Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The plurality of gods is the great reproach at present cast upon the Greeks and Romans: but let any man show me, if he can, a single fact in the whole of their histories, or a single word in the whole of their books, from which it may be fairly inferred that they believed in many supreme gods; and if neither that fact nor word can be found, if, on the contrary, all antiquity is full of monuments and records which attest one sovereign God, superior to all other gods, let us candidly admit that we have judged the ancients as harshly as we too often judge our contemporaries.

We read in numberless passages that Zeus, Jupiter, is the master of gods and men. “Jovis omnia plena.” —“All things are full of Jupiter.” And St. Paul gives this testimony in favor of the ancients: “In ipso vivimus, movemur, et sumus, ut quidam vestrorum poetarum dixit.” —“In God we live, and move, and have our being, as one of your own poets has said.” After such an acknowledgment as this, how can we dare to accuse our instructors of not having recognized a supreme God?

We have no occasion whatever to examine upon this subject, whether there was formerly a Jupiter who was king of Crete, and who may possibly have been considered and ranked as a god; or whether the Egyptians had twelve superior gods, or eight, among whom the deity called Jupiter by the Latins might be one. The single point to be investigated and ascertained here is, whether the Greeks and Romans acknowledged one celestial being as the master or sovereign of other celestial beings. They constantly tell us that they do; and we ought therefore to believe them.

The admirable letter of the philosopher Maximus of Madaura to St. Augustine is completely to our purpose: “There is a God,” says he, “without any beginning, the common Father of all, but who never produced a being like Himself. What man is so stupid and besotted as to doubt it?” Such is the testimony of a pagan of the fourth century on behalf of all antiquity.

Were I inclined to lift the veil that conceals the mysteries of Egypt, I should find the deity adored under the name of Knef, who produced all things and presides over all the other deities; I should discover also a Mithra among the Persians, and a Brahma among the Indians, and could perhaps show, that every civilized nation admitted one supreme being, together with a multitude of dependent divinities. I do not speak of the Chinese, whose government, more respectable than all the rest, has acknowledged one God only for a period of more than four thousand years. Let us here confine ourselves to the Greeks and Romans, who are the objects of our immediate researches. They had among them innumerable superstitions — it is impossible to doubt it; they adopted fables absolutely ridiculous — everybody knows it; and I may safely add, that they were themselves sufficiently disposed to ridicule them. After all, however, the foundation of their theology was conformable to reason.

In the first place, with respect to the Greeks placing heroes in heaven as a reward for their virtues, it was one of the most wise and useful of religious institutions. What nobler recompense could possibly be bestowed upon them; what more animating and inspiring hope could be held out to them? Is it becoming that we, above all others, should censure such a practice — we who, enlightened by the truth, have piously consecrated the very usage which the ancients imagined? We have a far greater number of the blessed in honor of whom we have created altars, than the Greeks and Romans had of heroes and demi-gods; the difference is, that they granted the apotheosis to the most illustrious and resplendent actions, and we grant it to the most meek and retired virtues. But their deified heroes never shared the throne of Jupiter, the great architect, the eternal sovereign of the universe; they were admitted to his court and enjoyed his favors. What is there unreasonable in this? Is it not a faint shadow and resemblance of the celestial hierarchy presented to us by our religion? Nothing can be of a more salutary moral tendency than such an idea; and the reality is not physically impossible in itself. We have surely, upon this subject, no fair ground for ridiculing nations to whom we are indebted even for our alphabet.

The second object of our reproaches, is the multitude of gods admitted to the government of the world; Neptune presiding over the sea, Juno over the air, Æolus over the winds, and Pluto or Vesta over the earth, and Mars over armies. We set aside the genealogies of all these divinities, which are as false as those which are every day fabricated and printed respecting individuals among ourselves; we pass sentence of condemnation on all their light and loose adventures, worthy of being recorded in the pages of the “Thousand and One Nights,” and which never constituted the foundation or essence of the Greek and Roman faith; but let us at the same time candidly ask, where is the folly and stupidity of having adopted beings of a secondary order, who, whatever they may be in relation to the great supreme, have at least some power over our very differently-constituted race, which, instead of belonging to the second, belongs perhaps to the hundred thousandth order of existence? Does this doctrine necessarily imply either bad metaphysics or bad natural philosophy? Have we not ourselves nine choirs of celestial spirits, more ancient than mankind? Has not each of these choirs a peculiar name? Did not the Jews take the greater number of these names from the Persians? Have not many angels their peculiar functions assigned them? There was an exterminating angel, who fought for the Jews, and the angel of travellers, who conducted Tobit. Michael was the particular angel of the Hebrews; and, according to Daniel, he fights against the angel of the Persians, and speaks to the angel of the Greeks. An angel of inferior rank gives an account to Michael, in the book of Zachariah, of the state in which he had found the country. Every nation possessed its angel; the version of the Seventy Days, in Deuteronomy, that the Lord allotted the nations according to the number of angels. St. Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, talks to the angel of Macedonia. These celestial spirits are frequently called gods in Scripture, “Eloim.” For among all nations, the word that corresponds with that of “Theos,” “Deus,” “Dieu,” “God,” by no means universally signifies the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth; it frequently signifies a celestial being, a being superior to man, but dependent upon the great Sovereign of Nature; and it is sometimes bestowed even on princes and judges.

Since to us it is a matter of truth and reality, that celestial substances actually exist, who are intrusted with the care of men and empires, the people who have admitted this truth without the light of revelation are more worthy of our esteem than our contempt.

The ridicule, therefore, does not attach to polytheism itself, but to the abuse of it; to the popular fables of superstition; to the multitude of absurd divinities which have been supposed to exist and to the number of which every individual might add at his pleasure.

The goddess of nipples, “dea Rumilia”; the goddess of conjugal union, “dea Pertunda”; the god of the water-closet, “deus Stercutius”; the god of flatulence, “deus Crepitus”; are certainly not calculated to attract the highest degree of veneration. These ridiculous absurdities, the amusement of the old women and children of Rome, merely prove that the word “deus” had acceptations of a widely different nature. Nothing can be more certain or obvious, than that the god of flatulence, “deus Crepitus,” could never excite the same idea as “deus divûm et hominum sator,” the source of gods and men. The Roman pontiffs did not admit the little burlesque and baboon-looking deities which silly women introduced into their cabinets. The Roman religion was in fact, in its intrinsic character, both serious and austere. Oaths were inviolable; war could not be commenced before the college of heralds had declared it just; and a vestal convicted of having violated her vow of virginity, was condemned to death. These circumstances announce a people inclined to austerities, rather than a people volatile, frivolous, and addicted to ridicule.

I confine myself here to showing that the senate did not reason absurdly in adopting polytheism. It is asked, how that senate, to two or three deputies from which we were indebted both for chains and laws, could permit so many extravagances among the people, and authorize so many fables among the pontiffs? It would be by no means difficult to answer this question. The wise have in every age made use of fools. They freely leave to the people their lupercals and their saturnalia, if they only continue loyal and obedient; and the sacred pullets that promised victory to the armies, are judiciously secured against the sacrilege of being slaughtered for the table. Let us never be surprised at seeing, that the most enlightened governments have permitted customs and fables of the most senseless character. These customs and fables existed before government was formed; and no one would pull down an immense city, however irregular in its buildings, to erect it precisely according to line and level.

How can it arise, we are asked, that on one side we see so much philosophy and science, and on the other so much fanaticism? The reason is, that science and philosophy were scarcely born before Cicero, and that fanaticism reigned for centuries. Policy, in such circumstances, says to philosophy and fanaticism: Let us all three live together as well as we can.

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