Front Page Titles (by Subject) CONTRADICTIONS. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. IV (Philosophical Dictionary Part 2)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CONTRADICTIONS. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. IV (Philosophical Dictionary Part 2) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. IV.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The more we see of the world, the more we see it abounding in contradictions and inconsistencies. To begin with the Grand Turk: he orders every head that he dislikes struck off, and can very rarely preserve his own. If we pass from the Grand Turk to the Holy Father, he confirms the election of emperors, and has kings among his vassals; but he is not so powerful as a duke of Savoy. He expedites orders for America and Africa, yet could not withhold the slightest of its privileges from the republic of Lucca. The emperor is the king of the Romans; but the right of their king consists in holding the pope’s stirrup, and handing the water to him at mass. The English serve their monarch upon their knees, but they depose, imprison, and behead him.
Men who make a vow of poverty, gain in consequence an income of about two hundred thousand crowns; and, in virtue of their vow of humility, they become absolute sovereigns. The plurality of benefices with care of souls is severely denounced at Rome, yet every day it despatches a bull to some German, to enable him to hold five or six bishoprics at once. The reason, we are told, is that the German bishops have no cure of souls. The chancellor of France is the first person in the State, but he cannot sit at table with the king, at least he could not till lately, although a colonel, who is scarcely perhaps a gentleman—gentil-homme—may enjoy that distinction. The wife of a provincial governor is a queen in the province, but merely a citizen’s wife at court.
Persons convicted of the crime of nonconformity are publicly roasted, and in all our colleges the second eclogue of Virgil is explained with great gravity, including Corydon’s declarations of love to the beautiful Alexis; and it is remarked to the boys that, although Alexis be fair and Amyntas brown, yet Amyntas may still deserve the preference.
If an unfortunate philosopher, without intending the least harm, takes it into his head that the earth turns round, or to imagine that light comes from the sun, or to suppose that matter may contain some other properties than those with which we are acquainted, he is cried down as a blasphemer, and a disturber of the public peace; and yet there are translations in usum Delphini of the “Tusculan Questions” of Cicero, and of Lucretius, which are two complete courses of irreligion.
Courts of justice no longer believe that persons are possessed by devils, and laugh at sorcerers; but Gauffredi and Grandier were burned for sorcery; and one-half of a parliament wanted to sentence to the stake a monk accused of having bewitched a girl of eighteen by breathing upon her.
The skeptical philosopher Bayle was persecuted, even in Holland. La Motte le Vayer, more of a skeptic, but less of a philosopher, was preceptor of the king Louis XIV., and of the king’s brother. Gourville was hanged in effigy at Paris, while French minister in Germany.
The celebrated atheist Spinoza lived and died in peace. Vanini, who had merely written against Aristotle, was burned as an atheist; he has, in consequence, obtained the honor of making one article in the histories of the learned, and in all the dictionaries, which, in fact, constitute immense repositories of lies, mixed up with a very small portion of truth. Open these books, and you will there find not merely that Vanini publicly taught atheism in his writings, but that twelve professors of his sect went with him to Naples with the intention of everywhere making proselytes. Afterwards, open the books of Vanini, and you will be astonished to find in them nothing but proofs of the existence of God. Read the following passage, taken from his “Amphitheatrum,” a work equally unknown and condemned: “God is His own original and boundary, without end and without beginning, requiring neither the one nor the other, and father of all beginning and end; He ever exists, but not in time; to Him there has been no past, and will be no future; He reigns everywhere, without being in any place; immovable without rest, rapid without motion; He is all, and out of all; He is in all, without being enclosed; out of everything, without being excluded from anything; good, but without quality; entire, but without parts; immutable, while changing the whole universe; His will is His power; absolute, there is nothing of Him of what is merely possible; all in Him is real; He is the first, the middle, and the last; finally, although constituting all, He is above all beings, out of them, within them, beyond them, before them, and after them.” It was after such a profession of faith that Vanini was declared an atheist. Upon what grounds was he condemned? Simply upon the deposition of a man named Francon. In vain did his books depose in favor of him; a single enemy deprived him of life, and stigmatized his name throughout Europe.
