Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is pretended that amplification is a fine figure of rhetoric; perhaps, however, it would be more reasonable to call it a defect. In saying all that we should say, we do not amplify; and if after saying this we amplify, we say too much. To place a good or bad action in every light is not to amplify; but to go farther than this is to exaggerate and become wearisome.

Prizes were formerly given in colleges for amplification. This was indeed teaching the art of being diffuse. It would, perhaps, have been better to have given the fewest words, and thus teach the art of speaking with greater force and energy. But while we avoid amplification, let us beware of dryness.

I have heard professors teach that certain passages in “Virgil” are amplifications, as, for instance, the following:

Nox erat, et placidum carpebant fessa soporem

Corpora per terras, silvæque et saeva quierunt

Æquora; quum medio volvuntur sidera lapsu;

Quum tacet omnis ager, pecudes, pietaeque volucres;

Quaeque lacus late liquidos, quaeque aspera dumis

Rura tenant, somno positae sub nocte silenti

Lenibant curas, et corda oblita laborum:

At non infelix animi Phœnissa.

’Twas dead of night, when weary bodies close

Their eyes in balmy sleep and soft repose:

The winds no longer whisper through the woods,

Nor murmuring tides disturb the gentle floods;

The stars in silent order moved around,

And peace, with downy wings, was brooding on the ground.

The flocks and herds, and parti-colored fowl,

Which haunt the woods and swim the weedy pool,

Stretched on the quiet earth securely lay,

Forgetting the past labors of the day.

All else of Nature’s common gift partake;

Unhappy Dido was alone awake.


If the long description of the reign of sleep throughout all nature did not form an admirable contrast with the cruel inquietude of Dido, these lines would be no other than a puerile amplification; it is the words At non infelix animi Phænissa —“Unhappy Dido,” etc., which give them their charm.

That beautiful ode of Sappho’s which paints all the symptoms of love, and which has been happily translated into every cultivated language, would doubtless have been less touching had Sappho been speaking of any other than herself; it might then have been considered as an amplification.

The description of the tempest in the first book of the “Æneid” is not an amplification; it is a true picture of all that happens in a tempest; there is no idea repeated, and repetition is the vice of all which is merely amplification.

The finest part on the stage in any language is that of Phèdre (Phædra). Nearly all that she says would be tiresome amplification if any other was speaking of Phædra’s passion.

Athenes me montra mon superbe ennemie;

Je le vis, je rougis, je plâis, à sa vue;

Un trouble s’éleva dans mon âme éperdue;

Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler,

Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler;

Je reconnus Venus et ses traits rédoubtables,

D’un sang qu’elle poursuit tormens inévitables.

Yes; — Athens showed me my proud enemy;

I saw him — blushed — turned pale; —

A sudden trouble came upon my soul —

My eyes grew dim — my tongue refused its office —

I burned — and shivered; — through my trembling frame

Venus in all her dreadful power I felt,

Shooting through every vein a separate pang.

It is quite clear that since Athens showed her her proud enemy Hippolytus, she saw Hippolytus; if she blushed and turned pale, she was doubtless troubled. It would have been a pleonasm, a redundancy, if a stranger had been made to relate the loves of Phædra; but it is Phædra, enamored and ashamed of her passion — her heart is full — everything escapes her:

Ut vidi, ut perii, ut me malus abstulit error.

Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis, à sa vue.

I saw him — blushed — turned pale. —

What can be a better imitation of Virgil?

Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler;

Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler;

My eyes grew dim — my tongue refused its office;

I burned — and shivered;

What can be a finer imitation of Sappho?

These lines, though imitated, flow as from their first source; each word moves and penetrates the feeling heart; this is not amplification; it is the perfection of nature and of art.

The following is, in my opinion, an instance of amplification, in a modern tragedy, which nevertheless has great beauties. Tydeus is at the court of Argos; he is in love with a sister of Electra; he laments the fall of his friend Orestes and of his father; he is divided betwixt his passion for Electra and his desire of vengeance; while in this state of care and perplexity he gives one of his followers a long description of a tempest, in which he had been shipwrecked some time before.

Tu sais ce qu’en ces lieux nous venions entreprendre;

Tu sais que Palamède, avant que de s’y rendre,

Ne voulut point tenter son retour dans Argos,

Qu’il n’eût interroge l’oracle de Délos.

