Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

You despise books; you, whose lives are absorbed in the vanities of ambition, the pursuit of pleasure, or in indolence, but remember that all the known world, excepting only savage nations, is governed by books. All Africa, to the limits of Ethiopia and Nigritia obeys the book of the Koran after bowing to the book of the Gospel. China is ruled by the moral book of Confucius, and a great part of India by the Veda. Persia was governed for ages by the books of one of the Zoroasters.

In a lawsuit or criminal process, your property, your honor, perhaps your life, depends on the interpretation of a book which you never read. It is, however, with books as with men, a very small number play a great part, the rest are confounded with the multitude.

By whom are mankind led in all civilized countries? By those who can read and write. You are acquainted with neither Hippocrates, nor Boerhaave, nor Sydenham, but you place your body in the hands of those who can read them. You leave your soul entirely to the care of those who are paid for reading the Bible, although there are not fifty of them who have read it through with attention.

The world is now so entirely governed by books that they who command in the city of the Scipios and the Catos have resolved that the books of their law shall be for themselves alone; they are their sceptre, which they have made it high treason in their subjects to touch without an express permission. In other countries it has been forbidden to think in print without letters-patent.

There are nations in which thought is considered merely as an article of commerce, the operations of the human understanding being valued only at so much per sheet. If the bookseller happens to desire a privilege for his merchandise whether he is selling “Rabelais,” or the “Fathers of the Church,” the magistrate grants the privilege without answering for the contents of the book.

In another country the liberty of explaining yourself by books is one of the most inviolable prerogatives. There you may print whatever you please, on pain of being tiresome, and of being punished if you have too much abused your natural right.

Before the admirable invention of printing, books were scarcer and dearer than jewels. There were scarcely any books in our barbarous nations, either before Charlemagne or after him, until the time of Charles V., king of France, called the Wise, and from this time to Francis I. the scarcity was extreme. The Arabs alone had them from the eighth to the thirteenth century of our era. China was full of them when we could neither read nor write.

Copyists were much employed in the Roman Empire from the time of the Scipios until the irruption of the barbarians. This was a very ungrateful employment. The dealers always paid authors and copyists very ill. It required two years of assiduous labor for a copyist to transcribe the whole Bible well on vellum, and what time and trouble to copy correctly in Greek and Latin the works of Origen, Clement of Alexandria and all the others writers called Fathers!

St. Hieronymos, or Hieronymus, whom we call Jerome, says, in one of his satirical letters against Rufinus that he has ruined himself with buying the works of Origen, against whom he wrote with so much bitterness and violence. “Yes,” says he, “I have read Origen, if it be a crime I confess that I am guilty and that I exhausted my purse in buying his works at Alexandria.”

The Christian societies of the three first centuries had fifty-four gospels, of which, until Diocletian’s time scarcely two or three copies found their way among the Romans of the old religion.

Among the Christians it was an unpardonable crime to show the gospels to the Gentiles; they did not even lend them to the catechumens.

When Lucian (insulting our religion of which he knew very little) relates that “a troop of beggars took him up into a fourth story where they were invoking the Father through the Son, and foretelling misfortunes to the emperor and the empire,” he does not say that they showed him a single book. No Roman historian, no Roman author whomsoever makes mention of the gospels.

When a Christian, who was unfortunately rash and unworthy of his holy religion had publicly torn in pieces and trampled under foot an edict of the Emperor Diocletian, and had thus drawn down upon Christianity that persecution which succeeded the greatest toleration, the Christians were then obliged to give up their gospels and written authors to the magistrates, which before then had never been done. Those who gave up their books through fear of imprisonment, or even of death, were held by the rest of the Christians to be sacrilegious apostates, they received the surname of traditores, whence we have the word “traitor,” and several bishops asserted that they should be rebaptized, which occasioned a dreadful schism.

The poems of Homer were long so little known that Pisistratus was the first who put them in order and had them transcribed at Athens about five hundred years before the Christian era.

Perhaps there was not at this time in all the East a dozen copies of the Veda and the Zend-Avesta.

In 1700 you would not have found a single book in all Rome, excepting the missals and a few Bibles in the hands of papas drunk with brandy.

The complaint now is of their too great abundance. But it is not for readers to complain, the remedy is in their own hands; nothing forces them to read. Nor for authors, they who make the multitude of books have not to complain of being pressed. Notwithstanding this enormous quantity how few people read! But if they read, and read with advantage, should we have to witness the deplorable infatuations to which the vulgar are still every day a prey?

