Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


If we travel throughout the whole earth, we still find that theft, murder, adultery, calumny, etc., are regarded as offences which society condemns and represses; but that which is approved in England and condemned in Italy, ought it to be punished in Italy, as if it were one of the crimes against general humanity? That which is a crime only in the precincts of some mountains, or between two rivers, demands it not from judges more indulgence than those outrages which are regarded with horror in all countries? Ought not the judge to say to himself, I should not dare to punish in Ragusa what I punish at Loretto? Should not this reflection soften his heart, and moderate the hardness which it is too apt to contract in the long exercise of his employment? The “Kermesses” of Flanders are well known; they were carried in the last century to a degree of indecency, revolting to the eyes of all persons who were not accustomed to such spectacles.

The following is the manner in which Christmas is celebrated in some countries. In the first place appears a young man half-naked, with wings on his shoulders; he repeats the Ave Maria to a young girl, who replies “fiat,” and the angel kisses her on the mouth; after which a child, shut up in a great cock of pasteboard, imitates the crowing of the cock. “Puer natus est nobis.” A great ox bellows out “ubi”; a sheep baas out “Bethlehem”; an ass brays “hihanus,” to signify “eamus”; and a long procession, preceded by four fools with bells and baubles, brings up the rear. There still remain some traces of this popular devotion, which among a civilized and educated people would be taken for profanation. A Swiss, out of patience, and possibly more intoxicated than the performers of the ox and the ass, took the liberty of remonstrating with them at Louvain, and was rewarded with no small number of blows; they would indeed have hanged him, and he escaped with great difficulty.

The same man had a dangerous quarrel at The Hague for violently taking the part of Barnevelt against an outrageous Gomarist. He was imprisoned at Amsterdam for saying that priests were the scourge of humanity, and the source of all our misfortunes. “How!” said he, “if we maintain that good works are necessary to salvation, we are sent to a dungeon; and if we laugh at a cock and an ass we risk hanging!” Ridiculous as this adventure was, it is sufficient to convince us that we may be criminal in one or two points in our hemisphere, and innocent in all the rest of the world.

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