Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We are not indebted for this expression to the Greeks; they called adultery moicheia, from which came the Latin mœchus, which we have not adopted. We owe it neither to the Syriac tongue nor to the Hebrew, a jargon of the Syriac, in which adultery is called niuph. In Latin adulteratio signified alteration — adulteration, one thing put for another — a counterfeit, as false keys, false bargains, false signatures; thus he who took possession of another’s bed was called adulter.

In a similar way, by antiphrasis, the name of coccyx, a cuckoo, was given to the poor husband into whose nest a stranger intruded. Pliny, the naturalist, says: “Coccyx ova subdit in nidis alienis; ita plerique alienas uxores faciunt matres” —“the cuckoo deposits its eggs in the nest of other birds; so the Romans not unfrequently made mothers of the wives of their friends.” The comparison is not over just. Coccyx signifying a cuckoo, we have made it cuckold. What a number of things do we owe to the Romans! But as the sense of all words is subject to change, the term applied to cuckold, which, according to good grammar, should be the gallant, is appropriated to the husband. Some of the learned assert that it is to the Greeks we owe the emblem of the horns, and that they bestowed the appellation of goat upon a husband the disposition of whose wife resembled that of a female of the same species. Indeed, they used the epithet son of a goat in the same way as the modern vulgar do an appellation which is much more literal.

These vile terms are no longer made use of in good company. Even the word adultery is never pronounced. We do not now say, “Madame la Duchesse lives in adultery with Monsieur le Chevalier — Madame la Marquise has a criminal intimacy with Monsieur l’Abbé;” but we say, “Monsieur l’Abbé is this week the lover of Madame la Marquise.” When ladies talk of their adulteries to their female friends, they say, “I confess I have some inclination for him.” They used formerly to confess that they felt some esteem, but since the time when a certain citizen’s wife accused herself to her confessor of having esteem for a counsellor, and the confessor inquired as to the number of proofs of esteem afforded, ladies of quality have esteemed no one and gone but little to confession.

The women of Lacedæmon, we are told, knew neither confession nor adultery. It is true that Menelaus had experienced the intractability of Helen, but Lycurgus set all right by making the women common, when the husbands were willing to lend them and the wives consented. Every one might dispose of his own. In this case a husband had not to apprehend that he should foster in his house the offspring of a stranger; all children belonged to the republic, and not to any particular family, so that no one was injured. Adultery is an evil only inasmuch as it is a theft; but we do not steal that which is given to us. The Lacedæmonians, therefore, had good reason for saying that adultery was impossible among them. It is otherwise in our modern nations, where every law is founded on the principle of meum and tuum.

It is the greatest wrong, the greatest injury, to give a poor fellow children which do not belong to him and lay upon him a burden which he ought not to bear. Races of heroes have thus been utterly bastardized. The wives of the Astolphos and the Jocondas, through a depraved appetite, a momentary weakness, have become pregnant by some deformed dwarf — some little page, devoid alike of heart and mind, and both the bodies and souls of the offspring have borne testimony to the fact. In some countries of Europe the heirs to the greatest names are little insignificant apes, who have in their halls the portraits of their pretended fathers, six feet high, handsome, well-made, and carrying a broadsword which their successors of the present day would scarcely be able to lift. Important offices are thus held by men who have no right to them, and whose hearts, heads, and arms are unequal to the burden.

In some provinces of Europe the girls make love, without their afterwards becoming less prudent wives. In France it is quite the contrary; the girls are shut up in convents, where, hitherto, they have received a most ridiculous education. Their mothers, in order to console them, teach them to look for liberty in marriage. Scarcely have they lived a year with their husbands when they become impatient to ascertain the force of their attractions. A young wife neither sits, nor eats, nor walks, nor goes to the play, but in company with women who have each their regular intrigue. If she has not her lover like the rest, she is to be unpaired; and ashamed of being so, she is afraid to show herself.

The Orientals proceed quite in another way. Girls are brought to them and warranted virgins on the words of a Circassian. They marry them and shut them up as a measure of precaution, as we shut up our maids. No jokes there upon ladies and their husbands! no songs! — nothing resembling our quodlibets about horns and cuckoldom! We pity the great ladies of Turkey, Persia and India; but they are a thousand times happier in their seraglios than our young women in their convents.

