Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In antiquity, everything is emblematical and figurative. The Chaldæans began with placing a ram, two kids, and a bull among the constellations, to indicate the productions of the earth in spring. In Persia, fire is the emblem of the divinity; the celestial dog gives notice to the Egyptians of the inundations of the Nile; the serpent, concealing its tail in its head, becomes the image of eternity. All nature is painted and disguised.

There are still to be found in India many of those gigantic and terrific statues which we have already mentioned, representing virtue furnished with ten arms, with which it may successfully contend against the vices, and which our poor missionaries mistook for representations of the devil; taking it for granted, that all those who did not speak French or Italian were worshippers of the devil.

Show all these symbols devised by antiquity to a man of clear sense, but who has never heard them at all mentioned or alluded to, and he will not have the slightest idea of their meaning. It would be to him a perfectly new language.

The ancient poetical theologians were under the necessity of ascribing to the deity eyes, hands, and feet; of describing him under the figure of a man.

St. Clement of Alexandria quotes verses from Xenophanes the Colophonian, which state that every species of animal supplies metaphor to aid the imagination in its ideas of the deity — the wings of the bird, the speed of the horse, and the strength of the lion. It is evident, from these verses of Xenophanes, that it is by no means a practice of recent date for men to represent God after their own image. The ancient Thracian Orpheus, the first theologian among the Greeks, who lived long before Homer, according to the same Clement of Alexandria, describes God as seated upon the clouds, and tranquilly ruling the whirlwind and the storm. His feet reach the earth, and His hands extend from one ocean to the other. He is the beginning, middle, and end of all things.

Everything being thus represented by figure and emblem, philosophers, and particularly those among them who travelled to India, employed the same method; their precepts were emblems, were enigmas.

“Stir not the fire with a sword:” that is, aggravate not men who are angry.

“Place not a lamp under a bushel:” conceal not the truth from men.

“Abstain from beans:” frequent not popular assemblies, in which votes were given by white or black beans.

“Have no swallows about your house:” keep away babblers.

“During a tempest, worship the echo:” while civil broils endure, withdraw into retirement.

“Never write on snow:” throw not away instruction upon weak and imbecile minds.

“Never devour either your heart or your brains:” never give yourself up to useless anxiety or intense study.

Such are the maxims of Pythagoras, the meaning of which is sufficiently obvious.

The most beautiful of all emblems is that of God, whom Timæus of Locris describes under the image of “A circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Plato adopted this emblem, and Pascal inserted it among his materials for future use, which he entitled his “Thoughts.”

In metaphysics and in morals, the ancients have said everything. We always encounter or repeat them. All modern books of this description are merely repetitions.

The farther we advance eastward, the more prevalent and established we find the employment of emblems and figures: but, at the same time, the images in use are more remote from our own manners and customs.

The emblems which appear most singular to us are those which were in frequent if not in sacred use among the Indians, Egyptians, and Syrians. These people bore aloft in their solemn processions, and with the most profound respect, the appropriate organs for the perpetuation of the species — the symbols of life. We smile at such practices, and consider these people as simple barbarians. What would they have said on seeing us enter our temples wearing at our sides the weapons of destruction?

At Thebes, the sins of the people were represented by a goat. On the coast of Phœnicia, a naked woman with the lower part of her body like that of a fish was the emblem of nature.

We cannot be at all surprised if this employment of symbols extended to the Hebrews, as they constituted a people near the Desert of Syria.

Of Some Emblems Used by the Jewish Nation.

One of the most beautiful emblems in the Jewish books, is the following exquisite passage in Ecclesiastes:

“When the grinders shall cease because they are few; when those that look out of the windows shall be darkened; when the almond tree shall flourish; when the grasshopper shall become a burden; when desire shall fail; the silver cord be loosed; the golden bowl be fractured; and the pitcher broken at the fountain.”

The meaning is, that the aged lose their teeth; that their sight becomes impaired; that their hair becomes white, like the blossom of the almond tree; that their feet become like the grasshopper; that their hair drops off like the leaves of the fir tree; that they have lost the power of communicating life; and that it is time for them to prepare for their long journey.

The “Song of Songs,” as is well known, is a continued emblem of the marriage of Jesus Christ with the church.

