Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Justin the Martyr, who wrote about the year 270 of the Christian era, was the first who spoke of the Apocalypse; he attributes it to the apostle John the Evangelist. In his dialogue with Tryphon, that Jew asks him if he does not believe that Jerusalem is one day to be re-established? Justin answers that he believes it, as all Christians do who think aright. “There was among us,” says he, “a certain person named John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus; he foretold that the faithful shall pass a thousand years in Jerusalem.”

The belief in this reign of a thousand years was long prevalent among the Christians. This period was also in great credit among the Gentiles. The souls of the Egyptians returned to their bodies at the end of a thousand years; and, according to Virgil, the souls in purgatory were exorcised for the same space of time — et mille per annos. The New Jerusalem of a thousand years was to have twelve gates, in memory of the twelve apostles; its form was to be square; its length, breadth, and height were each to be a thousand stadii — i. e., five hundred leagues; so that the houses were to be five hundred leagues high. It would be rather disagreeable to live in the upper story; but we find all this in the twenty-first chapter of the Apocalypse.

If Justin was the first who attributed the Apocalypse to St. John, some persons have rejected his testimony; because in the same dialogue with the Jew Tryphon he says that, according to the relation of the apostles, Jesus Christ, when he went into the Jordan, made the water boil, which, however, is not to be found in any writing of the apostles.

The same St. Justin confidently cites the oracles of Sibyls; he moreover pretends to have seen the remains of the places in which the seventy-two interpreters were confined in the Egyptian pharos, in Herod’s time. The testimony of a man who had had the misfortune to see these places seems to indicate that he might possibly have been confined there himself.

St. Irenæus, who comes afterwards, and who also believed in the reign of a thousand years, tells us that he learned from an old man that St. John wrote the Apocalypse. But St. Irenæus is reproached with having written that there should be but four gospels, because there are but four quarters of the world, and four cardinal points, and Ezekiel saw but four animals. He calls this reasoning a demonstration. It must be confessed that Irenæus’s method of demonstrating is quite worthy of Justin’s power of sight.

Clement of Alexandria, in his “Electa,” mentions only an Apocalypse of St. Peter, to which great importance was attached. Tertullian, a great partisan of the thousand years’ reign, not only assures us that St. John foretold this resurrection and reign of a thousand years in the city of Jerusalem, but also asserts that this Jerusalem was already beginning to form itself in the air, where it had been seen by all the Christians of Palestine, and even by the Pagans, at the latter end of the night, for forty nights successively; but, unfortunately, the city always disappeared as soon as it was daylight.

Origen, in his preface to St. John’s Gospel, and in his homilies, quotes the oracles of the Apocalypse, but he likewise quotes the oracles of Sibyls. And St. Dionysius of Alexandria, who wrote about the middle of the third century, says, in one of his fragments preserved by Eusebius, that nearly all the doctors rejected the Apocalypse as a book devoid of reason, and that this book was composed, not by St. John, but by one Cerinthus, who made use of a great name to give more weight to his reveries.

The Council of Laodicea, held in 360, did not reckon the Apocalypse among the canonical books. It is very singular that Laodicea, one of the churches to which the Apocalypse was addressed, should have rejected a treasure designed for itself, and that the bishop of Ephesus, who attended the council, should also have rejected this book of St. John, who was buried at Ephesus.

It was visible to all eyes that St. John was continually turning about in his grave, causing a constant rising and falling of the earth. Yet the same persons who were sure that St. John was not quite dead were also sure that he had not written the Apocalypse. But those who were for the thousand years’ reign were unshaken in their opinion. Sulpicius Severus, in his “Sacred History,” book xi., treats as mad and impious those who did not receive the Apocalypse. At length, after numerous oppositions of council to council, the opinion of Sulpicius Severus prevailed. The matter having been thus cleared up, the Church came to the decision, from which there is no appeal, that the Apocalypse is incontestably St. John’s.

Every Christian communion has applied to itself the prophecies contained in this book. The English have found in it the revolutions of Great Britain; the Lutherans, the troubles of Germany; the French reformers, the reign of Charles IX., and the regency of Catherine de Medici, and they are all equally right. Bossuet and Newton have both commented on the Apocalypse, yet, after all, the eloquent declamations of the one, and the sublime discoveries of the other, have done them greater honor than their commentaries.

