Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This Greek word signifies “emotion of the bowels, internal agitation.” Was the word invented by the Greeks to express the vibrations experienced by the nerves, the dilation and shrinking of the intestines, the violent contractions of the heart, the precipitous course of those fiery spirits which mount from the viscera to the brain whenever we are strongly and vividly affected?

Or was the term “enthusiasm,” after painful affection of the bowels, first applied to the contortions of the Pythia, who, on the Delphian tripod, admitted the inspiration of Apollo in a place apparently intended for the receptacle of body rather than of spirit?

What do we understand by enthusiasm? How many shades are there in our affections! Approbation, sensibility, emotion, distress, impulse, passion, transport, insanity, rage, fury. Such are the stages through which the miserable soul of man is liable to pass.

A geometrician attends at the representation of an affecting tragedy. He merely remarks that it is a judicious, well-written performance. A young man who sits next to him is so interested by the performance that he makes no remark at all; a lady sheds tears over it; another young man is so transported by the exhibition that to his great misfortune he goes home determined to compose a tragedy himself. He has caught the disease of enthusiasm.

The centurion or military tribune who considers war simply as a profession by which he is to make his fortune, goes to battle coolly, like a tiler ascending the roof of a house. Cæsar wept at seeing the statue of Alexander.

Ovid speaks of love only like one who understood it. Sappho expressed the genuine enthusiasm of the passion, and if it be true that she sacrificed her life to it, her enthusiasm must have advanced to madness.

The spirit of party tends astonishingly to excite enthusiasm; there is no faction that has not its “energumens,” its devoted and possessed partisans. An animated speaker who employs gesture in his addresses, has in his eyes, his voice, his movements. a subtle poison which passes with an arrow’s speed into the ears and hearts of his partial hearers. It was on this ground that Queen Elizabeth forbade any one to preach, during six months, without an express licence under her sign manual, that the peace of her kingdom might be undisturbed.

St. Ignatius, who possessed very warm and susceptible feelings, read the lives of the fathers of the desert after being deeply read in romances. He becomes, in consequence, actuated by a double enthusiasm. He constitutes himself knight to the Virgin Mary, he performed the vigil of arms; he is eager to fight for his lady patroness; he is favored with visions; the virgin appears and recommends to him her son, and she enjoins him to give no other name to his society than that of the “Society of Jesus.”

Ignatius communicates his enthusiasm to another Spaniard of the name of Xavier. Xavier hastens away to the Indies, of the language of which he is utterly ignorant, thence to Japan, without knowing a word of Japanese. That, however, is of no consequence; the flame of his enthusiasm catches the imagination of some young Jesuits, who, at length, make themselves masters of that language. These disciples, after Xavier’s death, entertain not the shadow of a doubt that he performed more miracles than ever the apostles did, and that he resuscitated seven or eight persons at the very least. In short, so epidemic and powerful becomes the enthusiasm that they form in Japan what they denominate a Christendom (une Chrétienté). This Christendom ends in a civil war, in which a hundred thousand persons are slaughtered: the enthusiasm then is at its highest point, fanaticism; and fanaticism has become madness.

The young fakir who fixes his eye on the tip of his nose when saying his prayers, gradually kindles in devotional ardor until he at length believes that if he burdens himself with chains of fifty pounds weight the Supreme Being will be obliged and grateful to him. He goes to sleep with an imagination totally absorbed by Brahma, and is sure to have a sight of him in a dream. Occasionally even in the intermediate state between sleeping and waking, sparks radiate from his eyes; he beholds Brahma resplendent with light; he falls into ecstasies, and the disease frequently becomes incurable.

What is most rarely to be met with is the combination of reason with enthusiasm. Reason consists in constantly perceiving things as they really are. He, who, under the influence of intoxication, sees objects double is at the time deprived of reason.

Enthusiasm is precisely like wine, it has the power to excite such a ferment in the blood-vessels, and such strong vibrations in the nerves, that reason is completely destroyed by it. But it may also occasion only slight agitations so as not to convulse the brain, but merely to render it more active, as is the case in grand bursts of eloquence and more especially in sublime poetry. Reasonable enthusiasm is the patrimony of great poets.

This reasonable enthusiasm is the perfection of their art. It is this which formerly occasioned the belief that poets were inspired by the gods, a notion which was never applied to other artists.

How is reasoning to control enthusiasm? A poet should, in the first instance, make a sketch of his design. Reason then holds the crayon. But when he is desirous of animating his characters, to communicate to them the different and just expressions of the passions, then his imagination kindles, enthusiasm is in full operation and urges him on like a fiery courser in his career. But his course has been previously traced with coolness and judgment.

Enthusiasm is admissible into every species of poetry which admits of sentiment; we occasionally find it even in the eclogue; witness the following lines of Virgil (Eclogue x. v. 58):

Jam mihi per rupes videor lucosque sonantes

Ire; libet Partho torquere cydonia cornu

Spicula; tanquam haec sint nostri medicina furoris,

Aut deus ille malis hominum mitescere discat!

Nor cold shall hinder me, with horns and hounds

To third the thickets, or to leap the mounds.

And now, methinks, through steepy rocks I go,

And rush through sounding woods and bend the Parthian bow:

As if with sports my sufferings I could ease,

Or by my pains the god of Love appease.

The style of epistles and satires represses enthusiasm, we accordingly see little or nothing of it in the works of Boileau and Pope.

Our odes, it is said by some, are genuine lyrical enthusiasm, but as they are not sung with us, they are, in fact, rather collections of verses, adorned with ingenious reflections, than odes.

Of all modern odes that which abounds with the noblest enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that never abates, that never falls into the bombastic or the ridiculous, is “Timotheus, or Alexander’s Feast,” by Dryden. It is still considered in England as an inimitable masterpiece, which Pope, when attempting the same style and the same subject, could not even approach. This ode was sung, set to music, and if the musician had been worthy of the poet it would have been the masterpiece of lyric poesy.

The most dangerous tendency of enthusiasm in this occurs in an ode on the birth of a prince of the bast, rant, and burlesque. A striking example of this occurs in an ode on the birth of a prince of the blood royal:

Où suis-je? quel nouveau miracle

Tient encore mes sens enchantés

Quel vaste, quel pompeux spectacle

Frappe mes yeux épouvantés?

Un nouveau monde vient d’éclore

L’univers se reforme encore

Dans les abîmes du chaos;

Et, pour réparer ses ruines

Je vois des demeures divines

Descendre un peuple de héros.

— J. B. Rousseau.

“Ode on the Birth of the Duke of Brittany.”

Here we find the poet’s senses enchanted and alarmed at the appearance of a prodigy — a vast and magnificent spectacle — a new birth which is to reform the universe and redeem it from a state of chaos, all which means simply that a male child is born to the house of Bourbon. This is as bad as “Je chante les vainqueurs, des vainqueurs de la terre.”

We will avail ourselves of the present opportunity to observe that there is a very small portion of enthusiasm in the “Ode on the Taking of Namur.”

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