Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Must not a man be very thoroughly possessed by the demon of etymology to say, with Pezron and others, that the Roman word augurium came from the Celtic words au and gur? According to these learned men au must, among the Basques and Bas-Bretons, have signified the liver, because asu, which (say they) signified left, doubtless stood for the liver, which is on the right side; and gur meant man, or yellow, or red, in that Celtic tongue of which we have not one memorial. Truly this is powerful reasoning.

Absurd curiosity (for we must call things by their right names) has been carried so far as to seek Hebrew and Chaldee derivations from certain Teutonic and Celtic words. This, Bochart never fails to do. It is astonishing with what confidence these men of genius have proved that expressions used on the banks of the Tiber were borrowed from the patois of the savages of Biscay. Nay, they even assert that this patois was one of the first idioms of the primitive language — the parent of all other languages throughout the world. They have only to proceed, and say that all the various notes of birds come from the cry of the two first parrots, from which every other species of birds has been produced.

The religious folly of auguries was originally founded on very sound and natural observations. The birds of passage have always marked the progress of the seasons. We see them come in flocks in the spring, and return in the autumn. The cuckoo is heard only in fine weather, which his note seems to invite. The swallows, skimming along the ground, announce rain. Each climate has its bird, which is in effect its augury.

Among the observing part of mankind there were, no doubt, knaves who persuaded fools that there was something divine in these animals, and that their flight presaged our destinies, which were written on the wings of a sparrow just as clearly as in the stars.

The commentators on the allegorical and interesting story of Joseph sold by his brethren, and made Pharaoh’s prime minister for having explained his dreams, infer that Joseph was skilled in the science of auguries, from the circumstance that Joseph’s steward is commanded to say to his brethren, “Is not this it (the silver cup) in which my lord drinketh? and whereby indeed he divineth?” Joseph, having caused his brethren to be brought back before him, says to them: “What deed is this that ye have done? Wot ye not that such a man as I can certainly divine?”

Judah acknowledges, in the name of his brethren, that Joseph is a great diviner, and that God has inspired him: “God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.” At that time they took Joseph for an Egyptian lord. It is evident from the text that they believe the God of the Egyptians and of the Jews had discovered to this minister the theft of his cup.

Here, then, we have auguries or divination clearly established in the Book of Genesis; so clearly that it is afterwards forbidden in Leviticus: “Ye shall not eat anything with the blood; neither shall ye use enchantment nor observe times. Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.”

As for the superstition of seeing the future in a cup, it still exists, and is called seeing in a glass. The individual must never have known pollution; he must turn towards the east, and pronounce the words, Abraxa per dominum nostrum, after which he will see in a glass of water whatever he pleases. Children were usually chosen for this operation. They must retain their hair; a shaven head, or one wearing a wig, can see nothing in a glass. This pastime was much in vogue in France during the regency of the duke of Orleans, and still more so in the times preceding.

As for auguries, they perished with the Roman Empire. Only the bishops have retained the augurial staff, called the crosier; which was the distinctive mark of the dignity of augur; so that the symbol of falsehood has become the symbol of truth.

There were innumerable kinds of divinations, of which several have reached our latter ages. This curiosity to read the future is a malady which only philosophy can cure, for the weak minds that still practise these pretended arts of divination — even the fools who give themselves to the devil — all make religion subservient to these profanations, by which it is outraged.

It is an observation worthy of the wise, that Cicero, who was one of the college of augurs, wrote a book for the sole purpose of turning auguries into ridicule; but they have likewise remarked that Cicero, at the end of his book, says that “superstition should be destroyed, but not religion. For,” he adds, “the beauty of the universe, and the order of the heavenly bodies force us to acknowledge an eternal and powerful nature. We must maintain the religion which is joined with the knowledge of this nature, by utterly extirpating superstition, for it is a monster which pursues and presses us on every side. The meeting with a pretended diviner, a presage, an immolated victim, a bird, a Chaldæan, an aruspice, a flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, an event accidentally corresponding with what has been foretold to us, everything disturbs and makes us uneasy; sleep itself, which should make us forget all these pains and fears, serves but to redouble them by frightful images.”

Cicero thought he was addressing only a few Romans, but he was speaking to all men and all ages.

Most of the great men of Rome no more believed in auguries than Alexander VI., Julius II., and Leo X., believed in Our Lady of Loretto and the blood of St. Januarius. However, Suetonius relates that Octavius, surnamed Augustus, was so weak as to believe that a fish, which leaped from the sea upon the shore at Actium, foreboded that he should gain the battle. He adds that, having afterwards met an ass-driver, he asked him the name of his ass; and the man having answered that his ass was named Nicholas, which signifies conqueror of nations, he had no longer any doubts about the victory; and that he afterwards had brazen statues erected to the ass-driver, the ass, and the jumping fish. He further assures us that these statues were placed in the Capitol.

It is very likely that this able tyrant laughed at the superstitions of the Romans, and that his ass, the driver, and the fish, were nothing more than a joke. But it is no less likely that, while he despised all the follies of the vulgar, he had a few of his own. The barbarous and dissimulating Louis XI. had a firm faith in the cross of St. Louis. Almost all princes, excepting such as have had time to read, and read to advantage, are in some degree infected with superstition.

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