Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Several kings have been good scholars, and have written good books. The king of Prussia, Frederick the Great, is the latest example we have had of it: German monarchs will be found who compose French verses, and who write the history of their countries. James I. in England, and even Henry VIII. have written. In Spain, we must go back as far as Alphonso X. Still it is doubtful whether he put his hand to the “Alphonsine Tables.”

France cannot boast of having had an author king. The empire of Germany has no book from the pen of its emperors; but Rome was glorified in Cæsar, Marcus Aurelius, and Julian. In Asia, several writers are reckoned among the kings. The present emperor of China, Kien Long, particularly, is considered a great poet; but Solomon, or Solyman, the Hebrew, has still more reputation than Kien Long, the Chinese.

The name of Solomon has always been revered in the East. The works believed to be his, the “Annals of the Jews,” and the fables of the Arabs, have carried his renown as far as the Indies. His reign is the great epoch of the Hebrews.

He was the third king of Palestine. The First Book of Kings says that his mother, Bathsheba, obtained from David, the promise that he should crown Solomon, her son, instead of Adonijah, his eldest. It is not surprising that a woman, an accomplice in the death of her first husband, should have had artifice enough to cause the inheritance to be given to the fruit of her adultery, and to cause the legitimate son to be disinherited, who was also the eldest.

It is a very remarkable fact that the prophet Nathan, who reproached David with his adultery, the murder of Uriah, and the marriage which followed this murder, was the same who afterwards seconded Bathsheba in placing that Solomon on the throne, who was born of this sanguine and infamous marriage. This conduct, reasoning according to the flesh, would prove, that the prophet Nathan had, according to circumstances, two weights and two measures. The book even says not that Nathan received a particular mission from God to disinherit Adonijah. If he had one, we must respect it; but we cannot admit that we find it written.

It is a great question in theology, whether Solomon is most renowned for his ready money, his wives, or his books. I am sorry that he commenced his reign in the Turkish style by murdering his brother.

Adonijah, excluded from the throne by Solomon, asked him, as an only favor, permission to espouse Abishag, the young girl who had been given to David to warm him in his old age. Scripture says not whether Solomon disputed with Adonijah, the concubine of his father; but it says, that Solomon, simply on this demand of Adonijah, caused him to be assassinated. Apparently God, who gave him the spirit of wisdom, refused him that of justice and humanity, as he afterwards refused him the gift of continence.

It is said in the same Book of Kings that he was the master of a great kingdom which extended from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; but unfortunately it is said at the same time, that the king of Egypt conquered the country of Gezer, in Canaan, and that he gave the city of Gezer as a portion to his daughter, whom it is pretended that Solomon espoused. It is also said that there was a king at Damascus; and the kingdoms of Tyre and Sidon flourished. Surrounded thus with powerful states, he doubtless manifested his wisdom in living in peace with them all. The extreme abundance which enriched his country could only be the fruit of this profound wisdom, since, as we have already remarked, in the time of Saul there was not a worker in iron in the whole country. Those who reason find it difficult to understand how David, the successor of Saul, so vanquished by the Philistines, could have established so vast an empire.

The riches which he left to Solomon are still more wonderful; he gave him in ready money one hundred and three thousand talents of gold, and one million thirteen thousand talents of silver. The Hebraic talent of gold, according to Arbuthnot, is worth six thousand livres sterling, the talent of silver, about five hundred livres sterling. The sum total of the legacy in ready money, without the jewels and other effects, and without the ordinary revenue — proportioned no doubt to this treasure — amounted, according to this calculation, to one billion, one hundred and nineteen millions, five hundred thousand pounds sterling, or to five billions, five hundred and ninety-seven crowns of Germany, or to twenty-five billions, forty-eight millions of francs. There was not then so much money circulating through the whole world. Some scholars value this treasure at a little less, but the sum is always very large for Palestine.

We see not, after that, why Solomon should torment himself so much to send fleets to Ophir to bring gold. We can still less divine how this powerful monarch, in his vast states, had not a man who knew how to fashion wood from the forest of Libanus. He was obliged to beg Hiram, king of Tyre, to lend him wood cutters and laborers to work it. It must be confessed that these contradictions exceedingly exercise the genius of commentators.

Every day, fifty oxen, and one hundred sheep were served up for the dinner and supper of his houses, and poultry and game in proportion, which might be about sixty thousand pounds weight of meat per day. He kept a good house. It is added, that he had forty thousand stables, and as many houses for his chariots of war, but only twelve thousand stables for his cavalry. Here is a great number of chariots for a mountainous country; and it was a great equipage for a king whose predecessor had only a mule at his coronation, and a territory which bred asses alone.

