Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Martyr, “witness”; martyrdom, testimony. The early Christian community at first gave the name of “martyrs” to those who announced new truths to mankind, who gave testimony to Jesus; who confessed Jesus; in the same manner as they gave the name of “saints” to the presbyters, to the supervisors of the community, and to their female benefactors; this is the reason why St. Jerome, in his letters, often calls his initiated Paul, St. Paul. All the first bishops were called saints.

Subsequently, the name of martyrs was given only to deceased Christians, or to those who had been tortured for punishment; and the little chapels that were erected to them received afterwards the name of “martyrion.”

It is a great question, why the Roman Empire always tolerated in its bosom the Jewish sect, even after the two horrible wars of Titus and Adrian; why it tolerated the worship of Isis at several times; and why it frequently persecuted Christianity. It is evident that the Jews, who paid dearly for their synagogues, denounced the Christians as mortal foes, and excited the people against them. It is moreover evident that the Jews, occupied with the trade of brokers and usurers, did not preach against the ancient religion of the empire, and that the Christians, who were all busy in controversy, preached against the public worship, sought to destroy it, often burned the temples, and broke the consecrated statues, as St. Theodosius did at Amasia, and St. Polyeuctus in Mitylene.

The orthodox Christians, sure that their religion was the only true one, did not tolerate any other. In consequence, they themselves were hardly tolerated. Some of them were punished and died for the faith — and these were the martyrs.

This name is so respectable that it should not be prodigally bestowed; it is not right to assume the name and arms of a family to which one does not belong. Very heavy penalties have been established against those who have the audacity to decorate themselves with the cross of Malta or of St. Louis, without being chevaliers of those orders.

The learned Dodwell, the dexterous Middleton, the judicious Blondel, the exact Tillemont, the scrutinizing Launoy, and many others, all zealous for the glory of the true martyrs, have excluded from their catalogue an obscure multitude on whom this great title had been lavished. We have remarked that these learned men were sanctioned by the direct acknowledgment of Origen, who, in his “Refutation of Celsus,” confesses that there are very few martyrs, and those at a great distance of time, and that it is easy to reckon them.

Nevertheless, the Benedictine Ruinart — who calls himself Don Ruinart, although he was no Spaniard — has contradicted all these learned persons! He has candidly given us many stories of martyrs which have appeared to the critics very suspicious. Many sensible persons have doubted various anecdotes relating to the legends recounted by Don Ruinart, from beginning to end.

1. Of Saint Symphorosia and her Seven Children.

Their scruples commence with St. Symphorosia and her seven children who suffered martyrdom with her; which appears, at first sight, too much imitated from the seven Maccabees. It is not known whence this legend comes; and that is at once a great cause of skepticism.

It is therein related that the emperor Adrian himself wished to interrogate the unknown Symphorosia, to ascertain if she was a Christian. This would have been more extraordinary than if Louis XIV. had subjected a Huguenot to an interrogatory. You will further observe that Adrian, far from being a persecutor of the Christians, was their greatest protector.

He had then a long conversation with Symphorosia, and putting himself in a passion, he said to her: “I will sacrifice you to the gods”; as if the Roman emperors sacrificed women in their devotions. In the sequel, he caused her to be thrown into the Anio — which was not a usual mode of immolation. He afterwards had one of her sons cloven in two from the top of his head to his middle; a second from side to side; a third was broken on the wheel; a fourth was only stabbed in the stomach; a fifth right to the heart; a sixth had his throat cut; the seventh died of a parcel of needles thrust into his breast. The emperor Adrian was fond of variety. He commanded that they should be buried near the temple of Hercules — although no one is ever buried in Rome, much less near the temples, which would have been a horrible profanation. The legend adds that the chief priest of the temple named the place of their interment “the Seven Biotanates.”

If it was extraordinary that a monument should be erected at Rome to persons thus treated, it was no less so that a high priest should concern himself with the inscription; and further, that this Roman priest should make a Greek epitaph for them. But what is still more strange is that it is pretended that this word “biotanates” signifies the seven tortured. “Biotanates” is a fabricated word, which one does not meet with in any author; and this signification can only be given to it by a play upon words, falsely using the word “thenon.” There is scarcely any fable worse constructed. The writers of legends knew how to lie, but none of them knew how to lie skilfully.

