Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is very singular that the Protestant churches agree in exclaiming that purgatory was invented by the monks. It is true that they invented the art of drawing money from the living by praying to God for the dead; but purgatory existed before the monks.

It was Pope John XIV., say they, who, towards the middle of the tenth century, instituted the feast of the dead. From that fact, however, I only conclude that they were prayed for before; for if they then took measures to pray for all, it is reasonable to believe that they had previously prayed for some of them; in the same way as the feast of All Saints was instituted, because the feast of many of them had been previously celebrated. The difference between the feast of All Saints and that of the dead, is, that in the first we invoke, and that in the second we are invoked; in the former we commend ourselves to the blessed, and in the second the unblessed commend themselves to us.

The most ignorant writers know, that this feast was first instituted at Cluny, which was then a territory belonging to the German Empire. Is it necessary to repeat, “that St. Odilon, abbot of Cluny, was accustomed to deliver many souls from purgatory by his masses and his prayers; and that one day a knight or a monk, returning from the holy land, was cast by a tempest, on a small island, where he met with a hermit, who said to him, that in that island existed enormous caverns of fire and flames, in which the wicked were tormented; and that he often heard the devils complain of the Abbot Odilon and his monks, who every day delivered some soul or other; for which reason it was necessary to request Odilon to continue his exertions, at once to increase the joy of the saints in heaven and the grief of the demons in hell?”

It is thus that Father Gerard, the Jesuit, relates the affair in his “Flower of the Saints,” after Father Ribadeneira. Fleury differs a little from this legend, but has substantively preserved it. This revelation induced St. Odilon to institute in Cluny the feast of the dead, which was then adopted by the Church.

Since this time, purgatory has brought much money to those who possess the power of opening the gates. It was by virtue of this power that English John, that great landlord, surnamed Lackland, by declaring himself the liegeman of Pope Innocent III., and placing his kingdom under submission, delivered the souls of his parents, who had been excommunicated: “Pro mortuo excommunico, pro quo supplicant consanguinei.”

The Roman chancery had even its regular scale for the absolution of the dead; there were many privileged altars in the fifteenth century, at which every mass performed for six liards delivered a soul from purgatory. Heretics could not ascend beyond the truth, that the apostles had the right of unbinding all who were bound on earth, but not under the earth; and many of them, like impious persons, doubted the power of the keys. It is however to be remarked, that when the pope is inclined to remit five or six hundred years of purgatory, he accords the grace with full power: “Pro potestate a Deo accepta concedit.”

Of the Antiquity of Purgatory.

It is pretended that purgatory was, from time immemorial, known to the famous Jewish people, and it is founded on the second book of the Maccabees, which says expressly, “that there being found concealed in the vestments of the Jews (at the battle of Adullam), things consecrated to the idols of Jamma, it was manifest that on that account they had perished; and having made a gathering of twelve thousand drachms of silver, Judas, who thought religiously of the resurrection, sent them to Jerusalem for the sins of the dead.”

Having taken upon ourselves the task of relating the objections of the heretics and infidels, for the purpose of confounding them by their own opinions, we will detail here these objections to the twelve thousand drachms transmitted by Judas; and to purgatory. They say: 1. That twelve thousand drachms of silver was too much for Judas Maccabeus, who only maintained a petty war of insurgency against a great king.

2. That they might send a present to Jerusalem for the sins of the dead, in order to bring down the blessing of God on the survivors.

3. That the idea of a resurrection was not entertained among the Jews at this time, it being ascertained that this doctrine was not discussed among them until the time of Gamaliel, a little before the ministry of Jesus Christ.

4. As the laws of the Jews included in the “Decalogue,” Leviticus and Deuteronomy, have not spoken of the immortality of the soul, nor of the torments of hell, it was impossible that they should contain the doctrine of purgatory.

5. Heretics and infidels make the greatest efforts to demonstrate in their manner, that the books of the Maccabees are evidently apocryphal. The following are their pretended proofs:

The Jews have never acknowledged the books of the Maccabees to be canonical, why then should we acknowledge them? Origen declares formally that the books of the Maccabees are to be rejected, and St. Jerome regards them as unworthy of credit. The Council of Laodicea, held in 567, admits them not among the canonical books. The Athanasiuses, the Cyrils, and the Hilarys, have also rejected them. The reasons for treating the foregoing books as romances, and as very bad romances, are as follows:

The ignorant author commences by a falsehood, known to be such by all the world. He says: “Alexander called the young nobles, who had been educated with him from their infancy, and parted his kingdom among them while he still lived.” So gross and absurd a lie could not issue from the pen of a sacred and inspired writer.

The author of the Maccabees, in speaking of Antiochus Epiphanes, says: “Antiochus marched towards Elymais, and wished to pillage it, but was not able, because his intention was known to the inhabitants, who assembled in order to give him battle, on which he departed with great sadness, and returned to Babylon. Whilst he was still in Persia, he learned that his army in Judæa had fled . . . . and he took to his bed and died.”

