Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

This term, which signifies favor or privilege, is employed in this sense by theologians. They call grace a particular operation of God on mankind, intended to render them just and happy. Some have admitted universal grace, that which God gives to all men, though mankind, according to them, with the exception of a very small number, will be delivered to eternal flames: others admit grace towards Christians of their communion only; and lastly, others only for the elect of that communion.

It is evident that a general grace, which leaves the universe in vice, error, and eternal misery, is not a grace, a favor, or privilege, but a contradiction in terms.

Particular grace, according to theologians, is either in the first place “sufficing,” which if resisted, suffices not — resembling a pardon given by a king to a criminal, who is nevertheless delivered over to the punishment; or “efficacious” when it is not resisted, although it may be resisted; in this case, they just resemble famished guests to whom are presented delicious viands, of which they will surely eat, though, in general, they may be supposed at liberty not to eat; or “necessary,” that is, unavoidable, being nothing more than the chain of eternal decrees and events. We shall take care not to enter into the long and appalling details, subtleties, and sophisms, with which these questions are embarrassed. The object of this dictionary is not to be the vain echo of vain disputes.

St. Thomas calls grace a substantial form, and the Jesuit Bouhours names it a je ne sais quoi; this is perhaps the best definition which has ever been given of it.

If the theologians had wanted a subject on which to ridicule Providence, they need not have taken any other than that which they have chosen. On one side the Thomists assure us that man, in receiving efficacious grace, is not free in the compound sense, but that he is free in the divided sense; on the other, the Molinists invent the medium doctrine of God and congruity, and imagine exciting, preventing, concomitant, and co-operating grace.

Let us quit these bad but seriously constructed jokes of the theologians; let us leave their books, and each consult his common sense; when he will see that all these reasoners have sagaciously deceived themselves, because they have reasoned upon a principle evidently false. They have supposed that God acts upon particular views; now, an eternal God, without general, immutable, and eternal laws, is an imaginary being, a phantom, a god of fable.

Why, in all religions on which men pique themselves on reasoning, have theologians been forced to admit this grace which they do not comprehend? It is that they would have salvation confined to their own sect, and further, they would have this salvation divided among those who are the most submissive to themselves. These particular theologians, or chiefs of parties, divide among themselves. The Mussulman doctors entertain similar opinions and similar disputes, because they have the same interest to actuate them; but the universal theologian, that is to say, the true philosopher, sees that it is contradictory for nature to act on particular or single views; that it is ridiculous to imagine God occupying Himself in forcing one man in Europe to obey Him, while He leaves all the Asiatics intractable; to suppose Him wrestling with another man who sometimes submits, and sometimes disarms Him, and presenting to another a help, which is nevertheless useless. Such grace, considered in a true point of view, is an absurdity. The prodigious mass of books composed on this subject is often an exercise of intellect, but always the shame of reason.

§ II.

All nature, all that exists, is the grace of God; He bestows on all animals the grace of form and nourishment. The grace of growing seventy feet high is granted to the fir, and refused to the reed. He gives to man the grace of thinking, speaking, and knowing him; He grants me the grace of not understanding a word of all that Tournelli, Molina, and Soto, have written on the subject of grace.

The first who has spoken of efficacious and gratuitous grace is, without contradiction, Homer. This may be astonishing to a bachelor of theology, who knows no author but St. Augustine; but, if he read the third book of the “Iliad,” he will see that Paris says to his brother Hector: “If the gods have given you valor, and me beauty, do not reproach me with the presents of the beautiful Venus; no gift of the gods is despicable — it does not depend upon man to obtain them.”

Nothing is more positive than this passage. If we further remark that Jupiter, according to his pleasure, gave the victory sometimes to the Greeks, and at others to the Trojans, we shall see a new proof that all was done by grace from on high. Sarpedon, and afterwards Patroclus, are barbarians to whom by turns grace has been wanting.

There have been philosophers who were not of the opinion of Homer. They have pretended that general Providence does not immediately interfere with the affairs of particular individuals; that it governs all by universal laws; that Thersites and Achilles were equal before it, and that neither Chalcas nor Talthybius ever had versatile or congruous graces.

According to these philosophers, the dog-grass and the oak, the mite and the elephant, man, the elements and stars, obey invariable laws, which God, as immutable, has established from all eternity.

§ III.

If one were to come from the bottom of hell, to say to us on the part of the devil — Gentlemen, I must inform you that our sovereign lord has taken all mankind for his share, except a small number of people who live near the Vatican and its dependencies — we should all pray of this deputy to inscribe us on the list of the privileged; we should ask him what we must do to obtain this grace.

If he were to answer, You cannot merit it, my master has made the list from the beginning of time; he has only listened to his own pleasure, he is continually occupied in making an infinity of pots-de-chambre and some dozen gold vases; if you are pots-de-chambre so much the worse for you.

At these fine words we should use our pitchforks to send the ambassador back to his master. This is, however, what we have dared to impute to God — to the eternal and sovereignly good being!

Man has been always reproached with having made God in his own image, Homer has been condemned for having transported all the vices and follies of earth into heaven. Plato, who has thus justly reproached him, has not hesitated to call him a blasphemer; while we, a hundred times more thoughtless, hardy, and blaspheming than this Greek, who did not understand conventional language, devoutly accuse God of a thing of which we have never accused the worst of men.