The learned Lacroze, librarian to Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, observed: “I know not whether Ruinart is sincere, but I am afraid he is silly.”

2. Of St. Felicita and Seven More Children.

It is from Surius that this legend is taken. This Surius is rather notorious for his absurdities. He was a monk of the sixteenth century, who writes about the martyrs of the second as if he had been present.

He pretends that that wicked man, that tyrant, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, ordered the prefect of Rome to institute a process against St. Felicita, to have her and her seven children put to death, because there was a rumor that she was a Christian.

The prefect held his tribunal in the Campus Martius, which, however, was at that time used only for the reviewing of troops; and the first thing the prefect did was to cause a blow to be given her in full assembly.

The long discourses of the magistrates and the accused are worthy of the historian. He finishes by putting the seven brothers to death by different punishments, like the seven children of St. Symphorosia. This is only a duplicate affair. But as for St. Felicita, he leaves her there, and does not say another word about her.

3. Of Saint Polycarp.

Eusebius relates that St. Polycarp, being informed in a dream that he should be burned in three days, made it known to his friends. The legend-maker adds that the lieutenant of police at Smyrna, whose name was Herodius, had him seized by his archers; that he was abandoned to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre; that the sky opened, and a heavenly voice cried to him: “Be of good courage, Polycarp”; that the hour of letting loose the lions in the amphitheatre having passed, the people went about collecting wood from all the houses to burn him with; that the saint addressed himself to the God of the “archangels”— although the word archangel was not then known — that the flames formed themselves round him into a triumphal arch without touching him; that his body had the smell of baked bread; but that, having resisted the fire, he could not preserve himself against a sabre-cut; that his blood put out the burning pile, and that there sprung from it a dove which flew straight to heaven. To which planet is not precisely known.

4. Of Saint Ptolomais.

We follow the order of Don Ruinart; but we have no wish to call in question the martyrdom of St. Ptolomais, which is extracted from “St. Justin’s Apology.”

We could make some difficulties with regard to the woman who was accused by her husband of being a Christian, and who baffled him by giving him a bill of divorce. We might ask why, in this history, there is no further mention of this woman? We might make it manifest that in the time of Marcus Aurelius, women were not permitted to demand divorces of their husbands; that this permission was only granted them under the emperor Julian; and that this so much repeated story of the Christian woman who repudiated her husband — while no pagan would have dared to imagine such a thing — cannot well be other than a fable. But we do not desire to raise unpleasant disputes. As for the little probability there is in the compilation of Don Ruinart, we have too much respect for the subject he treats of to start objections.

We have not made any to the “Letter of the Churches of Vienna and Lyons,” because there is still a great deal of obscurity connected with it; but we shall be pardoned for defending the memory of the great Marcus Aurelius, thus outraged in the life of “St. Symphorian of Autun,” who was probably a relation of St. Symphorosia.

5. Of St. Symphorian of Autun.

This legend, the author of which is unknown, begins thus: “The emperor Marcus Aurelius had just raised a frightful tempest against the Church, and his fulminating edicts assailed on all sides the religion of Jesus Christ, at the time when St. Symphorian lived at Autun in all the splendor that high birth and uncommon virtue can confer. He was of a Christian family, one of the most considerable of the city,” etc.

Marcus Aurelius issued no sanguinary edicts against the Christians. It is a very criminal calumny. Tillemont himself admits that “he was the best prince the Romans ever had; that his reign was a golden age; and that he verified what he often quoted from Plato, that nations would only be happy when kings were philosophers.”

Of all the emperors, this was the one who promulgated the best laws; he protected the wise, but persecuted no Christians, of whom he had a great many in his service.

The writer of the legend relates that St. Symphorian having refused to adore Cybele, the city judge inquired: “Who is this man?” Now it is impossible that the judge of Autun should not have known the most considerable person in Autun.

He was declared by the sentence to be guilty of treason, “divine and human.” The Romans never employed this formula; and that alone should deprive the pretended martyr of Autun of all credit.

