Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


There is not an ancient fable, not an old absurdity which some simpleton will not revive, and that in a magisterial tone, if it be but authorized by some classical or theological writer.

Lycophron (if I remember rightly) relates that a horde of robbers who had been justly condemned in Ethiopia by King Actisanes to lose their ears and noses, fled to the cataracts of the Nile and from thence penetrated into the Sandy Desert, where they at length built the temple of Jupiter Ammon.

Lycophron, and after him Theopompus, tells us that these banditti, reduced to extreme want, having neither shoes, nor clothes, nor utensils, nor bread, bethought themselves of raising a statue of gold to an Egyptian god. This statue was ordered one evening and made in the course of the night. A member of the university much attached to Lycophron and the Ethiopian robbers asserts that nothing was more common in the venerable ages of antiquity than to cast a statue of gold in one night, and afterwards throw it into a fire to reduce it to an impalpable powder, in order to be swallowed by a whole people.

But where did these poor devils, without breeches, find so much gold? “What, sir!” says the man of learning, “do you forget that they had stolen enough to buy all Africa and that their daughters’ ear-rings alone were worth nine millions five hundred thousand livres of our currency?”

Be it so. But for casting a statue a little preparation is necessary. M. Le Moine employed nearly two years in casting that of Louis XV. “Oh! but this Jupiter Ammon was at most but three feet high. Go to any pewterer; will he not make you half a dozen plates in a day?”

Sir, a statue of Jupiter is harder to make than pewter plates, and I even doubt whether your thieves had wherewith to make plates so quickly, clever as they might be at pilfering. It is not very likely that they had the necessary apparatus; they had more need to provide themselves with meal. I respect Lycophron much, but this profound Greek and his yet more profound commentators know so little of the arts — they are so learned in all that is useless, and so ignorant in all that concerns the necessaries and conveniences of life, professions, trades, and daily occupations that we will take this opportunity of informing them how a metal figure is cast. This is an operation which they will find neither in Lycophron, nor in Manetho, nor even in St. Thomas’s dream.

I omit many other preparations which the encyclopædists, especially M. Diderot, have explained much better than I could do, in the work which must immortalize their glory as well as all the arts. But to form a clear idea of the process of this art the artist must be seen at work. No one can ever learn in a book to weave stockings, nor to polish diamonds, nor to work tapestry. Arts and trades are learned only by example and practice.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01