Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

I have sometimes heard you say — We are no longer superstitious; the reformation of the sixteenth century has made us more prudent; the Protestants have taught us better manners.

But what then is the blood of a St. Januarius, which you liquefy every year by bringing it near his head? Would it not be better to make ten thousand beggars earn their bread, by employing them in useful tasks, than to boil the blood of a saint for their amusement? Think rather how to make their pots boil.

Why do you still, in Rome, bless the horses and mules at St. Mary’s the Greater? What mean those bands of flagellators in Italy and Spain, who go about singing and giving themselves the lash in the presence of ladies? Do they think there is no road to heaven but by flogging?

Are those pieces of the true cross, which would suffice to build a hundred-gun ship — are the many relics acknowledged to be false — are the many false miracles — so many monuments of an enlightened piety?

France boasts of being less superstitious than the neighbors of St. James of Compostello, or those of Our Lady of Loretto. Yet how many sacristies are there where you still find pieces of the Virgin’s gown, vials of her milk, and locks of her hair! And have you not still, in the church of Puy-en-Velay, her Son’s foreskin preciously preserved?

You all know the abominable farce that has been played, ever since the early part of the fourteenth century, in the chapel of St. Louis, in the Palais at Paris, every Maundy Thursday night. All the possessed in the kingdom then meet in this church. The convulsions of St. Médard fall far short of the horrible grimaces, the dreadful howlings, the violent contortions, made by these wretched people. A piece of the true cross is given them to kiss, enchased in three feet of gold, and adorned with precious stones. Then the cries and contortions are redoubled. The devil is then appeased by giving the demoniacs a few sous; but the better to restrain them, fifty archers of the watch are placed in the church with fixed bayonets.

The same execrable farce is played at St. Maur. I could cite twenty such instances. Blush, and correct yourselves.

There are wise men who assert, that we should leave the people their superstitions, as we leave them their raree-shows, etc.; that the people have at all times been fond of prodigies, fortune-tellers, pilgrimages, and quack-doctors; that in the most remote antiquity they celebrated Bacchus delivered from the waves, wearing horns, making a fountain of wine issue from a rock by a stroke of his wand, passing the Red Sea on dry ground with all his people, stopping the sun and moon, etc.; that at Lacedæmon they kept the two eggs brought forth by Leda, hanging from the dome of a temple; that in some towns of Greece the priests showed the knife with which Iphigenia had been immolated, etc.

There are other wise men who say — Not one of these superstitions has produced any good; many of them have done great harm: let them then be abolished.

§ II.

I beg of you, my dear reader, to cast your eye for a moment on the miracle which was lately worked in Lower Brittany, in the year of our Lord 1771. Nothing can be more authentic: this publication is clothed in all the legal forms. Read:—

“Surprising Account of the Visible and Miraculous Appearance of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar; which was worked by the Almighty Power of God in the Parish Church of Paimpole, near Tréguier, in Lower Brittany, on Twelfth-day.

“On January 6, 1771, being Twelfth-day, during the chanting of the Salve, rays of light were seen to issue from the consecrated host, and instantly the Lord Jesus was beheld in natural figure, seeming more brilliant than the sun, and was seen for a whole half-hour, during which there appeared a rainbow over the top of the church. The footprints of Jesus remained on the tabernacle, where they are still to be seen; and many miracles are worked there every day. At four in the afternoon, Jesus having disappeared from over the tabernacle, the curate of the said parish approached the altar, and found there a letter which Jesus had left; he would have taken it up, but he found that he could not lift it. This curate, together with the vicar, went to give information of it to the bishop of Tréguier, who ordered the forty-hour prayers to be said in all the churches of the town for eight days, during which time the people went in crowds to see this holy letter. At the expiration of the eight days, the bishop went thither in procession, attended by all the regular and secular clergy of the town, after three days’ fasting on bread and water. The procession having entered the church, the bishop knelt down on the steps of the altar; and after asking of God the grace to be able to lift this letter, he ascended to the altar and took it up without difficulty; then, turning to the people, he read it over with a loud voice, and recommended to all who could read to peruse this letter on the first Friday of every month; and to those who could not read, to say five paternosters, and five avemarias, in honor of the five wounds of Jesus Christ, in order to obtain the graces promised to such as shall read it devoutly, and the preservation of the fruits of the earth. Pregnant women are to say, for their happy delivery, nine paters and nine aves for the benefit of the souls in purgatory, in order that their children may have the happiness of receiving the holy sacrament of baptism.

“All that is contained in this account has been approved by the bishop, by the lieutenant-general of the said town of Tréguier, and by many persons of distinction who were present at this miracle.”

