Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is very likely that the more ancient fables, in the style of those attributed to Æsop, were invented by the first subjugated people. Free men would not have had occasion to disguise the truth; a tyrant can scarcely be spoken to except in parables; and at present, even this is a dangerous liberty.

It might also very well happen that men naturally liking images and tales, ingenious persons amused themselves with composing them, without any other motive. However that may be, fable is more ancient than history.

Among the Jews, who are quite a modern people in comparison with the Chaldæans and Tyrians, their neighbors, but very ancient by their own accounts, fables similar to those of Æsop existed in the time of the Judges, 1233 years before our era, if we may depend upon received computations.

It is said in the Book of Judges that Gideon had seventy sons born of his many wives; and that, by a concubine, he had another son named Abimelech.

Now, this Abimelech slew sixty-nine of his brethren upon one stone, according to Jewish custom, and in consequence the Jews, full of respect and admiration, went to crown him king, under an oak near Millo, a city which is but little known in history.

Jotham alone, the youngest of the brothers, escaped the carnage — as it always happens in ancient histories — and harangued the Israelites, telling them that the trees went one day to choose a king; we do not well see how they could march, but if they were able to speak, they might just as well be able to walk. They first addressed themselves to the olive, saying, “Reign thou over us.” The olive replied, “I will not quit the care of my oil to be promoted over you.” The fig-tree said that he liked his figs better than the trouble of the supreme power. The vine gave the preference to its grapes. At last the trees addressed themselves to the bramble, which answered: “If in truth ye anoint one king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow; and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

It is true that this fable falsifies throughout, because fire cannot come from a bramble, but it shows the antiquity of the use of fables.

That of the belly and the members, which calmed a tumult in Rome about two thousand three hundred years ago, is ingenious and without fault. The more ancient the fables the more allegorical they were.

Is not the ancient fable of Venus, as related by Hesiod, entirely a fable of nature? This Venus is the goddess of beauty. Beauty ceases to be lovely if unaccompanied by the graces. Beauty produces love. Love has features which pierce all hearts; he wears a bandage, which conceals the faults of those beloved. He has wings; he comes quickly and flies away the same.

Wisdom is conceived in the brain of the chief of the gods, under the name of Minerva. The soul of man is a divine fire, which Minerva shows to Prometheus, who makes use of this divine fire to animate mankind.

It is impossible, in these fables, not to recognize a lively picture of pure nature. Most other fables are either corruptions of ancient histories or the caprices of the imagination. It is with ancient fables as with our modern tales; some convey charming morals, and others very insipid ones.

The ingenious fables of the ancients have been grossly imitated by an unenlightened race — witness those of Bacchus, Hercules, Prometheus, Pandora, and many others, which were the amusement of the ancient world. The barbarians, who confusedly heard them spoken of, adopted them into their own savage mythology, and afterwards it is pretended that they invented them. Alas! poor unknown and ignorant people, who knew no art either useful or agreeable — to whom even the name of geometry was unknown — dare you say that you have invented anything? You have not known either how to discover truth, or to lie adroitly.

The most elegant Greek fable was that of Psyche; the most pleasant, that of the Ephesian matron. The prettiest among the moderns is that of Folly, who, having put out Love’s eyes, is condemned to be his guide.

The fables attributed to Æsop are all emblems; instructions to the weak, to guard them as much as possible against the snares of the strong. All nations, possessing a little wisdom, have adopted them. La Fontaine has treated them with the most elegance. About eighty of them are masterpieces of simplicity, grace, finesse, and sometimes even of poetry. It is one of the advantages of the age of Louis XIV. to have produced a La Fontaine. He has so well discovered, almost without seeking it, the art of making one read, that he has had a greater reputation in France than genius itself.

Boileau has never reckoned him among those who did honor to the great age of Louis XIV.; his reason or his pretext was that he had never invented anything. What will better bear out Boileau is the great number of errors in language and the incorrectness of style; faults which La Fontaine might have avoided, and which this severe critic could not pardon. His grasshopper, for instance, having sung all the summer, went to beg from the ant, her neighbor, in the winter, telling her, on the word of an animal, that she would pay her principal and interest before midsummer. The ant replies: “You sang, did you? I am glad of it; then now dance.”

His astrologer, again, who falling into a ditch while gazing at the stars, was asked: “Poor wretch! do you expect to be able to read things so much above you?” Yet Copernicus, Galileo, Cassini, and Halley have read the heavens very well; and the best astronomer that ever existed might fall into a ditch without being a poor wretch.

