Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Author is a generic term, which, like the names of all other professions, may signify author of the good, or of the bad; of the respectable, or of the ridiculous; of the useful, or the agreeable; or lastly, the producer of disgusting trash.

This name is also common to different things. We say equally the author of nature and the author of the songs of the Pont Neuf, or of the literary age. The author of a good work should beware of three things — title, dedication, and preface. Others should take care of the fourth, which is writing at all.

As to the title, if the author has the wish to put his name to it, which is often very dangerous, it should at least be under a modest form; it is not pleasant to see a pious work, full of lessons of humanity, by Sir or My Lord. The reader, who is always malicious, and who often is wearied, usually turns into ridicule a book that is announced with so much ostentation. The author of the “Imitation of Jesus Christ” did not put his name to it.

But the apostles, you will say, put their names to their works; that is not true, they were too modest. The apostle Matthew never entitled his book the Gospel of St. Matthew; it is a homage that has been paid to him since. St. Luke himself, who collected all that he had heard said, and who dedicated his book to Theophilus, did not call it the Gospel of St. Luke. St. John alone mentions himself in the Apocalypse; and it is supposed that this book was written by Cerinthus, who took the name of John to give authority to his production.

However it may have been in past ages, it appears to me very bold in authors now to put names and titles at the head of their works. The bishops never fail to do so, and the thick quartos which they give us under the title of mandaments are decorated with armorial bearings and the insignia of their station; a word, no doubt, is said about Christian humility, but this word is often followed by atrocious calumnies against those who are of another communion or party. We only speak here, however, of poor profane authors. The duke de la Rochefoucauld did not announce his thoughts as the production of Monseigneur le duc de la Rochefoucauld, pair de France. Some persons who only make compilations in which there may be fine things, will find it injudicious to announce them as the work of A. B., professor of the university of — doctor of divinity, member of this or of that academy, and so on. So many dignities do not render the book better. It will still be wished that it was shorter, more philosophical, less filled with old stories. With respect to titles and quality, nobody cares about them.

Dedications are often only offerings from interested baseness to disdainful vanity. Who would believe that Rohaut, soi-disant physician, in his dedication to the duke of Guise, told him that his ancestors had maintained, at the expense of their blood, political truth, the fundamental laws of the state, and the rights of sovereigns? Le Balafré and the duke of Mayenne would be a little surprised if this epistle were read to them in the other world. And what would Henry IV. say? Most of the dedications in England are made for money, just as the capuchins present us with salad on condition of our giving them drink.

Men of letters in France are ignorant of this shameful abasement, and have never exhibited so much meanness, except some unfortunates, who call themselves men of letters in the same sense that sign-daubers boast of being of the profession of Raphael, and that the coachman of Vertamont was a poet.

Prefaces are another rock. “The I is hateful,” says Pascal. Speak of yourself as little as you can, for you ought to be aware that the self-love of the reader is as great as your own. He will never pardon you for wishing to oblige him to esteem you. It is for your book to speak to him, should it happen to be read among the crowd.

“The illustrious suffrages with which my piece has been honored will make me dispense with answering my adversaries — the applauses of the public.” Erase all that, sir; believe me you have had no illustrious suffrages; your piece is eternally forgotten.

“Some censors have pretended that there are too many events in the third act; and that in the fourth the princess is too late in discovering the tender sentiments of her heart for her lover. To that I answer —” Answer nothing, my friend, for nobody has spoken, or will speak of thy princess. Thy piece has fallen because it is tiresome, and written in flat and barbarous verse; thy preface is a prayer for the dead, but it will not revive them.

Others attest that all Europe has not understood their treatises on compatibility — on the Supralapsarians — on the difference which should be made between the Macedonian and Valentinian heresies, etc. Truly, I believe that nobody understands them, since nobody reads them.

We are inundated with this trash and with continual repetition; with insipid romances which copy their predecessors; with new systems founded on ancient reveries; and little histories taken from larger ones.

