Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

What is faith? Is it to believe that which is evident? No. It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason. I have no merit in thinking that this eternal and infinite being, whom I consider as virtue, as goodness itself, is desirous that I should be good and virtuous. Faith consists in believing not what seems true, but what seems false to our understanding. The Asiatics can only by faith believe the journey of Mahomet to the seven planets, and the incarnations of the god Fo, of Vishnu, Xaca, Brahma, and Sommonocodom. They submit their understandings; they tremble to examine: wishing to avoid being either impaled or burned, they say: “I believe.”

We do not here intend the slightest allusion to the Catholic faith. Not only do we revere it, but we possess it. We speak of the false, lying faith of other nations of the world, of that faith which is not faith, and which consists only in words.

There is a faith for things that are merely astonishing and prodigious, and a faith for things contradictory and impossible.

Vishnu became incarnate five hundred times; this is extremely astonishing, but it is not, however, physically impossible; for if Vishnu possessed a soul, he may have transferred that soul into five hundred different bodies, with a view to his own felicity. The Indian, indeed, has not a very lively faith; he is not intimately and decidedly persuaded of these metamorphoses; but he will nevertheless say to his bonze, “I have faith; it is your will and pleasure that Vishnu has undergone five hundred incarnations, which is worth to you an income of five hundred rupees: very well; you will inveigh against me, and denounce me, and ruin my trade if I have not faith; but I have faith, and here are ten rupees over and above for you.” The Indian may swear to the bonze that he believes without taking a false oath, for, after all, there is no demonstration that Vishnu has not actually made five hundred visits to India.

But if the bonze requires him to believe what is contradictory or impossible, as that two and two make five, or that the same body may be in a thousand different places, or that to be and not to be are precisely one and the same thing; in that case, if the Indian says he has faith he lies, and if he swears that he believes he commits perjury. He says, therefore, to the bonze: “My reverend father, I cannot declare that I believe in these absurdities, even though they should be worth to you an income of ten thousand rupees instead of five hundred.”

“My son,” the bonze answers, “give me twenty rupees and God will give you grace to believe all that you now do not believe.”

“But how can you expect or desire,” rejoins the Indian, “that God should do that by me which He cannot do even by Himself? It is impossible that God should either perform or believe contradictions. I am very willing to say, in order to give you satisfaction, that I believe what is obscure, but I cannot say that I believe what is impossible. It is the will of God that we should be virtuous, and not that we should be absurd. I have already given you ten rupees; here are twenty more; believe in thirty rupees; be an honest man if you can and do not trouble me any more.”

It is not thus with Christians. The faith which they have for things which they do not understand is founded upon that which they do understand; they have grounds of credibility. Jesus Christ performed miracles in Galilee; we ought, therefore, to believe all that He said. In order to know what He said we must consult the Church. The Church has declared the books which announce Jesus Christ to us to be authentic. We ought, therefore, to believe those books. Those books inform us that he who will not listen to the Church shall be considered as a tax-gatherer or a Pagan; we ought, therefore, to listen to the Church that we may not be disgraced and hated like the farmers-general. We ought to submit our reason to it, not with infantile and blind credulity, but with a docile faith, such as reason itself would authorize. Such is Christian faith, particularly the Roman faith, which is “the faith” par excellence. The Lutheran, Calvinistic, or Anglican faith is a wicked faith.

§ II.

Divine faith, about which so much has been written, is evidently nothing more than incredulity brought under subjection, for we certainly have no other faculty than the understanding by which we can believe; and the objects of faith are not those of the understanding. We can believe only what appears to be true; and nothing can appear true but in one of the three following ways: by intuition or feeling, as I exist, I see the sun; by an accumulation of probability amounting to certainty, as there is a city called Constantinople; or by positive demonstration, as triangles of the same base and height are equal.

