Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Since the word “epos,” among the Greeks, signified a discourse, an epic poem must have been a discourse, and it was in verse because it was not then the custom to write in prose. This appears strange, but it is no less true. One Pherecydes is supposed to have been the first Greek who made exclusive use of prose to compose one of those half-true, half-false histories so common to antiquity.

Orpheus, Linus, Thamyris, and Musæus, the predecessors of Homer, wrote in verse only. Hesiod, who was certainly contemporary with Homer, wrote his “Theogony” and his poem of “Works and Days” entirely in verse. The harmony of the Greek language so invited men to poetry, a maxim turned into verse was so easily engraved on the memory that the laws, oracles, morals, and theology were all composed in verse.

Of Hesiod.

He made use of fables which had for a long time been received in Greece. It is clearly seen by the succinct manner in which he speaks of Prometheus and Epimetheus that he supposes these notions already familiar to all the Greeks. He only mentions them to show that it is necessary to labor, and that an indolent repose, in which other mythologists have made the felicity of man to consist, is a violation of the orders of the Supreme Being.

Hesiod afterwards describes the four famous ages, of which he is the first who has spoken, at least among the ancient authors who remain to us. The first age is that which preceded Pandora — the time in which men lived with the gods. The iron age is that of the siege of Thebes and Troy. “I live in the fifth,” says he, “and I would I had never been born.” How many men, oppressed by envy, fanaticism, and tyranny, since Hesiod, have said the same!

It is in this poem of “Works and Days” that those proverbs are found which have been perpetuated, as —“the potter is jealous of the potter,” and he adds, “the musician of the musician, and the poor even of the poor.” We there find the original of our fable of the nightingale fallen into the claws of the vulture. The nightingale sings in vain to soften him; the vulture devours her. Hesiod does not conclude that a hungry belly has no ears, but that tyrants are not to be mollified by genius.

A hundred maxims worthy of Xenophon and Cato are to be found in this poem.

Men are ignorant of the advantage of society: they know not that the half is more valuable than the whole.

Iniquity is pernicious only to the powerless.

Equity alone causes cities to flourish.

One unjust man is often sufficient to ruin his country.

The wretch who plots the destruction of his neighbor often prepares the way to his own.

The road to crime is short and easy. That of virtue is long and difficult, but towards the end it is delightful.

God has placed labor as a sentinel over virtue.

Lastly, the precepts on agriculture were worthy to be imitated by Virgil. There are, also, very fine passages in his “Theogony.” Love, who disentangles chaos; Venus, born of the sea from the genital parts of a god nourished on earth, always followed by Love, and uniting heaven, earth, and sea, are admirable emblems.

Why, then, has Hesiod had less reputation than Homer? They seem to me of equal merit, but Homer has been preferred by the Greeks because he sang their exploits and victories over the Asiatics, their eternal enemies. He celebrated all the families which in his time reigned in Achaia and Peloponnesus; he wrote the most memorable war of the first people in Europe against the most flourishing nation which was then known in Asia. His poem was almost the only monument of that great epoch. There was no town nor family which did not think itself honored by having its name mentioned in these records of valor. We are even assured that a long time after him some differences between the Greek towns on the subject of adjacent lands were decided by the verses of Homer. He became, after his death, the judge of cities in which it is pretended that he asked alms during his life, which proves, also, that the Greeks had poets long before they had geographers.

It is astonishing that the Greeks, so disposed to honor epic poems which immortalized the combats of their ancestors, produced no one to sing the battles of Marathon, Thermopylæ, Platæa, and Salamis. The heroes of these times were much greater men than Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax.

Tyrtæus, a captain, poet, and musician, like the king of Prussia in our days, made war and sang it. He animated the Spartans against the Messenians by his verses, and gained the victory. But his works are lost. It does not appear that any epic poem was written in the time of Pericles. The attention of genius was turned towards tragedy, so that Homer stood alone, and his glory increased daily. We now come to his “Iliad.”

Of the Iliad.

What confirms me in the opinion that Homer was of the Greek colony established at Smyrna is the oriental style of all his metaphors and pictures: The earth which shook under the feet of the army when it marched like the thunderbolts of Jupiter on the hills which overwhelmed the giant Typhon; a wind blacker than night winged with tempests; Mars and Minerva followed by Terror, Flight, and insatiable Discord, the sister and companion of Homicide, the goddess of battles, who raises tumults wherever she appears, and who, not content with setting the world by the ears, even exalts her proud head into heaven. The “Iliad” is full of these images, which caused the sculptor Bouchardon to say, “When I read Homer I believe myself twenty feet high.”

