Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

A Greek word, signifying “belief, or elected opinion.” It is not greatly to the honor of human reason that men should be hated, persecuted, massacred, or burned at the stake, on account of their chosen opinions; but what is exceedingly little to our honor is that this mischievous and destructive madness has been as peculiar to us as leprosy was to the Hebrews, or lues formerly to the Caribs.

We well know, theologically speaking, that heresy having become a crime, as even the word itself is a reproach; we well know, I say, that the Latin church, which alone can possess reason, has also possessed the right of reproving all who were of a different opinion from her own.

On the other side, the Greek church had the same right; accordingly, it reproved the Romans when they chose a different opinion from the Greeks on the procession of the Holy Spirit, the viands which might be taken in Lent, the authority of the pope, etc.

But upon what ground did any arrive finally at the conclusion that, when they were the strongest, they might burn those who entertained chosen opinions of their own? Those who had such opinions were undoubtedly criminal in the sight of God, since they were obstinate. They will, therefore, as no one can possibly doubt, be burned to all eternity in another world; but why burn them by a slow fire in this? The sufferers have represented that such conduct is a usurpation of the jurisdiction of God; that this punishment is very hard and severe, considered as an infliction by men; and that it is, moreover, of no utility, since one hour of suffering added to eternity is an absolute cipher.

The pious inflicters, however, replied to these reproaches that nothing was more just than to put upon burning coals whoever had a self-formed opinion; that to burn those whom God Himself would burn, was in fact a holy conformity to God; and finally, that since, by admission, the burning for an hour or two was a mere cipher in comparison with eternity, the burning of five or six provinces for chosen opinions — for heresies — was a matter in reality of very little consequence.

In the present day it is asked, “Among what cannibals have these questions been agitated, and their solutions proved by facts?” We must admit with sorrow and humiliation that it was asked even among ourselves, and in the very same cities where nothing is minded but operas, comedies, balls, fashions, and intrigue.

Unfortunately, it was a tyrant who introduced the practice of destroying heretics — not one of those equivocal tyrants who are regarded as saints by one party, and monsters by another, but one Maximus, competitor of Theodosius I., a decided tyrant, in the strictest meaning of the term, over the whole empire.

He destroyed at Trier, by the hands of the executioner, the Spaniard Priscillian and his adherents, whose opinions were pronounced erroneous by some bishops of Spain. These prelates solicited the capital punishment of the Priscillianists with a charity so ardent that Maximus could refuse them nothing. It was by no means owing to them that St. Martin was not beheaded as a heretic. He was fortunate enough to quit Trier and escape back to Tours.

A single example is sufficient to establish a usage. The first Scythian who scooped out the brains of his enemy and made a drinking-cup of his skull, was allowed all the rank and consequence in Scythia. Thus was consecrated the practice of employing the executioner to cut off “opinions.”

No such thing as heresy existed among the religions of antiquity, because they had reference only to moral conduct and public worship. When metaphysics became connected with Christianity, controversy prevailed; and from controversy arose different parties, as in the schools of philosophy. It was impossible that metaphysics should not mingle the uncertainties essential to their nature with the faith due to Jesus Christ. He had Himself written nothing; and His incarnation was a problem which the new Christians, whom He had not Himself inspired, solved in many different ways. “Each,” as St. Paul expressly observes, “had his peculiar party; some were for Apollos, others for Cephas.”

Christians in general, for a long time, assumed the name of Nazarenes, and even the Gentiles gave them no other appellations during the two first centuries. But there soon arose a particular school of Nazarenes, who believed a gospel different from the four canonical ones. It has even been pretended that this gospel differed only very slightly from that of St. Matthew, and was in fact anterior to it. St. Epiphanius and St. Jerome place the Nazarenes in the cradle of Christianity.

Those who considered themselves as knowing more than the rest, took the denomination of gnostics, “knowers”; and this denomination was for a long time so honorable that St. Clement of Alexandria, in his “Stromata,” always calls the good Christians true gnostics. “Happy are they who have entered into the gnostic holiness! He who deserves the name of gnostic resists seducers and gives to every one that asks.” The fifth and sixth books of the “Stromata” turn entirely upon the perfection of gnosticism.

The Ebionites existed incontestably in the time of the apostles. That name, which signifies “poor,” was intended to express how dear to them was the poverty in which Jesus was born.

Cerinthus was equally ancient. The “Apocalypse” of St. John was attributed to him. It is even thought that St. Paul and he had violent disputes with each other.

