Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Small, offensive books are termed libels. These books are usually small, because the authors, having few reasons to give, and usually writing not to inform, but mislead, if they are desirous of being read, must necessarily be brief. Names are rarely used on these occasions, for assassins fear being detected in the employment of forbidden weapons.

In the time of the League and the Fronde, political libels abounded. Every dispute in England produces hundreds; and a library might be formed of those written against Louis XIV.

We have had theological libels for sixteen hundred years; and what is worse, these are esteemed holy by the vulgar. Only see how St. Jerome treats Rufinus and Vigilantius. The latest libels are those of the Molinists and Jansenists, which amount to thousands. Of all this mass there remains only “The Provincial Letters.”

Men of letters may dispute the number of their libels with the theologians. Boileau and Fontenelle, who attacked one another with epigrams, both said that their chambers would not contain the libels with which they had been assailed. All these disappear like the leaves in autumn. Some people have maintained that anything offensive written against a neighbor is a libel.

According to them, the railing attacks which the prophets occasionally sang to the kings of Israel, were defamatory libels to excite the people to rise up against them. As the populace, however, read but little anywhere, it is believed that these half-disclosed satires never did any great harm. Sedition is produced by speaking to assemblies of the people, rather than by writing for them. For this reason, one of the first things done by Queen Elizabeth of England on her accession, was to order that for six months no one should preach without express permission.

The “Anti-Cato” of Cæsar was a libel, but Cæsar did more harm to Cato by the battle of Pharsalia, than by his “Diatribes.” The “Philippics” of Cicero were libels, but the proscriptions of the Triumvirs were far more terrible libels.

St. Cyril and St. Gregory Nazianzen compiled libels against the emperor Julian, but they were so generous as not to publish them until after his death.

Nothing resembles libels more than certain manifestoes of sovereigns. The secretaries of the sultan Mustapha made a libel of his declaration of war. God has punished them for it; but the same spirit which animated Cæsar, Cicero, and the secretaries of Mustapha, reigns in all the reptiles who spin libels in their garrets. “Natura est semper sibi consona.” Who would believe that the souls of Garasse, Nonnotte, Paulian, Fréron, and he of Langliviet, calling himself La Beaumelle, were in this respect of the same temper as those of Cæsar, Cicero, St. Cyril, and of the secretary of the grand seignior? Nothing is, however, more certain.

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