His poem, which is not at all interesting to us, was very precious to the Greeks. His gods are ridiculous to reasonable but they were not so to partial eyes, and it was for partial eyes that he wrote.

We laugh and shrug our shoulders at these gods, who abused one another, fought one another, and combated with men — who were wounded and whose blood flowed, but such was the ancient theology of Greece and of almost all the Asiatic people. Every nation, every little village had its particular god, which conducted it to battle.

The inhabitants of the clouds and of the stars which were supposed in the clouds, had a cruel war. The combat of the angels against one another was from time immemorial the foundation of the religion of the Brahmins. The battle of the Titans, the children of heaven and earth, against the chief gods of Olympus, was also the leading mystery of the Greek religion. Typhon, according to the Egyptians, had fought against Oshiret, whom we call Osiris, and cut him to pieces.

Madame Dacier, in her preface to the “Iliad,” remarks very sensibly, after Eustathius, bishop of Thessalonica, and Huet, bishop of Avranches, that every neighboring nation of the Hebrews had its god of war. Indeed, does not Jephthah say to the Ammonites, “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So, whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, from them will we possess.”

Do we not see the God of Judah a conqueror in the mountains and repulsed in the valleys?

As to men wrestling against divinities, that is a received idea. Jacob wrestled one whole night with an angel. If Jupiter sent a deceiving dream to the chief of the Greeks, the Lord also sent a deceiving spirit to King Ahab. These emblems were frequent and astonished nobody. Homer has then painted the ideas of his own age; he could not paint those of the generations which succeeded him.

Homer has great faults. Horace confesses it, and all men of taste agree to it; there is only one commentator who is blind enough not to see them. Pope, who was himself a translator of the Greek poet, says: “It is a vast but uncultivated country where we meet with all kinds of natural beauties, but which do not present themselves as regularly as in a garden; it is an abundant nursery which contains the seeds of all fruits; a great tree that extends superfluous branches which it is necessary to prune.”

Madame Dacier sides with the vast country, the nursery and the tree, and would have nothing curtailed. She was no doubt a woman superior to her sex, and has done great service to letters, as well as her husband, but when she became masculine and turned commentator, she so overacted her part that she piqued people into finding fault with Homer. She was so obstinate as to quarrel even with Monsieur de La Motte. She wrote against him like the head of a college, and La Motte answered like a polite and witty woman. He translated the “Iliad” very badly, but he attacked Madame Dacier very well.

We will not speak of the “Odyssey” here; we shall say something of that poem while treating of Ariosto.

Of Virgil.

It appears to me that the second, fourth, and sixth book of the “Æneid” are as much above all Greek and Latin poets, without exception, as the statues of Girardon are superior to all those which preceded them in France.

It is often said that Virgil has borrowed many of the figures of Homer, and that he is even inferior to him in his imitations, but he has not imitated him at all in the three books of which I am speaking; he is there himself touching and appalling to the heart. Perhaps he was not suited for terrific detail, but there had been battles enough. Horace had said of him, before he attempted the “Æneid:”

Molle atque facetum

Virgilio annuerunt gaudentes rure camoenæ.

Smooth flow his lines, and elegant his style,

On Virgil all the rural muses smile.

— Francis.

“Facetum” does not here signify facetious but agreeable. I do not know whether we shall not find a little of this happy and affecting softness in the fatal passion of Dido. I think at least that we shall there recognize the author of those admirable verses which we meet with in his Eclogues: “Ut vidi, ut perii, ut me malus abstulit error!” — I saw, I perished, yet indulged my pain. —(Dryden.)

Certainly the description of the descent into hell would not be badly matched with these lines from the fourth Eclogue:

Ille Deum vitam accipiet, divisque videbit

Permistos heroas, et ipse videbitur illis —

Pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem.

The sons shall lead the lives of gods, and be

By gods and heroes seen, and gods and heroes see,

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,

And with paternal virtues rule mankind.

— Dryden.

I meet with many of these simple, elegant, and affecting passages in the three beautiful books of the “Æneid.”

All the fourth book is filled with touching verses, which move those who have any ear or sentiment at all, even to tears, and to point out all the beauties of this book it would be necessary to transcribe the whole of it. And in the sombre picture of hell, how this noble and affecting tenderness breathes through every line.

It is well known how many tears were shed by the emperor Augustus, by Livia, and all the palace, at hearing this half line alone: “Tu Marcellus eris.” — A new Marcellus will in thee arise.

