Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


On this delicate subject, we shall not speak as theologians. Submitting in heart and mind to the religion in which we are born, and the laws under which we live, we shall have nothing to do with controversy; it is too hostile to all religions which it boasts of supporting — to all laws which it makes pretensions to explain, and especially to that harmony which in every period it has banished from the world.

One-half of Europe anathematizes the other on the subject of the Eucharist; and blood has flowed in torrents from the Baltic Sea to the foot of the Pyrenees, for nearly two centuries, on account of a single word, which signifies gentle charity.

Various nations in this part of the world view with horror the system of transubstantiation. They exclaim against this dogma as the last effort of human folly. They quote the celebrated passage of Cicero, who says that men, having exhausted all the mad extravagancies they are capable of, have yet never entertained the idea of eating the God whom they adore. They say that as almost all popular opinions are built upon ambiguities and abuse of words, so the system of the Roman Catholics concerning the Eucharist and transubstantiation is founded solely on an ambiguity; that they have interpreted literally what could only have been meant figuratively; and that for the sake of mere verbal contests, for absolute misconceptions, the world has for six hundred years been drenched in blood.

Their preachers in the pulpits, their learned in their publications, and the people in their conversational discussions, incessantly repeat that Jesus Christ did not take His body in His two hands to give His disciples to eat; that a body cannot be in a hundred thousand places at one time, in bread and in wine; that the God who formed the universe cannot consist of bread which is converted into fæces, and of wine which flows off in urine; and that the doctrine may naturally expose Christianity to the derision of the least intelligent, and to the contempt and execration of the rest of mankind.

In this opinion the Tillotsons, the Smallridges, the Claudes, the Daillés, the Amyrauts, the Mestrezats, the Dumoulins, the Blondels, and the numberless multitude of the reformers of the sixteenth century, are all agreed; while the peaceable Mahometan, master of Africa, and of the finest part of Asia, smiles with disdain upon our disputes, and the rest of the world are totally ignorant of them.

Once again I repeat that I have nothing to do with controversy. I believe with a lively faith all that the Catholic apostolic religion teaches on the subject of the Eucharist, without comprehending a single word of it.

The question is, how to put the greatest restraint upon crimes. The Stoics said that they carried God in their hearts. Such is the expression of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, the most virtuous of mankind, and who might almost be called gods upon earth. They understood by the words “I carry God within me,” that part of the divine universal soul which animates every intelligent being.

The Catholic religion goes further. It says, “You shall have within you physically what the Stoics had metaphysically. Do not set yourselves about inquiring what it is that I give you to eat and drink, or merely to eat. Only believe that what I so give you is God. He is within you. Shall your heart then be defiled by anything unjust or base? Behold then men receiving God within them, in the midst of an august ceremonial, by the light of a hundred tapers, under the influence of the most exquisite and enchanting music, and at the footstool of an altar of burnished gold. The imagination is led captive, the soul is rapt in ecstasy and melted! The votary scarcely breathes; he is detached from every terrestrial object, he is united with God, He is in our flesh, and in our blood! Who will dare, or who even will be able, after this, to commit a single fault, or to entertain even the idea of it? It was clearly impossible to devise a mystery better calculated to retain mankind in virtue.”

Yet Louis XI., while receiving God thus within him, poisons his own brother; the archbishop of Florence, while making God, and the Pazzi while receiving Him, assassinate the Medici in the cathedral. Pope Alexander VI., after rising from the bed of his bastard daughter, administers God to Cæsar Borgia, his bastard son, and both destroy by hanging, poison, and the sword, all who are in possession of two acres of land which they find desirable.

Julius II. makes and eats God; but, with his cuirass on his back and his helmet on his head, he imbrues his hands in blood and carnage. Leo X. contains God in his body, his mistress in his arms, and the money extorted by the sale of indulgences, in his own and his sister’s coffers.

Trolle, archbishop of Upsala, has the senators of Sweden slaughtered before his face, holding a papal bull in his hand. Von Galen, bishop of Münster, makes war upon all his neighbors, and becomes celebrated for his rapine.

The Abbé N— is full of God, speaks of nothing but God, imparts God to all the women, or weak and imbecile persons that he can obtain the direction of, and robs his penitents of their property.

What are we to conclude from these contradictions? That all these persons never really believed in God; that they still less, if possible, believed that they had eaten His body and drunk His blood; that they never imagined they had swallowed God; that if they had firmly so believed, they never would have committed any of those deliberate crimes; in a word, that this most miraculous preventive of human atrocities has been most ineffective? The more sublime such an idea, the more decidedly is it secretly rejected by human obstinacy.

The fact is, that all our grand criminals who have been at the head of government, and those also who have subordinately shared in authority, not only never believed that they received God down their throats, but never believed in God at all; at least they had entirely effaced such an idea from their minds. Their contempt for the sacrament which they created or administered was extended at length into a contempt of God Himself. What resource, then, have we remaining against depredation, insolence, outrage, calumny, and persecution? That of persuading the strong man who oppresses the weak that God really exists. He will, at least, not laugh at this opinion; and, although he may not believe that God is within him, he yet may believe that God pervades all nature. An incomprehensible mystery has shocked him. But would he be able to say that the existence of a remunerating and avenging God is an incomprehensible mystery? Finally, although he does not yield his belief to a Catholic bishop who says to him, “Behold, that is your God, whom a man consecrated by myself has put into your mouth;” he may believe the language of all the stars and of all animated beings, at once exclaiming: “God is our creator!”

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