Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

BABEL.

§ I.

Babel signifies among the Orientals, God the Father, the power of God, the gate of God, according to the way in which the word is pronounced. It appears, therefore, that Babylon was the city of God, the holy city. Every capital of a state was a city of God, the sacred city. The Greeks called them all Hieropolis, and there were more than thirty of this name. The tower of Babel, then, signifies the tower of God the Father.

Josephus says truly that Babel signifies confusion; Calmet says, with others, that Bilba, in Chaldæan, signifies confounded, but all the Orientals have been of a contrary opinion. The word confusion would be a strange etymon for the capital of a vast empire. I very much like the opinion of Rabelais, who pretends that Paris was formerly called Lutetia on account of the ladies’ white legs.

Be that as it may, commentators have tormented themselves to know to what height men had raised this famous tower of Babel. St. Jerome gives it twenty thousand feet. The ancient Jewish book entitled “Jacult,” gave it eighty-one thousand. Paul Lucas has seen the remains of it and it is a fine thing to be as keen-sighted as Paul Lucas, but these dimensions are not the only difficulties which have exercised the learned.

People have wished to know how the children of Noah, after having divided among themselves the islands of the nations and established themselves in various lands, with each one his particular language, families, and people, should all find themselves in the plain of Shinaar, to build there a tower saying, “Let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Book of Genesis speaks of the states which the sons of Noah founded. It has related how the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia, all came to Shinaar speaking one language only, and purposing the same thing.

The Vulgate places the Deluge in the year of the world 1656, and the construction of the tower of Babel 1771, that is to say, one hundred and fifteen years after the destruction of mankind, and even during the life of Noah.

Men then must have multiplied with prodigious celerity; all the arts revived in a very little time. When we reflect on the great number of trades which must have been employed to raise a tower so high we are amazed at so stupendous a work.

The patriarch Abraham was born, according to the Bible, about four hundred years after the deluge, and already we see a line of powerful kings in Egypt and in Asia. Bochart and other sages have pleasantly filled their great books with Phœnician and Chaldæan words and systems which they do not understand. They have learnedly taken Thrace for Cappadocia, Greece for Crete, and the island of Cyprus for Tyre; they sport in an ocean of ignorance which has neither bottom nor shore. It would have been shorter for them to have avowed that God, after several ages, has given us sacred books to render us better men and not to make us geographers, chronologists, or etymologists.

Babel is Babylon. It was founded, according to the Persian historians, by a prince named Tamurath. The only knowledge we have of its antiquities consists in the astronomical observations of nineteen hundred and three years, sent by Callisthenes by order of Alexander, to his preceptor Aristotle. To this certainty is joined the extreme probability that a nation which had made a series of celestial observations for nearly two thousand years had congregated and formed a considerable power several ages before the first of these observations.

It is a pity that none of the calculations of the ancient profane authors agree with our sacred ones, and that none of the names of the princes who reigned after the different epochs assigned to the Deluge have been known by either Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, or Greeks.

It is no less a pity that there remains not on the earth among the profane authors one vestige of the famous tower of Babel; nothing of this story of the confusion of tongues is found in any book. This memorable adventure was as unknown to the whole universe as the names of Noah, Methuselah, Cain, and Adam and Eve.

This difficulty tantalizes our curiosity. Herodotus, who travelled so much, speaks neither of Noah, or Shem, Reu, Salah, or Nimrod. The name of Nimrod is unknown to all profane antiquity; there are only a few Arabs and some modern Persians who have made mention of Nimrod in falsifying the books of the Jews.

Nothing remains to conduct us through these ancient ruins, unknown to all the nations of the universe during so many ages, but faith in the Bible, and happily that is an infallible guide.

Herodotus, who has mingled many fables with some truths, pretends that in his time, which was that of greatest power of the Persian sovereigns of Babylon, all the women of the immense city were obliged to go once in their lives to the temple of Mylitta, a goddess who was thought to be the same as Aphrodite, or Venus, in order to prostitute themselves to strangers, and that the law commanded them to receive money as a sacred tribute, which was paid over to the priesthood of the goddess.

But even this Arabian tale is more likely than that which the same author tells of Cyrus dividing the Indus into three hundred and sixty canals, which all discharged themselves into the Caspian Sea! What should we say of Mezeray if he had told us that Charlemagne divided the Rhine into three hundred and sixty canals, which fell into the Mediterranean, and that all the ladies of his court were obliged once in their lives to present themselves at the church of St. Genevieve to prostitute themselves to all comers for money?

It must be remarked that such a fable is still more absurd in relation to the time of Xerxes, in which Herodotus lived, than it would be in that of Charlemagne. The Orientals were a thousand times more jealous than the Franks and Gauls. The wives of all the great lords were carefully guarded by eunuchs. This custom existed from time immemorial. It is seen even in the Jewish history that when that little nation wished like the others to have a king, Samuel, to dissuade them from it and to retain his authority, said “that a king would tyrannize over them and that he would take the tenths of their vines and corn to give to his eunuchs.” The kings accomplished this prediction, for it is written in the First Book of Kings that King Ahab had eunuchs, and in the Second that Joram, Jehu, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah had them also.

