of dead bodies — such being, as is well known, the drugs with which magicians at all times have operated. Afterwards, they went and accused the prophet of being a sorcerer and a poisoner; and the king, causing the chamber to be opened by his porter, the instruments of witchcraft were found there — and behold the envoy from heaven condemned to be hanged!

Just as they are going to hang Zoroaster, the king’s finest horse falls ill; his four legs enter his body, so as to be no longer visible. Zoroaster hears of it; he promises to cure the horse, provided they will not hang him. The bargain being made, he causes one leg to issue out of the belly, and says: “Sire, I will not restore you the second leg unless you embrace my religion.” “Let it be so,” says the monarch. The prophet, after having made the second leg appear, wished the king’s children to become Zoroastrians, and they became so. The other legs made proselytes of the whole court. The four envious sages were hanged in place of the prophet, and all Persia received the faith.

The French traveller relates nearly the same miracles, supported and embellished, however, by many others. For instance, the infancy of Zoroaster could not fail to be miraculous; Zoroaster fell to laughing as soon as he was born, at least according to Pliny and Solinus. There were, in those days, as all the world knows, a great number of very powerful magicians; they were well aware that one day Zoroaster would be greater than themselves, and that he would triumph over their magic. The prince of magicians caused the infant to be brought to him, and tried to cut him in two; but his hand instantly withered. They threw him into the fire, which was turned for him into a bath of rose water. They wished to have him trampled on by the feet of wild bulls; but a still more powerful bull protected him. He was cast among the wolves; these wolves went incontinently and sought two ewes, who gave him suck all night. At last, he was restored to his mother Dogdu, or Dodo, or Dodu, a wife excellent above all wives, or a daughter above all daughters.

Such, throughout the world, have been all the histories of ancient times. It proves what we have often remarked, that Fable is the elder sister of History. I could wish that, for our amusement and instruction, all these great prophets of antiquity, the Zoroasters, the Mercurys Trismegistus, the Abarises, and even the Numas, and others, should now return to the earth, and converse with Locke, Newton, Bacon, Shaftesbury, Pascal, Arnaud, Bayle — what do I say? — even with those philosophers of our day who are the least learned, provided they are not the less rational. I ask pardon of antiquity, but I think they would cut a sorry figure.

Alas, poor charlatans! they could not sell their drugs on the Pont-neuf. In the meantime, however, their morality is still good, because morality is not a drug. How could it be that Zoroaster joined so many egregious fooleries to the fine precept of “abstaining when it is doubtful whether one is about to do right or wrong?” It is because men are always compounded of contradictions.

It is added that Zoroaster, having established his religion, became a persecutor. Alas! there is not a sexton, or a sweeper of a church, who would not persecute, if he had the power.

One cannot read two pages of the abominable trash attributed to Zoroaster, without pitying human nature. Nostradamus and the urine doctor are reasonable compared with this inspired personage; and yet he still is and will continue to be talked of.

What appears singular is, that there existed, in the time of the Zoroaster with whom we are acquainted, and probably before, prescribed formulas of public and private prayer. We are indebted to the French traveller for a translation of them. There were such formulas in India; we know of none such in the Pentateuch.

What is still stranger, the magi, as well as the Brahmins, admitted a paradise, a hell, a resurrection, and a devil. It is demonstrated that the law of the Jews knew nothing of all this; they were behindhand with everything — a truth of which we are convinced, however little the progress we have made in Oriental knowledge.

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