It seems to our weak understandings very natural to expect from the first disciples a solemn declaration, a complete and unalterable profession of faith, which might terminate all past, and preclude any future quarrels; but God permitted it not so to be. The creed called the “Apostles’ Creed,” which is short, and in which are not to be found the consubstantiality, the word trinity, or the seven sacraments, did not make its appearance before the time of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and the celebrated priest Rufinus. It was by this priest, the enemy of St. Jerome, that we are told it was compiled. Heresies had had time to multiply, and more than fifty were enumerated as existing in the fifth century.

Without daring to scrutinize the ways of Providence, which are impenetrable by the human mind, and merely consulting, as far as we are permitted, our feeble reason, it would seem that of so many opinions on so many articles, there would always exist one which must prevail, which was the orthodox, “the right of teaching.” The other societies, besides the really orthodox, soon assumed that title also; but being the weaker parties, they had given to them the designation of “heretics.”

When, in the progress of time, the Christian church in the East, which was the mother of that in the West, had irreparably broken with her daughter, each remained sovereign in her distinct sphere, and each had her particular heresies, arising out of the dominant opinion.

The barbarians of the North, having but recently become Christians, could not entertain the same opinions as Southern countries, because they could not adopt the same usages. They could not, for example, for a long time adore images, as they had neither painters nor sculptors. It also was somewhat dangerous to baptize an infant in winter, in the Danube, the Weser, or the Elbe.

It was no easy matter for the inhabitants of the shores of the Baltic to know precisely the opinions held in the Milanese and the march of Ancona. The people of the South and of the North of Europe had therefore chosen opinions different from each other. This seems to me to be the reason why Claude, bishop of Turin, preserved in the ninth century all the usages and dogmas received in the seventh and eighth, from the country of the Allobroges, as far as the Elbe and the Danube.

These dogmas and usages became fixed and permanent among the inhabitants of valleys and mountainous recesses, and near the banks of the Rhone, among a sequestered and almost unknown people, whom the general desolation left untouched in their seclusion and poverty, until they at length became known, under the name of the Vaudois in the twelfth, and that of the Albigenses in the thirteenth century. It is known how their chosen opinions were treated; what crusades were preached against them; what carnage was made among them; and that, from that period to the present day, Europe has not enjoyed a single year of tranquillity and toleration.

It is a great evil to be a heretic; but is it a great good to maintain orthodoxy by soldiers and executioners? Would it not be better that every man should eat his bread in peace under the shade of his own fig-tree? I suggest so bold a proposition with fear and trembling.

§ II.
Of the Extirpation of Heresies.

It appears to me that, in relation to heresies, we ought to distinguish between opinion and faction. From the earliest times of Christianity opinions were divided, as we have already seen. The Christians of Alexandria did not think, on many points, like those of Antioch. The Achaians were opposed to the Asiatics. This difference has existed through all past periods of our religion, and probably will always continue. Jesus Christ, who might have united all believers in the same sentiment, has not, in fact, done so; we must, therefore, presume that He did not desire it, and that it was His design to exercise in all churches the spirit of indulgence and charity, by permitting the existence of different systems of faith, while all should be united in acknowledging Him for their chief and master. All the varying sects, a long while tolerated by the emperors, or concealed from their observation, had no power to persecute and proscribe one another, as they were all equally subject to the Roman magistrates. They possessed only the power of disputing with each other. When the magistrates prosecuted them, they all claimed the rights of nature. They said: “Permit us to worship God in peace; do not deprive us of the liberty you allow to the Jews.”

All the different sects existing at present may hold the same language to those who oppress them. They may say to the nations who have granted privileges to the Jews: Treat us as you treat these sons of Jacob; let us, like them, worship God according to the dictates of conscience. Our opinion is not more injurious to your state or realm than Judaism. You tolerate the enemies of Jesus Christ; tolerate us, therefore, who adore Jesus Christ, and differ from yourselves only upon subtle points of theology; do not deprive yourselves of the services of useful subjects. It is of consequence to you to obtain their labor and skill in your manufactures, your marine, and your agriculture, and it is of no consequence at all to you that they hold a few articles of faith different from your own. What you want is their work, and not their catechism.

Faction is a thing perfectly different. It always happens, as a matter of necessity, that a persecuted sect degenerates into a faction. The oppressed unite, and console and encourage one another. They have more industry to strengthen their party than the dominant sect has for their extermination. To crush them or be crushed by them is the inevitable alternative. Such was the case after the persecution raised in 303 by the Cæsar, Galerius, during the last two years of the reign of Diocletian. The Christians, after having been favored by Diocletian for the long period of eighteen years, had become too numerous and wealthy to be extirpated. They joined the party of Constantius Chlorus; they fought for Constantine his son; and a complete revolution took place in the empire.

