Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It may be thought that this word should not be permitted to degrade a dictionary of arts and sciences; it has a connection however with jurisprudence and history. Our great poets have not disdained frequently to avail themselves of this word in tragedy: Clytemnestra, in Iphigenia, calls Agamemnon the executioner of his daughter.

In comedy it is used with great gayety; Mercury in the “Amphitryon” (act i. scene 2), says: “Comment, bourreau! tu fais des cris!” —“How, hangman! thou bellowest!”

And even the Romans permitted themselves to say: “Quorsum vadis, carnifex?” —“Whither goest thou, hangman?”

The Encyclopædia, under the word “Executioner,” details all the privileges of the Parisian executioner; but a recent author has gone farther. In a romance on education, not altogether equal to Xenophon’s “Cyropædia” or Fénelon’s “Telemachus,” he pretends that the monarch of a country ought, without hesitation, to bestow the daughter of an executioner in marriage on the heir apparent of the crown, if she has been well educated, and if she is of a sufficiently congruous disposition with the young prince. It is a pity that he has not mentioned the precise sum she should carry with her as a dower, and the honors that should be conferred upon her father on the day of marriage.

It is scarcely possible, with due congruity, to carry further the profound morality, the novel rules of decorum, the exquisite paradoxes, and divine maxims with which the author I speak of has favored and regaled the present age. He would undoubtedly feel the perfect congruity of officiating as bridesman at the wedding. He would compose the princess’s epithalamium, and not fail to celebrate the grand exploits of her father. The bride may then possibly impart some acrid kisses; for be it known that this same writer, in another romance called “Héloïse,” introduces a young Swiss, who had caught a particular disorder in Paris, saying to his mistress, “Keep your kisses to yourself; they are too acrid.”

A time will come when it will scarcely be conceived possible that such works should have obtained a sort of celebrity; had the celebrity continued, it would have done no honor to the age. Fathers of families soon made up their minds that it was not exactly decorous to marry their eldest sons to the daughters of executioners, whatever congruity might appear to exist between the lover and the lady. There is a rule in all things, and certain limits which cannot be rationally passed.

Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines,

Quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.

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