Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We will add a little to the article “Ass” in the “Encyclopædia,” concerning Lucian’s ass, which became golden in the hands of Apuleius. The pleasantest part of the adventure, however, is in Lucian: That a lady fell in love with this gentleman while he was an ass, but would have nothing more to say to him when he was but a man. These metamorphoses were very common throughout antiquity. Silenus’s ass had spoken; and the learned had thought that he explained himself in Arabic; for he was probably a man turned into an ass by the power of Bacchus, and Bacchus, we know, was an Arab.

Virgil speaks of the transformation of Mœris into a wolf, as a thing of very ordinary occurrence:

Saepe lupum fieri Mœrim, et se condere silvis.

Oft changed to wolf, he seeks the forest shade.

Was this doctrine of metamorphoses derived from the old fables of Egypt, which gave out that the gods had changed themselves into animals in the war against the giants?

The Greeks, great imitators and improvers of the Oriental fables, metamorphosed almost all the gods into men or into beasts, to make them succeed the better in their amorous designs. If the gods changed themselves into bulls, horses, swans, doves, etc., why should not men have undergone the same operation?

Several commentators, forgetting the respect due to the Holy Scriptures, have cited the example of Nebuchadnezzar changed into an ox; but this was a miracle — a divine vengeance — a thing quite out of the course of nature, which ought not to be examined with profane eyes, and cannot become an object of our researches.

Others of the learned, perhaps with equal indiscretion, avail themselves of what is related in the Gospel of the Infancy. An Egyptian maiden having entered the chamber of some women, saw there a mule with a silken cloth over his back, and an ebony pendant at his neck.

These women were in tears, kissing him and giving him to eat. The mule was their own brother. Some sorceresses had deprived him of the human figure; but the Master of Nature soon restored it.

Although this gospel is apocryphal, the very name that it bears prevents us from examining this adventure in detail; only it may serve to show how much metamorphoses were in vogue almost throughout the earth. The Christians who composed their gospel were undoubtedly honest men. They did not seek to fabricate a romance; they related with simplicity what they had heard. The church, which afterwards rejected their gospel, together with forty-nine others, did not accuse its authority of impiety and prevarication; those obscure individuals addressed the populace in language comformable with the prejudices of the age in which they lived. China was perhaps the only country exempt from these superstitions.

The adventure of the companions of Ulysses, changed into beasts by Circe, was much more ancient than the dogma of the metempsychosis, broached in Greece and Italy by Pythagoras.

On what can the assertion be founded that there is no universal error which is not the abuse of some truth; that there have been quacks only because there have been true physicians; and that false prodigies have been believed only because there have been true ones?

Were there any certain testimonies that men had become wolves, oxen, horses, or asses? This universal error had for its principle only the love of the marvellous and the natural inclination to superstition.

One erroneous opinion is enough to fill the whole world with fables. An Indian doctor sees that animals have feeling and memory. He concludes that they have a soul. Men have one likewise. What becomes of the soul of man after death? What becomes of that of the beast? They must go somewhere. They go into the nearest body that is beginning to be formed. The soul of a Brahmin takes up its abode in the body of an elephant, the soul of an ass is that of a little Brahmin. Such is the dogma of the metempsychosis, which was built upon simple deduction.

But it is a wide step from this dogma to that of metamorphosis. We have no longer a soul without a tenement, seeking a lodging; but one body changed into another, the soul remaining as before. Now, we certainly have not in nature any example of such legerdemain.

Let us then inquire into the origin of so extravagant yet so general an opinion. If some father had characterized his son, sunk in ignorance and filthy debauchery, as a hog, a horse, or an ass, and afterwards made him do penance with an ass’s cap on his head, and some servant girl of the neighborhood gave it out that this young man had been turned into an ass as a punishment for his faults, her neighbors would repeat it to other neighbors, and from mouth to mouth this story, with a thousand embellishments, would make the tour of the world. An ambiguous expression would suffice to deceive the whole earth.

Here then let us confess, with Boileau, that ambiguity has been the parent of most of our ridiculous follies. Add to this the power of magic, which has been acknowledged as indisputable in all nations, and you will no longer be astonished at anything.

One word more on asses. It is said that in Mesopotamia they are warlike and that Mervan, the twenty-first caliph, was surnamed “the Ass,” for his valor.

The patriarch Photius relates, in the extract from the Life of Isidorus, that Ammonius had an ass which had a great taste for poetry, and would leave his manger to go and hear verses. The fable of Midas is better than the tale of Photius.

Machiavelli’s Golden Ass.

Machiavelli’s ass is but little known. The dictionaries which speak of it say that it was a production of his youth; it would seem, however, that he was of mature age; for he speaks in it of the misfortunes which he had formerly and for a long time experienced. The work is a satire on his contemporaries. The author sees a number of Florentines, of whom one is changed into a cat, another into a dragon, a third into a dog that bays the moon, a fourth into a fox who does not suffer himself to be caught; each character is drawn under the name of an animal. The factions of the house of Medicis and their enemies are doubtless figured therein; and the key to this comic apocalypse would admit us to the secrets of Pope Leo and the troubles of Florence. This poem is full of morality and philosophy. It ends with the very rational reflections of a large hog, which addresses man in nearly the following terms:

Ye naked bipeds, without beaks or claws,

 Hairless, and featherless, and tender-hided,

Weeping ye come into the world — because

 Ye feel your evil destiny decided;

Nature has given you industrious paws;

 You, like the parrots, are with speech provided;

But have ye honest hearts? — Alas! alas!

In this we swine your bipedships surpass!

Man is far worse than we — more fierce, more wild —

 Coward or madman, sinning every minute;

By frenzy and by fear in turn beguiled,

 He dreads the grave, yet plunges headlong in it;

If pigs fall out, they soon are reconciled;

 Their quarrel’s ended ere they well begin it.

If crime with manhood always must combine,

Good Lord! let me forever be a swine.

This is the original of Boileau’s “Satire on Man,” and La Fontaine’s fable of the “Companions of Ulysses”; but it is quite likely that neither La Fontaine nor Boileau had ever heard of Machiavelli’s ass.

The Ass of Verona.

I must speak the truth, and not deceive my readers. I do not very clearly know whether the Ass of Verona still exists in all his splendor; but the travellers who saw him forty or fifty years ago agree in saying that the relics were enclosed in the body of an artificial ass made on purpose, which was in the keeping of forty monks of Our Lady of the Organ, at Verona, and was carried in procession twice a year. This was one of the most ancient relics of the town. According to the tradition, this ass, having carried our Lord in his entry into Jerusalem, did not choose to abide any longer in that city, but trotted over the sea — which for that purpose became as hard as his hoof — by way of Cyprus, Rhodes, Candia, Malta, and Sicily. There he went to sojourn at Aquilea; and at last he settled at Verona, where he lived a long while.

This fable originated in the circumstance that most asses have a sort of black cross on their backs. There possibly might be an old ass in the neighborhood of Verona, on whose back the populace remarked a finer cross than his brethren could boast of; some good old woman would be at hand to say that this was the ass on which Christ rode into Jerusalem; and the ass would be honored with a magnificent funeral. The feast established at Verona passed into other countries, and was especially celebrated in France. In the mass was sung:

Orientis partibus

Adventabit asinus,

Pulcher et fortissimus.

There was a long procession, headed by a young woman with a child in her arms, mounted on an ass, representing the Virgin Mary going into Egypt. At the end of the mass the priest, instead of saying Ite missa est, brayed three times with all his might, and the people answered in chorus.

We have books on the feast of the ass, and the feast of fools; they furnish material towards a universal history of the human mind.

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