In order the better to refute this calumny against the sacred memory of Marcus Aurelius, let us bring under view the discourse of Meliton, bishop of Sardis, to this best of emperors, reported verbatim by Eusebius:

“The continual succession of good fortune which has attended the empire, without its happiness being disturbed by a single disgrace, since our religion, which was born with it, has grown in its bosom, is an evident proof that it contributes eminently to its greatness and glory. Among all the emperors, Nero and Domitian alone, deceived by certain impostors, have spread calumnies against us, which, as usual, have found some partial credence among the people. But your pious ancestors have corrected the people’s ignorance, and by public edicts have repressed the audacity of those who attempted to treat us ill. Your grandfather Adrian wrote in our favor to Fundanus, governor of Asia, and to many other persons. The emperor, your father, during the period when you divided with him the cares of government, wrote to the inhabitants of Larissa, of Thessalonica, of Athens, and in short to all the people of Greece, to repress the seditions and tumults which have been excited against us.”

This declaration by a most pious, learned, and veracious bishop is sufficient to confound forever all the lies and legends which may be regarded as the Arabian tales of Christianity.

6. Of Another Saint Felicita, and of Saint Perpetua.

If it were an object to dispute the legend of Felicita and Perpetua, it would not be difficult to show how suspicious it is. These Carthaginian martyrs are only known by a writing, without date, of the church of Salzburg. Now, it is a great way from this part of Bavaria to Goletta. We are not informed under what emperor this Felicita and this Perpetua received the crown of martyrdom. The astounding sights with which this history is filled do not discover a very profound historian. A ladder entirely of gold, bordered with lances and swords; a dragon at the top of the ladder; a large garden near the dragon; sheep from which an old man drew milk; a reservoir full of water; a bottle of water whence they drank without diminishing the liquid; St. Perpetua fighting entirely naked against a wicked Egyptian; some handsome young men, all naked, who took her part; herself at last become a man and a vigorous wrestler; these are, it appears to me, conceits which should not have place in a respectable book.

There is one other reflection very important to make. It is that the style of all these stories of martyrdom, which took place at such different periods, is everywhere alike, everywhere equally puerile and bombastic. You find the same turns of expression, the same phrases, in the history of a martyr under Domitian and of another under Galerius. There are the same epithets, the same exaggerations. By the little we understand of style, we perceive that the same hand has compiled them all.

I do not here pretend to make a book against Don Ruinart; and while I always respect, admire, and invoke the true martyrs with the Holy Church, I confine myself to making it perceived, by one or two striking examples, how dangerous it is to mix what is purely ridiculous with what ought to be venerated.

7. Of Saint Theodotus of the City of Ancyra, and of the Seven Virgins; Written by Nisus, an Eye-Witness, and Extracted from Bollandus.

Many critics, as eminent for wisdom as for true piety, have already given us to understand that the legend of St. Theodotus the Publican is a profanation and a species of impiety which ought to have been suppressed. The following is the story of Theodotus. We shall often employ the exact words of the “Genuine Acts,” compiled by Don Ruinart.

“His trade of publican supplied him with the means of exercising his episcopal functions. Illustrious tavern! consecrated to piety instead of debauchery. . . . . Sometimes Theodotus was a physician, sometimes he furnished tit-bits to the faithful. A tavern was seen to be to the Christians what Noah’s ark was to those whom God wished to save from the deluge.”

This publican Theodotus, walking by the river Halis with his companions towards a town adjacent to the city of Ancyra, “a fresh and soft plot of turf offered them a delicious couch; a spring which issued a few steps off, from the foot of the rock, and which by a channel crowned with flowers came running past them in order to quench their thirst, offered them clear and pure water. Trees bearing fruit, mixed with wild ones, furnished them with shade and fruits; and an assemblage of skilful nightingales, whom the grasshoppers relieved every now and then, formed a charming concert,” etc.