It is said that the king of Morocco, Muley Ismael, had five hundred children. What would you say if a marabout of Mount Atlas related to you that the wise and good Muley Ismael, dining with his family, at the close of the repast, spoke thus:

“I am Muley Ismael, who has forgotten you for my glory, for I am very glorious. I love you very tenderly, I shelter you as a hen covers her chickens; I have decreed that one of my youngest children shall have the kingdom of Tafilet, and that another shall possess Morocco; and for my other dear children, to the number of four hundred and ninety-eight, I order that one-half shall be tortured, and the other half burned, for I am the Lord Muley Ismael.”

You would assuredly take the marabout for the greatest fool that Africa ever produced; but if three or four thousand marabouts, well entertained at your expense, were to repeat to you the same story, what would you do? Would you not be tempted to make them fast upon bread and water until they recovered their senses?

You will allege that my indignation is reasonable enough against the supralapsarians, who believe that the king of Morocco begot these five hundred children only for his glory; and that he had always the intention to torture and burn them, except two, who were destined to reign.

But I am wrong, you say, against the infralapsarians, who avow that it was not the first intention of Muley Ismael to cause his children to perish; but that, having foreseen that they would be of no use, he thought he should be acting as a good father in getting rid of them by torture and fire.

Ah, supralapsarians, infralapsarians, free-gracians, sufficers, efficacians, jansenists, and molinists — become men, and no longer trouble the earth with such absurd and abominable fooleries.

§ IV.

Holy advisers of modern Rome, illustrious and infallible theologians, no one has more respect for your divine decisions than I; but if Paulus Æmilius, Scipio, Cato, Cicero, Cæsar, Titus, Trajan, or Marcus Aurelius, revisited that Rome to which they formerly did such credit, you must confess that they would be a little astonished at your decisions on grace. What would they say if they heard you speak of healthful grace according to St. Thomas, and medicinal grace according to Cajetan; of exterior and interior grace, of free, sanctifying, co-operating, actual, habitual, and efficacious grace, which is sometimes inefficacious; of the sufficing which sometimes does not suffice, of the versatile and congruous — would they really comprehend it more than you and I?

What need would these poor people have of your instructions? I fancy I hear them say: “Reverend fathers, you are terrible genii; we foolishly thought that the Eternal Being never conducted Himself by particular laws like vile human beings, but by general laws, eternal like Himself. No one among us ever imagined that God was like a senseless master, who gives an estate to one slave and refuses food to another; who orders one with a broken arm to knead a loaf, and a cripple to be his courier.

All is grace on the part of God; He has given to the globe we inhabit the grace of form; to the trees the grace of making them grow; to animals that of feeding them; but will you say, because one wolf finds in his road a lamb for his supper, while another is dying with hunger, that God has given the first wolf a particular grace? Is it a preventive grace to cause one oak to grow in preference to another in which sap is wanting? If throughout nature all being is submitted to general laws, how can a single species of animals avoid conforming to them?

Why should the absolute master of all be more occupied in directing the interior of a single man than in conducting the remainder of entire nature? By what caprice would He change something in the heart of a Courlander or a Biscayan, while He changes nothing in the general laws which He has imposed upon all the stars.

What a pity to suppose that He is continually making, defacing, and renewing our sentiments! And what audacity in us to believe ourselves excepted from all beings! And further, is it not only for those who confess that these changes are imagined? A Savoyard, a Bergamask, on Monday, will have the grace to have a mass said for twelve sous; on Tuesday he will go to the tavern and have no grace; on Wednesday he will have a co-operating grace, which will conduct him to confession, but he will not have the efficacious grace of perfect contrition; on Thursday there will be a sufficing grace which will not suffice, as has been already said. God will labor in the head of this Bergamask — sometimes strongly, sometimes weakly, while the rest of the earth will no way concern Him! He will not deign to meddle with the interior of the Indians and Chinese! If you possess a grain of reason, reverend fathers, do you not find this system prodigiously ridiculous?

Poor, miserable man! behold this oak which rears its head to the clouds, and this reed which bends at its feet; you do not say that efficacious grace has been given to the oak and withheld from the reed. Raise your eyes to heaven; see the eternal Demiourgos creating millions of worlds, which gravitate towards one another by general and eternal laws. See the same light reflected from the sun to Saturn, and from Saturn to us; and in this grant of so many stars, urged onward in their rapid course; in this general obedience of all nature, dare to believe, if you can, that God is occupied in giving a versatile grace to Sister Theresa, or a concomitant one to Sister Agnes.

Atom — to which another foolish atom has said that the Eternal has particular laws for some atoms of thy neighborhood; that He gives His grace to that one and refuses it to this; that such as had not grace yesterday shall have it to-morrow — repeat not this folly. God has made the universe, and creates not new winds to remove a few straws in one corner of the universe. Theologians are like the combatants in Homer, who believed that the gods were sometimes armed for and sometimes against them. Had Homer not been considered a poet, he would be deemed a blasphemer.

It is Marcus Aurelius who speaks, and not I; for God, who inspires you, has given me grace to believe all that you say, all that you have said, and all that you will say.

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