À de si justes soins on souscrivit sans peine;

Nous partîmes, comblés des bienfaits de Thyrrène;

Tout nous favorisait; nous voyageâmes longtems

Au gré de nos désirs, bien plus qu’au gré des vents;

Mais, signalañt bientôt toute son inconstance,

Le mer en un moment se mutine et s’élance;

L’air mugit, le jour fuit, une épaisse vapeur

Couvre d’un voile affreux les vagues en fureur;

La foudre, éclairante seule une nuit si profonde,

À sillons redoublés ouvre le ciel et l’onde,

Et comme un tourbillon, embrassant nos vaisseaux,

Semble en sources de feu bouillonner sur les eaux;

Les vagues quelquefois, nous portant sur leurs cimes,

Nous font rouler après sous de vastes abîmes,

Ou les éclairs pressés, pénétrans avec nous,

Dans des gouffres de feu semblaient nous plonger tous;

Le pilote effrayé, que la flamme environne,

Aux rochers qu’il fuyait lui-meme s’abandonne;

À travers les écueils notre vaisseau pousse,

Se brise, et nage enfin sur les eaux dispersées.

Thou knowest what purpose brought us to these shores;

Thou knowest that Palamed would not attempt

Again to set his foot within these walls

Until he’d questioned Delos’ oracle.

To his just care we readily subscribed;

We sailed, and favoring gales at first appeared

To announce a prosperous voyage;

Long time we held our course, and held it rather

As our desires than as the winds impelled;

But the inconstant ocean heaved at last

Its treacherous bosom; howling blasts arose;

The heavens were darkened; vapors black and dense

Spread o’er the furious waves a frightful veil,

Pierced only by the thunderbolts, which clove

The waters and the firmament at once,

And whirling round our ship, in horrid sport

Chased one another o’er the boiling surge;

Now rose we on some watery mountain’s summit,

Now with the lightning plunged into a gulf

That seemed to swallow all. Our pilot, struck

Powerless by terror, ceased to steer, and left us

Abandoned to those rocks we dreaded most;

Soon did our vessel dash upon their points,

And swim in scattered fragments on the billows.

In this description we see the poet wishing to surprise his readers with the relation of a shipwreck, rather than the man who seeks to avenge his father and his friend — to kill the tyrant of Argos, but who is at the same time divided between love and vengeance.

Several men of taste, and among others the author of “Telemachus,” have considered the relation of the death of Hippolytus, in Racine, as an amplification; long recitals were the fashion at that time. The vanity of actors make them wish to be listened to, and it was then the custom to indulge them in this way. The archbishop of Cambray says that Theramenes should not, after Hippolytus’ catastrophe, have strength to speak so long; that he gives too ample a description of the monster’s threatening horns, his saffron scales, etc.; that he should say in broken accents, Hippolytus is dead — a monster has destroyed him — I beheld it.

I shall not enter on a defence of the threatening horns, etc.; yet this piece of criticism, which has been so often repeated, appears to me to be unjust. You would have Theramenes say nothing more than Hippolytus is killed — I saw him die — all is over. This is precisely what he does say; Hippolyte n’est plus! (Hippolytus is no more!) His father exclaims aloud; and Theramenes, on recovering his senses, says:

J’ai vu des mortels périr le plus amiable,

I have seen the most amiable of mortals perish,

and adds this line, so necessary and so affecting yet so agonizing for Theseus:

Et j’ose dire encore, Seigneur, le moins coupable.

And, Sire, I may truly add, the most innocent.

The gradations are fully observed; each shade is accurately distinguished. The wretched father asks what God — what sudden thunder-stroke has deprived him of his son. He has not courage to proceed; he is mute with grief; he awaits the dreadful recital, and the audience awaits it also. Theramenes must answer; he is asked for particulars; he must give them.

Was it for him who had made Mentor and all the rest of his personages discourse at such length, sometimes even tediously; was it for him to shut the mouth of Theramenes? Who among the spectators would not listen to him? Who would not enjoy the melancholy pleasure of hearing the circumstance of Hippolytus’ death? Who would have so much as three lines struck out? This is no vain description of a storm unconnected with the piece; no ill-written amplification; it is the purest diction, the most affecting language; in short, it is Racine. Amplification, declamation, and exaggeration were at all times the faults of the Greeks, excepting Demosthenes and Aristotle.

There have been absurd pieces of poetry on which time has set the stamp of almost universal approbation, because they were mixed with brilliant flashes which threw a glare over their imperfections, or because the poets who came afterward did nothing better. The rude beginnings of every art acquire a greater celebrity than the art in perfection; he who first played the fiddle was looked upon as a demigod, while Rameau had only enemies. In fine, men, generally going with the stream, seldom judge for themselves, and purity of taste is almost as rare as talent.

At the present day, most of our sermons, funeral orations, set discourses, and harangues in certain ceremonies, are tedious amplifications — strings of commonplace expressions repeated again and again a thousand times. These discourses are only supportable when rarely heard. Why speak when you have nothing new to say? It is high time to put a stop to this excessive waste of words, and therefore we conclude our article.

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