We may compare small things to great, when both are under the direction of the same principle or spirit. A similar revolution happened in Holland, in Scotland, and in Switzerland. When Ferdinand and Isabella expelled from Spain the Jews — who were settled there not merely before the reigning dynasty, but before the Moors and Goths, and even the Carthaginians — the Jews would have effected a revolution in that country if they had been as warlike as they were opulent, and if they could have come to an understanding with the Arabs.

In a word, no sect has ever changed the government of a country but when it was furnished with arms by despair. Mahomet himself would not have succeeded had he not been expelled from Mecca and a price set upon his head.

If you are desirous, therefore, to prevent the overflow of a state by any sect, show it toleration. Imitate the wise conduct exhibited at the present day by Germany, England, Holland, Denmark, and Russia. There is no other policy to be adopted with respect to a new sect than to destroy, without remorse, both leaders and followers, men, women, and children, without a single exception, or to tolerate them when they are numerous. The first method is that of a monster, the second that of a sage.

Bind to the state all the subjects of that state by their interest; let the Quaker and the Turk find their advantage in living under your laws. Religion is between God and man; civil law is between you and your people.

§ III.

It is impossible not to regret the loss of a “History of Heresies,” which Strategius wrote by order of Constantine. Ammianus Marcellinus informs us that the emperor, wishing to ascertain the opinions of the different sects, and not finding any other person who could give correct ideas on the subject, imposed the office of drawing up a report or narrative upon it on that officer, who acquitted himself so well, that Constantine was desirous of his being honored in consequence with the name of Musonianus. M. de Valois, in his notes upon Ammianus, observes that Strategius, who was appointed prefect of the East, possessed as much knowledge and eloquence, as moderation and mildness; such, at least, is the eulogium passed upon him by Libanius.

The choice of a layman by the emperor shows that an ecclesiastic at that time had not the qualities indispensable for a task so delicate. In fact, St. Augustine remarks that a bishop of Bresse, called Philastrius, whose work is to be found in the collection of the fathers, having collected all the heresies, even including those which existed among the Jews before the coming of Jesus Christ, reckons twenty-eight of the latter and one hundred and twenty-eight from the coming of Christ; while St. Epiphanius, comprising both together, makes the whole number but eighty. The reason assigned by St. Augustine for this difference is, that what appears heresy to the one, does not appear so to the other. Accordingly this father tells the Manichæans: “We take the greatest care not to treat you with rigor; such conduct we leave to those who know not what pains are necessary for the discovery of truth, and how difficult it is to avoid falling into errors; we leave it to those who know not with what sighs and groans even a very slight knowledge of the divine nature is alone to be acquired. For my own part, I consider it my duty to bear with you as I was borne with formerly myself, and to show you the same tolerance which I experienced when I was in error.”

If, however, any one considers the infamous imputations, which we have noticed under the article on “Genealogy,” and the abominations of which this professedly indulgent and candid father accused the Manichæans in the celebration of their mysteries — as we shall see under the article on “Zeal”— we shall be convinced that toleration was never the virtue of the clergy. We have already seen, under the article on “Council,” what seditions were excited by the ecclesiastics in relation to Arianism. Eusebius informs us that in some places the statues of Constantine were thrown down because he wished the Arians to be tolerated; and Sozomen says that on the death of Eusebius of Nicomedia, when Macedonius, an Arian, contested the see of Constantinople with Paul, a Catholic, the disturbance and confusion became so dreadful in the church, from which each endeavored to expel the other, that the soldiers, thinking the people in a state of insurrection, actually charged upon them; a fierce and sanguinary conflict ensued, and more than three thousand persons were slain or suffocated. Macedonius ascended the episcopal throne, took speedy possession of all the churches, and persecuted with great cruelty the Novatians and Catholics. It was in revenge against the latter of these that he denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, just as he recognized the divinity of the Word, which was denied by the Arians out of mere defiance to their protector Constantius, who had deposed him.

The same historian adds that on the death of Athanasius, the Arians, supported by Valens, apprehended, bound in chains, and put to death those who remained attached to Peter, whom Athanasius had pointed out as his successor. Alexandria resembled a city taken by assault. The Arians soon possessed themselves of the churches, and the bishop, installed by them, obtained the power of banishing from Egypt all who remained attached to the Nicean creed.