Copy of the Letter Found Upon the Altar, at the Time of the Miraculous Appearance of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, on Twelfth-day, 1771.

“Everlasting life, everlasting punishments, or everlasting delights, none can forego; one part must be chosen — either to go to glory, or to depart into torment. The number of years that men pass on earth in all sorts of sensual pleasures and excessive debaucheries, of usurpation, luxury, murder, theft, slander, and impurity, no longer permitting it to be suffered that creatures created in My image and likeness, redeemed by the price of My blood on the tree of the cross, on which I suffered passion and death, should offend Me continually, by transgressing My commands and abandoning My divine law — I warn you all, that if you continue to live in sin, and I behold in you neither remorse, nor contrition, nor a true and sincere confession and satisfaction, I shall make you feel the weight of My divine arm. But for the prayers of My dear mother, I should already have destroyed the earth, for the sins which you commit one against another. I have given you six days to labor, and the seventh to rest, to sanctify My Holy Name, to hear the holy mass, and employ the remainder of the day in the service of God My Father. But, on the contrary, nothing is to be seen but blasphemy and drunkenness; and so disordered is the world that all in it is vanity and lies. Christians, instead of taking compassion on the poor whom they behold every day at their doors, prefer fondling dogs and other animals, and letting the poor die of hunger and thirst — abandoning themselves entirely to Satan by their avarice, gluttony, and other vices; instead of relieving the needy, they prefer sacrificing all to their pleasures and debauchery. Thus do they declare war against Me. And you, iniquitous fathers and mothers, suffer your children to swear and blaspheme against My holy name; instead of giving them a good education, you avariciously lay up for them wealth, which is dedicated to Satan. I tell you, by the mouth of God My Father and My dear mother, of all the cherubim and seraphim, and by St. Peter, the head of My church, that if you do not amend your ways, I will send you extraordinary diseases, by which all shall perish. You shall feel the just anger of God My Father; you shall be reduced to such a state that you shall not know one another. Open your eyes, and contemplate My cross, which I have left to be your weapon against the enemy of mankind, and your guide to eternal glory; look upon My head crowned with thorns, My feet and hands pierced with nails; I shed the last drop of My blood to redeem you, from pure fatherly love for ungrateful children. Do such works as may secure to you My mercy; do not swear by My Holy Name; pray to Me devoutly; fast often; and in particular give alms to the poor, who are members of My body — for of all good works this is the most pleasing to Me; neither despise the widow nor the orphan; make restitution of that which does not belong to you; fly all occasions of sin; carefully keep My commandments; and honor Mary My very dear mother.

“Such of you who shall not profit by the warnings I give them, such as shall not believe My words, will, by their obstinacy, bring down My avenging arm upon their heads; they shall be overwhelmed by misfortunes, which shall be the forerunners of their final and unhappy end; after which they shall be cast into everlasting flames, where they shall suffer endless pains — the just punishment reserved for their crimes.

“On the other hand, such of you as shall make a holy use of the warnings of God, given them in this letter, shall appease His wrath, and shall obtain from Him, after a sincere confession of their faults, the remission of their sins, how great soever they may be.

“De Beauvoir, Lieut.-Gen. of Police.

“This letter must be carefully kept, in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

N. B. — It must be observed that this piece of absurdity was printed at Bourges, without there having been, either at Tréguier or at Paimpole, the smallest pretence that could afford occasion for such an imposture. However, we will suppose that in a future age some miracle-finder shall think fit to prove a point in divinity by the appearance of Jesus Christ on the altar at Paimpole, will he not think himself entitled to quote Christ’s own letter, printed at Bourges “with permission”? Will he not prove, by facts, that in our time Jesus worked miracles everywhere? Here is a fine field opened for the Houtevilles and the Abadies.

§ III.
A Fresh Instance of the Most Horrible Superstition.

The thirty conspirators who fell upon the king of Poland, in the night of November 3, of the present year, 1771, had communicated at the altar of the Holy Virgin, and had sworn by the Holy Virgin to butcher their king.

It seems that some one of the conspirators was not entirely in a state of grace, when he received into his stomach the body of the Holy Virgin’s own Son, together with His blood, under the appearance of bread; and that while he was taking the oath to kill his king, he had his god in his mouth for only two of the king’s domestics. The guns and pistols fired at his majesty missed him; he received only a slight shot-wound in the face, and several sabre-wounds, which were not mortal. His life would have been at an end, but that humanity at length combated superstition in the breast of one of the assassins named Kosinski. What a moment was that when this wretched man said to the bleeding prince: “You are, however, my king!” “Yes,” answered Stanislaus Augustus, “and your good king, who has never done you any harm.” “True,” said the other; “but I have taken an oath to kill you.”