Faith, therefore, being nothing at all of this description, can no more be a belief, a persuasion, than it can be yellow or red. It can be nothing but the annihilation of reason, a silence of adoration at the contemplation of things absolutely incomprehensible. Thus, speaking philosophically, no person believes the Trinity; no person believes that the same body can be in a thousand places at once; and he who says, I believe these mysteries, will see, beyond the possibility of a doubt, if he reflects for a moment on what passes in his mind, that these words mean no more than, I respect these mysteries; I submit myself to those who announce them. For they agree with me, that my reason, or their own reason, believe them not; but it is clear that if my reason is not persuaded, I am not persuaded. I and my reason cannot possibly be two different beings. It is an absolute contradiction that I should receive that as true which my understanding rejects as false. Faith, therefore, is nothing but submissive or deferential incredulity.

But why should this submission be exercised when my understanding invincibly recoils? The reason, we well know, is, that my understanding has been persuaded that the mysteries of my faith are laid down by God Himself. All, then, that I can do, as a reasonable being, is to be silent and adore. This is what divines call external faith; and this faith neither is, nor can be, anything more than respect for things incomprehensible, in consequence of the reliance I place on those who teach them.

If God Himself were to say to me, “Thought is of an olive color”; “the square of a certain number is bitter”; I should certainly understand nothing at all from these words. I could not adopt them either as true or false. But I will repeat them, if He commands me to do it; and I will make others repeat them at the risk of my life. This is not faith; it is nothing more than obedience.

In order to obtain a foundation then for this obedience, it is merely necessary to examine the books which require it. Our understanding, therefore, should investigate the books of the Old and New Testament, just as it would Plutarch or Livy; and if it finds in them incontestable and decisive evidences — evidences obvious to all minds, and such as would be admitted by men of all nations — that God Himself is their author, then it is our incumbent duty to subject our understanding to the yoke of faith.

§ III.

We have long hesitated whether or not to publish the following article, “Faith,” which we met with in an old book. Our respect for the chair of St. Peter restrained us. But some pious men having satisfied us that Alexander VI. and St. Peter had nothing in common, we have at last determined to publish this curious little production, and do it without the slightest scruple.

Prince Pico della Mirandola once met Pope Alexander VI. at the house of the courtesan Emilia, while Lucretia, the holy father’s daughter, was confined in childbirth, and the people of Rome were discussing whether the child of which she was delivered belonged to the pope, to his son the Duke de Valentinois, or to Lucretia’s husband, Alphonso of Aragon, who was considered by many as impotent. The conversation immediately became animated and gay. Cardinal Bembo relates a portion of it. “My little Pico,” says the pope, “whom do you think the father of my grandson?” “I think your son-in-law,” replied Pico. “What! how can you possibly believe such nonsense?” “I believe it by faith.” “But surely you know that an impotent man cannot be a father.” “Faith,” replied Pico, “consists in believing things because they are impossible; and, besides, the honor of your house demands that Lucretia’s son should not be reputed the offspring of incest. You require me to believe more incomprehensible mysteries. Am I not bound to believe that a serpent spoke; that from that time all mankind were damned; that the ass of Balaam also spoke with great eloquence; and that the walls of Jericho fell down at the sound of trumpets?” Pico thus proceeded with a long train of all the prodigious things in which he believed. Alexander absolutely fell back upon his sofa with laughing. “I believe all that as well as you,” says he, “for I well know that I can be saved only by faith, as I can certainly never be so by works.” “Ah, holy father!” says Pico, “you need neither works nor faith; they are well enough for such poor, profane creatures as we are; but you, who are absolutely a vice-god — you may believe and do just whatever you please. You have the keys of heaven; and St. Peter will certainly never shut the door in your face. But with respect to myself, who am nothing but a poor prince, I freely confess that I should have found some very powerful protection necessary, if I had lain with my own daughter, or had employed the stiletto and night-shade as often as your holiness.” Alexander VI. understood raillery. “Let us speak seriously,” says he to the prince. “Tell me what merit there can be in a man’s saying to God that he is persuaded of things of which, in fact, he cannot be persuaded? What pleasure can this afford to God? Between ourselves, a man who says that he believes what is impossible to be believed, is — a liar.”

Pico della Mirandola at this crossed himself in great agitation. “My God!” says he, “I beg your holiness’ pardon; but you are not a Christian.” “I am not,” says the pope, “upon my faith.” “I suspected so,” said Pico della Mirandola.

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