Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Infernum, subterranean; the regions below, or the infernal regions. Nations which buried the dead placed them in the inferior or infernal regions. Their soul, then, was with them in those regions. Such were the first physics and the first metaphysics of the Egyptians and Greeks.

The Indians, who were far more ancient, who had invented the ingenious doctrine of the metempsychosis, never believed that souls existed in the infernal regions.

The Japanese, Coreans, Chinese, and the inhabitants of the vast territory of eastern and western Tartary never knew a word of the philosophy of the infernal regions.

The Greeks, in the course of time, constituted an immense kingdom of these infernal regions, which they liberally conferred on Pluto and his wife Proserpine. They assigned them three privy counsellors, three housekeepers called Furies, and three Fates to spin, wind, and cut the thread of human life. And, as in ancient times, every hero had his dog to guard his gate, so was Pluto attended and guarded by an immense dog with three heads; for everything, it seems, was to be done by threes. Of the three privy counsellors, Minos, Æacus, and Rhadamanthus, one judged Greece, another Asia Minor — for the Greeks were then unacquainted with the Greater Asia — and the third was for Europe.

The poets, having invented these infernal regions, or hell, were the first to laugh at them. Sometimes Virgil mentions hell in the “Æneid” in a style of seriousness, because that style was then suitable to his subject. Sometimes he speaks of it with contempt in his “Georgics” (ii. 490, etc.).

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas

Atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum

Subjecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis avari!

Happy the man whose vigorous soul can pierce

Through the formation of this universe,

Who nobly dares despise, with soul sedate,

The den of Acheron, and vulgar fears and fate.

— Wharton.

The following lines from the “Troad” (chorus of act ii.), in which Pluto, Cerberus, Phlegethon, Styx, etc., are treated like dreams and childish tales, were repeated in the theatre of Rome, and applauded by forty thousand hands:

. . . . Tænara et aspero

Regnum sub domino, limen et obsidens

Custos non facili Cerberus ostio

Rumores vacui, verbaque inania,

Et par solicito fabula somnio.

Lucretius and Horace express themselves equally strongly. Cicero and Seneca used similar language in innumerable parts of their writings. The great emperor Marcus Aurelius reasons still more philosophically than those I have mentioned. “He who fears death, fears either to be deprived of all senses, or to experience other sensations. But, if you no longer retain your own senses, you will be no longer subject to any pain or grief. If you have senses of a different nature, you will be a totally different being.”

To this reasoning, profane philosophy had nothing to reply. Yet, agreeably to that contradiction or perverseness which distinguishes the human species, and seems to constitute the very foundation of our nature, at the very time when Cicero publicly declared that “not even an old woman was to be found who believed in such absurdities,” Lucretius admitted that these ideas were powerfully impressive upon men’s minds; his object, he says, is to destroy them:

. . . . Si certum finem esse viderent

Ærumnarum homines, aliqua ratione valerent

Religionibus atque minis obsistere vatum.

Nunc ratio nulla est restandi, nulla facultas;

Æternas quoniam poenas in morte timendum.

— Lucretius, i. 108.

. . . . If it once appear

That after death there’s neither hope nor fear;

Then might men freely triumph, then disdain

The poet’s tales, and scorn their fancied pain;

But now we must submit, since pains we fear

Eternal after death, we know not where.

— Creech.

It was therefore true, that among the lowest classes of the people, some laughed at hell, and others trembled at it. Some regarded Cerberus, the Furies, and Pluto as ridiculous fables, others perpetually presented offerings to the infernal gods. It was with them just as it is now among ourselves:

Et quocumque tamen miseri venere, parentant,

Et nigros mactant pecudes, et Manibus divis

Inferias mittunt multoque in rebus acerbis

Acrius admittunt animos ad religionem.

— Lucretius, iii. 51.

Nay, more than that, where’er the wretches come

They sacrifice black sheep on every tomb,

To please the manes; and of all the rout,

When cares and dangers press, grow most devout.

— Creech.

Many philosophers who had no belief in the fables about hell, were yet desirous that the people should retain that belief. Such was Zimens of Locris. Such was the political historian Polybius. “Hell,” says he, “is useless to sages, but necessary to the blind and brutal populace.”

It is well known that the law of the Pentateuch never announces a hell. All mankind was involved in this chaos of contradiction and uncertainty, when Jesus Christ came into the world. He confirmed the ancient doctrine of hell, not the doctrine of the heathen poets, not that of the Egyptian priests, but that which Christianity adopted, and to which everything must yield. He announced a kingdom that was about to come, and a hell that should have no end.

He said, in express words, at Capernaum in Galilee, “Whosoever shall call his brother ‘Raca,’ shall be condemned by the sanhedrim; but whosoever shall call him ‘fool,’ shall be condemned to Gehenna Hinnom, Gehenna of fire.”