They had sworn before the miraculous image of the virgin at Czentoshova. The following is the formula of this fine oath: “We — who, excited by a holy and religious zeal, have resolved to avenge the Deity, religion, and our country, outraged by Stanislaus Augustus, a despiser of laws both divine and human, a favorer of atheists and heretics, do promise and swear, before the sacred and miraculous image of the mother of God, to extirpate from the face of the earth him who dishonors her by trampling on religion. . . . . So help us God!”

Thus did the assassins of Sforza, of Medici, and so many other holy assassins, have masses said, or say them themselves, for the happy success of their undertaking.

The letter from Warsaw which gives the particulars of this attempt, adds: “The religious who employ their pious ardor in causing blood to flow and ravaging their country, have succeeded in Poland, as elsewhere, in inculcating on the minds of their affiliated, that it is allowable to kill kings.”

Indeed, the assassins had been hidden in Warsaw for three days in the house of the reverend Dominican fathers; and when these accessory monks were asked why they had harbored thirty armed men without informing the government of it, they answered, that these men had come to perform their devotions, and to fulfil a vow.

O ye times of Châtel, of Guinard, of Ricodovis, of Poltrot, of Ravaillac, of Damiens, of Malagrida, are you then returning? Holy Virgin, and Thou her holy Son, let not Your sacred names be abused for the commission of the crime which disgraced them!

M. Jean Georges le Franc, bishop of Puy-en-Velay, says, in his immense pastoral letter to the inhabitants of Puy, pages 258-9, that it is the philosophers who are seditious. And whom does he accuse of sedition? Readers, you will be astonished; it is Locke, the wise Locke himself! He makes him an accomplice in the pernicious designs of the earl of Shaftesbury, one of the heroes of the philosophical party.

Alas! M. Jean Georges, how many mistakes in a few words! First, you take the grandson for the grandfather. The earl of Shaftesbury, author of the “Characteristics” and the “Inquiry Into Virtue,” that “hero of the philosophical party,” who died in 1713, cultivated letters all his life in the most profound retirement. Secondly, his grandfather, Lord-Chancellor Shaftesbury, to whom you attribute misdeeds, is considered by many in England to have been a true patriot. Thirdly, Locke is revered as a wise man throughout Europe.

I defy you to show me a single philosopher, from Zoroaster down to Locke, that has ever stirred up a sedition; that has ever been concerned in an attempt against the life of a king; that has ever disturbed society; and, unfortunately, I will find you a thousand votaries of superstition, from Ehud down to Kosinski, stained with the blood of kings and with that of nations. Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy extinguishes them. Perhaps these poor philosophers are not devoted enough to the Holy Virgin; but they are so to God, to reason, and to humanity.

Poles! if you are not philosophers, at least do not cut one another’s throats. Frenchmen! be gay, and cease to quarrel. Spaniards! let the words “inquisition” and “holy brotherhood” be no longer uttered among you. Turks, who have enslaved Greece — monks, who have brutalized her — disappear ye from the face of the earth.

§ IV.
Drawn from Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch.

Nearly all that goes farther than the adoration of a supreme being, and the submission of the heart to his eternal orders, is superstition. The forgiveness of crimes, which is attached to certain ceremonies, is a very dangerous one.

Et nigras mactant pecudes, et manibu’, divis,

Inferias mittunt.

— Lucretius, b. iii, 52-53.

O faciles nimium, qui tristia crimina cædis,

 Fluminea tolli posse putatis aqua!

— Ovid, Fasti ii, 45-46.

You think that God will forget your homicide, if you bathe in a river, if you immolate a black sheep, and a few words are pronounced over you. A second homicide then will be forgiven you at the same price, and so of a third; and a hundred murders will cost you only a hundred black sheep and a hundred ablutions. Ye miserable mortals, do better; but let there be no murders, and no offerings of black sheep.

What an infamous idea, to imagine that a priest of Isis and Cybele, by playing cymbals and castanets, will reconcile you to the Divinity. And what then is this priest of Cybele, this vagrant eunuch, who lives on your weakness, and sets himself up as a mediator between heaven and you? What patent has he received from God? He receives money from you for muttering words; and you think that the Being of Beings ratifies the utterance of this charlatan!

