Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We will commence with Herodotus as the most ancient. When Henry Stephens entitled his comic rhapsody “The Apology of Herodotus,” we know that his design was not to justify the tales of this father of history; he only sports with us and shows that the enormities of his own times were worse than those of the Egyptians and Persians. He made use of the liberty which the Protestants assumed against those of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman churches. He sharply reproaches them with their debaucheries, their avarice, their crimes expiated by money, their indulgences publicly sold in the taverns, and the false relics manufactured by their own monks, calling them idolaters. He ventures to say that if the Egyptians adored cats and onions, the Catholics adore the bones of the dead. He dares to call them in his preliminary discourses, “theophages,” and even “theokeses.” We have fourteen editions of this book, for we relish general abuse, just as much as we resent that which we deem special and personal.

Henry Stephens made use of Herodotus only to render us hateful and ridiculous; we have quite a contrary design. We pretend to show that the modern histories of our good authors since Guicciardini are in general as wise and true as those of Herodotus and Diodorus are foolish and fabulous.

1. What does the father of history mean by saying in the beginning of his work, “the Persian historians relate that the Phœnicians were the authors of all the wars. From the Red Sea they entered ours,” etc.? It would seem that the Phœnicians, having embarked at the Isthmus of Suez, arrived at the straits of Babel-Mandeb, coasted along Ethiopia, passed the line, doubled the Cape of Tempests, since called the Cape of Good Hope, returned between Africa and America, repassed the line and entered from the ocean into the Mediterranean by the Pillars of Hercules, a voyage of more than four thousand of our long marine leagues at a time when navigation was in its infancy.

2. The first exploit of the Phœnicians was to go towards Argos to carry off the daughter of King Inachus, after which the Greeks, in their turn, carried off Europa, the daughter of the king of Tyre.

3. Immediately afterwards comes Candaules, king of Lydia, who, meeting with one of his guards named Gyges, said to him, “Thou must see my wife quite naked; it is absolutely essential.” The queen, learning that she had been thus exposed, said to the soldier, “You shall either die or assassinate my husband and reign with me.” He chose the latter alternative, and the assassination was accomplished without difficulty.

4. Then follows the history of Arion, carried on the back of a dolphin across the sea from the skirts of Calabria to Cape Matapan, an extraordinary voyage of about a hundred leagues.

5. From tale to tale — and who dislikes tales? — we arrive at the infallible oracle of Delphi, which somehow foretold that Crœsus would cook a quarter of lamb and a tortoise in a copper pan and that he would be dethroned by a mullet.

6. Among the inconceivable absurdities with which ancient history abounds is there anything approaching the famine with which the Lydians were tormented for twenty-eight years? This people, whom Herodotus describes as being richer in gold than the Peruvians, instead of buying food from foreigners, found no better expedient than that of amusing themselves every other day with the ladies without eating for eight-and-twenty successive years.

7. Is there anything more marvellous than the history of Cyrus? His grandfather, the Mede Astyages, with a Greek name, dreamed that his daughter Mandane — another Greek name — inundated all Asia; at another time, that she produced a vine, of which all Asia ate the grapes, and thereupon the good man Astyages ordered one Harpagos, another Greek, to murder his grandson Cyrus — for what grandfather would not kill his posterity after dreams of this nature?

8. Herodotus, no less a good naturalist than an exact historian, does not fail to tell us that near Babylon the earth produced three hundred ears of wheat for one. I know a small country which yields three for one. I should like to have been transported to Diabek when the Turks were driven from it by Catherine II. It has fine corn also but returns not three hundred ears for one.

9. What has always seemed to me decent and edifying in Herodotus is the fine religious custom established in Babylon of which we have already spoken — that of all the married women going to prostitute themselves in the temple of Mylitta for money, to the first stranger who presented himself. We reckon two millions of inhabitants in this city; the devotion must have been ardent. This law is very probable among the Orientals who have always shut up their women, and who, more than six ages before Herodotus, instituted eunuchs to answer to them for the chastity of their wives. I must no longer proceed numerically; we should very soon indeed arrive at a hundred.

All that Diodorus of Sicily says seven centuries after Herodotus is of the same value in all that regards antiquities and physics. The Abbé Terrasson said, “I translate the text of Diodorus in all its coarseness.” He sometimes read us part of it at the house of de Lafaye, and when we laughed, he said, “You are resolved to misconstrue; it was quite the contrary with Dacier.”