The clergyman of the place, named Fronton, having arrived, and the publican having drunk with him on the grass, “the fresh green of which was relieved by the various gradations of color in the flowers, he said to the clergyman: ‘Ah, father! what a pleasure it would be to build a chapel here.’ ‘Yes,’ said Fronton, ‘but it would be necessary to have some relics to begin with.’ ‘Well, well,’ replied St. Theodotus, ‘you shall have some soon, I give you my word; here is my ring, which I give you as a pledge; build your chapel quickly.’ ”

The publican had the gift of prophecy, and knew well what he was saying. He went away to the city of Ancyra, while the clergyman Fronton set himself about building. He found there the most horrible persecution, which lasted very long. Seven Christian virgins, of whom the youngest was seventy years old, had just been condemned, according to custom, to lose their virginity, through the agency of all the young men of the city. The youth of Ancyra, who had probably more urgent affairs, were in no hurry to execute the sentence. One only could be found obedient to justice. He applied himself to St. Thecusa, and carried her into a closet with surprising courage. Thecusa threw herself on her knees, and said to him, “For God’s sake, my son, a little shame! Behold these lacklustre eyes, this half-dead flesh, these greasy wrinkles, which seventy years have ploughed in my forehead, this face of the color of the earth; abandon thoughts so unworthy of a young man like you — Jesus Christ entreats you by my mouth. He asks it of you as a favor, and if you grant it Him, you may expect His entire gratitude.” The discourse of the old woman, and her countenance made the executioner recollect himself. The seven virgins were not deflowered.

The irritated governor sought for another punishment; he caused them to be initiated forthwith in the mysteries of Diana and Minerva. It is true that great feasts had been instituted in honor of those divinities, but the mysteries of Diana and Minerva were not known to antiquity. St. Nil, an intimate friend of the publican Theodotus, and the author of this marvellous story, was not quite correct.

According to him, these seven pretty lasses were placed quite naked on the car which carried the great Diana and the wise Minerva to the banks of a neighboring lake. The Thucydides St. Nil still appears to be very ill-informed here. The priestesses were always covered with veils; and the Roman magistrates never caused the goddesses of chastity and wisdom to be attended by girls who showed themselves both before and behind to the people.

St. Nil adds that the car was preceded by two choirs of priestesses of Bacchus, who carried the thyrses in their hands. St. Nil has here mistaken the priestesses of Minerva for those of Bacchus. He was not versed in the liturgy of Ancyra.

Entering the city, the publican saw this sad spectacle — the governor, the priestesses, the car, Minerva, and the seven maidens. He runs to throw himself on his knees in a hut, along with a nephew of St. Thecusa. He beseeches heaven that the seven ladies should be dead rather than naked. His prayer is heard; he learns that the seven damsels, instead of being deflowered, have been thrown into the lake with stones round their necks, by order of the governor. Their virginity is in safe-keeping. At this news the saint, raising himself from the ground and placing himself upon his knees, turned his eyes towards heaven; and in the midst of the various emotions he experienced of love, joy, and gratitude, he said, “I give Thee thanks, O Lord! that Thou has not rejected the prayer of Thy servant.”

He slept; and during his sleep, St. Thecusa, the youngest of the drowned women, appeared to him. “How now, son Theodotus!” she said, “you are sleeping without thinking of us: have you forgotten so soon the care I took of your youth? Do not, dear Theodotus, suffer our bodies to be devoured by the fishes. Go to the lake, but beware of a traitor.” This traitor was, in fact, the nephew of St. Thecusa.

I omit here a multitude of miraculous adventures that happened to the publican, in order to come to the most important. A celestial cavalier, armed cap-a-pie, preceded by a celestial flambeau, descends from the height of the empyrean, conducts the publican to the lake in the midst of storms, drives away all the soldiers who guard the shore, and gives Theodotus time to fish up the seven old women and to bury them.

The nephew of St. Thecusa unfortunately went and told all. Theodotus was seized, and for three days all sorts of punishments were tried in vain to kill him. They could only attain their object by cleaving his skull; an operation which saints are never proof against.

He was still to be buried. His friend the minister Fronton — to whom Theodotus, in his capacity of publican, had given two leathern bottles filled with wine — made the guards drunk, and carried off the body. Theodotus then appeared in body and spirit to the minister: “Well, my friend,” he said to him, “did I not say well, that you should have relics for your chapel?”