We read in Socrates that, after the death of Sisinnius, the church of Constantinople became again divided on the choice of a successor, and Theodosius the Younger placed in the patriarchal see the violent and fiery Nestorius. In his first sermon he addresses the following language to the emperor: “Give me the land purged of heretics, and I will give you the kingdom of Heaven; second me in the extermination of heretics, and I engage to furnish you with effectual assistance against the Persians.” He afterwards expelled the Arians from the capital, armed the people against them, pulled down their churches, and obtained from the emperor rigorous and persecuting edicts to effect their extirpation. He employed his powerful influence subsequently in procuring the arrest, imprisonment, and even whipping of the principal persons among the people who had interrupted him in the middle of a discourse, in which he was delivering his distinguishing system of doctrine, which was soon condemned at the Council of Ephesus.

Photius relates that when the priest reached the altar, it was customary in the church of Constantinople for the people to chant: “Holy God, powerful God, immortal God”; and the name given to this part of the service was “the trisagion.” The priest, Peter had added: “Who hast been crucified for us, have mercy upon us.” The Catholics considered this addition as containing the error of the Eutychian Theopathists, who maintained that the divinity had suffered; they, however, chanted the trisagion with the addition, to avoid irritating the emperor Anastasius, who had just deposed another Macedonius, and placed in his stead Timotheus, by whose order this addition was ordered to be chanted. But on a particular day the monks entered the church, and, instead of the addition in question, chanted a verse from one of the Psalms: the people instantly exclaimed: “The orthodox have arrived very seasonably!” All the partisans of the Council of Chalcedon chanted, in union with the monks, the verse from the Psalm; the Eutychians were offended; the service was interrupted; a battle commenced in the church; the people rushed out, obtained arms as speedily as possible, spread carnage and conflagration through the city, and were pacified only by the destruction of ten thousand lives.

The imperial power at length established through all Egypt the authority of this Council of Chalcedon; but the massacre of more than a hundred thousand Egyptians, on different occasions, for having refused to acknowledge the council, had planted in the hearts of the whole population an implacable hatred against the emperors. A part of those who were hostile to the council withdrew to Upper Egypt, others quitted altogether the dominions of the empire and passed over to Africa and among the Arabs, where all religions were tolerated.

We have already observed that under the reign of the empress Irene the worship of images was reestablished and confirmed by the second Council of Nice. Leo the Armenian, Michael the Stammerer, and Theophilus, neglected nothing to effect its abolition; and this opposition caused further disturbance in the empire of Constantinople, till the reign of the empress Theodora, who gave the force of law to the second Council of Nice, extinguished the party of Iconoclasts, or image-breakers, and exerted the utmost extent of her authority against the Manichæans. She despatched orders throughout the empire to seek for them everywhere, and put all those to death who would not recant. More than a hundred thousand perished by different modes of execution. Four thousand, who escaped from this severe scrutiny and extensive punishment, took refuge among the Saracens, united their own strength with theirs, ravaged the territories of the empire, and erected fortresses in which the Manichæans, who had remained concealed through terror of capital punishment, found an asylum, and constituted a hostile force, formidable from their numbers, and from their burning hatred both of the emperors and Catholics. They frequently inflicted on the territories of the empire dread and devastation, and cut to pieces its disciplined armies.

We abridge the details of these dreadful massacres; those of Ireland, those of the valleys of Piedmont, those which we shall speak of in the article on “Inquisition,” and lastly, the massacre of St. Bartholomew, displayed in the West the same spirit of intolerance, against which nothing more pertinent and sensible has been written than what we find in the works of Salvian.

The following is the language employed respecting the followers of one of the principal heresies by this excellent priest of Marseilles, who was surnamed the master of bishops, who deplored with bitterness the violence and vices of his age, and who was called the Jeremiah of the fifth century. “The Arians,” says he, “are heretics; but they do not know it; they are heretics among us, but they are not so among themselves; for they consider themselves so perfectly and completely Catholic, that they treat us as heretics. We are convinced that they entertain an opinion injurious to the divine generation, inasmuch as they say that the Son is less than the Father. They, on the other hand, think that we hold an opinion injurious to the Father, because we regard the Father and the Son equal. The truth is with us, but they consider it as favoring them. We give to God the honor which is due to Him, but they, according to their peculiar way of thinking, maintain that they do the same. They do not acquit themselves of their duty; but in the very point where they fail in doing so, they make the greatest duty of religion consist. They are impious, but even in being so they consider themselves as following, and as practising, genuine piety. They are then mistaken, but from a principle of love to God; and, although they have not the true faith, they regard that which they have actually embraced as the perfect love of God.

“The sovereign judge of the universe alone knows how they will be punished for their errors in the day of judgment. In the meantime he patiently bears with them, because he sees that if they are in error, they err from pure motives of piety.”

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