Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is quite certain, and is agreed by the most pious men, that figures and allegories have been carried too far. Some of the fathers of the church regard the piece of red cloth, placed by the courtesan Rahab at her window, for a signal to Joshua’s spies, as a figure of the blood of Jesus Christ. This is an error of an order of mind which would find mystery in everything.

Nor can it be denied that St. Ambrose made very bad use of his taste for allegory, when he says, in his book of “Noah and the Ark,” that the back door of the ark was a figure of our hinder parts.

All men of sense have asked how it can be proved that these Hebrew words, “maher, salas-has-bas,” (take quick the spoils) are a figure of Jesus Christ? How is Judah, tying his ass to a vine, and washing his cloak in the wine, also a figure of Him. How can Ruth, slipping into bed to Boaz, figure the church, how are Sarah and Rachel the church, and Hagar and Leah the synagogue? How do the kisses of the Shunamite typify the marriage of the church? A volume might be made of these enigmas, which, to the best theologians of later times, have appeared to be rather far-fetched than edifying.

The danger of this abuse is fully admitted by Abbé Fleury, the author of the “Ecclesiastical History.” It is a vestige of rabbinism; a fault into which the learned St. Jerome never fell. It is like oneiromancy, or the explanation of dreams. If a girl sees muddy water, when dreaming, she will be ill-married; if she sees clear water, she will have a good husband; a spider denotes money, etc. In short, will enlightened posterity believe it? The understanding of dreams has, for more than four thousand years, been made a serious study.

Symbolical Figures.

All nations have made use of them, as we have said in the article “emblem.” But who began? Was it the Egyptians? It is not likely. We think we have already more than once proved that Egypt is a country quite new, and that many ages were requisite to save the country from inundations, and render it habitable. It is impossible that the Egyptians should have invented the signs of the zodiac, since the figures denoting our seed-time and harvest cannot coincide with theirs. When we cut our corn, their land is covered with water; and when we sow, their reaping time is approaching. Thus the bull of our zodiac and the girl bearing ears of corn cannot have come from Egypt.

Here is also an evident proof of the falsity of the new paradox, that the Chinese are an Egyptian colony. The characters are not the same. The Chinese mark the course of the sun by twenty-eight constellations; and the Egyptians, after the Chaldæans, reckoned only twelve, like ourselves.

The figures that denote the planets are in China and in India all different from those of Egypt and of Europe; so are the signs of the metals; so is the method of guiding the hand in writing. Nothing could have been more chimerical than to send the Egyptians to people China.

All these fabulous foundations, laid in fabulous times, have caused an irreparable loss of time to a prodigious multitude of the learned, who have all been bewildered in their laborious researches, which might have been serviceable to mankind if directed to arts of real utility.

Pluche, in his History, or rather his fable, of the Heavens, assures us that Ham, son of Noah, went and reigned in Egypt, where there was nobody to reign over; that his son Menes was the greatest of legislators, and that Thoth was his prime minister.

According to him and his authorities, this Thoth, or somebody else, instituted feasts in honor of the deluge; and the joyful cry of “Io Bacche,” so famous among the Greeks, was, among the Egyptians, a lamentation. “Bacche” came from the Hebrew “beke,” signifying sobs, and that at a time when the Hebrew people did not exist. According to this explanation, “joy” means “sorrow,” and “to sing” signifies “to weep.”

The Iroquois have more sense. They do not take the trouble to inquire what passed on the shores of Lake Ontario some thousand years ago: instead of making systems, they go hunting.

The same authors affirm that the sphinxes, with which Egypt was adorned, signified superabundance, because some interpreters have asserted that the Hebrew word “spang” meant an “excess”; as if the Egyptians had taken lessons from the Hebrew tongue, which is, in great part, derived from the Phœnician: besides, what relation has a sphinx to an abundance of water? Future schoolmen will maintain, with greater appearance of reason, that the masks which decorate the keystones of our windows are emblems of our masquerades; and that these fantastic ornaments announced that balls were given in every house to which they were affixed.

Figure, Figurative, Allegorical, Mystical, Tropological, Typical, etc.

This is often the art of finding in books everything but what they really contain. For instance, Romulus killing his brother Remus shall signify the death of the duke of Berry, brother of Louis XI.; Regulus, imprisoned at Carthage, shall typify St. Louis captive at Mansurah.

It is very justly remarked in the “Encyclopædia,” that many fathers of the church have, perhaps, carried this taste for allegorical figures a little too far; but they are to be reverenced, even in their wanderings. If the holy fathers used and then abused this method, their little excesses of imagination may be pardoned, in consideration of their holy zeal.

The antiquity of the usage may also be pleaded in justification, since it was practised by the earliest philosophers. But it is true that the symbolical figures employed by the fathers are in a different taste.

For example: When St. Augustine wishes to make it appear that the forty-two generations of the genealogy of Jesus are announced by St. Matthew, who gives only forty-one, he says that Jechonias must be counted twice, because Jechonias is a corner-stone belonging to two walls; that these two walls figure the old and the new law; and that Jechonias, being thus the corner-stone, figures Jesus Christ, who is the real corner-stone.