Homer never produces tears. The true poet, according to my idea, is he who touches the soul and softens it, others are only fine speakers. I am far from proposing this opinion as a rule. “I give my opinion,” says Montaigne, “not as being good, but as being my own.”

Of Lucan.

If you look for unity of time and action in Lucan you will lose your labor, but where else will you find it? If you expect to feel any emotion or any interest you will not experience it in the long details of a war, the subject of which is very dry and the expressions bombastic, but if you would have bold ideas, an eloquent expatiation on sublime and philosophical courage, Lucan is the only one among the ancients in whom you will meet with it. There is nothing finer than the speech of Labienus to Cato at the gates of the temple of Jupiter Ammon, if we except the answer of Cato itself:

Hæremus cuncti superis? temploque tacente

Nil facimus non sponte Dei

. . . . Steriles num legit arenas.

Ut caneret paucis; mersit ne hoc pulvere verum!

Estne Dei sedes nisi terra et pontus et aer,

Et cœlum et virtus? Superos quid quærimus ultra?

Jupiter est quodcumque vides quocumque moveris.

And though our priests are mutes, and temples still,

We act the dictates of his mighty will;

Canst thou believe, the vast eternal mind,

Was e’er to Syrts and Libyan sands confined?

That he would choose this waste, this barren ground,

To teach the thin inhabitants around?

Is there a place that God would choose to love

Beyond this earth, the seas, yon heaven above,

And virtuous minds, the noblest throne of Jove?

Why seek we farther, then? Behold around;

How all thou seest doth with the God abound,

Jove is seen everywhere, and always to be found.

— Rowe.

Put together all that the ancients poets have said of the gods and it is childish in comparison with this passage of Lucan, but in a vast picture, in which there are a hundred figures, it is not sufficient that one or two of them are finely designed.

Of Tasso.

Boileau has exposed the tinsel of Tasso, but if there be a hundred spangles of false gold in a piece of gold cloth, it is pardonable. There are many rough stones in the great marble building raised by Homer. Boileau knew it, felt it, and said nothing about it. We should be just.

We recall the reader’s memory to what has been said of Tasso in the “Essay on Epic Poetry,” but we must here observe that his verses are known by heart all over Italy. If at Venice any one in a boat sings a stanza of the “Jerusalem Delivered,” he is answered from a neighboring bark with the following one.

If Boileau had listened to these concerts he could have said nothing in reply. As enough is known of Tasso, I will not repeat here either eulogies or criticisms. I will speak more at length of Ariosto.

Of Ariosto.

Homer’s “Odyssey” seems to have been the first model of the “Morgante,” of the “Orlando Innamorato,” and the “Orlando Furioso,” and, what very seldom happens, the last of the poems is without dispute the best.

The companions of Ulysses changed into swine; the winds shut up in goats’ skins; the musicians with fishes’ tails, who ate all those who approached them; Ulysses, who followed the chariot of a beautiful princess who went to bathe quite naked; Ulysses, disguised as a beggar, who asked alms, and afterwards killed all the lovers of his aged wife, assisted only by his son and two servants — are imaginations which have given birth to all the poetical romances which have since been written in the same style.

But the romance of Ariosto is so full of variety and so fertile in beauties of all kinds that after having read it once quite through I only wish to begin it again. How great the charm of natural poetry! I never could read a single canto of this poem in a prose translation.

That which above all charms me in this wonderful work is that the author is always above his subject, and treats it playfully. He says the most sublime things without effort and he often finishes them by a turn of pleasantry which is neither misplaced nor far-fetched. It is at once the “Iliad,” the “Odyssey,” and “Don Quixote,” for his principal knight-errant becomes mad like the Spanish hero, and is infinitely more pleasant.

The subject of the poem, which consists of so many things, is precisely that of the romance of “Cassandra,” which was formerly so much in fashion with us, and which has entirely lost its celebrity because it had only the length of the “Orlando Furioso,” and few of its beauties, and even the few being in French prose, five or six stanzas of Ariosto will eclipse them all. His poem closes with the greater part of the heroes and princesses who have not perished during the war all meeting in Paris, after a thousand adventures, just as the personages in the romance of “Cassandra” all finally meet again in the house of Palemon.

The “Orlando Furioso” possesses a merit unknown to the ancients — it is that of its exordiums. Every canto is like an enchanted palace, the vestibule of which is always in a different taste — sometimes majestic, sometimes simple, and even grotesque. It is moral, lively, or gallant, and always natural and true.

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