Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Very few forms of public prayers used by the ancients still remain. We have only Horace’s beautiful hymn for the secular games of the ancient Romans. This prayer is in the rhythm and measure which the other Romans long after imitated in the hymn, “Ut queat laxis resonare fibris.”

The “Pervigilium Veneris” is written in a quaint and affected taste, and seems unworthy of the noble simplicity of the reign of Augustus. It is possible that this hymn to Venus may have been chanted in the festivals celebrated in honor of that goddess; but it cannot be doubted that the poem of Horace was chanted with much greater solemnity.

It must be allowed that this secular poem of Horace is one of the finest productions of antiquity; and that the hymn, “Ut queat laxis,” is one of the most flat and vapid pieces that appeared during the barbarous period of the decline of the Latin language. The Catholic Church in those times paid little attention to eloquence and poetry. We all know very well that God prefers bad verses recited with a pure heart, to the finest verses possible chanted by the wicked. Good verses, however, never yet did any harm, and — all other things being equal — must deserve a preference.

Nothing among us ever approached the secular games, which were celebrated at the expiration of every hundred and ten years. Our jubilee is only a faint and feeble copy of it. Three magnificent altars were erected on the banks of the Tiber. All Rome was illuminated for three successive nights; and fifteen priests distributed the lustral water and wax tapers among the men and women of the city who were appointed to chant the prayers. A sacrifice was first offered to Jupiter as the great god, the sovereign master of the gods; and afterwards to Juno, Apollo, Latona, Diana, Pluto, Proserpine, and the Fates, as to inferior powers. All these divinities had their own peculiar hymns and ceremonies. There were two choirs, one of twenty-seven boys, and the other of twenty-seven girls, for each of the divinities. Finally, on the last day, the boys and girls, crowned with flowers, chanted the ode of Horace.

It is true that in private houses his other odes, for Ligurinus and Liciscus and other contemptible characters, were heard at table; performances which undoubtedly were not calculated to excite the finest feelings of devotion; but there is a time for all things, “pictoribus atque poetis.” Caraccio, who drew the figures of Aretin, painted saints also; and in all our colleges we have excused in Horace what the masters of the Roman Empire excused in him without any difficulty.

As to forms of prayer, we have only a few slight fragments of that which was recited at the mysteries of Isis. We have quoted it elsewhere, but we will repeat it here, because it is at once short and beautiful:

“The celestial powers obey thee; hell is in subjection to thee; the universe revolves under thy moving hand; thy feet tread on Tartarus; the stars are responsive to thy voice; the seasons return at thy command; the elements are obedient to thy will.”

We repeat also the form supposed to have been used in the worship of the ancient Orpheus, which we think superior even to the above respecting Isis:

“Walk in the path of justice; adore the sole Master of the Universe; He is One Alone, and self-existent; all other beings owe their existence to Him; He acts both in them and by them; He sees all, but has never been Himself seen by mortal eyes.”

It is not a little extraordinary that in the Leviticus and Deuteronomy of the Jews, there is not a single public prayer, not one single formula of public worship. It seems as if the Levites were fully employed in dividing among themselves the viands that were offered to them. We do not even see a single prayer instituted for their great festivals of the Passover, the Pentecost, the trumpets, the tabernacles, the general expiation, or the new moon.

The learned are almost unanimously agreed that there were no regular prayers among the Jews, except when, during their captivity at Babylon, they adopted somewhat of the manners, and acquired something of the sciences, of that civilized and powerful people. They borrowed all from the Chaldaic Persians, even to their very language, characters, and numerals; and joining some new customs to their old Egyptian rites, they became a new people, so much the more superstitious than before, in consequence of their being, after the conclusion of a long captivity, still always dependent upon their neighbors.

. . . . . In rebus acerbis

Arcius advertunt animos ad religionem.

— Lucretius. book iii., 52, 53.

 . . . . . The common rout,

When cares and dangers press, grow more devout.

— Creech.

With respect to the ten other tribes who had been previously dispersed, we may reasonably believe that they were as destitute of public forms of prayer as the two others, and that they had not, even up to the period of their dispersion, any fixed and well-defined religion, as they abandoned that which they professed with so much facility, and forgot even their own name, which cannot be said of the small number of unfortunate beings who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.

It is, therefore, at that period that the two tribes, or rather the two tribes and a half, seemed to have first attached themselves to certain invariable rites, to have written books, and used regular prayers. It is not before that time that we begin to see among them forms of prayer. Esdras ordained two prayers for every day, and added a third for the Sabbath; it is even said that he instituted eighteen prayers, that there might be room for selection, and also to afford variety in the service. The first of these begins in the following manner:

“Blessed be Thou, O Lord God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the great God, the powerful, the terrible, the most high, the liberal distributor of good things, the former and possessor of the world, who rememberest good actions, and sendest a Redeemer to their descendants for Thy name’s sake. O King, our help and Saviour, our buckler, blessed be Thou, O Lord, the buckler of our father Abraham.”

