Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The disputes that have occurred about the love of God have kindled as much hatred as any theological quarrel. The Jesuits and Jansenists have been contending for a hundred years as to which party loved God in the most suitable and appropriate manner, and which should at the same time most completely harass and torment their neighbor.

When the author of “Telemachus,” who was in high reputation at the court of Louis XIV., recommended men to love God in a manner which did not happen to coincide with that of the author of the “Funeral Orations,” the latter, who was a complete master of the weapons of controversy, declared open war against him, and procured his condemnation in the ancient city of Romulus, where God was the very object most loved, after domination, ease, luxury, pleasure, and money.

If Madame Guyon had been acquainted with the story of the good old woman, who brought a chafingdish to burn paradise, and a pitcher of water to extinguish hell, that God might be loved for Himself alone, she would not perhaps have written so much as she did. She must inevitably have felt that she could herself never say anything better than that; but she loved God and nonsense so sincerely that she was imprisoned for four months, on account of her affectionate attachment; treatment decidedly rigorous and unjust. Why punish as a criminal a woman whose only offence was composing verse in the style of the Abbé Cotin, and prose in the taste of the popular favorite Punchinello? It is strange that the author of “Telemachus” and the frigid loves of Eucharis should have said in his “Maxims of Saints,” after the blessed Francis de Sales: “I have scarcely any desires; but, were I to be born again, I should not have any at all. If God came to me, I would also go to Him; if it were not His will to come to me, I would stay where I was, and not go to Him.”

His whole work turns upon this proposition. Francis de Sales was not condemned, but Fénelon was. Why should that have been? the reason is, that Francis de Sales had not a bitter enemy at the court of Turin, and that Fénelon had one at Versailles.

The most sensible thing that was written upon this mystical controversy is to be found perhaps in Boileau’s satire, “On the Love of God,” although that is certainly by no means his best work.

Qui fait exactement ce que, ma loi commande,

A pour moi, dit ce Dieu, l’amour que je demande.

— F.p. xii. 99.

Attend exactly to my law’s command,

Such, says this God, the worship I demand.

If we must pass from the thorns of theology to those of philosophy, which are not so long and are less piercing, it seems clear that an object may be loved by any one without any reference to self, without any mixture of interested self-love. We cannot compare divine things to earthly ones, or the love of God to any other love. We have an infinity of steps to mount above our grovelling human inclinations before we can reach that sublime love. Since, however, we have nothing to rest upon except the earth, let us draw our comparisons from that. We view some masterpiece of art, in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, or eloquence; we hear a piece of music that absolutely enchants our ears and souls; we admire it, we love it, without any return of the slightest advantage to ourselves from this attachment; it is a pure and refined feeling; we proceed sometimes so far as to entertain veneration or friendship for the author; and were he present should cordially embrace him.

This is almost the only way in which we can explain our profound admiration and the impulses of our heart towards the eternal architect of the world. We survey the work with an astonishment made up of respect and a sense of our own nothingness, and our heart warms and rises as much as possible towards the divine artificer.

But what is this feeling? A something vague and indeterminate — an impression that has no connection with our ordinary affections. A soul more susceptible than another, more withdrawn from worldly business and cares, may be so affected by the spectacle of nature as to feel the most ardent as well as pious aspirations towards the eternal Lord who formed it. Could such an amiable affection of the mind, could so powerful a charm, so strong an evidence of feeling, incur censure? Was it possible in reality to condemn the affectionate and grateful disposition of the archbishop of Cambray? Notwithstanding the expressions of St. Francis de Sales, above given, he adhered steadily to this assertion, that the author may be loved merely and simply for the beauty of his works. With what heresy could he be reproached? The extravagances of style of a lady of Montargis, and a few unguarded expressions of his own, were not a little injurious to him.

Where was the harm that he had done? Nothing at present is known about the matter. This dispute, like numberless others, is completely annihilated. Were every dogmatist to say to himself: “A few years hence no one will care a straw for my dogmas,” there would be far less dogmatizing in the world than there is! Ah! Louis the Fourteenth! Louis the Fourteenth! when two men of genius had departed so far from the natural scope and direction of their talents, as to write the most obscure and tiresome works ever written in your dominions, how much better would it have been to have left them to their own wranglings!

Pour finir tous ces débats-là,

Tu n’avais qu’ à les laisser faire.

To end debates in such a tone

’Twas but to leave the men alone.

It is observable under all the articles of morality and history, by what an invisible chain, by what unknown springs, all the ideas that disturb our minds and all the events that poison our days are bound together and brought to co-operate in the formation of our destinies. Fénelon dies in exile in consequence of holding two or three mystical conversations with a pious but fanciful woman. Cardinal Bouillon, nephew of the great Turenne, is persecuted in consequence of not himself persecuting at Rome the archbishop of Cambray, his friend: he is compelled to quit France, and he also loses his whole fortune.

By a like chain of causes and effects, the son of a solicitor at Vire detects, in a dozen of obscure phrases of a book printed at Amsterdam, what is sufficient to fill all the dungeons of France with victims; and at length, from the depth of those dungeons arises a cry for redress and vengeance, the echo of which lays prostrate on the earth an able and tyrannical society which had been established by an ignorant madman.

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