Do you wish to be an author? Do you wish to make a book? Recollect that it must be new and useful, or at least agreeable. Why from your provincial retreat would you assassinate me with another quarto, to teach me that a king ought to be just, and that Trajan was more virtuous than Caligula? You insist upon printing the sermons which have lulled your little obscure town to repose, and will put all our histories under contributions to extract from them the life of a prince of whom you can say nothing new.

If you have written a history of your own time, doubt not but you will find some learned chronologist, or newspaper commentator, who will relieve you as to a date, a Christian name, or a squadron which you have wrongly placed at the distance of three hundred paces from the place where it really stood. Be grateful, and correct these important errors forthwith.

If an ignoramus, or an empty fool, pretend to criticise this thing or the other, you may properly confute him; but name him rarely, for fear of soiling your writings. If you are attacked on your style, never answer; your work alone should reply.

If you are said to be sick, content yourself that you are well, without wishing to prove to the people that you are in perfect health; and, above all, remember that the world cares very little whether you are well or ill.

A hundred authors compile to get their bread, and twenty fools extract, criticise, apologize, and satirize these compilations to get bread also, because they have no profession. All these people repair on Fridays to the lieutenant of the police at Paris to demand permission to sell their drugs. They have audience immediately after the courtesans, who do not regard them, because they know that they are poor customers.

They return with a tacit permission to sell and distribute throughout the kingdom their stories; their collection of bon-mots; the life of the unfortunate Régis; the translation of a German poem; new discoveries on eels; a new copy of verses; a treatise on the origin of bells, or on the loves of the toads. A bookseller buys their productions for ten crowns; they give five of them to the journalist, on condition that he will speak well of them in his newspaper. The critic takes their money, and says all the ill he can of their books. The aggrieved parties go to complain to the Jew, who protects the wife of the journalist, and the scene closes by the critic being carried to Fort Evêque; and these are they who call themselves authors!

These poor people are divided into two or three bands, and go begging like mendicant friars; but not having taken vows their society lasts only for a few days, for they betray one another like priests who run after the same benefice, though they have no benefice to hope for. But they still call themselves authors!

The misfortune of these men is that their fathers did not make them learn a trade, which is a great defect in modern policy. Every man of the people who can bring up his son in a useful art, and does not, merits punishment. The son of a mason becomes a Jesuit at seventeen; he is chased from society at four and twenty, because the levity of his manners is too glaring. Behold him without bread! He turns journalist, he cultivates the lowest kind of literature, and becomes the contempt and horror of even the mob. And such as these, again, call themselves authors!

The only authors are they who have succeeded in a genuine art, be it epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, history, or philosophy, and who teach or delight mankind. The others, of whom we have spoken, are, among men of letters, like bats among the birds. We cite, comment, criticise, neglect, forget, and, above all, despise an author who is an author only.

Apropos of citing an author, I must amuse myself with relating a singular mistake of the reverend Father Viret, cordelier and professor of theology. He read in the “Philosophy of History” of the good Abbé Bazin that no author ever cited a passage of Moses before Longinus, who lived and died in the time of the Emperor Aurelian. Forthwith the zeal of St. Francis was kindled in him. Viret cries out that it is not true; that several writers have said that there had been a Moses, that even Josephus had spoken at length upon him, and that the Abbé Bazin is a wretch who would destroy the seven sacraments. But, dear Father Viret, you ought to inform yourself of the meaning of the word, to cite. There is a great deal of difference between mentioning an author and citing him. To speak, to make mention of an author, is to say that he has lived — that he has written in such a time; to cite is to give one of his passages — as Moses says in his Exodus — as Moses has written in his Genesis. Now the Abbé Brazin affirms that no foreign writers — that none even of the Jewish prophets have ever quoted a single passage of Moses, though he was a divine author. Truly, Father Viret, you are very malicious, but we shall know at least, by this little paragraph, that you have been an author.

The most voluminous authors that we have had in France are the comptrollers-general of the finances. Ten great volumes might be made of their declarations, since the reign of Louis XIV. Parliaments have been sometimes the critics of these works, and have found erroneous propositions and contradictions in them. But where are the good authors who have not been censured?

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