It is asserted that Gamaliel, who lived in the time of Jesus Christ, and who had such violent quarrels with St. Paul, ordered a nineteenth prayer, which is as follows:

“Grant peace, benefits, blessing, favor, kindness, and piety to us, and to Thy people Israel. Bless us, O our Father! bless us altogether with the light of Thy countenance; for by the light of Thy countenance Thou hast given us, O Lord our God, the law of life, love, kindness, equity, blessing, piety, and peace. May it please Thee to bless, through all time, and at every moment, Thy people Israel, by giving them peace. Blessed be Thou, O Lord, who blessest Thy people Israel by giving them peace. Amen.”

There is one circumstance deserving of remark with regard to many prayers, which is, that every nation has prayed for the direct contrary events to those prayed for by their neighbors.

The Jews, for example, prayed that God would exterminate the Syrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians; and these prayed that God would exterminate the Jews; and, accordingly, they may be said to have been so, with respect to the ten tribes, who have been confounded and mixed up with so many nations; and the remaining two tribes were more unfortunate still; for, as they obstinately persevered in remaining separate from all other nations in the midst of whom they dwelt, they were deprived of the grand advantages of human society.

In our own times, in the course of the wars that we so frequently undertake for the sake of particular cities, or even perhaps villages, the Germans and Spaniards, when they happened to be the enemies of the French, prayed to the Holy Virgin, from the bottom of their hearts, that she would completely defeat the Gauls and the Gavaches, who in their turn supplicated her, with equal importunity, to destroy the Maranes and the Teutons.

In England advocates of the red rose offered up to St. George the most ardent prayers to prevail upon him to sink all the partisans of the white rose to the bottom of the sea. The white rose was equally devout and importunate for the very opposite event. We can all of us have some idea of the embarrassment which this must have caused St. George; and if Henry VII. had not come to his assistance, St. George would never have been able to get extricated from it.

§ II.

We know of no religion without prayers; even the Jews had them, although there was no public form of prayer among them before the time when they sang their canticles in their synagogues, which did not take place until a late period.

The people of all nations, whether actuated by desires or fears, have invoked the assistance of the Divinity. Philosophers, however, more respectful to the Supreme Being, and rising more above human weakness, have been habituated to substitute, for prayer, resignation. This, in fact, is all that appears proper and suitable between creature and Creator. But philosophy is not adapted to the great mass of mankind; it soars too high above the vulgar; it speaks a language they are unable to comprehend. To propose philosophy to them would be just as weak as to propose the study of conic sections to peasants or fish-women.

Among the philosophers themselves, I know of no one besides Maximus Tyrius who has treated of this subject. The following is the substance of his ideas upon it: “The designs of God exist from all eternity. If the object prayed for be conformable to His immutable will, it must be perfectly useless to request of Him the very thing which He has determined to do. If He is prayed to for the reverse of what He has determined to do, He is prayed to be weak, fickle, and inconstant; such a prayer implies that this is thought to be His character, and is nothing better than ridicule or mockery of Him. You either request of Him what is just and right, in which case He ought to do it, and it will be actually done without any solicitation, which in fact shows distrust of His rectitude; or what you request is unjust, and then you insult Him. You are either worthy or unworthy of the favor you implore: if worthy, He knows it better than you do yourself; if unworthy, you commit an additional crime in requesting that which you do not merit.”

In a word, we offer up prayers to God only because we have made Him after our own image. We treat Him like a pasha, or a sultan, who is capable of being exasperated and appeased. In short, all nations pray to God: the sage is resigned, and obeys Him. Let us pray with the people, and let us be resigned to Him with the sage.

We have already spoken of the public prayers of many nations, and of those of the Jews. That people have had one from time immemorial, which deserves all our attention, from its resemblance to the prayer taught us by Jesus Christ Himself. This Jewish prayer is called the Kadish, and begins with these words: “O, God! let Thy name be magnified and sanctified; make Thy kingdom to prevail; let redemption flourish, and the Messiah come quickly!”

As this Kadish is recited in Chaldee it has induced the belief that it is as ancient as the captivity, and that it was at that period that the Jews began to hope for a Messiah, a Liberator, or Redeemer, whom they have since prayed for in the seasons of their calamities.

The circumstance of this word “Messiah” being found in this ancient prayer has occasioned much controversy on the subject of the history of this people. If the prayer originated during the Babylonish captivity, it is evident that the Jews at that time must have hoped for and expected a Redeemer. But whence does it arise, that in times more dreadfully calamitous still, after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, neither Josephus nor Philo ever mentioned any expectation of a Messiah? There are obscurities in the history of every people; but those of the Jews form an absolute and perpetual chaos. It is unfortunate for those who are desirous of information, that the Chaldæans and Egyptians have lost their archives, while the Jews have preserved theirs.

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