Judicial astrology is indeed ridiculous charlatanism, but the ridiculousness does not consist in regarding the heavens; it consists in believing, or in making believe, that you read what is not there. Several of these fables, either ill chosen or badly written, certainly merit the censure of Boileau.

Nothing is more insipid than the fable of the drowned woman, whose corpse was sought contrary to the course of the river, because in her lifetime she had always been contrary.

The tribute sent by the animals to King Alexander is a fable, which is not the better for being ancient. The animals sent no money, neither did the lion advise them to steal it.

The satyr who received a peasant into his hut should not have turned him out on seeing that he blew his fingers because he was cold; and afterwards, on taking the dish between his teeth, that he blew his pottage because it was hot. The man was quite right, and the satyr was a fool. Besides, we do not take hold of dishes with our teeth.

The crab-mother, who reproached her daughter with not walking straight; and the daughter, who answered that her mother walked crooked, is not an agreeable fable.

The bush and the duck, in commercial partnership with the bat, having counters, factors, agents, paying principal and interest, etc., has neither truth, nature, nor any kind of merit.

A bush which goes with a bat into foreign countries to trade is one of those cold and unnatural inventions which La Fontaine should not have adopted. A house full of dogs and cats, living together like cousins and quarrelling for a dish of pottage, seems also very unworthy of a man of taste.

The chattering magpie is still worse. The eagle tells her that he declines her company because she talks too much. On which La Fontaine remarks that it is necessary at court to wear two faces.

Where is the merit of the fable of the kite presented by a bird-catcher to a king, whose nose he had seized with his claws? The ape who married a Parisian girl and beat her is an unfortunate story presented to La Fontaine, and which he has been so unfortunate as to put into verse.

Such fables as these, and some others, may doubtless justify Boileau; it might even happen that La Fontaine could not distinguish the bad fables from the good.

Madame de la Sablière called La Fontaine a fabulist, who bore fables as naturally as a plum-tree bears plums. It is true that he had only one style, and that he wrote an opera in the style of his fables.

Notwithstanding all this, Boileau should have rendered justice to the singular merit of the good man, as he calls him, and to the public, who are right in being enchanted with the style of many of his fables.

La Fontaine was not an original or a sublime writer, a man of established taste, or one of the first geniuses of a brilliant era; and it is a very remarkable fault in him that he speaks not his own language correctly. He is in this respect very inferior to Phædrus, but he was a man unique in the excellent pieces that he has left us. They are very numerous, and are in the mouths of all those who have been respectably brought up; they contribute even to their education. They will descend to posterity; they are adapted for all men and for all times, while those of Boileau suit only men of letters.

Of Those Fanatics Who Would Suppress the Ancient Fables.

There is among those whom we call Jansenists a little sect of hard and empty heads, who would suppress the beautiful fables of antiquity, to substitute St. Prosper in the place of Ovid, and Santeuil in that of Horace. If they were attended to, our pictures would no longer represent Iris on the rainbow, or Minerva with her ægis; but instead of them, we should have Nicholas and Arnauld fighting against the Jesuits and Protestants; Mademoiselle Perrier cured of sore eyes by a thorn from the crown of Jesus Christ, brought from Jerusalem to Port Royal; Counsellor Carré de Montgeron presenting the account of St. Medard to Louis XV.; and St. Ovid resuscitating little boys.

In the eyes of these austere sages, Fénelon was only an idolater, who, following the example of the impious poem of the “Æneid,” introduced the child Cupid with the nymph Eucharis.

Pluche, at the end of his fable of the Heavens, entitled “Their History,” writes a long dissertation to prove that it is shameful to have tapestry worked in figures taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”; and that Zephyrus and Flora, Vertumnus and Pomona, should be banished from the gardens of Versailles. He exhorts the school of belles-lettres to oppose itself to this bad taste; which reform alone, he says, is capable of re-establishing the belles-lettres.