This proves two things, first, that Jesus Christ was adverse to abuse and reviling; for it belonged only to Him, as master, to call the Pharisees hypocrites, and a “generation of vipers.”

Secondly, that those who revile their neighbor deserve hell; for the Gehenna of fire was in the valley of Hinnom, where victims had formerly been burned in sacrifice to Moloch, and this Gehenna was typical of the fire of hell.

He says, in another place, “If any one shall offend one of the weak who believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea.

“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than to go into the Gehenna of inextinguishable fire, where the worm dies not, and where the fire is not quenched.

“And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter lame into eternal life, than to be cast with two feet into the inextinguishable Gehenna, where the worm dies not, and where the fire is not quenched.

“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than to be cast with both eyes into the Gehenna of fire, where the worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.

“For everyone shall be burned with fire, and every victim shall be salted with salt.

“Salt is good; but if the salt have lost its savor, with what will you salt?

“You have salt in yourselves, preserve peace one with another.”

He said on another occasion, on His journey to Jerusalem, “When the master of the house shall have entered and shut the door, you will remain without, and knock, saying, ‘Lord, open unto us;’ and he will answer and say unto you, ‘Nescio vos,’ I know you not; whence are you? And then ye shall begin to say, we have eaten and drunk with thee, and thou hast taught in our public places; and he will reply, ‘Nescio vos,’ whence are you, workers of iniquity? And there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see there Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and yourselves cast out.”

Notwithstanding the other positive declarations made by the Saviour of mankind, which assert the eternal damnation of all who do not belong to our church, Origen and some others were not believers in the eternity of punishments.

The Socinians reject such punishments; but they are without the pale. The Lutherans and Calvinists, although they have strayed beyond the pale, yet admit the doctrine of a hell without end.

When men came to live in society, they must have perceived that a great number of criminals eluded the severity of the laws; the laws punished public crimes; it was necessary to establish a check upon secret crimes; this check was to be found only in religion. The Persians, Chaldæans, Egyptians, and Greeks, entertained the idea of punishments after the present life, and of all the nations of antiquity that we are acquainted with, the Jews, as we have already remarked, were the only one who admitted solely temporal punishments. It is ridiculous to believe, or pretend to believe, from some excessively obscure passages, that hell was recognized by the ancient laws of the Jews, by their Leviticus, or by their Decalogue, when the author of those laws says not a single word which can bear the slightest relation to the chastisements of a future life. We might have some right to address the compiler of the Pentateuch in such language as the following: “You are a man of no consistency, as destitute of probity as understanding, and totally unworthy of the name which you arrogate to yourself of legislator. What! you are perfectly acquainted, it seems, with that doctrine so eminently repressive of human vice, so necessary to the virtue and happiness of mankind — the doctrine of hell; and yet you do not explicitly announce it; and, while it is admitted by all the nations which surround you, you are content to leave it for some commentators, after four thousand years have passed away, to suspect that this doctrine might possibly have been entertained by you, and to twist and torture your expressions, in order to find that in them which you have never said. Either you are grossly ignorant not to know that this belief was universal in Egypt, Chaldæa, and Persia; or you have committed the most disgraceful error in judgment, in not having made it the foundation-stone of your religion.”

The authors of the Jewish laws could at most only answer: “We confess that we are excessively ignorant; that we did not learn the art of writing until a late period; that our people were a wild and barbarous horde, that wandered, as our own records admit, for nearly half a century in impracticable deserts, and at length obtained possession of a petty territory by the most odious rapine and detestable cruelty ever mentioned in the records of history. We had no commerce with civilized nations, and how could you suppose that, so grossly mean and grovelling as we are in all our ideas and usages, we should have invented a system so refined and spiritual as that in question?”

We employed the word which most nearly corresponds with soul, merely to signify life; we know our God and His ministers, His angels, only as corporeal beings; the distinction of soul and body, the idea of a life beyond death, can be the fruit only of long meditation and refined philosophy. Ask the Hottentots and negroes, who inhabit a country a hundred times larger than ours, whether they know anything of a life to come? We thought we had done enough in persuading the people under our influence that God punished offenders to the fourth generation, either by leprosy, by sudden death, or by the loss of the little property of which the criminal might be possessed.

To this apology it might be replied: “You have invented a system, the ridicule and absurdity of which are as clear as the sun at noon-day; for the offender who enjoyed good health, and whose family were in prosperous circumstances, must absolutely have laughed you to scorn.”