The reason that books are multiplied in spite of the general law that beings shall not be multiplied without necessity, is that books are made from books. A new history of France or Spain is manufactured from several volumes already printed, without adding anything new. All dictionaries are made from dictionaries; almost all new geographical books are made from other books of geography; St. Thomas’s Dream has brought forth two thousand large volumes of divinity, and the same race of little worms that have devoured the parent are now gnawing the children.

Écrive qui voudra, chacun a son métier

Peut perdre impunément de l’encre et du papier.

Write, write away; each writer at his pleasure

May squander ink and paper without measure.

§ II.

It is sometimes very dangerous to make a book. Silhouète, before he could suspect that he should one day be comptroller-general of the finances, published a translation of Warburton’s “Alliance of Church and State,” and his father-in-law, Astuce the physician, gave to the public the “Memoirs,” in which the author of the Pentateuch might have found all the astonishing things which happened so long before his time.

The very day that Silhouète came into office, some good friend of his sought out a copy of each of these books by the father-in-law and son-in-law, in order to denounce them to the parliament and have them condemned to the flames, according to custom. They immediately bought up all the copies in the kingdom, whence it is that they are now extremely rare.

There is hardly a single philosophical or theological book in which heresies and impieties may not be found by misinterpreting, or adding to, or subtracting from, the sense.

Theodore of Mopsuestes ventured to call the “Canticle of Canticles,” “a collection of impurities.” Grotius pulls it in pieces and represents it as horrid, and Chatillon speaks of it as “a scandalous production.”

Perhaps it will hardly be believed that Dr. Tamponet one day said to several others: “I would engage to find a multitude of heresies in the Lord’s Prayer if this prayer, which we know to have come from the Divine mouth, were now for the first time published by a Jesuit.”

I would proceed thus: “Our Father, who art in heaven —” a proposition inclining to heresy, since God is everywhere. Nay, we find in this expression the leaven of Socinianism, for here is nothing at all said of the Trinity.

“Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven —” another proposition tainted with heresy, for it said again and again in the Scriptures that God reigns eternally. Moreover it is very rash to ask that His will may be done, since nothing is or can be done but by the will of God.

“Give us this day our daily bread —” a proposition directly contrary to what Jesus Christ uttered on another occasion: “Take no thought, saying what shall we eat? or what shall we drink? . . . . for after all these things do the Gentiles seek. . . . But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors —” a rash proposition, which compares man to God, destroys gratuitous predestination, and teaches that God is bound to do to us as we do to others. Besides, how can the author say that we forgive our debtors? We have never forgiven them a single crown. No convent in Europe ever remitted to its farmers the payment of a sou. To dare to say the contrary is a formal heresy.

“Lead us not into temptation —” a proposition scandalous and manifestly heretical, for there is no tempter but the devil, and it is expressly said in St. James’ Epistle: “God is no tempter of the wicked; He tempts no man.”— “Deus enim intentator malorum est; ipse autem neminem tentat.”

You see, then, said Doctor Tamponet, that there is nothing, though ever so venerable, to which a bad sense may not be given. What book, then, shall not be liable to human censure when even the Lord’s Prayer may be attacked, by giving a diabolical interpretation to all the divine words that compose it? As for me, I tremble at the thought of making a book. Thank God, I have never published anything; I have not even — like brothers La Rue, Du Ceveau, and Folard — had any of my theatrical pieces played, it would be too dangerous.

If you publish, a parish curate accuses you of heresy; a stupid collegian denounces you; a fellow that cannot read condemns you; the public laugh at you; your bookseller abandons you, and your wine merchant gives you no more credit. I always add to my paternoster, “Deliver me, O God, from the itch of bookmaking.”

O ye who, like myself, lay black on white and make clean paper dirty! call to mind the following verses which I remember to have read, and by which we should have been corrected:

Tout ce fatras fut du chanvre en son temps,

Linge il devint par l’art des tisserands;

Puis en lambeaux des pilons le pressèrent

Il fut papier. Cent cerveaux à l’envers

De visions à l’envi le chargèrent;

Puis on le brûle; il vole dans les airs,

Il est fumée aussi bien que la gloire.

De nos travaux voilà quelle est l’histoire.

Tout est fumée, et tout nous fait sentir

Ce grand néant qui doit nous engloutir.

This miscellaneous rubbish once was flax,

Till made soft linen by the honest weaver;

But when at length it dropped from people’s backs,

’Twas turned to paper, and became receiver

Of all that fifty motley brains could fashion;

So now ’tis burned without the least compassion;

It now, like glory, terminates in smoke;

Thus all our toils are nothing but a joke —

All ends in smoke; each nothing that we follow

Tells of the nothing that must all things swallow.

