Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This is a Greek word signifying an attack on reputation. We find blasphemia in Demosthenes. In the Greek Church it was used only to express an injury done to God. The Romans never made use of this expression, apparently not thinking that God’s honor could be offended like that of men.

There scarcely exists one synonym. Blasphemy does not altogether convey the idea of sacrilege. We say of a man who has taken God’s name in vain, who, in the violence of anger, has sworn — as it is expressed — by the name of God, that he has blasphemed; but we do not say that he has committed sacrilege. The sacrilegious man is he who perjures himself on the gospel, who extends his rapacity to sacred things, who imbrues his hands in the blood of priests.

Great sacrileges have always been punished with death in all nations, especially those accompanied by bloodshed. The author of the “Institutes au Droit Criminel,” reckons among divine high treasons in the second degree, the non-observance of Sundays and holidays. He should have said the non-observance attended with marked contempt, for simple negligence is a sin, but not, as he calls it, a sacrilege. It is absurd to class together, as this author does, simony, the carrying off of a nun, and the forgetting to go to vespers on a holiday. It is one great instance of the errors committed by writers on jurisprudence, who, not having been called upon to make laws, take upon themselves to interpret those of the state.

Blasphemies uttered in intoxication, in anger, in the excess of debauchery, or in the heat of unguarded conversation have been subjected by legislators to much lighter penalties. For instance, the advocate whom we have already cited says that the laws of France condemn simple blasphemers to a fine for the first offence, which is doubled for the second, tripled for the third, and quadrupled for the fourth offence; for the fifth relapse the culprit is set in the pillory, for the sixth relapse he is pilloried, and has his upper lip burned off with a hot iron, and for the seventh he loses his tongue. He should have added that this was an ordinance of the year 1666.

Punishments are almost always arbitrary, which is a great defect in jurisprudence. But this defect opens the way for clemency and compassion, and this compassion is no other than the strictest justice, for it would be horrible to punish a youthful indiscretion as poisoners and parricides are punished. A sentence of death for an offence which deserves nothing more than correction is no other than an assassination committed with the sword of justice.

Is it not to the purpose here to remark that what has been blasphemy in one country has often been piety in another?

Suppose a Tyrian merchant landed at the port of Canope: he might be scandalized on seeing an onion, a cat, or a goat carried in procession; he might speak indecorously of Isheth, Oshireth, and Horeth, or might turn aside his head and not fall on his knees at the sight of a procession with the parts of human generation larger than life; he might express his opinion at supper, or even sing some song in which the Tyrian sailors made a jest of the Egyptian absurdities. He might be overheard by the maid of the inn, whose conscience would not suffer her to conceal so enormous a crime; she would run and denounce the offender to the nearest shoen that bore the image of the truth on his breast, and it is known how this image of truth was made. The tribunal of the shoens or shotim, would condemn the Tyrian blasphemer to a dreadful death, and confiscate his vessel. Yet this merchant might be considered at Tyre as one of the most pious persons in Phœnicia.

Numa sees that his little horde of Romans is a collection of Latin freebooters who steal right and left all they can find — oxen, sheep, fowls, and girls. He tells them that he has spoken with the nymph Egeria in a cavern, and that the nymph has been employed by Jupiter to give him laws. The senators treat him at first as a blasphemer and threaten to throw him headlong from the Tarpeian rock. Numa makes himself a powerful party; he gains over some senators who go with him into Egeria’s grotto. She talks to them and converts them; they convert the senate and the people. In a little time Numa is no longer a blasphemer, the name is given only to such as doubt the existence of the nymph.

In our own times it is unfortunate that what is blasphemy at Rome, at our Lady of Loretto, and within the walls of San Gennaro, is piety in London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen, Berne, Basel, and Hamburg. It is yet more unfortunate that even in the same country, in the same town, in the same street, people treat one another as blasphemers.

Nay, of the ten thousand Jews living at Rome there is not one who does not regard the pope as the chief of the blasphemers, while the hundred thousand Christians who inhabit Rome, in place of two millions of Jovians who filled it in Trajan’s time, firmly believe that the Jews meet in their synagogues on Saturday for the purpose of blaspheming.

A Cordelier has no hesitation in applying the epithet of blasphemer to a Dominican who says that the Holy Virgin was born in original sin, notwithstanding that the Dominicans have a bull from the pope which permits them to teach the maculate conception in their convents, and that, besides this bull, they have in their forum the express declaration of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The first origin of the schism of three-fourths of Switzerland and a part of Lower Germany was a quarrel in the cathedral church of Frankfort between a Cordelier, whose name I forget, and a Dominican named Vigand.

Both were drunk, according to the custom of that day. The drunken Cordelier, who was preaching, thanked God that he was not a Jacobin, swearing that it was necessary to exterminate the blaspheming Jacobins who believed that the Holy Virgin had been born in mortal sin, and delivered from sin only by the merits of her son. The drunken Jacobin cried out: “Thou hast lied; thou thyself art a blasphemer.” The Cordelier descended from the pulpit with a great iron crucifix in his hand, laid it about his adversary, and left him almost dead on the spot.

To revenge this outrage the Dominicans worked many miracles in Germany and Switzerland; these miracles were designed to prove their faith. They at length found means to imprint the marks of our Lord Jesus Christ on one of their lay brethren named Jetzer. This operation was performed at Berne by the Holy Virgin herself, but she borrowed the hand of the sub-prior, who dressed himself in female attire and put a glory round his head. The poor little lay brother, exposed all bloody to the veneration of the people on the altar of the Dominicans at Berne, at last cried out murder! sacrilege! The monks, in order to quiet him as quickly as possible administered to him a host sprinkled with corrosive sublimate, but the excess of the dose made him discharge the host from his stomach.

The monks then accused him to the bishop of Lausanne of horrible sacrilege. The indignant people of Berne in their turn accused the monks, and four of them were burned at Berne on the 13th of May, 1509, at the Marsilly gate. Such was the termination of this abominable affair, which determined the people of Berne to choose a religion, bad indeed in Catholic eyes, but which delivered them from the Cordeliers and the Jacobins. The number of similar sacrileges is incredible. Such are the effects of party spirit.

The Jesuits maintained for a hundred years that the Jansenists were blasphemers, and proved it by a thousand lettres-de-cachet; the Jansenists by upwards of four thousand volumes demonstrated that it was the Jesuits who blasphemed. The writer of the “Gazettes Ecclésiastiques,” pretends that all honest men blaspheme against him, while he himself blasphemes from his garret on high against every honest man in the kingdom. The gazette-writer’s publisher blasphemes in return and complains that he is starving. He would find it better to be honest and polite.

One thing equally remarkable and consoling is that never in any country of the earth, among the wildest idolaters, has any man been considered as a blasphemer for acknowledging one supreme, eternal, and all-powerful God. It certainly was not for having acknowledged this truth that Socrates was condemned to the hemlock, for the doctrine of a Supreme God was announced in all the Grecian mysteries. It was a faction that destroyed Socrates; he was accused, at a venture, of not recognizing the secondary gods, and on this point it was that he was accused as a blasphemer.

The first Christians were accused of blasphemy for the same reason, but the partisans of the ancient religion of the empire, the Jovians, who reproached the primitive Christians with blasphemy, were at length condemned as blasphemers themselves, under Theodosius II. Dryden says:

This side to-day, to-morrow t’other burns,

And they’re all Gods Almighty in their turns.

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