Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A curate — but why do I say a curate? — even an imam, a talapoin, or brahmin ought to have the means of living decently. The priest in every country ought to be supported by the altar since he serves the public. Some fanatic rogue may assert that I place the curate and the brahmin on the same level and associate truth with imposture; but I compare only the services rendered to society, the labor, and the recompense.

I maintain that whoever exercises a laborious function ought to be well paid by his fellow-citizens. I do not assert that he ought to amass riches, sup with Lucullus, or be as insolent as Clodius. I pity the case of a country curate who is obliged to dispute a sheaf of corn with his parishioner; to plead against him; to exact from him the tenth of his peas and beans; to be hated and to hate, and to consume his miserable life in miserable quarrels which engross the mind as much as they embitter it.

I still more pity the inconsistent lot of a curate, whom monks, claiming the great tithes, audaciously reward with a salary of forty ducats per annum for undertaking, throughout the year, the labor of visiting for three miles round his abode, by day and by night, in hail, rain, or snow, the most disagreeable and often the most useless functions, while the abbot or great tithe-holder drinks his rich wine of Volney, Beaune, or Chambertin, eats his partridges and pheasants, sleeps upon his down bed with a fair neighbor, and builds a palace. The disproportion is too great.

It has been taken for granted since the days of Charlemagne that the clergy, besides their own lands, ought to possess a tenth of the lands of other people, which tenth is at least a quarter, computing the expense of culture. To establish this payment it is claimed on a principle of divine right. Did God descend on earth to give a quarter of His property to the abbey of Monte Cassino, to the abbey of St. Denis, to the abbey of Fulda? Not that I know, but it has been discovered that formerly, in the desert of Ethan, Horeb, and Kadesh Barnea, the Levites were favored with forty-eight cities and a tenth of all which the earth produced besides.

Very well, great tithe-holders, go to Kadesh Barnea and inhabit the forty-eight cities in that uninhabitable desert. Take the tenth of the flints which the land produces there, and great good may they do you. But Abraham having combated for Sodom, gave a tenth of the spoil to Melchizedek, priest and king of Salem. Very good, combat you also for Sodom, but, like Melchizedek, take not from me the produce of the corn which I have sowed.

In a Christian country containing twelve hundred thousand square leagues throughout the whole of the North, in part of Germany, in Holland, and in Switzerland, the clergy are paid with money from the public treasury. The tribunals resound not there with lawsuits between landlords and priests, between the great and the little tithe-holders, between the pastor, plaintiff, and the flock defendants, in consequence of the third Council of the Lateran, of which the said flocks defendant have never heard a syllable.

The king of Naples this year (1772) has just abolished tithes in one of his provinces: the clergy are better paid and the province blesses him. The Egyptian priests, it is said, claimed not this tenth, but then, it is observed that they possessed a third part of the land of Egypt as their own. Oh, stupendous miracle! oh, thing most difficult to be conceived, that possessing one-third of the country they did not quickly acquire the other two!

Believe not, dear reader, that the Jews, who were a stiff-necked people, never complained of the extortion of the tenths, or tithe. Give yourself the trouble to consult the Talmud of Babylon, and if you understand not the Chaldæan, read the translation, with notes of Gilbert Gaumin, the whole of which was printed by the care of Fabricius. You will there peruse the adventure of a poor widow with the High Priest Aaron, and learn how the quarrel of this widow became the cause of the quarrel of Koran, Dathan, and Abiram, on the one side, and Aaron on the other.

“A widow possessed only a single sheep which she wished to shear. Aaron came and took the wool for himself: ‘It belongs to me,’ said he, ‘according to the law, thou shalt give the first of the wool to God.’ The widow, in tears, implored the protection of Koran. Koran applied to Aaron but his entreaties were fruitless. Aaron replies that the wool belongs to him. Koran gives some money to the widow and retires, filled with indignation.

“Some time after, the sheep produces a lamb. Aaron returns and carries away the lamb. The widow runs weeping again to Koran, who in vain implores Aaron. The high priest answers, ‘It is written in the law, every first-born male in thy flock belongs to God.’ He eats the lamb and Koran again retires in a rage.

“The widow, in despair, kills her sheep; Aaron returns once more and takes away the shoulder and the breast. Koran again complains. Aaron replies: ‘It is written, thou shalt give unto the priests the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the maw.’

“The widow could no longer contain her affliction and said, ‘Anathema,’ to the sheep, upon which Aaron observed, ‘It is written, all that is anathema (cursed) in Israel belongs to thee;’ and took away the sheep altogether.”

What is not so pleasant, yet very remarkable, is that in a suit between the clergy of Rheims and the citizens, this instance from the Talmud was cited by the advocate of the citizens. Gaumin asserts that he witnessed it. In the meantime it may be answered that the tithe-holders do not take all from the people, the tax-gatherers will not suffer it. To every one his share is just.

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