The apologist for the Jewish law would here rejoin: “You are much mistaken; since for one criminal who reasoned correctly, there were a hundred who never reasoned at all. The man who, after he had committed a crime, found no punishment of it attached to himself or his son, would yet tremble for his grandson. Besides, if after the time of committing his offence he was not speedily seized with some festering sore, such as our nation was extremely subject to, he would experience it in the course of years. Calamities are always occurring in a family, and we, without difficulty, instilled the belief that these calamities were inflicted by the hand of God taking vengeance for secret offences.”

It would be easy to reply to this answer by saying: “Your apology is worth nothing; for it happens every day that very worthy and excellent persons lose their health and their property; and, if there were no family that did not experience calamity, and that calamity at the same time was a chastisement from God, all the families of your community must have been made up of scoundrels.”

The Jewish priest might again answer and say that there are some calamities inseparable from human nature, and others expressly inflicted by the hand of God. But, in return, we should point out to such a reasoner the absurdity of considering fever and hail-stones in some cases as divine punishments; in others as mere natural effects.

In short, the Pharisees and the Essenians among the Jews did admit, according to certain notions of their own, the belief of a hell. This dogma had passed from the Greeks to the Romans, and was adopted by the Christians.

Many of the fathers of the church rejected the doctrine of eternal punishments. It appeared to them absurd to burn to all eternity an unfortunate man for stealing a goat. Virgil has finely said:

. . . . Sedit eternumque sedebit

Infelix Theseus.

Unhappy Theseus, doomed forever there,

Is fixed by fate on his eternal chair.

— Dryden.

But it is vain for him to maintain or imply that Theseus is forever fixed to his chair, and that this position constitutes his punishment. Others have imagined Theseus to be a hero who could never be seen on any seat in hell, and who was to be found in the Elysian Fields.

A Calvinistical divine, of the name of Petit Pierre, not long since preached and published the doctrine that the damned would at some future period be pardoned. The rest of the ministers of his association told him that they wished for no such thing. The dispute grew warm. It was said that the king, whose subjects they were, wrote to him, that since they were desirous of being damned without redemption, he could have no reasonable objection, and freely gave his consent. The damned majority of the church of Neufchâtel ejected poor Petit Pierre, who had thus converted hell into a mere purgatory. It is stated that one of them said to him: “My good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself; but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant, your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.”

I will add, as an illustration of this passage, a short address of exhortation to those philosophers who in their writings deny a hell; I will say to them: “Gentlemen, we do not pass our days with Cicero, Atticus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, the Chancellor de l’Hôpital, La Mothe le Vayer, Desyveteaux, René Descartes, Newton, or Locke, nor with the respectable Bayle, who was so superior to the power and frown of fortune, nor with the too scrupulously virtuous infidel Spinoza, who, although laboring under poverty and destitution, gave back to the children of the grand pensionary De Witt an allowance of three hundred florins, which had been granted him by that great statesman, whose heart, it may be remembered, the Hollanders actually devoured, although there was nothing to be gained by it. Every man with whom we intermingle in life is not a des Barreaux, who paid the pleaders their fees for a cause which he had forgotten to bring into court. Every woman is not a Ninon de L’Enclos, who guarded deposits in trust with religious fidelity, while the gravest personages in the state were violating them. In a word, gentlemen, all the world are not philosophers.

“We are obliged to hold intercourse and transact business, and mix up in life with knaves possessing little or no reflection — with vast numbers of persons addicted to brutality, intoxication, and rapine. You may, if you please, preach to them that there is no hell, and that the soul of man is mortal. As for myself, I will be sure to thunder in their ears that if they rob me they will inevitably be damned. I will imitate the country clergyman, who, having had a great number of sheep stolen from him, at length said to his hearers, in the course of one of his sermons: ‘I cannot conceive what Jesus Christ was thinking about when he died for such a set of scoundrels as you are.’ ”

There is an excellent book for fools called “The Christian Pedagogue,” composed by the reverend father d’Outreman, of the Society of Jesus, and enlarged by Coulon, curé of Ville-Juif-les-Paris. This book has passed, thank God, through fifty-one editions, although not a single page in it exhibits a gleam of common sense.

Friar Outreman asserts — in the hundred and fifty-seventh page of the second edition in quarto — that one of Queen Elizabeth’s ministers, Baron Hunsdon, predicted to Cecil, secretary of state, and to six other members of the cabinet council, that they as well as he would be damned; which, he says, was actually the case, and is the case with all heretics. It is most likely that Cecil and the other members of the council gave no credit to the said Baron Hunsdon; but if the fictitious baron had said the same to six common citizens, they would probably have believed him.

Were the time ever to arrive in which no citizen of London believed in a hell, what course of conduct would be adopted? What restraint upon wickedness would exist? There would exist the feeling of honor, the restraint of the laws, that of the Deity Himself, whose will it is that mankind shall be just, whether there be a hell or not.

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