Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Why have the successors of St. Peter possessed so much power in the West and none in the East? This is just the same as to ask why the bishops of Würzburg and Salzburg obtained for themselves regal prerogatives in a period of anarchy, while the Greek bishops always remained subjects. Time, opportunity, the ambition of some, and the weakness of others, have done and will do everything in the world. We always except what relates to religion. To this anarchy, must be added opinion; and opinion is the queen of mankind. Not that, in fact, they have any very clear and definite opinion of their own, but words answer the same end with them.

“I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” The zealous partisans of the bishop of Rome contended, about the eleventh century, that whoever gives the greater gives the less; that heaven surrounded the earth; and that, as Peter had the keys of the container, he had also the keys of what was contained. If by heaven we understand all the stars and planets, it is evident, according to Tomasius, that the keys given to Simon Barjonas, surnamed Peter, were a universal passport. If we understand by heaven the clouds, the atmosphere, the ether, and the space in which the planets revolve, no smith in the world, as Meursius observes, could ever make a key for such gates as these. Railleries, however, are not reasons.

Keys in Palestine were wooden latches with strings to them. Jesus says to Barjonas, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” The pope’s clergy concluded from these words, that the popes had received authority to bind and unbind the people’s oath of fidelity to their kings, and to dispose of kingdoms at their pleasure. This certainly was concluding magnificently. The Commons in the states-general of France, in 1302, say, in their memorial to the king, that “Boniface VIII. was a b — for believing that God bound and imprisoned in heaven what Boniface bound on earth.” A famous German Lutheran — the great Melancthon — could not endure the idea of Jesus having said to Simon Barjonas, Cepha or Cephas, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my assembly, my church.” He could not conceive that God would use such a play of words, and that the power of the pope could have been established on a pun. Such a doubt, however, can be indulged only by a Protestant.

Peter has been considered as having been bishop of Rome; but it is well known that, in the apostolic age, and long after, there was no particular and appropriate bishopric. The society of Christians did not assume a regular form until about the middle of the second century. It may be true that Peter went to Rome, and even that he was crucified with his head downwards, although that was not the usual mode of crucifixion; but we have no proof whatever of all this. We have a letter under his name, in which he says that he is at Babylon: acute and shrewd canonists have contended that, by Babylon, we ought to understand Rome; and on the same principle, if he had dated at Rome, we might have concluded that the letter had been written at Babylon. Men have long been in the habit of drawing such reasonable and judicious inferences as these; and it is in this manner that the world has been governed.

There was once a clergyman who, after having been made to pay extortionately for a benefice at Rome — an offence known by the name of simony — happened to be asked, some time afterwards, whether he thought Simon Peter had ever been in that city? He replied, “I do not think that Peter was ever there, but I am sure Simon was.”

With respect to the personal character and behavior of St. Peter, it must be acknowledged that Paul is not the only one who was scandalized at his conduct. He was often “withstood to the face,” as well as his successors. St. Paul vehemently reproached him with eating forbidden meats: that is, pork, blood-pudding, hare, eels, the ixion, and the griffin; Peter vindicated himself by saying that he had seen heaven opened about the sixth hour, and as it were a great sheet descending from the four corners of it, which was filled with creeping things, quadrupeds, and birds, while the voice of an angel called out to him, saying, “Kill and eat.” This, says Woolston, seems to have been the same voice which has called out to so many pontiffs since, “Kill everything; eat up the substance of the people.” But this reproach is much too strong.

Casaubon cannot by any means bring himself to approve the manner in which St. Peter treated Ananias and Sapphira, his wife. “By what right,” says Casaubon, “did a Jew slave of the Romans order or permit that all those who believed in Jesus should sell their inheritance, and lay down the price paid for it at his feet?” If an Anabaptist at London was to order all the money belonging to his brethren to be brought and laid at his feet, would he not be apprehended as a seditious seducer, as a thief who would certainly be hanged at Tyburn? Was it not abominable to kill Ananias, because, after having sold his property and delivered over the bulk of the produce to Peter, he had retained for himself and his wife a few crowns for any case of necessity, without mentioning it? Scarcely, moreover, has Ananias expired, before his wife arrives. Peter, instead of warning her charitably that he had just destroyed her husband by apoplexy for having kept back a few oboli, and cautioning her therefore to look well to herself, leads her as it were intentionally into the snare. He asks her if her husband has given all his money to the saints; the poor woman replies in the affirmative, and dies instantly. This is certainly rather severe.