It sometimes happens among us that a dissatisfied husband, not choosing to institute a criminal process against his wife for adultery, which would subject him to the imputation of barbarity, contents himself with obtaining a separation of person and property. And here we must insert an abstract of a memorial, drawn up by a good man who finds himself in this situation. These are his complaints; are they just or not? —

A memorial, written by a magistrate, about the year 1764.

A principal magistrate of a town in France is so unfortunate as to have a wife who was debauched by a priest before her marriage, and has since brought herself to public shame; he has, however, contented himself with a private separation. This man, who is forty years old, healthy, and of a pleasing figure, has need of woman’s society. He is too scrupulous to seek to seduce the wife of another; he even fears to contract an illicit intimacy with a maid or a widow. In this state of sorrow and perplexity he addresses the following complaints to the Church, of which he is a member:

“My wife is criminal, and I suffer the punishment. A woman is necessary to the comfort of my life — nay, even to the preservation of my virtue; yet she is refused me by the Church, which forbids me to marry an honest woman. The civil law of the present day, which is, unhappily, founded on the canon law, deprives me of the rights of humanity. The Church compels me to seek either pleasures which it reprobates, or shameful consolations which it condemns; it forces me to be criminal.

“If I look round among the nations of the earth, I see no religion except the Roman Catholic which does not recognize divorce and second marriage as a natural right. What inversion of order, then, has made it a virtue in Catholics to suffer adultery and a duty to live without wives when their wives have thus shamefully injured them? Why is a cankered tie indissoluble, notwithstanding the great maxim adopted by the code, Quicquid ligatur dissolubile est? A separation of person and property is granted me, but not a divorce. The law takes from me my wife, and leaves me the word sacrament! I no longer enjoy matrimony, but still I am married! What contradiction! What slavery!

“Nor is it less strange that this law of the Church is directly contrary to the words which it believes to have been pronounced by Jesus Christ: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.’

“I have no wish here to inquire whether the pontiffs of Rome have a right to violate at pleasure the law of Him whom they regard as their Master; whether when a kingdom wants an heir, it is allowable to repudiate the woman who is incapable of giving one; nor whether a turbulent wife, one attacked by lunacy, or one guilty of murder, should not be divorced as well as an adulteress; I confine myself to what concerns my own sad situation. God permits me to marry again, but the bishop of Rome forbids me.

“Divorce was customary among Catholics under all the emperors, as well as in all the disjointed members of the Roman Empire. Almost all those kings of France who are called of the first race, repudiated their wives and took fresh ones. At length came one Gregory IX., an enemy to emperors and kings, who, by a decree, made the bonds of marriage indissoluble; and his decretal became the law of Europe. Hence, when a king wished to repudiate an adulterous wife, according to the law of Jesus Christ, he could not do so without seeking some ridiculous pretext. St. Louis was obliged, in order to effect his unfortunate divorce from Eleanora of Guienne, to allege a relationship which did not exist; and Henry IV., to repudiate Margaret of Valois, brought forward a still more unfounded pretence — a want of consent. Thus a lawful divorce was to be obtained by falsehood.

“What! may a sovereign abdicate his crown, and shall he not without the pope’s permission abdicate his faithless wife? And is it possible that men, enlightened in other things, have so long submitted to this absurd and abject slavery?

“Let our priests and our monks abstain from women, if it must be so; they have my consent. It is detrimental to the progress of population and a misfortune for them; but they deserve that misfortune which they have contrived for themselves. They are the victims of the popes, who in them wish to possess slaves — soldiers without family or country, living for the Church; but I, a magistrate, who serve the state the whole day long, have occasion for a woman at night; and the Church has no right to deprive me of a possession allowed me by the Deity. The apostles were married, Joseph was married, and I wish to be married. If I, an Alsatian, am dependent on a priest who lives at Rome and has the barbarous power to deprive me of a wife, he may as well make me a eunuch to sing Miserere in his chapel.”

A Plea for Wives.

Equity requires that, after giving this memorial in favor of husbands, we should also lay before the public the plea on behalf of wives, presented to the junta of Portugal, by one Countess D’Arcira. It is in substance as follows:

“The gospel has forbidden adultery to my husband as well as to me; we shall be damned alike; nothing is more certain. Although he has been guilty of fifty infidelities — though he has given my necklace to one of my rivals, and my earrings to another, I have not called upon the judges to order his head to be shaved, himself to be shut up with monks, and his property to be given to me; yet I, for having but once imitated him — for having done that with the handsomest young man in Lisbon, which he is allowed to do every day with the homeliest and most stupid creatures of the court and the city, must be placed on a stool to answer the questions of a set of licentiates, every one of whom would be at my feet were he alone with me in my closet; must have the finest hair in the world cut from my head; be confined with nuns who have not common sense; be deprived of my portion and marriage settlement, and see my property given to my fool of a husband to assist him in seducing other women and committing fresh adulteries. I ask if the thing is just? if it is not evident that the cuckolds are the lawmakers?

