Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This is an expression consecrated in its appropriation by the fathers of the Church and even by the primitive propagators of our holy religion. It signifies the application of oratory to circumstances.

For example: St. Paul, being a Christian, comes to the temple of the Jews to perform the Judaic rites, in order to show that he does not forsake the Mosaic law; he is recognized at the end of a week and accused of having profaned the temple. Loaded with blows, he is dragged along by the mob; the tribune of the cohort — tribunis cohortis — arrives, and binds him with a double chain. The next day this tribune assembles the council and carries Paul before it, when the High Priest Ananias commences proceedings by giving him a box on the ear, on which Paul salutes him with the epithet of “a whited wall.”

“But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.’ And when he had so said there arose a discussion between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit, but the Pharisees confess both.”

It is very evident from the text that Paul was not a Pharisee after he became a Christian and that there was in this affair no question either of resurrection or hope, of angel or spirit.

The text shows that Paul spoke thus only to embroil the Pharisees and Sadducees. This was speaking with economy, that is to say, with prudence; it was a pious artifice which, perhaps, would not have been permitted to any but an apostle.

It is thus that almost all the fathers of the Church have spoken “with economy.” St. Jerome develops this method admirably in his fifty-fourth letter to Pammachus. Weigh his words. After having said that there are occasions when it is necessary to present a loaf and to throw a stone, he continues thus:

“Pray read Demosthenes, read Cicero, and if these rhetoricians displease you because their art consists in speaking of the seeming rather than the true, read Plato, Theophrastus, Xenophon, Aristotle, and all those who, having dipped into the fountain of Socrates, drew different waters from it. Is there among them any candor, any simplicity? What terms among them are not ambiguous, and what sense do they not make free with to bear away the palm of victory? Origen, Methodius, Eusebius, Apollinarus, have written a million of arguments against Celsus and Porphyry. Consider with what artifice, with what problematic subtlety they combat the spirit of the devil. They do not say what they think, but what it is expedient to say: Non quod sentiunt, sed quod necesse est dicunt. And not to mention other Latins — Tertullian, Cyprian, Minutius, Victorinus, Lactantius, and Hilarius — whom I will not cite here; I will content myself with relating the example of the Apostle Paul,” etc.

St. Augustine often writes with economy. He so accommodates himself to time and circumstances that in one of his epistles he confesses that he explained the Trinity only because he must say something.

Assuredly this was not because he doubted the Holy Trinity, but he felt how ineffable this mystery is and wished to content the curiosity of the people.

This method was always received in theology. It employed an argument against the Eucratics, which was the cause of triumph to the Carpocratians; and when it afterwards disputed with the Carpocratians its arms were changed.

It is asserted that Jesus Christ died for many when the number of rejected is set forth, but when his universal bounty is to be manifested he is said to have died for all. Here you take the real sense for the figurative; there the figurative for the real, as prudence and expediency direct.

Such practices are not admitted in justice. A witness would be punished who told the pour and contre of a capital offence. But there is an infinite difference between vile human interests, which require the greatest clearness, and divine interests, which are hidden in an impenetrable abyss. The same judges who require indubitable demonstrative proofs will be contented in sermons with moral proofs, and even with declamations exhibiting no proofs at all.

St. Augustine speaks with economy, when he says, “I believe, because it is absurd; I believe, because it is impossible.” These words, which would be extravagant in all worldly affairs, are very respectable in theology. They signify that what is absurd and impossible to mortal eyes is not so to the eyes of God; God has revealed to me these pretended absurdities, these apparent impossibilities, therefore I ought to believe them.

An advocate would not be allowed to speak thus at the bar. They would confine in a lunatic asylum a witness who might say, “I assert that the accused, while shut up in a country house in Martinique, killed a man in Paris, and I am the more certain of this homicide because it is absurd and impossible.” But revelations, miracles, and faith are quite a distinct order of things.

The same St. Augustine observes in his one hundred and fifty-third letter, “It is written that the whole world belongs to the faithful, and infidels have not an obolus that they possess legitimately.”

If upon this principle a brace of bankers were to wait upon me to assure me that they were of the faithful, and in that capacity had appropriated the property belonging to me, a miserable worldling, to themselves, it is certain that they would be committed to the Châtelet, in spite of the economy of the language of St. Augustine.

St. Irenæus asserts that we must not condemn the incest of the two daughters of Lot, nor that of Thamar with her father-in-law, because the Holy Scripture has not expressly declared them criminal. This verbal economy prevents not the legal punishment of incest among ourselves. It is true that if the Lord expressly ordered people to commit incest it would not be sinful, which is the economy of Irenæus. His laudable object is to make us respect everything in the Holy Scriptures, but as God has not expressly praised the foregoing doings of the daughters of Lot and of Judah we are permitted to condemn them.

All the first Christians, without exception, thought of war like the Quakers and Dunkards of the present day, and the Brahmins, both ancient and modern. Tertullian is the father who is most explicit against this legal species of murder, which our vile human nature renders expedient. “No custom, no rule,” says he, “can render this criminal destruction legitimate.”

Nevertheless, after assuring us that no Christian can carry arms, he says, “by economy,” in the same book, in order to intimidate the Roman Empire, “although of such recent origin, we fill your cities and your armies.”

It is in the same spirit that he asserts that Pilate was a Christian in his heart, and the whole of his apology is filled with similar assertions, which redoubled the zeal of his proselytes.

Let us terminate these examples of the economical style, which are numberless, by a passage of St. Jerome, in his controversy with Jovian upon second marriages. The holy Jerome roundly asserts that it is plain, by the formation of the two sexes — in the description of which he is rather particular — that they are destined for each other, and for propagation. It follows, therefore, that they are to make love without ceasing, in order that their respective faculties may not be bestowed in vain. This being the case, why should not men and women marry again? Why, indeed, is a man to deny his wife to his friend if a cessation of attention on his own part be personally convenient? He may present the wife of another with a loaf of bread if she be hungry, and why may not her other wants be supplied, if they are urgent? Functions are not given to lie dormant, etc.

After such a passage it is useless to quote any more, but it is necessary to remark, by the way, that the economical style, so intimately connected with the polemical, ought to be employed with the greatest circumspection, and that it belongs not to the profane to imitate the things hazarded by the saints, either as regards the heat of their zeal or the piquancy of their delivery.

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