Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ASSASSIN— ASSASSINATION.

§ I.

A name corrupted from the word Ehissessin. Nothing is more common to those who go into a distant country than to write, repeat, and understand incorrectly in their own language what they have misunderstood in a language entirely foreign to them, and afterwards to deceive their countrymen as well as themselves. Error flies from mouth to mouth, from pen to pen, and to destroy it requires ages.

In the time of the Crusades there was a wretched little people of mountaineers inhabiting the caverns near the road to Damascus. These brigands elected a chief, whom they named Cheik Elchassissin. It is said that this honorific title of cheik originally signified old, as with us the title of seigneur comes from senior, elder, and the word graf, a count, signifies old among the Germans; for, in ancient times almost every people conferred the civil command upon the old men. Afterwards, the command having become hereditary, the title of cheik, graf, seigneur, or count has been given to children; and the Germans call a little master of four years old, the count — that is, the old gentleman.

The Crusaders named the old man of the Arabian mountains, the Old Man of the Hill, and imagined him to be a great prince, because he had caused a count of Montserrat and some other crusading nobles to be robbed and murdered on the highway. These people were called the assassins, and their cheik the king of the vast country of the assassins. This vast territory is five or six leagues long by two or three broad, being part of Anti-Libanus, a horrible country, full of rocks, like almost all Palestine, but intersected by pleasant meadow-lands, which feed numerous flocks, as is attested by all who have made the journey from Aleppo to Damascus.

The cheik or senior of these assassins could be nothing more than a chief of banditti; for there was at that time a sultan of Damascus who was very powerful.

Our romance-writers of that day, as fond of chimeras as the Crusaders, thought proper to relate that in 1236 this great prince of the assassins, fearing that Louis IX., of whom he had never heard, would put himself at the head of a crusade, and come and take from him his territory, sent two great men of his court from the caverns of Anti-Libanus to Paris to assassinate that king; but that having the next day heard how generous and amiable a prince Louis was, he immediately sent out to sea two more great men to countermand the assassination. I say out to sea, for neither the two emissaries sent to kill Louis, nor the two others sent to save him, could make the voyage without embarking at Joppa, which was then in the power of the Crusaders, which rendered the enterprise doubly marvellous. The two first must have found a Crusaders’ vessel ready to convey them in an amicable manner, and the two last must have found another.

However, a hundred authors, one after another, have related this adventure, though Joinville, a contemporary, who was on the spot, says nothing about it —“Et voilà justement comme on écrit l’ histoire.”

The Jesuit Maimbourg, the Jesuit Daniel, twenty other Jesuits, and Mézerai — though he was not a Jesuit — have repeated this absurdity. The Abbé Véli, in his history of France, tells it over again with perfect complaisance, without any discussion, without any examination, and on the word of one William of Nangis, who wrote about sixty years after this fine affair is said to have happened at a time when history was composed from nothing but town talk.

If none but true and useful things were recorded, our immense historical libraries would be reduced to a very narrow compass; but we should know more, and know it better.

For six hundred years the story has been told over and over again, of the Old Man of the Hill — le vieux de la montagne — who, in his delightful gardens, intoxicated his young elect with voluptuous pleasures, made them believe that they were in paradise, and sent them to the ends of the earth to assassinate kings in order to merit an eternal paradise.

Near the Levantine shores there dwelt of old

An aged ruler, feared in every land;

Not that he owned enormous heaps of gold,

Not that vast armies marched at his command —

But on his people’s minds he things impressed,

Which filled with desperate courage every breast.

The boldest of his subjects first he took,

Of paradise to give them a foretaste —

The paradise his lawgiver had painted;

With every joy the lying prophet’s book

Within his falsely-pictured heaven had placed,

They thought their senses had become acquainted.

And how was this effected? ’Twas by wine —

Of this they drank till every sense gave way,

And, while in drunken lethargy they lay,

Were borne, according to their chief’s design,

To sports of pleasantness — to sunshine glades,

Delightful gardens and inviting shades.

Young tender beauties were abundant there,

In earliest bloom, and exquisitely fair;

These gayly thronged around the sleeping men,

Who, when at length they were awake again,

Wondering to see the beauteous objects round,

Believed that some way they’d already found

Those fields of bliss, in every beauty decked,

The false Mahomet promised his elect.

Acquaintance quickly made, the Turks advance;

The maidens join them in a sprightly dance;

Sweet music charms them as they trip along;

And every feathered warbler adds his song.

The joys that could for every sense suffice,

Were found within this earthly paradise.

Wine, too, was there — and its effects the same;

These people drank, till they could drink no more,

But sinking down as senseless as before,

Were carried to the place from whence they came.

And what resulted from this trickery?

These men believed that they should surely be

Again transported to that place of pleasure,

If, without fear of suffering or of death,

They showed devotion to Mahomet’s faith,

And to their prince obedience without measure.

Thus might their sovereign with reason say,

His subjects were determined to obey,

And that, now his device had made them so,

His was the mightiest empire here below . . . .

All this might be very well in one of La Fontaine’s tales — setting apart the weakness of the verse; and there are a hundred historical anecdotes which could be tolerated there only.

§ II.

Assassination being, next to poisoning, the crime most cowardly and most deserving of punishment, it is not astonishing that it has found an apologist in a man whose singular reasoning is, in some things, at variance with the reason of the rest of mankind.

In a romance entitled “Emilius,” he imagines that he is the guardian of a young man, to whom he is very careful to give an education such as is received in the military school — teaching him languages, geometry, tactics, fortification, and the history of his country. He does not seek to inspire him with love for his king and his country, but contents himself with making him a joiner. He would have this gentleman-joiner, when he has received a blow or a challenge, instead of returning it and fighting, “prudently assassinate the man.” Molière does, it is true, say jestingly, in “L’Amour Peintre,” “assassination is the safest”; but the author of this romance asserts that it is the most just and reasonable. He says this very seriously, and, in the immensity of his paradoxes, this is one of the three or four things which he first says. The same spirit of wisdom and decency which makes him declare that a preceptor should often accompany his pupil to a place of prostitution, makes him decide that this disciple should be an assassin. So that the education which Jean Jacques would give to a young man consists in teaching him how to handle the plane, and in fitting him for salivation and the rope.

We doubt whether fathers of families will be eager to give such preceptors to their children. It seems to us that the romance of Emilius departs rather too much from the maxims of Mentor in “Telemachus”; but it must also be acknowledged that our age has in all things very much varied from the great age of Louis XIV.

Happily, none of these horrible infatuations are to be found in the “Encyclopædia.” It often displays a philosophy seemingly bold, but never that atrocious and extravagant babbling which two or three fools have called philosophy, and two or three ladies, eloquence.

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