There are innocent superstitions; you dance on festival days, in honor of Diana or Pomona, or some one of the secular divinities of which your calendar is full; be it so. Dancing is very agreeable; it is useful to the body; it exhilarates the mind; it does no harm to any one; but do not imagine that Pomona and Vertumnus are much pleased at your having jumped in honor of them, and that they may punish you for having failed to jump. There are no Pomona and Vertumnus but the gardener’s spade and hoe. Do not be so imbecile as to believe that your garden will be hailed upon, if you have missed dancing the pyrrhic or the cordax.

There is one superstition which is perhaps pardonable, and even encouraging to virtue — that of placing among the gods great men who have been benefactors to mankind. It were doubtless better to confine ourselves to regarding them simply as venerable men, and above all, to imitating them. Venerate, without worshipping, a Solon, a Thales, a Pythagoras; but do not adore a Hercules for having cleansed the stables of Augeas, and for having lain with fifty women in one night.

Above all, beware of establishing a worship for vagabonds who have no merit but ignorance, enthusiasm, and filth; who have made idleness and beggary their duty and their glory. Do they who have been at best useless during their lives, merit an apotheosis after their deaths? Be it observed, that the most superstitious times have always been those of the most horrible crimes.

§ V.

The superstitious man is to the knave, what the slave is to the tyrant; nay more — the superstitious man is governed by the fanatic, and becomes a fanatic himself. Superstition, born in Paganism, adopted by Judaism, infected the Church in the earliest ages. All the fathers of the Church, without exception, believed in the power of magic. The Church always condemned magic, but she always believed in it; she excommunicated sorcerers, not as madmen who were in delusion, but as men who really had intercourse with the devils.

At this day, one half of Europe believes that the other half has long been and still is superstitious. The Protestants regard relics, indulgences, macerations, prayers for the dead, holy water, and almost all the rites of the Roman church, as mad superstitions. According to them, superstition consists in mistaking useless practices for necessary ones. Among the Roman Catholics there are some, more enlightened than their forefathers, who have renounced many of these usages formerly sacred; and they defend their adherence to those which they have retained, by saying they are indifferent, and what is indifferent cannot be an evil.

It is difficult to mark the limits of superstition. A Frenchman travelling in Italy thinks almost everything superstitious; nor is he much mistaken. The archbishop of Canterbury asserts that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians cast the same reproach upon his grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who in the eyes of the rest of Christians are the most superstitious of all.

It is then nowhere agreed among Christian societies what superstition is. The sect which appears to be the least violently attacked by this mental disease, is that which has the fewest rites. But if, with but few ceremonies, it is strongly attached to an absurd belief, that absurd belief is of itself equivalent to all the superstitious practices observed from the time of Simon the Magician, down to that of the curate Gaufredi. It is therefore evident that what is the foundation of the religion of one sect, is by another sect regarded as superstitious.

The Mussulmans accuse all Christian societies of it, and are accused of it by them. Who shall decide this great cause? Shall not reason? But each sect declares that reason is on its side. Force then will decide, until reason shall have penetrated into a sufficient number of heads to disarm force.

For instance: there was a time in Christian Europe when a newly married pair were not permitted to enjoy the nuptial rights, until they had bought that privilege of the bishop and the curate. Whosoever, in his will, did not leave a part of his property to the Church, was excommunicated, and deprived of burial. This was called dying unconfessed — i. e., not confessing the Christian religion. And when a Christian died intestate, the Church relieved the deceased from this excommunication, by making a will for him, stipulating for and enforcing the payment of the pious legacy which the defunct should have made.

Therefore it was, that Pope Gregory IX. and St. Louis ordained, after the Council of Nice, held in 1235, that every will to the making of which a priest had not been called, should be null; and the pope decreed that the testator and the notary should be excommunicated.

The tax on sins was, if possible, still more scandalous. It was force which supported all these laws, to which the superstition of nations submitted; and it was only in the course of time that reason caused these shameful vexations to be abolished, while it left so many others in existence.

How far does policy permit superstition to be undermined? This is a very knotty question; it is like asking how far a dropsical man may be punctured without his dying under the operation; this depends on the prudence of the physician.

Can there exist a people free from all superstitious prejudices? This is asking, Can there exist a people of philosophers? It is said that there is no superstition in the magistracy of China. It is likely that the magistracy of some towns in Europe will also be free from it. These magistrates will then prevent the superstition of the people from being dangerous. Their example will not enlighten the mob; but the principal citizens will restrain it. Formerly, there was not perhaps a single religious tumult, not a single violence, in which the townspeople did not take part, because these townspeople were then part of the mob; but reason and time have changed them. Their ameliorated manners will improve those of the lowest and most ferocious of the populace; of which, in more countries than one, we have striking examples. In short, the fewer superstitions, the less fanaticism; and the less fanaticism, the fewer calamities.

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