Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Dieu fit du repentir la vertu des mortels.

The repentance of man is accepted by God as virtue, and perhaps the finest institution of antiquity was that solemn ceremony which repressed crimes by announcing that they would be punished, and at the same time soothed the despair of the guilty by permitting them to redeem their transgressions by appointed modes of penance. Remorse, it is to be remembered, must necessarily have preceded expiation, for diseases are older than medicine, and necessities than relief.

There was, then, previously to all public and legal forms of worship, a natural and instinctive religion which inflicted grief upon the heart of any one who, through ignorance or passion, had committed an inhuman action. A man in a quarrel has killed his friend, or his brother, or a jealous and frantic lover has taken the life of her without whom he felt as if it were impossible to live. The chief of a nation has condemned to death a virtuous man and useful citizen. Such men, if they retain their senses and sensibility, become overwhelmed by despair. Their consciences pursue and haunt them; two courses only are open to them, reparation or to become hardened in guilt. All who have the slightest feeling remaining choose the former; monsters adopt the latter.

As soon as religion was established, expiations were admitted. The ceremonies attending them were, unquestionably, ridiculous; for what connection is there between the water of the Ganges and a murder? How could a man repair homicide by bathing? We have already commented on the excess of absurdity and insanity which can imagine that what washes the body, washes the soul also, and expunges from it the stain of evil actions.

The water of the Nile had afterwards the same virtue as that of the Ganges; other ceremonies were added to these ablutions. The Egyptians took two he-goats and drew lots which of the two should be cast out loaded with the sins of the guilty. This goat was called Hazazel, the expiator. What connection is there, pray, between a goat and the crime of a human being?

It is certainly true that in after times this ceremony was sanctified among our fathers the Jews, who adopted many of the Egyptian rites; but the souls of the Jews were undoubtedly purified, not by the goat but by repentance.

Jason, having killed Absyrtus, his brother-in-law, went, we are told, with Medea, who was more guilty than himself, to be absolved by Circe, the queen and priestess of Æa, who passed in those days for a most powerful sorceress. Circe absolved them with a sucking pig and salt cakes. This might possibly be a very good dish, but it could neither compensate for the blood of Absyrtus, nor make Jason and Medea more worthy people, unless while eating their pig they also manifested the sincerity of their repentance.

The expiation of Orestes, who had avenged his father by the murder of his mother, consisted in going and stealing a statue from the Tartars of the Crimea. The statue was probably extremely ill executed, and there appeared nothing to be gained by such an enterprise. In later times these things were contrived better: mysteries were invented, and the offenders might obtain absolution at these mysteries by submitting to certain painful trials, and swearing to lead a new life. It is from this oath that the persons taking it had attached to them, among all nations, a name corresponding to that of initiated “qui ineunt vitam novam,” — who begin a new career, who enter upon the path of virtue.

We have seen under the article on “Baptism” that the Christian catechumens were not called initiated till after they had been baptized.

It is indisputable, that persons had not their sins washed away in these mysteries, but by virtue of their oath to become virtuous: the hierophant in all the Grecian mysteries, when dismissing the assembly, pronounced the two Egyptian words, “Koth, ompheth,” “watch, be pure”; which at once proves that the mysteries came originally from Egypt, and that they were invented solely for the purpose of making mankind better.

Wise men, we thus see, have, in every age, done all in their power to inspire the love of virtue, and to prevent the weakness of man from sinking under despair; but, at the same time there have existed crimes of such magnitude and horror that no mystery could admit of their expiation. Nero, although an emperor, could not obtain initiation into the mysteries of Ceres. Constantine, according to the narrative of Zosimus, was unable to procure the pardon of his crimes: he was polluted with the blood of his wife, his son, and all his relations. It was necessary, for the protection of the human race, that crimes so flagitious should be deemed incapable of expiation, that the prospect of absolution might not invite to their committal, and that hideous atrocity might be checked by universal horror.

The Roman Catholics have expiations which they call penances. We have seen, under the article on “Austerities,” how grossly so salutary an institution has been abused.

According to the laws of the barbarians who subverted the Roman Empire, crimes were expiated by money. This was called compounding: “Let the offender compound by paying ten, twenty, thirty shillings.” Two hundred sous constituted the composition price for killing a priest, and four hundred for killing a bishop; so that a bishop was worth exactly two priests.

After having thus compounded with men, God Himself was compounded with, when the practice of confession became generally established. At length Pope John XXII. established a tariff of sins.

The absolution of incest, committed by a layman, cost four livres tournois: “Ab incestu pro laico in foro conscientiæ turonenses quatuor.” For a man and woman who have committed incest, eighteen livres tournois, four ducats, and nine carlines. This is certainly unjust; if one person pays only four livres tournois, two persons ought not to pay more than eight.

Even crimes against nature have actually their affixed rates, amounting to ninety livres tournois, twelve ducats, and six carlines: “Cum inhibitione turonenses 90, ducatos 12, carlinos 90,” etc.

It is scarcely credible that Leo X. should have been so imprudent as to print this book of rates or indulgences in 1514, which, however, we are assured he did; at the same time it must be considered that no spark had then appeared of that conflagration, kindled afterwards by the reformers; and that the court of Rome reposed implicitly upon the credulity of the people, and neglected to throw even the slightest veil over its impositions. The public sale of indulgences, which soon followed, shows that that court took no precaution whatever to conceal its gross abominations from the various nations which had been so long accustomed to them. When the complaints against the abuses of the Romish church burst forth, it did all in its power to suppress this publication, but all was in vain.

If I may give my opinion upon this book of rates, I must say that I do not believe the editions of it are genuine; the rates are not in any kind of proportion and do not at all coincide with those stated by d’Aubigné, the grandfather of Madame de Maintenon, in the confession of de Sancy. Depriving a woman of her virginity is estimated at six gros, and committing incest with a mother or a sister, at five gros. This is evidently ridiculous. I think that there really was a system of rates or taxes established for those who went to Rome to obtain absolution or purchase dispensations, but that the enemies of the Holy See added largely, in order to increase the odium against it. Consult Bayle, under the articles on “Bank,” “Dupinet,” “Drelincourt.”

It is at least positively certain that these rates were never authorized by any council; that they constituted an enormous abuse, invented by avarice, and respected by those who were interested in its not being abolished. The sellers and the purchasers equally found their account in it; and accordingly none opposed it before the breaking out of the disturbances attending the Reformation. It must be acknowledged that an exact list of all these rates or taxes would be eminently useful in the formation of a history of the human mind.

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