Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


If ever a reputation was fixed on a solid basis, it is that of Gargantua. Yet in the present age of philosophy and criticism, some rash and daring minds have started forward, who have ventured to deny the prodigies believed respecting this extraordinary man — persons who have carried their skepticism so far as even to doubt his very existence.

How is it possible, they ask, that there should have existed in the sixteenth century a distinguished hero, never mentioned by a single contemporary, by St. Ignatius, Cardinal Capitan, Galileo, or Guicciardini, and respecting whom the registers of the Sorbonne do not contain the slightest notice?

Investigate the histories of France, of Germany, of England, Spain, and other countries, and you find not a single word about Gargantua. His whole life, from his birth to his death, is a tissue of inconceivable prodigies.

His mother, Gargamelle, was delivered of him from the left ear. Almost at the instant of his birth he called out for a drink, with a voice that was heard even in the districts of Beauce and Vivarais. Sixteen ells of cloth were required to make him breeches, and a hundred hides of brown cows were used in his shoes. He had not attained the age of twelve years before he gained a great battle, and founded the abbey of Thélême. Madame Badebec was given to him in marriage, and Badebec is proved to be a Syrian name.

He is represented to have devoured six pilgrims in a mere salad, and the river Seine is stated to have flowed entirely from his person, so that the Parisians are indebted for their beautiful river to him alone.

All this is considered contrary to nature by our carping philosophers, who scruple to admit even what is probable, unless it is well supported by evidence.

They observe, that if the Parisians have always believed in Gargantua, that is no reason why other nations should believe in him; that if Gargantua had really performed one single prodigy out of the many attributed to him, the whole world would have resounded with it, all records would have noticed it, and a hundred monuments would have attested it. In short, they very unceremoniously treat the Parisians who believe in Gargantua as ignorant simpletons and superstitious idiots, with whom are intermixed a few hypocrites, who pretend to believe in Gargantua, in order to obtain some convenient priorship in the abbey of Thélême.

The reverend Father Viret, a Cordelier of fullsleeved dignity, a confessor of ladies, and a preacher to the king, has replied to our Pyrrhonean philosophers in a manner decisive and invincible. He very learnedly proves that if no writer, with the exception of Rabelais, has mentioned the prodigies of Gargantua, at least, no historian has contradicted them; that the sage de Thou, who was a believer in witchcraft, divination, and astrology, never denied the miracles of Gargantua. They were not even called in question by La Mothe le Vayer. Mézeray treated them with such respect as not to say a word against them, or indeed about them. These prodigies were performed before the eyes of all the world. Rabelais was a witness of them. It was impossible that he could be deceived, or that he would deceive. Had he deviated even in the smallest degree from the truth, all the nations of Europe would have been roused against him in indignation; all the gazetteers and journalists of the day would have exclaimed with one voice against the fraud and imposture.

In vain do the philosophers reply — for they reply to everything — that, at the period in question, gazettes and journals were not in existence. It is said in return that there existed what was equivalent to them, and that is sufficient. Everything is impossible in the history of Gargantua, and from this circumstance itself may be inferred its incontestable truth. For if it were not true, no person could possibly have ventured to imagine it, and its incredibility constitutes the great proof that it ought to be believed.

Open all the “Mercuries,” all the “Journals de Trevoux”; those immortal works which teem with instruction to the race of man, and you will not find a single line which throws a doubt on the history of Gargantua. It was reserved for our own unfortunate age to produce monsters, who would establish a frightful Pyrrhonism, under the pretence of requiring evidence as nearly approaching to mathematical as the case will admit, and of a devotion to reason, truth, and justice. What a pity! Oh, for a single argument to confound them!

Gargantua founded the abbey of Thélême. The title deeds, it is true, were never found; it never had any; but it exists, and produces an income of ten thousand pieces of gold a year. The river Seine exists, and is an eternal monument of the prodigious fountain from which Gargantua supplied so noble a stream. Moreover, what will it cost you to believe in him? Should you not take the safest side? Gargantua can procure for you wealth, honors, and influence. Philosophy can only bestow on you internal tranquillity and satisfaction, which you will of course estimate as a trifle. Believe, then, I again repeat, in Gargantua; if you possess the slightest portion of avarice, ambition, or knavery, it is the wisest part you can adopt.

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