§ II.

Two great men, but very different in their greatness, have commented on the Apocalypse in the seventeenth century: Newton, to whom such a study was very ill suited, and Bossuet, who was better fitted for the undertaking. Both gave additional weapons to their enemies, by their commentaries, and, as has elsewhere been said, the former consoled mankind for his superiority over them, while the latter made his enemies rejoice.

The Catholics and the Protestants have both explained the Apocalypse in their favor, and have each found in it exactly what has accorded with their interests. They have made wonderful commentaries on the great beast with seven heads and ten horns, with the hair of a leopard, the feet of a bear, the throat of a lion, the strength of a dragon, and to buy and sell it was necessary to have the character and number of the beast, which number was 666.

Bossuet finds that this beast was evidently the Emperor Diocletian, by making an acrostic of his name. Grotius believed that it was Trajan. A curate of St. Sulpice, named La Chétardie, known from some strange adventures, proves that the beast was Julian. Jurieu proves that the beast is the pope. One preacher has demonstrated that it was Louis XIV. A good Catholic has demonstrated that it was William, king of England. It is not easy to make them all agree.

There have been warm disputes concerning the stars which fell from heaven to earth, and the sun and moon, which were struck with darkness in their third parts.

There are several opinions respecting the book that the angel made the author of the Apocalypse eat, which book was sweet to the mouth and bitter to the stomach. Jurieu asserted that the books of his adversary were designated thereby, and his argument was retorted upon himself.

There have been disputes about this verse: “And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder; and I heard the voice of harpers harping on their harps.”

It is quite clear that it would have been better to have respected the Apocalypse than to have commented upon it.

Camus, bishop of Bellay, printed in the last century a large book against the monks, which an unfrocked monk abridged. It was entitled “Apocalypse,” because in it he exposed the dangers and defects of the monastic life; and “Melito’s Apocalypse” (“Apocalypse de Méliton”), because Melito, bishop of Sardis, in the second century, had passed for a prophet. This bishop’s work has none of the obscurities of St. John’s Apocalypse. Nothing was ever clearer. The bishop is like a magistrate saying to an attorney, “You are a forger and a cheat — do you comprehend me?”

The bishop of Bellay computes, in his Apocalypse or Revelations, that there were in his time ninety-eight orders of monks endowed or mendicant, living at the expense of the people, without employing themselves in the smallest labor. He reckoned six hundred thousand monks in Europe. The calculation was a little strained; but it is certain that the real number of the monks was rather too large.

He assures us that the monks are enemies to the bishops, curates, and magistrates; that, among the privileges granted to the Cordeliers, the sixth privilege is the certainty of being saved, whatever horrible crime you may have committed, provided you belong to the Order of St. Francis; that the monks are like apes; the higher they climb, the plainer you see their posteriors; that the name of monk has become so infamous and execrable that it is regarded by the monks themselves as a foul reproach and the most violent insult that can be offered them.

My dear reader, whoever you are, minister or magistrate, consider attentively the following short extract from our bishop’s book:

“Figure to yourself the convent of the Escorial or of Monte Cassino, where the cœnobites have everything necessary, useful, delightful, superfluous and superabundant — since they have their yearly revenue of a hundred and fifty thousand, four hundred thousand, or five hundred thousand crowns; and judge whether Monsieur l’Abbé has wherewithal to allow himself and those under him to sleep after dinner.

“Then imagine an artisan or laborer, with no dependence except on the work of his hands, and burdened with a large family, toiling like a slave every day and at all seasons, to feed them with the bread of sorrow and the water of tears; and say, which of the two conditions is pre-eminent in poverty.”

This is a passage from the “Episcopal Apocalypse” which needs no commentary. All that is wanted is an angel to come and fill his cup with the wine of the monks, to slake the thirst of the laborers who plow, sow, and reap, for the monasteries.

But this prelate, instead of writing a useful book, only composed a satire. Consistently with his dignity, he should have stated the good as well as evil. He should have acknowledged that the Benedictines have produced many good works, and that the Jesuits have rendered great services to literature. He might have blessed the brethren of La Charité, and those of the Redemption of the Captives. Our first duty is to be just. Camus gave too much scope to his imagination. St. François de Sales advised him to write moral romances; but he abused the advice.

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