Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The invention of dictionaries, which was unknown to antiquity, is of the most unquestionable utility; and the “Encyclopædia,” which was suggested by Messrs. d’Alembert and Diderot, and so successfully completed by them and their associates, notwithstanding all its defects, is a decisive evidence of it. What we find there under the article “Dictionary” would be a sufficient instance; it is done by the hand of a master.

I mean to speak here only of a new species of historical dictionaries, which contain a series of lies and satires in alphabetical order; such is the “Historical Literary and Critical Dictionary,” containing a summary of the lives of celebrated men of every description, and printed in 1758, in six volumes, octavo, without the name of the author.

The compilers of that work begin with declaring that it was undertaken by the advice of the author of the “Ecclesiastical Gazette,” “a formidable writer,” they add, “whose arrow,” which had already been compared to that of Jonathan, “never returned back, and was always steeped in the blood of the slain, in the carnage of the valiant.”— “A sanguine interfectorum ab adipe fortium sagitta Jonathæ nunquam abiit retrorsum.”

It will, no doubt, be easily admitted that the connection between Jonathan, the son of Saul, who was killed at the battle of Gilboa, and a Parisian convulsionary, who scribbles ecclesiastical notices in his garret, in 1758, is wonderfully striking.

The author of this preface speaks in it of the great Colbert. We should conceive, at first, that the great statesman who conferred such vast benefits on France is alluded to; no such thing, it is a bishop of Montpellier. He complains that no other dictionary has bestowed sufficient praise on the celebrated Abbé d’Asfeld, the illustrious Boursier, the famous Genes, the immortal Laborde, and that the lash of invective on the other hand has not been sufficiently applied to Languet, archbishop of Sens, and a person of the name of Fillot, all, as he pretends, men well known from the Pillars of Hercules to the frozen ocean. He engages to be “animated, energetic, and sarcastic, on a principle of religion”; that he will make his countenance “sterner than that of his enemies, and his front harder than their front, according to the words of Ezekiel,” etc.

He declares that he has put in contribution all the journals and all the anas; and he concludes with hoping that heaven will bestow a blessing on his labors.

In dictionaries of this description, which are merely party works, we rarely find what we are in quest of, and often what we are not. Under the word “Adonis,” for example, we learn that Venus fell in love with him; but not a word about the worship of Adonis, or Adonai among the Phœnicians — nothing about those very ancient and celebrated festivals, those lamentations succeeded by rejoicings, which were manifest allegories, like the feasts of Ceres, of Isis, and all the mysteries of antiquity. But, in compensation, we find Adkichomia a devotee, who translated David’s psalms in the sixteenth century; and Adkichomus, apparently her relation, who wrote the life of Jesus Christ in low German.

We may well suppose that all the individuals of the faction which employed this person are loaded with praise, and their enemies with abuse. The author, of the crew of authors who have put together this vocabulary of trash, say of Nicholas Boindin, attorney-general of the treasures of France, and a member of the Academy of Belles-lettres, that he was a poet and an atheist.

That magistrate, however, never printed any verses, and never wrote anything on metaphysics or religion.

He adds that Boindin will be ranked by posterity among the Vaninis, the Spinozas, and the Hobbeses. He is ignorant that Hobbes never professed atheism — that he merely subjected religion to the sovereign power, which he denominates the Leviathan. He is ignorant that Vanini was not an atheist; that the term “atheist” is not to be found even in the decree which condemned him; and that he was accused of impiety for having strenuously opposed the philosophy of Aristotle, and for having disputed with indiscretion and acrimony against a counsellor of the parliament of Toulouse, called Francon, or Franconi, who had the credit of getting him burned to death; for the latter burn whom they please; witness the Maid of Orleans, Michael Servetus, the Counsellor Dubourg, the wife of Marshal d’Ancre, Urbain Grandier, Morin, and the books of the Jansenists. See, moreover, the apology for Vanini by the learned Lacroze, and the article on “Atheism.”

The vocabulary treats Boindin as a miscreant; his relations were desirous of proceeding at law and punishing an author, who himself so well deserved the appellation which he so infamously applied to a man who was not merely a magistrate, but also learned and estimable; but the calumniator concealed himself, like most libellers, under a fictitious name.

Immediately after having applied such shameful language to a man respectable compared with himself, he considers him as an irrefragable witness, because Boindin — whose unhappy temper was well known — left an ill-written and exceedingly ill-advised memorial, in which he accuses La Motte — one of the worthiest men in the world, a geometrician, and an ironmonger — with having written the infamous verses for which Jean Baptiste Rousseau was convicted. Finally, in the list of Boindin’s works, he altogether omits his excellent dissertations printed in the collection of the Academy of Belles-lettres, of which he was a highly distinguished member.

The article on “Fontenelle” is nothing but a satire upon that ingenious and learned academician, whose science and talents are esteemed by the whole of literary Europe. The author has the effrontery to say that “his ‘History of Oracles’ does no honor to his religion.” If Van Dale, the author of the “History of Oracles,” and his abridger, Fontenelle, had lived in the time of the Greeks and of the Roman republic, it might have been said with reason that they were rather good philosophers than good pagans; but, to speak sincerely, what injury do they do to Christianity by showing that the pagan priests were a set of knaves? Is it not evident that the authors of the libel, miscalled a dictionary, are pleading their own cause? “Jam proximus ardet Ucalegon.” But would it be offering an insult to the Christian religion to prove the knavery of the Convulsionaries? Government has done more; it has punished them without being accused of irreligion.

