Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In quality of poor alphabetical compilers, collectors of anecdotes, gatherers of trifles, pickers of rags at the corners of the streets, we glorify ourselves with all the pride attached to our sublime science, on having discovered that “Samson the Strong,” a tragedy, was played at the close of the sixteenth century, in the town of Rouen, and that it was printed by Abraham Couturier. John Milton, for a long time a schoolmaster of London, afterwards Latin secretary to the protector, Cromwell — Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”— wrote the tragedy of “Samson Agonistes”; and it is very unfortunate that we cannot tell in what year.

We know, however, that it has been printed with a preface, in which much is boasted, by one of our brethren, the commentator named Paræus, who first perceived by the force of his genius, that the Apocalypse is a tragedy. On the strength of this discovery he divided the Apocalypse into five acts, and inserted choruses worthy of the elegance and fine nature of the piece. The author of this preface speaks to us of the fine tragedies of St. Gregory of Nazianzen. He asserts, that a tragedy should never have more than five acts, and to prove it, he gives us the “Samson Agonistes” of Milton, which has but one. Those who like elaborate declamation will be satisfied with this piece.

A comedy of Samson was played for a long time in Italy. A translation of it was made in Paris in 1717, by one named Romagnesi; it was represented on the French theatre of the pretended Italian comedy, formerly the palace of the dukes of Burgundy. It was published, and dedicated to the duke of Orleans, regent of France.

In this sublime piece, Arlequin, the servant of Samson, fights with a turkey-cock, whilst his master carries off the gates of Gaza on his shoulders.

In 1732, it was wished to represent, at the opera of Paris, a tragedy of Samson, set to music by the celebrated Rameau; but it was not permitted. There was neither Arlequin nor turkey-cock; but the thing appeared too serious; besides, certain people were very glad to mortify Rameau, who possessed great talents. Yet at that time they performed the opera of “Jephthah,” extracted from the Old Testament, and the comedy of the “Prodigal Son,” from the New Testament.

There is an old edition of the “Samson Agonistes” of Milton, preceded by an abridgment of the history of the hero. The following is this abridgment:

The Jews, to whom God promised by oath all the country which is between the river of Egypt and the Euphrates, and who through their sins never had this country, were on the contrary reduced to servitude, which slavery lasted for forty years. Now there was a Jew of the tribe of Dan, named Manoah; and the wife of this Manoah was barren; and an angel appeared to this woman, and said to her, “Behold, thou shalt conceive and bear a son; and now drink no wine nor strong drink, neither eat any unclean thing; for the child shall be a Nazarite to God, from the womb to the day of his death.”

The angel afterwards appeared to the husband and wife; they gave him a kid to eat; he would have none of it, and disappeared in the midst of the smoke; and the woman said, We shall surely die, because we have seen God; but they died not.

The slave Samson being born, was consecrated a Nazarite. As soon as he was grown up, the first thing he did was to go to the Phœnician or Philistine town of Timnath, to court a daughter of one of his masters, whom he married.

In going to his mistress he met a lion, and tore him in pieces with his naked hand, as he would have done a kid. Some days after, he found a swarm of bees in the throat of the dead lion, with some honey, though bees never rest on carrion.

Then he proposed this enigma to his companions: Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness: if you guess, I will give you thirty tunics and thirty gowns; if not, you shall give me thirty gowns and thirty tunics. The comrades, not being able to guess in what the solution of the enigma consisted, gained over the young wife of Samson; she drew the secret from her husband, and he was obliged to give them thirty tunics and thirty gowns. “Ah,” said he to them, “if ye had not ploughed with my heifer, ye would not have found out my riddle.”

Soon after, the father-in-law of Samson gave another husband to his daughter.

Samson, enraged at having lost his wife, immediately caught three hundred foxes, tied them two together by the tails with lighted firebrands, and they fired the corn of the Philistines.

The Jewish slaves, not being willing to be punished by their masters for the exploits of Samson, surprised him in the cavern in which he dwelt, tied him with great ropes, and delivered him to the Philistines. As soon as he was in the midst of them, he broke his cords, and finding the jawbone of an ass, with one effort he killed a thousand Philistines. Such an effort making him very warm, he was dying of thirst, on which God made a fountain spout from one of the teeth of the ass’s jaw-bone. Samson, having drunk, went into Gaza, a Philistine town; he there immediately became smitten with a courtesan. As he slept with her, the Philistines shut the gates of the town, and surrounded the house, when he arose, took the gates, and carried them away. The Philistines, in despair at not being able to overcome this hero, addressed themselves to another courtesan named Delilah, with whom he afterwards slept. She finally drew from him the secret in which his strength consisted: it was only necessary to shave him, to render him equal to other men. He was shaved, became weak, and his eyes being put out, he was made to turn a mill and to play on the violin. One day, while playing in a Philistine temple, between two of its columns, he became indignant that the Philistines should have columned temples, whilst the Jews had only a tabernacle supported on four poles. He also felt that his hair began to grow; and being transported with a holy zeal, he pulled down the two pillars; by which concussion the temple was overthrown, the Philistines were crushed to death, and he with them.

Such is this preface, word for word.

This is the history which is the subject of the piece of Milton, and Romagnesi: it is adapted to Italian farce.

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