“Let him kiss me with a kiss of his mouth, for thy breasts are better than wine. Let him put his left hand under my head, and embrace me with his right hand. How beautiful art thou, my love: thy eyes are like those of the dove; thy hair is as a flock of goats; thy lips are like a ribbon of scarlet, and thy cheeks like pomegranates; how beautiful is thy neck! how thy lips drop honey! my beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him; thy navel is like a round goblet; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies; thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins; thy neck is like a tower of ivory; thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon; thy head is like Mount Carmel; thy stature is that of a palm tree. I said, I will ascend the palm tree and will gather of its fruits. What shall we do for our little sister? she has no breasts. If she be a wall, we will build upon her a tower of silver; if she be a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.”

It would be necessary to translate the whole canticle, in order to see that it is an emblem from beginning to end. The ingenious Calmet, in particular, demonstrates that the palm tree which the lover ascended is the cross to which our Lord Jesus Christ was condemned. It must however be confessed, that sound and pure moral doctrine is preferable to these allegories.

We find in the books of this people a great number of emblems and types which shock at the present day, and excite at once our incredulity and ridicule, but which, to the Asiatics, appear clear, natural, and unexceptionable.

God appeared to Isaiah, the son of Amos, and said to him, “Go take thy girdle from thy loins and thy shoes from thy feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot. And the Lord said, “Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot for three years for a sign upon Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptian and Ethiopian prisoners, young and old, naked and barefoot, with their hind parts uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.”

This appears to us exceedingly strange: but let us inform ourselves a little about what is passing in our own times among Turks, and Africans, and in India, where we go to trade with so much avidity and so little success. We shall learn that it is by no means unusual to see the santons there absolutely naked, and not only in that state preaching to women, but permitting them to salute particular parts of their body, yet neither indulging or inspiring the slightest portion of licentious or unchaste feeling. We shall see on the banks of the Ganges an innumerable company both of men and women naked from head to foot, extending their arms towards heaven, and waiting for the moment of an eclipse to plunge into the river. The citizens of Paris and Rome should not be too ready to think all the rest of the world bound down to the same modes of living and thinking as themselves.

Jeremiah, who prophesied in the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Jerusalem, in favor of the king of Babylon, puts chains and cords about his neck, by order of the Lord, and sends them to the kings of Edom, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon, by their ambassadors who had been sent to Zedekiah at Jerusalem. He commands them to address their master in these words:

“Thus saith the Lord of Hosts the God of Israel, thus shall ye say unto your masters: I have made the earth, the men, and the beasts of burden which are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed good unto me. And now have I given all these lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and all the beasts of the field have I given him besides, that they may serve him. I spake also all these words to Zedekiah, king of Judah, saying unto him, submit your neck to the yoke of the king of Babylon, serve him, him and his people, and you shall live,” etc.

Accordingly, Jeremiah was accused of betraying his king, and of prophesying in favor of the enemy for the sake of money. It has even been asserted that he was stoned. It is clear that the cords and chains were the emblem of that servitude to which Jeremiah was desirous that the nation should submit.

In a similar manner we are told by Herodotus, that one of the kings of Scythia sent Darius a present of a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. This emblem implied that, if Darius did not fly as fast as a bird, a mouse, or a frog, he would be pierced by the arrows of the Scythians. The allegory of Jeremiah was that of weakness; the emblem of the Scythians was that of courage.

Thus, also, when Sextus Tarquinius consulted his father, whom we call Tarquinius Superbus, about the policy he should adopt to the Gabii, Tarquin, who was walking in his garden, answered only by striking off the heads of the tallest poppies. His son caught his meaning, and put to death the principal citizens among them. This was the emblem of tyranny.

Many learned men have been of opinion that the history of Daniel, of the dragon, of the den of seven lions who devoured every day two sheep and two men, and the history of the angel who transported Habakkuk by the hair of his head to dine with Daniel in the lion’s den, are nothing more than a visible allegory, an emblem of the continual vigilance with which God watches over his servants. But it seems to us a proof of greater piety to believe that it is a real history, like many we find in the Sacred Scriptures, displaying without figure and type the divine power, and which profane minds are not permitted to explore. Let us consider those only as genuine emblems and allegories, which are indicated to us as such by Holy Scripture itself.

