Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Contemptible Customs do not Always Imply a Contemptible Nation.

There are cases in which we must not judge of a nation by its usages and popular superstitions. Suppose Cæsar, after having conquered Egypt, wishing to make commerce flourish in the Roman Empire, had sent an embassy to China by the port of Arsinoë, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The emperor Yventi, the first of the name, then reigned in China; the Chinese annals represent him to us as a very wise and learned prince. After receiving the ambassadors of Cæsar with all Chinese politeness, he secretly informs himself through his interpreter of the customs, the usages, sciences, and religion of the Roman people, as celebrated in the West as the Chinese people are in the East. He first learns that their priests have regulated their years in so absurd a manner, that the sun has already entered the celestial signs of Spring when the Romans celebrate the first feasts of Winter. He learns that this nation at a great expense supports a college of priests, who know exactly the time in which they must embark, and when they should give battle, by the inspection of a bullock’s liver, or the manner in which fowls eat grain. This sacred science was formerly taught to the Romans by a little god named Tages, who came out of the earth in Tuscany. These people adore a supreme and only God, whom they always call a very great and very good God; yet they have built a temple to a courtesan named Flora, and the good women of Rome have almost all little gods — Penates — in their houses, about four or five inches high. One of these little divinities is the goddess of bosoms, another that of posteriors. They have even a divinity whom they call the god Pet. The emperor Yventi began to laugh; and the tribunals of Nankin at first think with him that the Roman ambassadors are knaves or impostors, who have taken the title of envoys of the Roman Republic; but as the emperor is as just as he is polite, he has particular conversations with them. He then learns that the Roman priests were very ignorant, but that Cæsar actually reformed the calendar. They confess to him that the college of augurs was established in the time of their early barbarity, that they have allowed this ridiculous institution, become dear to a people long ignorant, to exist, but that all sensible people laugh at the augurs; that Cæsar never consulted them; that, according to the account of a very great man named Cato, no augur could ever look another in the face without laughing; and finally, that Cicero, the greatest orator and best philosopher of Rome, wrote a little work against the augurs, entitled “Of Divination,” in which he delivers up to eternal ridicule all the predictions and sorceries of soothsayers with which the earth is infatuated. The emperor of China has the curiosity to read this book of Cicero; the interpreters translate it; and in consequence he admires at once the book and the Roman Republic

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