Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Why has Louis Racine treated Bayle like a dangerous man, with a cruel heart, in an epistle to Jean Baptiste Rousseau, which, although printed, is but little known?

He compares Bayle, whose logical acuteness detected the errors of opposing systems, to Marius sitting upon the ruins of Carthage:

Ainsi d’un œil content Marius, dans sa fuite,

Contemplait les débris de Carthage détruite.

Thus exiled Marius, with contented gaze,

Thy ruins, Carthage, silently surveys.

Here is a simile which exhibits very little resemblance, or, as Pope says, a simile dissimilar. Marius had not destroyed reason and arguments, nor did he contentedly view its ruins, but, on the contrary, he was penetrated with an elevated sentiment of melancholy on contemplating the vicissitudes of human affairs, when he made the celebrated answer: “Say to the proconsul of Africa that thou hast seen Marius seated on the ruins of Carthage.”

We ask in what Marius resembled Bayle? Louis Racine, if he thinks fit, may apply the epithets “hardhearted” and “cruel” to Marius, to Sulla, to the triumvirs, but, in reference to Bayle the phrases “detestable pleasure,” “cruel heart,” “terrible man,” should not be put in a sentence written by Louis Racine against one who is only proved to have weighed the arguments of the Manichæans, the Paulicians, the Arians, the Eutychians, against those of their adversaries. Louis Racine proportions not the punishment to the offence. He should remember that Bayle combated Spinoza, who was too much of a philosopher, and Jurieu, who was none at all. He should respect the good manners of Bayle and learn to reason from him. But he was a Jansenist, that is to say, he knew the words of the language of Jansenism and employed them at random. You may properly call cruel and terrible a powerful man who commands his slaves, on pain of death, to go and reap corn where he has sown thistles; who gives to some of them too much food, and suffers others to die of hunger; who kills his eldest son to leave a large fortune to the younger. All that is frightful and cruel, Louis Racine! It is said that such is the god of thy Jansenists, but I do not believe it. Oh slaves of party, people attacked with the jaundice, you constantly see everything yellow!

And to whom has the unthinking heir of a father who had a hundred times more taste than he has philosophy, addressed this miserable epistle against the virtuous Bayle? To Rousseau — to a poet who thinks still less; to a man whose principal merit has consisted in epigrams which are revolting to the most indulgent reader; to a man to whom it was alike whether he sang Jesus Christ or Giton. Such was the apostle to whom Louis Racine denounced Bayle as a miscreant. What motive could the author of “Phædra” and “Iphigenia” have for falling into such a prodigious error? Simply this, that Rousseau had made verses for the Jansenists, whom he then believed to be in high credit.

Such is the rage of faction let loose upon Bayle, but you do not hear any of the dogs who have howled against him bark against Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca, Epicurus, nor against the numerous philosophers of antiquity. It is all reserved for Bayle; he is their fellow citizen — he is of their time — his glory irritates them. Bayle is read and Nicole is not read; behold the source of the Jansenist hatred! Bayle is studied, but neither the reverend Father Croiset, nor the reverend Father Caussin; hence Jesuitical denouncement!

In vain has a Parliament of France done him the greatest honor in rendering his will valid, notwithstanding the severity of the law. The madness of party knows neither honor nor justice. I have not inserted this article to make the eulogy of the best of dictionaries, which would not be becoming here, and of which Bayle is not in need; I have written it to render, if I can, the spirit of party odious and ridiculous.

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