The same saint, in the same sermon, says that the number forty must prevail; and at once abandons Jechonias and his corner-stone, counted as two. The number forty, he says, signifies life; ten, which is perfect beatitude, being multiplied by four, which, being the number of the seasons, figures time.

Again, in the same sermon, he explains why St. Luke gives Jesus Christ seventy-seven ancestors: fifty-six up to the patriarch Abraham, and twenty-one from Abraham up to God himself. It is true that, according to the Hebrew text, there would be but seventy-six; for the Hebrew does not reckon a Cainan, who is interpolated in the Greek translation called “The Septuagint.”

Thus said Augustine: “The number seventy-seven figures the abolition of all sins by baptism . . . . the number ten signifies justice and beatitude, resulting from the creature, which makes seven with the Trinity, which is three: therefore it is that God’s commandments are ten in number. The number eleven denotes sin, because it transgresses ten. . . . This number seventy-seven is the product of eleven, figuring sin, multiplied by seven, and not by ten, for seven is the symbol of the creature. Three represents the soul, which is in some sort an image of the Divinity; and four represents the body, on account of its four qualities.” In these explanations, we find some trace of the cabalistic mysteries and the quaternary of Pythagoras. This taste was very long in vogue.

St. Augustine goes much further, concerning the dimensions of matter. Breadth is the dilatation of the heart, which performs good works; length is perseverance; depth is the hope of reward. He carries the allegory very far, applying it to the cross, and drawing great consequences therefrom. The use of these figures had passed from the Jews to the Christians long before St. Augustine’s time. It is not for us to know within what bounds it was right to stop.

The examples of this fault are innumerable. No one who has studied to advantage will hazard the introduction of such figures, either in the pulpit or in the school. We find no such instances among the Romans or the Greeks, not even in their poets.

In Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” themselves, we find only ingenious deductions drawn from fables which are given as fables. Deucalion and Pyrrha threw stones behind them between their legs, and men were produced therefrom. Ovid says:

Inde genus durum sumus, experiensque laborum,

Et documenta damus qua simus origine nati.

Thence we are a hardened and laborious race,

Proving full well our stony origin.

Apollo loves Daphne, but Daphne does not love Apollo. This is because love has two kinds of arrows; the one golden and piercing, the other leaden and blunt. Apollo has received in his heart a golden arrow, Daphne a leaden one.

Ecce sagittifera prompsit duo tela pharetra

Diversorum operum; fugat hoc, facit illud amorem

Quod facit auratum est, et cuspide fulget acuta;

Quod fugat obtusum est, et habet sub arundine plumbum . . . .

Two different shafts he from his quiver draws;

One to repel desire, and one to cause.

One shaft is pointed with refulgent gold,

To bribe the love, and make the lover bold;

One blunt and tipped with lead, whose base allay

Provokes disdain, and drives desire away.

— Dryden.

These figures are all ingenious, and deceive no one.

That Venus, the goddess of beauty, should not go unattended by the Graces, is a charming truth. These fables, which were in the mouths of all — these allegories, so natural and attractive — had so much sway over the minds of men, that perhaps the first Christians imitated while they opposed them.

They took up the weapons of mythology to destroy it, but they could not wield them with the same address. They did not reflect that the sacred austerity of our holy religion placed these resources out of their power, and that a Christian hand would have dealt but awkwardly with the lyre of Apollo.

However, the taste for these typical and prophetic figures was so firmly rooted that every prince, every statesman, every pope, every founder of an order, had allegories or allusions taken from the Holy Scriptures applied to him. Satire and flattery rivalled each other in drawing from this source.

When Pope Innocent III. made a bloody crusade against the court of Toulouse, he was told, “Innocens eris a maledictione.” When the order of the Minimes was established, it appeared that their founder had been foretold in Genesis: “Minimus cum patre nostro.”

The preacher who preached before John of Austria after the celebrated battle of Lepanto, took for his text, “Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Johannes;” A man sent from God, whose name was John; and this allusion was very fine, if all the rest were ridiculous. It is said to have been repeated for John Sobieski, after the deliverance of Vienna; but this latter preacher was nothing more than a plagiarist.

In short, so constant has been this custom that no preacher of the present day has ever failed to take an allegory for his text. One of the most happy instances is the text of the funeral oration over the duke of Candale, delivered before his sister, who was considered a pattern of virtue: “Dic, quia soror mea es, ut mihi bene eveniat propter te.” —“Say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake.”’

It is not to be wondered at that the Cordeliers carried these figures rather too far in favor of St. Francis of Assisi, in the famous but little-known book, entitled, “Conformities of St. Francis of Assisi with Jesus Christ.” We find in it sixty-four predictions of the coming of St. Francis, some in the Old Testament, others in the New; and each prediction contains three figures, which signify the founding of the Cordeliers. So that these fathers find themselves foretold in the Bible a hundred and ninety-two times.

From Adam down to St. Paul, everything prefigured the blessed Francis of Assisi. The Scriptures were given to announce to the universe the sermons of Francis to the quadrupeds, the fishes, and the birds, the sport he had with a woman of snow, his frolics with the devil, his adventures with brother Elias and brother Pacificus.

These pious reveries, which amounted even to blasphemy, have been condemned. But the Order of St. Francis has not suffered by them, having renounced these extravagancies so common to the barbarous ages.

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