§ III.

Books are now multiplied to such a degree that it is impossible not only to read them all but even to know their number and their titles. Happily, one is not obliged to read all that is published, and Caramuel’s plan for writing a hundred folio volumes and employing the spiritual and temporal power of princes to compel their subjects to read them, has not been put in execution. Ringelburg, too, had formed the design of composing about a thousand different volumes, but, even had he lived long enough to publish them he would have fallen far short of Hermes Trismegistus, who, according to Jamblicus, composed thirty-six thousand five hundred and twenty-five books. Supposing the truth of this fact, the ancients had no less reason than the moderns to complain of the multitude of books.

It is, indeed, generally agreed that a small number of choice books is sufficient. Some propose that we should confine ourselves to the Bible or Holy Scriptures, as the Turks limit themselves to the Koran. But there is a great difference between the feelings of reverence entertained by the Mahometans for their Koran and those of the Christians for the Scriptures. The veneration testified by the former when speaking of the Koran cannot be exceeded. It is, say they, the greatest of all miracles; nor are all the men in existence put together capable of anything at all approaching it; it is still more wonderful that the author had never studied, nor read any book. The Koran alone is worth sixty thousand miracles (the number of its verses, or thereabouts); one rising from the dead would not be a stronger proof of the truth of a religion than the composition of the Koran. It is so perfect that it ought not to be regarded as a work of creation.

The Christians do indeed say that their Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Ghost, yet not only is it acknowledged by Cardinal Cajetan and Bellarmine that errors have found their way into them through the negligence and ignorance of the booksellers and the rabbis, who added the points, but they are considered as a book too dangerous for the hands of the majority of the faithful. This is expressed by the fifth rule of the Index, a congregation at Rome, whose office it is to examine what books are to be forbidden. It is as follows:

“Since it is evident that if the reading of the Bible, translated into the vulgar tongue, were permitted to every one indiscriminately the temerity of mankind would cause more evil than good to arise therefrom — we will that it be referred to the judgment of the bishop or inquisitor, who, with the advice of the curate or confessor, shall have power to grant permission to read the Bible rendered in the vulgar tongue by Catholic writers, to those to whom they shall judge that such reading will do no harm; they must have this permission in writing and shall not be absolved until they have returned their Bible into the hands of the ordinary. As for such booksellers as shall sell Bibles in the vulgar tongue to those who have not this written permission, or in any other way put them into their hands, they shall lose the price of the books (which the bishop shall employ for pious purposes), and shall moreover be punished by arbitrary penalties. Nor shall regulars read or buy these books without the permission of their superiors.”

Cardinal Duperron also asserted that the Scriptures, in the hands of the unlearned, were a two-edged knife which might wound them, to avoid which it was better that they should hear them from the mouth of the Church, with the solutions and interpretations of such passages as appear to the senses to be full of absurdity and contradiction, than that they should read them by themselves without any solution or interpretation. He afterwards made a long enumeration of these absurdities in terms so unqualified that Jurieu was not afraid to declare that he did not remember to have read anything so frightful or so scandalous in any Christian author.

Jurieu, who was so violent in his invectives against Cardinal Duperron, had himself to sustain similar reproaches from the Catholics. “I heard that minister,” says Pap, in speaking of him, “teaching the public that all the characteristics of the Holy Scriptures on which those pretended reformers had founded their persuasion of their divinity, did not appear to him to be sufficient. ‘Let it not be inferred,’ said Jurieu, ‘that I wish to take from the light and strength of the characteristics of Scripture, but I will venture to affirm that there is not one of them which may not be eluded by the profane. There is not one of them that amounts to a proof; not one to which something may not be said in answer, and, considered altogether, although they have greater power than separately to work a moral conviction — that is, a proof on which to found a certainty excluding every doubt — I own that nothing seems to me to be more opposed to reason than to say that these characteristics are of themselves capable of producing such a certainty.’ ”

It is not then astonishing that the Jews and the first Christians, who, we find in the Acts of the Apostles, confined themselves in their meetings to the reading of the Bible, were, as will be seen in the article “Heresy,” divided into different sects. For this reading was afterwards substituted that of various apocryphal works, or at least of extracts from them. The author of the “Synopsis of Scripture,” which we find among the works of St. Athanasius, expressly avows that there are in the apocryphal books things most true and inspired by God which have been selected and extracted for the perusal of the faithful.

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