The libeller adds that he suspects that Fontenelle never performed the duties of a Christian but out of contempt for Christianity itself. It is a strange species of madness on the part of these fanatics to be always proclaiming that a philosopher cannot be a Christian. They ought to be excommunicated and punished for this alone; for assuredly it implies a wish to destroy Christianity to assert that it is impossible for a man to be a good reasoner and at the same time believe a religion so reasonable and holy.

Des Yveteaux, preceptor of Louis XIV., is accused of having lived and died without religion. It seems as if these compilers had none; or at least as if, while violating all the precepts of the true one, they were searching about everywhere for accomplices.

The very gentlemanly writer of these articles is wonderfully pleased with exhibiting all the bad verses that have been written on the French Academy, and various anecdotes as ridiculous as they are false. This also is apparently out of zeal for religion.

I ought not to lose an opportunity of refuting an absurd story which has been much circulated, and which is repeated exceedingly malapropos under the article of the “Abbé Gedoyn,” upon whom the writer falls foul with great satisfaction, because in his youth he had been a Jesuit; a transient weakness, of which I know he repented all his life.

The devout and scandalous compiler of the dictionary asserts that the Abbé Gedoyn slept with the celebrated Ninon de l’Enclos on the very night of her completing her eightieth year. It certainly was not exactly befitting in a priest to relate this anecdote in a pretended dictionary of illustrious men. Such a foolery, however, is in fact highly improbable; and I can take upon me to assert that nothing can be more false. The same anecdote was formerly put down to the credit of the Abbé Châteauneuf, who was not very difficult in his amours, and who, it was said, had received Ninon’s favors when she was of the age of sixty, or, rather, had conferred upon her his own. In early life I saw a great deal of the Abbé Gedoyn, the Abbé Châteauneuf, and Mademoiselle de l’Enclos; and I can truly declare that at the age of eighty years her countenance bore the most hideous marks of old age — that her person was afflicted with all the infirmities belonging to that stage of life, and that her mind was under the influence of the maxims of an austere philosophy.

Under the article on “Deshoulières” the compiler pretends that lady was the same who was designated under the term prude (précieuse) in Boileau’s satire upon women. Never was any woman more free from such weakness than Madame Deshoulières; she always passed for a woman of the best society, possessed great simplicity, and was highly agreeable in conversation.

The article on “La Motte” abounds with atrocious abuse of that academician, who was a man of very amiable manners, and a philosophic poet who produced excellent works of every description. Finally the author, in order to secure the sale of his book of six volumes, has made of it a slanderous libel.

His hero is Carré de Montgeron, who presented to the king a collection of the miracles performed by the Convulsionaries in the cemetery of St. Médard; who became mad and died insane.

The interest of the republic of literature and reason demands that those libellers should be delivered up to public indignation, lest their example, operating upon the sordid love of gain, should stimulate others to imitation; and the more so, as nothing is so easy as to copy books in alphabetical order, and add to them insipidities, calumnies, and abuse.

Extract from the Reflections of an Academician on the “Dictionary of the French Academy.”

It would be desirable to state the natural and incontestable etymology of every word, to compare the application, the various significations, the extent of the word, with use of it; the different acceptations, the strength or weakness of correspondent terms in foreign languages; and finally, to quote the best authors who have used the word, to show the greater or less extent of meaning which they have given to it and to remark whether it is more fit for poetry than prose.

For example, I have observed that the “inclemency” of the weather is ridiculous in history, because that term has its origin in the anger of heaven, which is supposed to be manifested by the intemperateness, irregularities, and rigors of the seasons, by the violence of the cold, the disorder of the atmosphere, by tempests, storms, and pestilential exhalations. Thus then inclemency, being a metaphor, is consecrated to poetry.

I have given to the word “impotence” all the acceptations which it receives. I showed the correctness of the historian, who speaks of the impotence of King Alphonso, without explaining whether he referred to that of resisting his brother, or that with which he was charged by his wife.

I have endeavored to show that the epithets “irresistible” and “incurable” require very delicate management. The first who used the expression, “the irresistible impulse of genius,” made a very fortunate hit; because, in fact, the question was in relation to a great genius throwing itself upon its own resources in spite of all difficulties. Those imitators who have employed the expression in reference to very inferior men are plagiarists who know not how to dispose of what they steal.

As soon as the man of genius has made a new application of any word in the language, copyists are not wanting to apply it, very malapropos, in twenty places, without giving the inventor any credit.

I do not know that a single one of these words, termed by Boileau “foundlings” (des mots trouvés) a single new expression of genius, is to be found in any tragic author since Racine, until within the last few years. These words are generally lax, ineffective, stale, and so ill placed as to produce a barbarous style. To the disgrace of the nation, these Visigothic and Vandal productions were for a certain time extolled, panegyrized, and admired in the journals, especially as they came out under the protection of a certain lady of distinction, who knew nothing at all about the subject. We have recovered from all this now; and, with one or two exceptions, the whole race of such productions is extinct forever.

I did not in the first instance intend to make all these reflections, but to put the reader in a situation to make them. I have shown at the letter E that our e mute, with which we are reproached by an Italian, is precisely what occasions the delicious harmony of our language:— empire, couronne, diadème, épouvantable, sensible. This e mute, which we make perceptible without articulating it, leaves in the ear a melodious sound like that of a bell which still resounds although it is no longer struck. This we have already stated in respect to an Italian, a man of letters, who came to Paris to teach his own language, and who, while there, ought not to decry ours.

He does not perceive the beauty or necessity of our feminine rhymes; they are only e’s mute. This interweaving of masculine and feminine rhymes constitutes the charm of our verse.

Similar observations upon the alphabet, and upon words generally, would not have been without utility; but they would have made the work too long.

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