The eunuchs of Pharaoh are spoken of a long time previously in the Book of Genesis, and it is said that Potiphar, to whom Joseph was sold, was one of the king’s eunuchs. It is clear, therefore, that there were great numbers of eunuchs at Babylon to guard the women. It was not then a duty for them to prostitute themselves to the first comer, nor was Babylon, the city of God, a vast brothel as it has been pretended.

These tales of Herodotus, as well as all others in the same taste, are now so decried by all people of sense — reason has made so great progress that even old women and children will no longer believe such extravagances — “Non est vetula quæ credat nec pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum ære lavantur.”

There is in our days only one man who, not partaking of the spirit of the age in which he lives, would justify the fable of Herodotus. The infamy appears to him a very simple affair. He would prove that the Babylonian princesses prostituted themselves through piety, to the first passengers, because it is said in the holy writings that the Ammonites made their children pass through the fire in presenting them to Moloch. But what relation has this custom of some barbarous hordes — this superstition of passing their children through the flames, or even of burning them on piles, in honor of I know not whom — of Moloch; these Iroquois horrors of a petty, infamous people to a prostitution so incredible in a nation known to be the most jealous and orderly of the East? Would what passes among the Iroquois be among us a proof of the customs of the courts of France and of Spain?

He also brings, in further proof, the Lupercal feast among the Romans during which he says the young people of quality and respectable magistrates ran naked through the city with whips in their hands, with which they struck the pregnant women of quality, who unblushingly presented themselves to them in the hope of thereby obtaining a happy deliverance.

Now, in the first place, it is not said that these Romans of quality ran quite naked, on the contrary, Plutarch expressly observes, in his remarks on the custom, that they were covered from the waist downwards.

Secondly, it seems by the manner in which this defender of infamous customs expresses himself that the Roman ladies stripped naked to receive these blows of the whip, which is absolutely false.

Thirdly, the Lupercal feast has no relation whatever to the pretended law of Babylon, which commands the wives and daughters of the king, the satraps, and the magi to sell and prostitute themselves to strangers out of pure devotion.

When an author, without knowing either the human mind or the manners of nations, has the misfortune to be obliged to compile from passages of old authors, who are almost all contradictory, he should advance his opinions with modesty and know how to doubt, and to shake off the dust of the college. Above all he should never express himself with outrageous insolence.

Herodotus, or Ctesias, or Diodorus of Sicily, relate a fact: you have read it in Greek, therefore this fact is true. This manner of reasoning, which is not that of Euclid, is surprising enough in the time in which we live; but all minds will not be instructed with equal facility; and there are always more persons who compile than people who think.

We will say nothing here of the confusion of tongues which took place during the construction of the tower of Babel. It is a miracle, related in the Holy Scriptures. We neither explain, nor even examine any miracles, and as the authors of that great work, the Encyclopædia, believed them, we also believe them with a lively and sincere faith.

We will simply affirm that the fall of the Roman Empire has produced more confusion and a greater number of new languages than that of the tower of Babel. From the reign of Augustus till the time of the Attilas, the Clovises, and the Gondiberts, during six ages, “terra erat unius labii,” —“the known earth was of one language.” They spoke the same Latin at the Euphrates as at Mount Atlas. The laws which governed a hundred nations were written in Latin and the Greek served for amusement, whilst the barbarous jargon of each province was only for the populace. They pleaded in Latin at once in the tribunals of Africa and of Rome. An inhabitant of Cornwall departed for Asia Minor sure of being understood everywhere in his route. It was at least one good effected by the rapacity of the Romans that people found themselves as well understood on the Danube as on the Guadalquiver. At the present time a Bergamask who travels into the small Swiss cantons, from which he is only separated by a mountain, has the same need of an interpreter as if he were in China. This is one of the greatest plagues of modern life.

§ II.

Vanity has always raised stately monuments. It was through vanity that men built the lofty tower of Babel. “Let us go and raise a tower, the summit of which shall touch the skies, and render our name celebrated before we are scattered upon the face of the earth.” The enterprise was undertaken in the time of a patriarch named Phaleg, who counted the good man Noah for his fifth ancestor. It will be seen that architecture, and all the arts which accompany it, had made great progress in five generations. St. Jerome, the same who has seen fauns and satyrs, has not seen the tower of Babel any more than I have, but he assures us that it was twenty thousand feet high. This is a trifle. The ancient book, “Jacult,” written by one of the most learned Jews, demonstrates the height to be eighty-one thousand Jewish feet, and every one knows that the Jewish foot was nearly as long as the Greek. These dimensions are still more likely than those of Jerome. This tower remains, but it is no longer quite so high; several quite veracious travellers have seen it. I, who have not seen it, will talk as little of it as of my grandfather Adam, with whom I never had the honor of conversing. But consult the reverend father Calmet; he is a man of fine wit and a profound philosopher and will explain the thing to you. I do not know why it is said, in Genesis, that Babel signifies confusion, for, as I have already observed, ba answers to father in the eastern languages, and bel signifies God. Babel means the city of God, the holy city. But it is incontestable that Babel means confusion, possibly because the architects were confounded after having raised their work to eighty-one thousand feet, perhaps, because the languages were then confounded, as from that time the Germans no longer understood the Chinese, although, according to the learned Bochart, it is clear that the Chinese is originally the same language as the High German.

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