It was not becoming a prince possessing so many chariots to be limited in the article of women; he therefore possessed seven hundred who bore the name of queen; and what is strange, he had but three hundred concubines; contrary to the custom of kings, who have generally more mistresses than wives.

He kept four hundred and twelve thousand horses, doubtless to take the air with them along the lake of Gennesaret, or that of Sodom, in the neighborhood of the Brook of Kedron, which would be one of the most delightful places upon earth, if the brook was not dry nine months of the year, and if the earth was not horribly stony.

As to the temple which he built, and which the Jews believed to be the finest work of the universe, if the Bramantes, the Michelangelos, and the Palladios, had seen this building, they would not have admired it. It was a kind of small square fortress, which enclosed a court; in this court was one edifice of forty cubits long, and another of twenty; and it is said, that this second edifice, which was properly the temple, the oracle, the holy of holies, was only twenty cubits in length and breadth, and twenty cubits high. M. Souflot would not have been quite pleased with those proportions.

The books attributed to Solomon have lasted longer than his temple.

The name of the author alone has rendered these books respectable. They should be good, since they were written by a king, and this king passed for the wisest of men.

The first work attributed to him is that of Proverbs. It is a collection of maxims, which sometimes appear to our refined minds trifling, low, incoherent, in bad taste, and without meaning. People cannot be persuaded that an enlightened king has composed a collection of sentences, in which there is not one which regards the art of government, politics, manners of courtiers, or customs of a court. They are astonished at seeing whole chapters in which nothing is spoken of but prostitutes, who invite passengers in the streets to lie with them. They revolt against sentences in the following style: “There are three things that are never satisfied, a fourth which never says ‘enough’; the grave; the barren womb; the earth that is not filled with water, are the three; and the fourth is fire, which never sayeth ‘enough.’

“There be three things which are too wonderful for me; yea, four which I know not. The way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid.

“There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise. The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer; the conies are but a feeble race, yet they make their houses in rocks; the locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands; the spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palaces.”

Can we impute such follies as these to a great king, to the wisest of mortals? say the objectors. This criticism is strong; it should deliver itself with more respect.

The Proverbs have been attributed to Isaiah, Elijah, Sobna, Eliakim, Joachim, and several others; but whoever compiled this collection of Eastern sentences, it does not appear that it was a king who gave himself the trouble. Would he have said that the terror of the king is like the roaring of a lion? It is thus that a subject or a slave speaks, who trembles at the anger of his master. Would Solomon have spoken so much of unchaste women? Would he have said: “Look thou not upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth its color in the glass”?

I doubt very much whether there were any drinking glasses in the time of Solomon; it is a very recent invention; all antiquity drank from cups of wood or metal; and this single passage perhaps indicates that this Jewish collection was composed in Alexandria, as well as most of the other Jewish books.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is attributed to Solomon, is in quite a different order and taste. He who speaks in this work seems not to be deceived by visions of grandeur, to be tired of pleasures, and disgusted with science. We have taken him for an Epicurean who repeats on each page, that the just and unjust are subject to the same accidents; that man is nothing more than the beast which perishes; that it is better not to be born than to exist; that there is no other life; and that there is nothing more good and reasonable than to enjoy the fruit of our labors with a woman whom we love.

It might happen that Solomon held such discourse with some of his wives; and it is pretended that these are objections which he made; but these maxims, which have a libertine air, do not at all resemble objections; and it is a joke to profess to understand in an author the exact contrary of that which he says.

We believe that we read the sentiments of a materialist, at once sensual and digusted, who appears to have put an edifying word or two on God in the last verse, to diminish the scandal which such a book must necessarily create. As to the rest, several fathers say that Solomon did penance; so that we can pardon him.

Critics have difficulty in persuading themselves that this book can be by Solomon; and Grotius pretends that it was written under Zerubbabel. It is not natural for Solomon to say: “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child!” The Jews had not then such kings.

It is not natural for him to say: “I observe the face of the king.” It is much more likely, that the author spoke of Solomon, and that by this alienation of mind, which we discover in so many rabbins, he has often forgotten, in the course of the book, that it was a king whom he caused to speak.

What appears surprising to them is that this work has been consecrated among the canonical books. If the canon of the Bible were to be established now, say they, perhaps the Book of Ecclesiastes might not be inserted; but it was inserted at a time when books were very rare, and more admired than read. All that can be done now is to palliate the Epicureanism which prevails in this work. The Book of Ecclesiastes has been treated like many other things which disgust in a particular manner. Being established in times of ignorance, we are forced, to the scandal of reason, to maintain them in wiser times, and to disguise the horror or absurdity of them by allegories. These critics are too bold.

