Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We shall not say anything of the affirmations so frequently made use of by the learned. To affirm, to decide, is permissible only in geometry. In everything else let us imitate the Doctor Metaphrastes of Molière — it may be so; the thing is feasible; it is not impossible; we shall see. Let us adopt Rabelais’ perhaps, Montaigne’s what know I? the Roman non liquet, or the doubt of the Athenian academy: but only in profane matters, be it understood, for in sacred things, we are well aware that doubting is not permitted.

The primitives, in England called Quakers, are allowed to give testimony in a court of justice on their simple affirmation, without taking an oath. The peers of the realm have the same privilege — the lay peers affirming on their honor, and the bishops laying their hands on their hearts. The Quakers obtained it in the reign of Charles II., and are the only sect in Europe so honored.

The Lord Chancellor Cowper wished to compel the Quakers to swear like other citizens. He who was then at their head said to him gravely: “Friend Chancellor, thou oughtest to know that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ hath forbidden us to affirm otherwise than by yea or nay, he hath expressly said: I forbid thee to swear by heaven, because it is the throne of God; by the earth, because it is his footstool; by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the King of kings; or by thy head, because thou canst not change the color of a single hair. This, friend, is positive, and we will not disobey God to please thee and thy parliament.” “It is impossible to argue better,” replied the Chancellor; “but be it known to thee that Jupiter one day ordered all beasts of burden to get shod: horses, mules, and even camels, instantly obeyed, the asses alone resisted; they made so many representations, and brayed so long that Jupiter, who was good-natured, at last said to them, ‘Asses, I grant your prayer; you shall not be shod; but the first slip you make you shall have a most sound cudgelling.’ ”

It must be granted that, hitherto, the Quakers have made no slips.

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