Corringius asks, why Peter, who thus killed the persons that had given him alms and showed him kindness, did not rather go and destroy all the learned doctors who had brought Jesus Christ to the cross, and who more than once brought a scourging on himself. “Oh, Peter!” says Corringius, “you put to death two Christians who bestowed alms on you, and at the same time suffer those to live who crucified your God!”

In the reigns of Henry IV., and Louis XIII., we had an advocate-general of the parliament of Provence, a man of quality, called d’Oraison de Torame, who, in a book respecting the church militant, dedicated to Henry IV., has appropriated a whole chapter to the sentences pronounced by St. Peter in criminal causes. He says, that the sentence pronounced by Peter on Ananias and Sapphira was executed by God Himself, “in the very terms and forms of spiritual jurisdiction.” His whole book is in the same strain; but Corringius, as we perceive, is of a different opinion from that of our sagacious and liberal provincial advocate. It is pretty evident that Corringius was not in the country of the Inquisition when he published his bold remarks.

Erasmus, in relation to St. Peter, remarked a somewhat curious circumstance, which is, that the chief of the Christian religion began his apostleship with denying Jesus Christ, and that the first pontiff of the Jews commenced his ministry by making a golden calf and worshipping it.

However that may be, Peter is described as a poor man instructing the poor. He resembles those founders of orders who lived in indigence, and whose successors have become great lords and even princes.

The pope, the successor of Peter, has sometimes gained and sometimes lost; but there are still about fifty millions of persons in the world submitting in many points to his laws, besides his own immediate subjects.

To obtain a master three or four hundred leagues from home; to suspend your own opinion and wait for what he puts forth as his; not to dare to give a final decision on a cause relating to certain of our fellow-citizens, but through commissioners appointed by this stranger; not to dare to take possession of certain fields and vineyards granted by our own sovereign, without paying a considerable sum to this foreign master; to violate the laws of our country, which prohibit a man’s marriage with his niece, and marry her legitimately by giving this foreign master a sum still more considerable than the former one; not to dare to cultivate one’s field on the day this stranger is inclined to celebrate the memory of some unknown person whom he has chosen to introduce into heaven by his own sole authority; such are a part only of the conveniences and comforts of admitting the jurisdiction of a pope; such, if we may believe Marsais, are the liberties of the Gallican Church.

There are some other nations that carry their submission further. We have, in our own time, actually known a sovereign request permission of the pope to try in his own courts certain monks accused of parricide, and able neither to obtain this permission nor to venture on such trial without it!

It is well known that, formerly, the power of the popes extended further. They were far above the gods of antiquity; for the latter were merely supposed to dispose of empires, but the popes disposed of them in fact. Sturbinus says, that we may pardon those who entertain doubts of the divinity and infallibility of the pope, when we reflect: that forty schisms have profaned the chair of St. Peter, twenty-seven of which have been marked by blood; that Stephen VII., the son of a priest, disinterred the corpse of Formosus, his predecessor, and had the head of it cut off; that Sergius III., convicted of assassinations, had a son by Marozia, who inherited the popedom; that John X., the paramour of Theodora, was strangled in her bed; that John XI., son of Sergius III., was known only by his gross intemperance; that John XII. was assassinated in the apartments of his mistress; that Benedict IX. both bought and sold the pontificate; that Gregory VII. was the author of five hundred years of civil war, carried on by his successors; that, finally, among so many ambitious, sanguinary, and debauched popes, there was an Alexander VI., whose name is pronounced with the same horror as those of Nero and Caligula.

It is, we are told, a proof of the divinity of their character, that it has subsisted in connection with so many crimes; but according to this, if the caliphs had displayed still more atrocious and abominable conduct, they would have been still more divine. This argument, inferring their divinity from their wickedness, is urged by Dermius. He has been properly answered; but the best reply is to be found in the mitigated authority which the bishops of Rome at present exercise with discretion; in the long possession which the emperors permit them to enjoy, because in fact they are unable to deprive them of it; and in the system of the balance of power, which is watched with jealousy by every court in Europe.

It has been contended, and very lately, that there are only two nations which could invade Italy and crush Rome. These are the Turks and Russians; but they are necessarily enemies; and, besides, I cannot distinctly anticipate misfortunes so distant.

Je ne sais point prévoir les malheurs de si loin.

— Racine, Andromache, act. i, scene 2.

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