The finest part of Diodorus is the charming description of the island of Panchaica —“Panchaica Tellus,” celebrated by Virgil: “There were groves of odoriferous trees as far as the eye could see, myrrh and frankincense to furnish the whole world without exhausting it; fountains, which formed an infinity of canals, bordered with flowers, besides unknown birds, which sang under the eternal shades; a temple of marble four thousand feet long, ornamented with columns, colossal statues,” etc.

This puts one in mind of the Duke de la Ferté, who, to flatter the taste of the Abbé Servien, said to him one day, “Ah, if you had seen my son who died at fifteen years of age! What eyes! what freshness of complexion! what an admirable stature! the Antinous of Belvidere compared to him was only like a Chinese baboon, and as to sweetness of manners, he had the most engaging I ever met with.” The Abbé Servien melted, the duke of Ferté, warmed by his own words, melted also, both began to weep, after which he acknowledged that he never had a son.

A certain Abbé Bazin, with his simple common sense, doubts another tale of Diodorus. It is of a king of Egypt, Sesostris, who probably existed no more than the island of Panchaica. The father of Sesostris, who is not named, determined on the day that he was born that he would make him the conqueror of all the earth as soon as he was of age. It was a notable project. For this purpose he brought up with him all the boys who were born on the same day in Egypt, and, to make them conquerors, he did not suffer them to have their breakfasts until they had run a hundred and eighty stadia, which is about eight of our long leagues.

When Sesostris was of age he departed with his racers to conquer the world. They were then about seventeen hundred and probably half were dead, according to the ordinary course of nature — and, above all, of the nature of Egypt, which was desolated by a destructive plague at least once in ten years.

There must have been three thousand four hundred boys born in Egypt on the same day as Sesostris, and as nature produces almost as many girls as boys, there must have been six thousand persons at least born on that day. But women were confined every day, and six thousand births a day produce, at the end of the year, two millions one hundred and ninety thousand children. If you multiply by thirty-four, according to the rule of Kersseboom, you would have in Egypt more than seventy-four millions of inhabitants in a country which is not so large as Spain or France.

All this appeared monstrous to the Abbé Bazin, who had seen a little of the world, and who judged only by what he had seen.

But one Larcher, who was never outside of the college of Mazarin arrayed himself with great animation on the side of Sesostris and his runners. He pretends that Herodotus, in speaking of the Greeks, does not reckon by the stadia of Greece, and that the heroes of Sesostris only ran four leagues before breakfast. He overwhelms poor Abbé Bazin with injurious names such as no scholar in us or es had ever before employed. He does not hold with the seventeen hundred boys, but endeavors to prove by the prophets that the wives, daughters, and nieces of the king of Babylon, of the satraps, and the magi, resorted, out of pure devotion, to sleep for money in the aisles of the temple of Babylon with all the camel-drivers and muleteers of Asia. He treats all those who defend the honor of the ladies of Babylon as bad Christians, condemned souls, and enemies to the state.

He also takes the part of the goat, so much in the good graces of the young female Egyptians. It is said that his great reason was that he was allied, by the female side, to a relation of the bishop of Meaux, Bossuet, the author of an eloquent discourse on “Universal History”; but this is not a peremptory reason.

Take care of the extraordinary stories of all kinds. Diodorus of Sicily was the greatest compiler of these tales. This Sicilian had not a grain of the temper of his countryman Archimedes, who sought and found so many mathematical truths.

Diodorus seriously examines the history of the Amazons and their queen Theaestris; the history of the Gorgons, who fought against the Amazons; that of the Titans, and that of all the gods. He searches into the history of Priapus and Hermaphroditus. No one could give a better account of Hercules: this hero wandered through half the earth, sometimes on foot and alone like a pilgrim, and sometimes like a general at the head of a great army, and all his labors are faithfully discussed, but this is nothing in comparison with the gods of Crete.

Diodorus justifies Jupiter from the reproach which other grave historians have passed upon him, of having dethroned and mutilated his father. He shows how Jupiter fought the giants, some in his island, others in Phrygia, and afterwards in Macedonia and Italy; the number of children which he had by his sister Juno and his favorites are not omitted.

He describes how he afterwards became a god, and the supreme god. It is thus that all the ancient histories have been written. What is more remarkable, they were sacred; if they had not been sacred, they would never have been read.

It is clear that it would be very useful if in all they were all different, and from province to province, and island to island, each had a different history of the gods, demi-gods, and heroes, from that of their neighbors. But it should also be observed that the people never fought for this mythology.

The respectable history of Thucydides, which has several glimmerings of truth, begins at Xerxes, but, before that epoch how much time was wasted.

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