“In the thirteenth year and the fifteenth day of the fourth month, as I was in the midst of the captives on the banks of the river Chobar, the heavens were opened, and I saw the visions of God,” etc. “The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldæans by the river Chobar, and the hand of the Lord was upon him.”

It is thus that Ezekiel begins his prophecy; and, after having seen a fire and a whirlwind, and in the midst of the fire four living animals resembling a man, having four faces and four wings with feet resembling those of calves, and a wheel which was upon the earth, and which had four parts, the four parts of the wheel going at the same time, etc.

He goes on to say, “The spirit entered into me, and placed me firm upon my feet. . . . . Then the Lord said unto me: ‘Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this book, and go and speak to the children of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that book. And the spirit entered into me and made me stand upon my feet. And he said unto me: ‘Go and shut thyself up in the midst of thy house. Son of man, these are the chains with which thou shalt set thy face firm against it; thou shalt be bound,’ ” etc. “ ‘And thou, son of man, take a tile and place it before thee and portray thereon the city of Jerusalem.’ ”

“ ‘Take also a pan of iron, and thou shalt place it as a wall of iron between thee and the city; thou shalt be before Jerusalem as if thou didst besiege it; it is a sign to the house of Israel.’ ”

After this command God orders him to sleep three hundred and ninety days on his left side, on account of the iniquities of the house of Judah.

Before we go further we will transcribe the words of that judicious commentator Calmet, on this part of Ezekiel’s prophecy, which is at once a history and an allegory, a real truth and an emblem. These are the remarks of that learned Benedictine:

“There are some who think that the whole of this occurred merely in vision; that a man cannot continue lying so long on the same side without a miracle; that, as the Scripture gives us no intimation that this is a prodigy, we ought not to multiply miraculous acts without necessity; that, if the prophet continued lying in that manner for three hundred and ninety days, it was only during the nights; in the day he was at liberty to attend to his affairs. But we do not see any necessity for recurring to a miracle, nor for any circuitous explanation of the case here stated. It is by no means impossible for a man to continue chained and lying on his side for three hundred and ninety days. We have every day before us cases which prove the possibility among prisoners, sick persons, and persons deranged and chained in a state of raving madness. Prado testifies that he saw a mad person who continued bound and lying quite naked on his side upwards of fifteen years. If all this had occurred only in vision, how could the Jews of the captivity have comprehended what Ezekiel meant to say to them? How would that prophet have been able to execute the divine commands? We must in that case admit likewise that he did not prepare the plan of Jerusalem, that he did not represent the siege, that he was not bound, that he did not eat the bread of different kinds of grain in any other than the same way; namely, that of vision, or ideally.”

We cannot but adopt the opinion of the learned Calmet, which is that of the most respectable interpreters. It is evident that the Holy Scripture recounts the matter as a real truth, and that such truth is the emblem, type, and figure of another truth.

“Take unto thee wheat and barley, and beans and lentils, and millet and vetches, and make cakes of them for as many days as thou art to sleep on thy side. Thou shalt eat for three hundred and ninety days . . . . thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt cover it with human ordure. Thus shall the children of Israel eat their bread defiled.”

It is evident that the Lord was desirous that the Israelites should eat their bread defiled. It follows therefore that the bread of the prophet must have been defiled also. This defilement was so real that Ezekiel expressed actual horror at it. “Alas!” he exclaimed, “my life (my soul) has not hitherto been polluted,” etc. And the Lord says to him, “I allow thee, then, cow’s dung instead of man’s, and with that shalt thou prepare thy bread.”

It appears, therefore, to have been absolutely essential that the food should be defiled in order to its becoming an emblem or type. The prophet in fact put cow-dung with his bread for three hundred and ninety days, and the case includes at once a fact and a symbol.

Of the Emblem of Aholah and Aholibah.

The Holy Scripture expressly declares that Aholah is the emblem of Jerusalem. “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother was a Hittite.” The prophet then, without any apprehension of malignant interpretations or wanton railleries, addresses the young Aholah in the following words:

Ubera tua intumuerunt, et pilus tuus germinavit; et eras nuda et confusione plena.” —“Thy breasts were fashioned, and thy hair was grown, and thou wast naked and confused.”