Other puritans, more severe than sage a little time ago, would have proscribed the ancient mythology as a collection of puerile tales, unworthy the acknowledged gravity of our manners. It would, however, be a pity to burn Ovid, Horace, Hesiod, our fine tapestry pictures and our opera. If we were spared the familiar stories of Æsop, why lay hands on those sublime fables, which have been respected by mankind, whom they have instructed? They are mingled with many insipidities, no doubt, but what good is without an alloy? All ages will adopt Pandora’s box, at the bottom of which was found man’s only consolation — hope; Jupiter’s two vessels, which unceasingly poured forth good and evil; the cloud embraced by Ixion, which is the emblem and punishment of an ambitious man; and the death of Narcissus, which is the punishment of self-love. What is more sublime than the image of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, formed in the head of the master of the gods? What is more true and agreeable than the goddess of beauty, always accompanied by the graces? The goddesses of the arts, all daughters of memory — do they not teach us, as well as Locke, that without memory we cannot possess either judgment or wit? The arrows of Love, his fillet, and his childhood; Flora, caressed by Zephyrus, etc. — are they not all sensible personifications of pure nature? These fables have survived the religions which consecrated them. The temples of the gods of Egypt, Greece, and Rome are no more, but Ovid still exists. Objects of credulity may be destroyed, but not those of pleasure; we shall forever love these true and lively images. Lucretius did not believe in these fabulous gods, but he celebrated nature under the name of Venus.

Alma Venus cœli subter labentia signa

Quæ mare navigerum, quæ terras frugiferentes

Concelebras, per te quoniam genus omne animantum

Concipitur, visitque exortum lumina solis, etc.

Kind Venus, glory of the blest abodes,

Parent of Rome, and joy of men and gods;

Delight of all, comfort of sea and earth,

To whose kind power all creatures owe their birth, etc.

— Creech.

If antiquity in its obscurity was led to acknowledge divinity in its images, how is it to be blamed? The productive soul of the world was adored by the sages; it governed the sea under the name of Neptune, the air under the image of Juno, and the country under that of Pan. It was the divinity of armies under the name of Mars; all these attributes were animated personifications. Jupiter was the only god. The golden chain with which he bound the inferior gods and men was a striking image of the unity of a sovereign being. The people were deceived, but what are the people to us?

It is continually asked why the Greek and Roman magistrates permitted the divinities whom they adored in their temples to be ridiculed on their stage? This is a false supposition. The gods were not mocked in their theatres, but the follies attributed to these gods by those who had corrupted the ancient mythology. The consuls and prætors found it good to treat the adventure of the two Sosias wittily, but they would not have suffered the worship of Jupiter and Mercury to be attacked before the people. It is thus that a thousand things which appear contradictory are not so in reality. I have seen, in the theatre of a learned and witty nation, pieces taken from the Golden Legend; will it, on that account, be said that this nation permits its objects of religion to be insulted? It need not be feared we shall become Pagans for having heard the opera of Proserpine at Paris, or for having seen the nuptials of Psyche, painted by Raphael, in the pope’s palace at Rome. Fable forms the taste, but renders no person idolatrous.

The beautiful fables of antiquity have also this great advantage over history: they are lessons of virtue, while almost all history narrates the success of vice. Jupiter in the fable descends upon earth to punish Tantalus and Lycaon; but in history our Tantaluses and Lycaons are the gods of the earth. Baucis and Philemon had their cabin changed into a temple; our Baucises and Philemons are obliged to sell, for the collector of the taxes, those kettles which, in Ovid, the gods changed into vases of gold.

I know how much history can instruct us and how necessary it is to know it; but it requires much ingenuity to be able to draw from it any rules for individual conduct. Those who know politics only through books will be often reminded of those lines of Corneille, which observe that examples will seldom suffice for our guidance, as it often happens that one person perishes by the very expedient which has proved the salvation of another.

Les exemples recens suffiraient pour m’instruire

Si par l’exemple seul on devait se conduire;

Mais souvent l’un se perd où l’autre s’est sauvé,

Et par où l’un périt, un autre est conservé.

Henry VIII., the tyrant of his parliament, his ministers and his wives, of consciences and purses, lived and died peaceably. Charles I. perished on the scaffold. Margaret of Anjou in vain waged war in person a dozen times with the English, the subjects of her husband, while William III. drove James II. from England without a battle. In our days we have seen the royal family of Persia murdered, and strangers upon the throne.

To look at events only, history seems to accuse Providence, and fine moral fables justify it. It is clear that both the useful and agreeable may be discovered in them, however exclaimed against by those who are neither the one nor the other. Let them talk on, and let us read Homer and Ovid, as well as Titus Livius and Rapin de Thoyras. Taste induces preferences and fanaticism exclusions. The arts are united, and those who would separate them know nothing about them. History teaches us what we are — fable what we ought to be.

Tous les arts sont amis, ainsi qu ils sont divins;

Qui veut les séparer est loin de les connaltre.

L’histoire nous apprend ce que sont les humains,

La fable ce qu ils doivent être.

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