Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


St. Paul says, that the Cretans were all “liars,” “evil beasts,” and “slow bellies.” The physician Hequet understood by slow bellies, that the Cretans were costive, which vitiated their blood, and rendered them ill-disposed and mischievous. It is doubtless very true that persons of this habit are more prone to choler than others: their bile passes not away, but accumulates until their blood is overheated.

When you have a favor to beg of a minister, or his first secretary, inform yourself adroitly of the state of his stomach, and always seize on “mollia fandi tempora.”

No one is ignorant that our character and turn of mind are intimately connected with the water-closet. Cardinal Richelieu was sanguinary, because he had the piles, which afflicted his rectum and hardened his disposition. Queen Anne of Austria always called him “cul pourri” (sore bottom), which nickname redoubled his bile, and possibly cost Marshal Marillac his life, and Marshal Bassompierre his liberty; but I cannot discover why certain persons should be greater liars than others. There is no known connection between the anal sphincter and falsehood, like that very sensible one between our stomach and our passions, our manner of thinking and our conduct.

I am much disposed to believe, that by “slow bellies” St. Paul understood voluptuous men and gross feeders — a kind of priors, canons, and abbots-commendatory — rich prelates, who lay in bed all the morning to recover from the excesses of the evening, as Marot observes in his eighty-sixth epigram in regard to a fat prior, who lay in bed and fondled his grandson while his partridges were preparing;

Un gros prieur son petit fils baisait,

Et mignardait au matin dans sa couche,

Tandis rôtir sa perdrix en faisait, etc.

But people may lie in bed all the morning without being either liars, or badly disposed. On the contrary, the voluptuously indolent are generally socially gentle, and easy in their commerce with the world.

However this may be, I regret that St. Paul should offend an entire people. In this passage, humanly speaking, there is neither politeness, ability, or even truth. Nothing is gained from men by calling them evil beasts; and doubtless men of merit were to be found in Crete. Why thus outrage the country of Minos, which Archbishop Fénelon, infinitely more polished than St. Paul, so much eulogizes in his “Telemachus”?

Was not St. Paul somewhat difficult to live with, of a proud spirit, and of a hard and imperious character? If I had been one of the apostles, or even a disciple only, I should infallibly have quarrelled with him. It appears to me, that the fault was all on his side, in his dispute with Simon Peter Barjonas. He had a furious passion for domination. He often boasts of being an apostle, and more an apostle than his associates — he who had assisted to stone St. Stephen, he who had been assistant persecutor under Gamaliel, and who was called upon to weep longer for his crimes than St. Peter for his weakness! — always, however, humanly speaking.

He boasts of being a Roman citizen born at Tarsus, whereas St. Jerome pretends that he was a poor provincial Jew, born at Giscala in Galilee. In his letters addressed to the small flock of his brethren, he always speaks magisterially: “I will come,” says he to certain Corinthians, “and I will judge of you all on the testimony of two or three witnesses; and I will neither pardon those who have sinned, nor others.” This “nor others” is somewhat severe.

Many men at present would be disposed to take the part of St. Peter against St. Paul, but for the episode of Ananias and Sapphira, which has intimidated persons inclined to bestow alms.

I return to my text of the Cretan liars, evil beasts, and slow bellies; and I recommend to all missionaries never to commence their labors among any people with insults.

It is not that I regard the Cretans as the most just and respectable of men, as they were called by fabulous Greece. I pretend not to reconcile their pretended virtue with the pretended bull of which the beautiful Pasiphæ was so much enamored; nor with the skill exerted by the artisan Dædalus in the construction of a cow of brass, by which Pasiphæ was enabled to produce a Minotaur, to whom the pious and equitable Minos sacrificed every year — and not every nine years — seven grown-up boys and seven virgins of Athens.

It is not that I believe in the hundred large cities in Crete, meaning a hundred poor villages standing upon a long and narrow rock, with two or three towns. It is to be regretted that Rollin, in his elegant compilation of “Ancient History,” has repeated so many of the ancient fables of Crete, and that of Minos among others.

With respect to the poor Greeks and Jews who now inhabit the steep mountains of this island, under the government of a pasha, they may possibly be liars and evil disposed, but I cannot tell if they are slow of digestion: I sincerely hope, however, that they have sufficient to eat.

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