Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Augustine, a native of Tagaste, is here to be considered, not as a bishop, a doctor, a father of the Church, but simply as a man. This is a question in physics, respecting the climate of Africa.

When a youth, Augustine was a great libertine, and the spirit was no less quick in him than the flesh. He says that before he was twenty years old he had learned arithmetic, geometry and music without a master.

Does not this prove that, in Africa, which we now call Barbary, both minds and bodies advance to maturity more rapidly than among us?

These valuable advantages of St. Augustine would lead one to believe that Empedocles was not altogether in the wrong when he regarded fire as the principle of nature. It is assisted, but by subordinate agents. It is like a king governing the actions of all his subjects, and sometimes inflaming the imaginations of his people rather too much. It is not without reason that Syphax says to Juba, in the Cato of Addison, that the sun which rolls its fiery car over African heads places a deeper tinge upon the cheeks, and a fiercer flame within their hearts. That the dames of Zama are vastly superior to the pale beauties of the north:

The glowing dames of Zama’s royal court

Have faces flushed with more exalted charms;

Were you with these, my prince, you’d soon forget

The pale unripened beauties of the north.

Where shall we find in Paris, Strasburg, Ratisbon, or Vienna young men who have learned arithmetic, the mathematics and music without assistance, and who have been fathers at fourteen?

Doubtless it is no fable that Atlas, prince of Mauritania, called by the Greeks the son of heaven, was a celebrated astronomer, and constructed a celestial sphere such as the Chinese have had for so many ages. The ancients, who expressed everything in allegory, likened this prince to the mountain which bears his name, because it lifts its head above the clouds, which have been called the heavens by all mankind who have judged of things only from the testimony of their eyes.

These Moors cultivated the sciences with success, and taught Spain and Italy for five centuries. Things are greatly altered. The country of Augustine is now but a den of pirates, while England, Italy, Germany, and France, which were involved in barbarism, are greater cultivators of the arts than ever the Arabians were.

Our only object, then, in this article is to show how changeable a scene this world is. Augustine, from a debauchee, becomes an orator and a philosopher; he puts himself forward in the world; he teaches rhetoric; he turns Manichæan, and from Manichæanism passes to Christianity. He causes himself to be baptized, together with one of his bastards, named Deodatus; he becomes a bishop, and a father of the Church. His system of grace has been reverenced for eleven hundred years as an article of faith. At the end of eleven hundred years some Jesuits find means to procure an anathema against Augustine’s system, word for word, under the names of Jansenius, St. Cyril, Arnaud, and Quesnel. We ask if this revolution is not, in its kind, as great as that of Africa, and if there be anything permanent upon earth?

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