Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


I ask pardon of young ladies and gentlemen, for they will not find here what they may possibly expect. This article is only for learned and serious people, and will suit very few of them.

There is too much of kissing in the comedies of the time of Molière. The valets are always requesting kisses from the waiting-women, which is exceedingly flat and disagreeable, especially when the actors are ugly and must necessarily exhibit against the grain.

If the reader is fond of kisses, let him peruse the “Pastor Fido”: there is an entire chorus which treats only of kisses, and the piece itself is founded only on a kiss which Mirtillo one day bestows on the fair Amaryllis, in a game at blindman’s buff —“un bacio molto saporito.”

In a chapter on kissing by John de la Casa, archbishop of Benevento, he says, that people may kiss from the head to the foot. He complains, however, of long noses, and recommends ladies who possess such to have lovers with short ones.

To kiss was the ordinary manner of salutation throughout all antiquity. Plutarch relates, that the conspirators, before they killed Cæsar, kissed his face, his hands, and his bosom. Tacitus observes, that when his father-in-law, Agricola, returned to Rome, Domitian kissed him coldly, said nothing to him, and left him disregarded in the surrounding crowd. An inferior, who could not aspire to kiss his superior, kissed his own hand, and the latter returned the salute in a similar manner, if he thought proper.

The kiss was ever used in the worship of the gods. Job, in his parable, which is possibly the oldest of our known books, says that he had not adored the sun and moon like the other Arabs, or suffered his mouth to kiss his hand to them.

In the West there remains of this civility only the simple and innocent practice yet taught in country places to children — that of kissing their right hands in return for a sugar-plum.

It is horrible to betray while saluting; the assassination of Cæsar is thereby rendered much more odious. It is unnecessary to add, that the kiss of Judas has become a proverb.

Joab, one of the captains of David, being jealous of Amasa, another captain, said to him, “Art thou in health, my brother?” and took him by the beard with his right hand to kiss him, while with the other he drew his sword and smote him so that his bowels were “shed upon the ground.”

We know not of any kissing in the other assassinations so frequent among the Jews, except possibly the kisses given by Judith to the captain Holofernes, before she cut off his head in his bed; but no mention is made of them, and therefore the fact is only to be regarded as probable.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy of “Othello,” the hero, who is a Moor, gives two kisses to his wife before he strangles her. This appears abominable to orderly persons, but the partisans of Shakespeare say, that it is a fine specimen of nature, especially in a Moor.

When John Galeas Sforza was assassinated in the cathedral of Milan, on St. Stephen’s day; the two Medicis, in the church of Reparata; Admiral Coligni, the prince of Orange, Marshal d’Ancre, the brothers De Witt, and so many others, there was at least no kissing.

Among the ancients there was something, I know not what, symbolical and sacred attached to the kiss, since the statues of the gods were kissed, as also their beards, when the sculptors represented them with beards. The initiated kissed one another in the mysteries of Ceres, in sign of concord.

The first Christians, male and female, kissed with the mouth at their Agapæ, or love-feasts. They bestowed the holy kiss, the kiss of peace, the brotherly and sisterly kiss, “hagion philema.” This custom, lasted for four centuries, and was finally abolished in distrust of the consequences. It was this custom, these kisses of peace, these love-feasts, these appellations of brother and sister, which drew on the Christians, while little known, those imputations of debauchery bestowed upon them by the priests of Jupiter and the priestesses of Vesta. We read in Petronius and in other authors, that the dissolute called one another brother and sister; and it was thought, that among Christians the same licentiousness was intended. They innocently gave occasion for the scandal upon themselves.

In the commencement, seventeen different Christian societies existed, as there had been nine among the Jews, including the two kinds of Samaritans. Those bodies which considered themselves the most orthodox accused the others of inconceivable impurities. The term “gnostic,” at first so honorable, and which signifies the learned, enlightened, pure, became an epithet of horror and of contempt, and a reproach of heresy. St. Epiphanius, in the third century, pretended that the males and females at first tickled each other, and at length proceeded to lascivious kisses, judging of the degree of faith in each other by the warmth of them. A Christian husband in presenting his wife to a newly-initiated member, would exhort her to receive him, as above stated, and was always obeyed.

We dare not repeat, in our chaste language, all that Epiphanius adds in Greek. We shall simply observe, that this saint was probably a little imposed upon, that he suffered himself to be transported by his zeal, and that all the heretics were not execrable debauchees. The sect of pietists, wishing to imitate the early Christians, at present bestow on each other kisses of peace, on departing from their assemblies, and also call one another brother and sister. The ancient ceremony was a kiss with the lips, and the pietists have carefully preserved it.

There was no other manner of saluting the ladies in France, Italy, Germany, and England. The cardinals enjoyed the privilege of kissing the lips of queens, even in Spain, though — what is singular — not in France, where the ladies have always had more liberties than elsewhere; but every country has its ceremonies, and there is no custom so general but chance may have produced an exception. It was an incivility, a rudeness, in receiving the first visit of a nobleman, if a lady did not kiss his lips — no matter about his mustaches. “It is an unpleasant custom,” says Montaigne, “and offensive to the ladies to have to offer their lips to the three valets in his suite, however repulsive.” This custom is, however, the most ancient in the world.

If it is disagreeable to a young and pretty mouth to glue itself to one which is old and ugly, there is also great danger in the junction of fresh and vermilion lips of the age of twenty to twenty-five — a truth which has finally abolished the ceremony of kissing in mysteries and love-feasts. Hence also the seclusion of women throughout the East, who kiss only their fathers and brothers — a custom long ago introduced into Spain by the Arabs.

Attend to the danger: there is a nerve which runs from the mouth to the heart, and thence lower still, which produces in the kiss an exquisitely dangerous sensation. Virtue may suffer from a prolonged and ardent kiss between two young pietists of the age of eighteen.

It is remarkable that mankind, and turtles, and pigeons alone practise kissing; hence the Latin word “columbatim,” which our language cannot render.

We cannot decorously dwell longer on this interesting subject, although Montaigne says, “It should be spoken of without reserve; we boldly speak of killing, wounding, and betraying, while on this point we dare only whisper.”

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