Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Their Duties.

The “Encyclopædia” has been much exclaimed against in France; because it was produced in France, and has done France honor. In other countries, people have not cried out; on the contrary, they have eagerly set about pirating or spoiling it, because money was to be gained thereby.

But we, who do not, like the encyclopædists of Paris, labor for glory; we, who are not, like them, exposed to envy; we, whose little society lies unnoticed in Hesse, in Würtemberg, in Switzerland, among the Grisons, or at Mount Krapak; and have, therefore, no apprehension of having to dispute with the doctor of the Comédie Italienne, or with a doctor of the Sorbonne; we, who sell not our sheets to a bookseller, but are free beings, and lay not black on white until we have examined, to the utmost of our ability, whether the said black may be of service to mankind; we, in short, who love virtue, shall boldly declare what we think.

“Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long —” I would venture to say, “Honor thy father and thy mother, though this day shall be thy last.”

Tenderly love and joyfully serve the mother who bore you in her womb, fed you at her breast, and patiently endured all that was disgusting in your infancy. Discharge the same duties to your father, who brought you up.

What will future ages say of a Frank, named Louis the Thirteenth, who, at the age of sixteen, began the exercise of his authority with having the door of his mother’s apartment walled up, and sending her into exile, without giving the smallest reason for so doing, and solely because it was his favorite’s wish?

“But, sir, I must tell you in confidence that my father is a drunkard, who begot me one day by chance, not caring a jot about me; and gave me no education but that of beating me every day when he came home intoxicated. My mother was a coquette, whose only occupation was love-making. But for my nurse, who had taken a liking to me, and who, after the death of her son, received me into her house for charity, I should have died of want.”

“Well, then, honor your nurse; and bow to your father and mother when you meet them. It is said in the Vulgate, ‘Honora patrem tuum et matrem tuam’ — not dilige.”

“Very well, sir, I shall love my father and my mother if they do me good; I shall honor them if they do me ill. I have thought so ever since I began to think, and you confirm me in my maxims.”

“Fare you well, my child, I see you will prosper, for you have a grain of philosophy in your composition.”

“One word more, sir. If my father were to call himself Abraham, and me Isaac, and were to say to me, ‘My son, you are tall and strong; carry these fagots to the top of that hill, to burn you with after I have cut off your head; for God ordered me to do so when He came to see me this morning,’— what would you advise me to do in such critical circumstances?”

“Critical, indeed! But what would you do of yourself? for you seem to be no blockhead.”

“I own, sir, that I should ask him to produce a written order, and that from regard for himself, I should say to him —‘Father, you are among strangers, who do not allow a man to assassinate his son without an express condition from God, duly signed, sealed and delivered. See what happened to poor Calas, in the half French, half Spanish town of Toulouse. He was broken on the wheel; and the procureur-général Riquet decided on having Madame Calas, the mother, burned — all on the bare and very ill-conceived suspicion, that they had hung up their son, Mark Antony Calas, for the love of God. I should fear that his conclusions would be equally prejudicial to the well-being of yourself and your sister or niece, Madame Sarah, my mother. Once more I say, show me a lettre de cachet for cutting my throat, signed by God’s own hand, and countersigned by Raphael, Michael, or Beelzebub. If not, father — your most obedient: I will go to Pharaoh of Egypt, or to the king of the desert of Gerar, who both have been in love with my mother, and will certainly be kind to me. Cut my brother Ishmael’s throat, if you like; but rely upon it, you shall not cut mine.’ ”

“Good; this is arguing like a true sage. The ‘Encyclopædia’ itself could not have reasoned better. I tell you, you will do great things. I admire you for not having said an ill word to your father Abraham — for not having been tempted to beat him. And tell me: had you been that Cram, whom his father, the Frankish King Clothaire, had burned in a barn; a Don Carlos, son of that fox, Philip the Second; a poor Alexis, son of that Czar Peter, half hero, half tiger —”

“Ah, sir, say no more of those horrors; you will make me detest human nature.”

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