Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Every prince who puts himself at the head of a party, and succeeds, is sure of being praised to all eternity, if the party lasts that time; and his adversaries may be assured that they will be treated by orators, poets, and preachers, as Titans who revolted against the gods. This is what happened to Octavius Augustus, when his good fortune made him defeat Brutus, Cassius, and Antony. It was the lot of Constantine, when Maxentius, the legitimate emperor, elected by the Roman senate and people, fell into the water and was drowned.

Theodosius had the same advantage. Woe to the vanquished! blessed be the victorious! — that is the motto of mankind. Theodosius was a Spanish officer, the son of a Spanish soldier of fortune. As soon as he was emperor he persecuted the anticonsubstantialists. Judge of the applauses, benedictions, and pompous eulogies, on the part of the consubstantialists! Their adversaries scarcely subsist any longer; their complaints and clamors against the tyranny of Theodosius have perished with them, and the predominant party still lavishes on this prince the epithets of pious, just, clement, wise, and great.

One day this pious and clement prince, who loved money to distraction, proposed laying a very heavy tax upon the city of Antioch, then the finest of Asia Minor. The people, in despair, having demanded a slight diminution, and not being able to obtain it, went so far as to break some statues, among which was one of the soldier, the emperor’s father. St. John Chrysostom, or golden mouth, the priest and flatterer of Theodosius, failed not to call this action a detestable sacrilege, since Theodosius was the image of God, and his father was almost as sacred as himself. But if this Spaniard resembled God, he should have remembered that the Antiochians also resembled Him, and that men formed after the exemplar of all the gods existed before emperors.

Finxit in effigiem moderantum cuncta deorum.

— Ovid, Met. i, b. 83.

Theodosius immediately sent a letter to the governor, with an order to apply the torture to the principal images of God who had taken part in this passing sedition; to make them perish under blows received from cords terminated with leaden balls; to burn some, and deliver others up to the sword. This was executed with all the punctuality of a governor who did his duty like a Christian, who paid his court well, and who would make his way there. The Orontes bore nothing but corpses to the sea for several days; after which, his gracious imperial majesty pardoned the Antiochians with his usual clemency, and doubled the tax.

How did the emperor Julian act in the same city, when he had received a more personal and injurious outrage? It was not a paltry statue of his father which they defaced; it was to himself that the Antiochians addressed themselves, and against whom they composed the most violent satires. The philosophical emperor answered them by a light and ingenious satire. He took from them neither their lives nor their purses. He contented himself with having more wit than they had. This is the man whom St. Gregory Nazianzen and Theodoret, who were not of his communion, dare to calumniate so far as to say that he sacrificed women and children to the moon; while those who were of the communion of Theodosius have persisted to our day in copying one another, by saying in a hundred ways, that Theodosius was the most virtuous of men, and by wishing to make him a saint.

We know well enough what was the mildness of this saint in the massacre of fifteen thousand of his subjects at Thessalonica. His panegyrists reduce the number of the murdered to seven or eight thousand, which is a very small number to them; but they elevate to the sky the tender piety of this good prince, who deprived himself of mass, as also that of his accomplice, the detestable Rufinus. I confess once more, that it was a great expiation, a great act of devotion, the not going to mass; but it restores not life to fifteen thousand innocents, slain in cold blood by an abominable perfidy. If a heretic was stained with such a crime, with what pleasure would all historians turn their boasting against him; with what colors would they paint him in the pulpits and college declamations!

I will suppose that the prince of Parma entered Paris, after having forced our dear Henry IV. to raise the siege; I will suppose that Philip II. gave the throne of France to his Catholic daughter, and to the young Catholic duke of Guise; how many pens and voices would forever have anathematized Henry IV., and the Salic law! They would be both forgotten, and the Guises would be the heroes of the state and religion. Thus it is — applaud the prosperous and fly the miserable! “Et cole felices, miseros fuge.”

If Hugh Capet dispossess the legitimate heir of Charlemagne, he becomes the root of a race of heroes. If he fails, he may be treated as the brother of St. Louis since treated Conradin and the duke of Austria, and with much more reason.

Pepin rebels, dethrones the Merovingian race, and shuts his king in a cloister; but if he succeeds not, he mounts the scaffold. If Clovis, the first king of Belgic Gaul, is beaten in his invasion, he runs the risk of being condemned to the fangs of beasts, as one of his ancestors was by Constantine. Thus goes the world under the empire of fortune, which is nothing but necessity, insurmountable fatality. “Fortuna sævo læta negotio.” She makes us blindly play her terrible game, and we never see beneath the cards.

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