Et transivi per te; et ecce tempus tuum, tempus amantium; et expandi amictum meum super te et operui ignominiam tuam. Et juravi tibi, et ingressus sum pactum tecum (ait Dominus Deus), et facta es mihi.” —“I passed by and saw thee; and saw thy time was come, thy time for lovers; and I spread my mantle over thee and concealed thy shame. And I swore to thee, and entered into a contract with thee, and thou becamest mine.”

Et habens fiduciam in pulchritudine tua fornicata es in nomine tuo; et exposuisti fornicationem tuam omni transeunti, ut ejus fieres.” —“And, proud of thy beauty, thou didst commit fornication without disguise, and hast exposed thy fornication to every passerby, to become his.”

Et ædificavissti tibi lupanar, et fecisti tibi prostibulum in cunctis plateis.” —“And thou hast built a high place for thyself, and a place of eminence in every public way.”

Et divisisti pedes tuos omni transeunti, et multiplicasti fornicationes tuas.” —“And thou hast opened thy feet to every passerby, and hast multiplied thy fornications.”

Et fornicata es cum filiis Egypti vicinis tuis, magnarum carnium; et multiplicasti fornicationem tuam ad irritandum me.” —“And thou hast committed fornication with the Egyptians thy neighbors, powerful in the flesh; and thou hast multiplied thy fornication to provoke me.”

The article of Aholibah, which signifies Samaria, is much stronger and still further removed from the propriety and decorum of modern manners and language.

Denudavit quoque fornicationes suas, discooperuit ignominiam suam.” —“And she has made bare her fornications and discovered her shame.”

“Multiplicavit enim fornicationes suas, recordans dies adolescentiæ suæ.” —“For she has multiplied her fornications, remembering the days of her youth.”

Et insanivit libidine super concubitum eorum carnes sunt ut carnes asinorum, et sicut fluxus equorum, fluxus eorum.” —“And she has maddened for the embraces of those whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is as the issue of horses.”

These images strike us as licentious and revolting. They were at that time simply plain and ingenuous. There are numerous instances of the like in the “Song of Songs,” intended to celebrate the purest of all possible unions. It must be attentively considered that these expressions and images are always delivered with seriousness and gravity, and that in no book of equally high antiquity is the slightest jeering or raillery ever applied to the great subject of human production. When dissoluteness is condemned, it is so in natural and undisguised terms, but such are never used to stimulate voluptuousness or pleasantry.

This high antiquity has not the slightest touch of similarity to the licentiousness of Martial, Catullus, or Petronius.

Of Hosea, and Some Other Emblems.

We cannot regard as a mere vision, as simply a figure, the positive command given by the Lord to Hosea to take to himself a wife of whoredoms and have by her three children. Children are not produced in a dream. It is not in a vision that he made a contract with Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, by whom he had two boys and a girl. It was not in a vision that he afterwards took to himself an adulteress by the express order of the Lord, giving her fifteen pieces of silver and a measure and a half of barley.

The first of these disgraced women signified Jerusalem and the second Samaria. But the two unions with these worthless persons, the three children, the fifteen pieces of silver, and the bushel and a half of barley, were not the less real for having included or been intended as an emblem.

It was not in a vision that the patriarch Salmon married the harlot Rahab, the grandmother of David. It was not in a vision that Judah committed incest with his daughter-in-law Thamar, from which incest sprang David. It was not in a vision that Ruth, David’s other grandmother, placed herself in the bed with Boaz. It was not in a vision that David murdered Uriah and committed adultery with Bathsheba, of whom was born King Solomon. But, subsequently, all these events became emblems and figures, after the things which they typified were accomplished.

It is perfectly clear, from Ezekiel, Hosea, Jeremiah, and all the Jewish prophets, and all the Jewish books, as well as from all other books which give us any information concerning the usages of the Chaldæans, Persians, Phœnicians, Syrians, Indians, and Egyptians; it is, I say, perfectly clear that their manners were very different from ours, and that the ancient world was scarcely in a single point similar to the modern one.

Pass from Gibraltar to Mequinez, and the decencies and decorums of life are no longer the same; you no longer find the same ideas. Two sea leagues have changed everything.

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