Such is what is narrated by St. Nil, an eye-witness, who could neither be deceived nor deceive; such is what Don Ruinart has quoted as a genuine act. Now every man of sense, every intelligent Christian, will ask himself, whether a better mode could be adopted of dishonoring the most holy and venerated religion in the world, and of turning it into ridicule?

I shall not speak of the Eleven Thousand Virgins; I shall not discuss the fable of the Theban legion, composed — says the author — of six thousand six hundred men, all Christians coming from the East by Mount St. Bernard, suffering martyrdom in the year 286, the period of the most profound peace as regarded the Church, and in the gorge of a mountain where it is impossible to place 300 men abreast; a fable written more than 550 years after the event; a fable in which a king of Burgundy is spoken of who never existed; a fable, in short, acknowledged to be absurd by all the learned who have not lost their reason.

Behold what Don Ruinart narrates seriously! Let us pray to God for the good sense of Don Ruinart!

§ II.

How does it happen that, in the enlightened age in which we live, learned and useful writers are still found who nevertheless follow the stream of old errors, and who corrupt many truths by admitted fables? They reckon the era of the martyrs from the first year of the empire of Diocletian, who was then far enough from inflicting martyrdom on anybody. They forget that his wife Prisca was a Christian, that the principal officers of his household were Christians; that he protected them constantly during eighteen years; that they built at Nicomedia a church more sumptuous than his palace; and that they would never have been persecuted if they had not outraged the Cæsar Valerius.

Is it possible that any one should still dare to assert “that Diocletian died of age, despair, and misery”; he who was seen to quit life like a philosopher, as he had quitted the empire; he who, solicited to resume the supreme power loved better to cultivate his fine gardens at Salonica, than to reign again over the whole of the then known world?

Oh, ye compilers! will you never cease to compile? You have usefully employed your three fingers; employ still more usefully your reason.

What! you repeat to me that St. Peter reigned over the faithful at Rome for twenty-five years, and that Nero had him put to death together with St. Paul, in order to avenge the death of Simon the Magician, whose legs they had broken by their prayers?

To report such fables, though with the best motive, is to insult Christianity.

The poor creatures who still repeat these absurdities are copyists who renew in octavo and duodecimo old stories that honest men no longer read, and who have never opened a book of wholesome criticism. They rake up the antiquated tales of the Church; they know nothing of either Middleton, or Dodwell, or Bruker, or Dumoulin, or Fabricius, or Grabius, or even Dupin, or of any one of those who have lately carried light into the darkness.

§ III.

We are fooled with martyrdoms that make us break out into laughter. The Tituses, the Trajans, the Marcus Aureliuses, are painted as monsters of cruelty. Fleury, abbé of Loc Dieu, has disgraced his ecclesiastical history by tales which a sensible old woman would not tell to little children.

Can it be seriously repeated, that the Romans condemned seven virgins, each seventy years old, to pass through the hands of all the young men of the city of Ancyra — those Romans who punished the Vestals with death for the least gallantry?

A hundred tales of this sort are found in the martyrologies. The narrators have hoped to render the ancient Romans odious, and they have rendered themselves ridiculous. Do you want good, well-authenticated barbarities — good and well-attested massacres, rivers of blood which have actually flowed — fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, infants at the breast, who have in reality had their throats cut, and been heaped on one another? Persecuting monsters! seek these truths only in your own annals: you will find them in the crusades against the Albigenses, in the massacres of Merindol and Cabrière, in the frightful day of St. Bartholomew, in the massacres of Ireland, in the valleys of the Pays de Vaud. It becomes you well, barbarians as you are, to impute extravagant cruelties to the best of emperors; you who have deluged Europe with blood, and covered it with corpses, in order to prove that the same body can be in a thousand places at once, and that the pope can sell indulgences! Cease to calumniate the Romans, your law-givers, and ask pardon of God for the abominations of your forefathers!

It is not the torture, you say, which makes martyrdom; it is the cause. Well! I agree with you that your victims ought not to be designated by the name of martyr, which signifies witness; but what name shall we give to your executioners? Phalaris and Busiris were the gentlest of men in comparison with you. Does not your Inquisition, which still remains, make reason, nature, and religion boil with indignation! Great God! if mankind should reduce to ashes that infernal tribunal, would they be unacceptable in thy avenging eyes?

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