The same writer himself, in another place, says quite the contrary; for he relates that Antiochus Epiphanes was about to pillage Persepolis, and not Elymais; that he fell from his chariot; that he was stricken with an incurable wound; that he was devoured by worms; that he demanded pardon of the god of the Jews; that he wished himself to be a Jew: it is there where we find the celebrated versicle, which fanatics have applied so frequently to their enemies; “Orabet scelestus ille veniam quam non erat consecuturus.” The wicked man demandeth a pardon, which he cannot obtain. This passage is very Jewish; but it is not permitted to an inspired writer to contradict himself so flagrantly.

This is not all: behold another contradiction, and another oversight. The author makes Antiochus die in a third manner, so that there is quite a choice. He remarks that this prince was stoned in the temple of Nanneus; and those who would excuse the stupidity pretend that he here speaks of Antiochus Eupator; but neither Epiphanes nor Eupator was stoned.

Moreover, this author says, that another Antiochus (the Great) was taken by the Romans, and that they gave to Eumenes the Indies and Media. This is about equal to saying that Francis I. made a prisoner of Henry VIII., and that he gave Turkey to the duke of Savoy. It is insulting the Holy Ghost to imagine it capable of dictating so many disgusting absurdities.

The same author says, that the Romans conquered the Galatians; but they did not conquer Galatia for more than a hundred years after. Thus the unhappy story-teller did not write for more than a hundred years after the time in which it was supposed that he wrote: and it is thus, according to the infidels, with almost all the Jewish books.

The same author observes, that the Romans every year nominated a chief of the senate. Behold a well-informed man, who did not even know that Rome had two consuls! What reliance, say infidels, can be placed in these rhapsodies and puerile tales, strung together without choice or order by the most imbecile of men? How shameful to believe in them! and the barbarity of persecuting sensible men, in order to force a belief of miserable absurdities, for which they could not but entertain the most sovereign contempt, is equal to that of cannibals.

Our answer is, that some mistakes which probably arose from the copyists may not affect the fundamental truths of the remainder; that the Holy Ghost inspired the author only, and not the copyists; that if the Council of Laodicea rejected the Maccabees, they have been admitted by the Council of Trent; that they are admitted by the Roman Church; and consequently that we ought to receive them with due submission.

Of the Origin of Purgatory.

It is certain that those who admitted of purgatory in the primitive church were treated as heretics. The Simonians were condemned who admitted the purgation of souls — Psuken Kadaron.

St. Augustine has since condemned the followers of Origen who maintained this doctrine. But the Simonians and the Origenists had taken their purgatory from Virgil, Plato and the Egyptians. You will find it clearly indicated in the sixth book of the “Æneid,” as we have already remarked. What is still more singular, Virgil describes souls suspended in air, others burned, and others drowned:

Aliæ panduntur inanes

Suspensæ ad ventos: aliis sub gurgite vasto

Infectum eluitur scelus, aut exuritur igni.

— Æneid, book vi, 740-742.

For this are various penances enjoined,

And some are hung to bleach upon the wind;

Some plunged in waters, others purged in fires,

Till all the dregs are drained, and all the rust expires.

— Dryden.

And what is more singular still, Pope Gregory, surnamed the great, not only adopts this doctrine from Virgil, but in his theology introduces many souls who arrive from purgatory after having been hanged or drowned.

Plato has spoken of purgatory in his “Phædon,” and it is easy to discover, by a perusal of “Hermes Trismegistus,” that Plato borrowed from the Egyptians all which he had not borrowed from Timæus of Locris.

All this is very recent, and of yesterday, in comparison with the ancient Brahmins. The latter, it must be confessed, invented purgatory in the same manner as they invented the revolt and fall of the genii or celestial intelligences.

It is in their Shasta, or Shastabad, written three thousand years before the vulgar era, that you, my dear reader, will discover the doctrine of purgatory. The rebel angels, of whom the history was copied among the Jews in the time of the rabbin Gamaliel, were condemned by the Eternal and His Son, to a thousand years of purgatory, after which God pardoned and made them men. This we have already said, dear reader, as also that the Brahmins found eternal punishment too severe, as eternity never concludes. The Brahmins thought like the Abbé Chaulieu, and called upon the Lord to pardon them, if, impressed with His bounties, they could not be brought to conceive that they would be punished so rigorously for vain pleasures, which passed away like a dream:

Pardonne alors, Seigneur, si, plein de tes bontés,

Je n’ai pu concevoir que mes fragilités,

Ni tous ces vains plaisirs que passent comme un songe,

Pussent être l’objet de tes sévérités;

Et si j’ai pu penser que tant des cruautés.

Puniraient un peu trop la douceur d’un mensonge.

— Epître sur la Mort, au Marquis de la Fare.

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