The “Song of Songs” is further attributed to Solomon, because the name of that king is found in two or three places; because it is said to the beloved, that she is beautiful as the curtains of Solomon; because she says that she is black, by which epithet it is believed that Solomon designated his Egyptian wife.

These three reasons have not proved convincing: 1. When the beloved, in speaking to her lover, says “The king hath brought me into his chamber,” she evidently speaks of another than her lover; therefore the king is not this lover; it is the king of the festival; it is the paranymph, the master of the house, whom she means; and this Jewess is so far from being the mistress of a king, that throughout the work she is a shepherdess, a country girl, who goes seeking her lover through the fields, and in the streets of the town, and who is stopped at the gates by a porter who steals her garment.

2. “I am beautiful as the curtains of Solomon,” is the expression of a villager, who would say: I am as beautiful as the king’s tapestries; and it is precisely because the name of Solomon is found in this work, that it cannot be his. What monarch could make so ridiculous a comparison? “Behold,” says the beloved, “behold King Solomon with the crown wherewith his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals!” Who recognizes not in these expressions the common comparisons which girls make in speaking of their lovers? They say: “He is as beautiful as a prince; he has the air of a king,” etc.

It is true that the shepherdess, who is made to speak in this amorous song, says that she is tanned by the sun, that she is brown. Now if this was the daughter of the king of Egypt, she was not so tanned. Females of quality in Egypt were fair. Cleopatra was so; and, in a word, this person could not be at once a peasant and a queen.

A monarch who had a thousand wives might have said to one of them: “Let her kiss me with the lips of her mouth; for thy breasts are better than wine.” A king and a shepherd, when the subject is of kissing, might express themselves in the same manner. It is true, that it is strange enough it should be pretended, that the girl speaks in this place, and eulogizes the breasts of her lover.

We further avow that a gallant king might have said to his mistress: “A bundle of myrrh is my well beloved unto me; he shall lie all night between my breasts.”

That he might have said to her: “Thy navel is like a round goblet which wanteth not liquor; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies; thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins; thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fish pools in Heshbon; and thy nose as the tower of Lebanon.”

I confess that the “Eclogues” of Virgil are in a different style; but each has his own, and a Jew is not obliged to write like Virgil.

We have not noticed this fine turn of Eastern eloquence: “We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts. What shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we will build upon her; and if she be a door, we will close it.”

Solomon, the wisest of men, might have spoken thus in his merry moods; but several rabbins have maintained, not only that this voluptuous eclogue was not King Solomon’s, but that it is not authentic. Theodore of Mopsuestes was of this opinion, and the celebrated Grotius calls the “Song of Songs,” a libertine flagitious work. However, it is consecrated, and we regard it as a perpetual allegory of the marriage of Jesus Christ with the Church. We must confess, that the allegory is rather strong, and we see not what the Church could understand, when the author says that his little sister has no breasts.

After all, this song is a precious relic of antiquity; it is the only book of love of the Hebrews which remains to us. Enjoyment is often spoken of in it. It is a Jewish eclogue. The style is like that of all the eloquent works of the Hebrews, without connection, without order, full of repetition, confused, ridiculously metaphorical, but containing passages which breathe simplicity and love.

The “Book of Wisdom” is in a more serious taste; but it is no more Solomon’s than the “Song of Songs.” It is generally attributed to Jesus, the son of Sirac, and by some to Philo of Biblos; but whoever may be the author, it is believed, that in his time the Pentateuch did not exist; for he says in chapter x., that Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac at the time of the Deluge; and in another place he speaks of the patriarch Joseph as of a king of Egypt. At least, it is the most natural sense.

The worst of it is, that the author in the same chapter pretends, that in his time the statue of salt into which Lot’s wife was changed was to be seen. What critics find still worse is that the book appears to them a tiresome mass of commonplaces; but they should consider that such works are not made to follow the vain rules of eloquence. They are written to edify, and not to please, and we should even combat our disinclination to read them.

It is very likely that Solomon was rich and learned for his time and people. Exaggeration, the inseparable companion of greatness, attributes riches to him which he could not have possessed, and books which he could not have written. Respect for antiquity has since consecrated these errors.

But what signifies it to us, that these books were written by a Jew? Our Christian religion is founded on the Jewish, but not on all the books which the Jews have written.

For instance, why should the “Song of Songs” be more sacred to us than the fables of Talmud? It is, say they, because we have comprised it in the canon of the Hebrews. And what is this canon? It is a collection of authentic works. Well, must a work be divine to be authentic? A history of the little kingdoms of Judah and Sichem, for instance — is it anything but a history? This is a strange prejudice. We hold the Jews in horror, and we insist that all which has been written by them, and collected by us, bears the stamp of Divinity. There never was so palpable a contradiction.

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