“The answer to my complaint is that I am but too fortunate in not being stoned at the city gate by the canons and the people, as was the custom with the first nation of the earth — the cherished nation — the chosen people — the only one which was right when all others were wrong.

“To these barbarians I reply that when the poor woman, taken in adultery, was presented to her accusers by the Master of the Old and of the New Law, he did not order her to be stoned; on the contrary, he reproached their injustice, tracing on the sand with his finger the old Hebrew proverb: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ All then retired, the oldest being the first to depart, since the greater their age the more adulteries they had committed.

“The doctors of the canon law tell me that this story of the woman taken in adultery is related only in the Gospel of St. John, and that there it is nothing more than an interpolation; that Leontius and Maldonat affirm that it is to be found in but one ancient Greek copy; that not one of the first twenty-three commentators has spoken of it; that neither Origen nor St. Jerome, nor St. John Chrysostom, nor Theophylact, nor Nonnus, knew anything of it; and that it is not in the Syriac Bible, nor in the version of Ulphilas.

“Such are the arguments advanced by my husband’s advocates, who would not only shave my head, but stone me also. However, those who plead for me say that Ammonius, a writer of the third century, acknowledges the truth of this story, and that St. Jerome, while he rejects it in some passages, adopts it in others; in short, that it is now authenticated. Here I hold, and say to my husband: ‘If you are without sin shave my head, confine me, take my property; but if you have committed more sins than I have, it is I who must shave you, have you confined and seize your possessions. In both cases the justice is the same.’

“My husband replies that he is my superior and my head; that he is taller than I by more than an inch; that he is as rough as a bear; and that, consequently, I owe him everything and he owes me nothing. But I ask if Queen Anne, of England, is not the head of her husband? if the Prince of Denmark, who is her high admiral, does not owe her an entire obedience? and if she would not have him condemned by the House of Peers should the little man prove unfaithful? It is clear that, if women have not their husbands punished, it is when they are not the strongest.”

Conclusion of the Chapter on Adultery.

In order to obtain an equitable verdict in an action for adultery, the jury should be composed of twelve men and twelve women, with an hermaphrodite to give the casting vote in the event of necessity. But singular cases may exist wherein raillery is inapplicable, and of which it is not for us to judge. Such is the adventure related by St. Augustine in his sermon on Christ’s preaching on the Mount.

Septimius Acyndicus, proconsul of Syria, caused a Christian of Antioch who was unable to pay the treasury a pound of gold (the amount to which he was taxed), to be thrown into prison and threatened with death. A wealthy man promised the unfortunate prisoner’s wife to furnish her with the pound if she would consent to his desires. The wife hastened to inform her husband, who begged that she would save his life at the expense of his rights, which he was willing to give up. She obeyed, but the man who owed her the gold deceived her by giving her a sackful of earth. The husband, being still unable to pay the tax, was about to be led to the scaffold, but this infamous transaction having come to the ears of the proconsul he paid the pound of gold from his own coffers and gave to the Christian couple the estate from which the sackful of earth had been taken.

It is certain that far from injuring her husband the wife, in this instance, acted conformably to his will, not only obeying him, but also saving his life. St. Augustine does not venture to decide on the guilt or virtue of this action; he is afraid to condemn it.

It is, in my opinion, very singular that Bayle should pretend to be more severe than St. Augustine. He boldly condemns the poor woman. This would be inconceivable did we not know how much almost every writer has suffered his pen to belie his heart — with what facility his own feelings have been sacrificed to the fear of enraging some evil-disposed pedant — in a word, how inconsistent he has been with himself.

A Father’s Reflection.

A word on the contradictory education which we bestow upon our daughters. We inculcate an immoderate desire of pleasing; we dictate when nature does enough without us, and add to her lessons every refinement of art. When they are perfectly trained we punish them if they put in practice the very arts which we have been so anxious to teach! What should we think of a dancing master who, having taught a pupil for ten years, would break his leg because he had found him dancing with other people?

Might not this paragraph be added to the chapter of contradictions?

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