The little book called “Cymbalum Mundi,” which is merely a cold imitation of Lucian, and which has not the slightest or remotest reference to Christianity, was condemned to be burned. But Rabelais was printed “cum privilegio”; and a free course was allowed to the “Turkish Spy,” and even to the “Persian Letters”; that volatile, ingenious, and daring work, in which there is one whole letter in favor of suicide; another in which we find these words: “If we suppose such a thing as religion;” a third, in which it is expressly said that “the bishops have no other functions than dispensing with the observance of the laws”; and, finally, another in which the pope is said to be a magician, who makes people believe that three are one, and that the bread we eat is not bread, etc.
The Abbé St. Pierre, a man who could frequently deceive himself, but who never wrote without a view to the public good, and whose works were called by Cardinal Dubois, “The dreams of an honest citizen”; the Abbé St. Pierre, I say, was unanimously expelled from the French Academy for having, in some political work, preferred the establishment of councils under the regency to that of secretaries of state under Louis XIV.; and for saying that towards the close of that glorious reign the finances were wretchedly conducted. The author of the “Persian Letters” has not mentioned Louis XIV. in his book, except to say that he was a magician who could make his subjects believe that paper was money; that he liked no government but that of Turkey; that he preferred a man who handed him a napkin to a man who gained him battles; that he had conferred a pension on a man who had run away two leagues, and a government upon another who had run away four; that he was overwhelmed with poverty, although it is said, in the same letter, that his finances are inexhaustible. Observe, then, I repeat, all that this writer, in the only work then known to be his, has said of Louis XIV., the patron of the French Academy. We may add, too, as a climax of contradiction, that that society admitted him as a member for having turned them into ridicule; for, of all the books by which the public have been entertained at the expense of the society, there is not one in which it has been treated more disrespectfully than in the “Persian Letters.” See that letter wherein he says, “The members of this body have no other business than incessantly to chatter; panegyric comes and takes its place as it were spontaneously in their eternal gabble,” etc. After having thus treated this society, they praise him, on his introduction, for his skill in drawing likenesses.
Were I disposed to continue the research into the contraries to be found in the empire of letters, I might give the history of every man of learning or wit; just in the same manner as, if I were inclined to detail the contradictions existing in society, it would be necessary to write the history of mankind. An Asiatic, who should travel to Europe, might well consider us as pagans; our week days bear the names of Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus; and the nuptials of Cupid and Psyche are painted in the pope’s palace; but, particularly, were this Asiatic to attend at our opera, he would not hesitate in concluding it to be a festival in honor of the pagan deities. If he endeavored to gain more precise information respecting our manners, he would experience still greater astonishment; he would see, in Spain, that a severe law forbids any foreigner from having the slightest share, however indirect, in the commerce of America; and that, notwithstanding, foreigners—through the medium of Spanish factors—carry on a commerce with it to the extent of fifteen millions a year. Thus Spain can be enriched only by the violation of a law always subsisting and always evaded. He would see that in another country the government establishes and encourages a company for trading to the Indies, while the divines of that country have declared the receiving of dividends upon the shares offensive in the sight of God. He would see that the offices of a judge, a commander, a privy counsellor, are purchased; he would be unable to comprehend why it is stated in the patents appointing to such offices that they have been bestowed gratis and without purchase, while the receipt for the sum given for them is attached to the commission itself. Would not our Asiatic be surprised, also, to see comedians salaried by sovereigns, and excommunicated by priests? He would inquire why a plebeian lieutenant-general, who had won battles, should be subject to the taille, like a peasant; and a sheriff should be considered, at least in reference to this point, as noble as a Montmorency; why, while regular dramas are forbidden to be performed during a week sacred to edification, merry-andrews are permitted to offend even the least delicate ears with their ribaldry. He would almost everywhere see our usages in opposition to our laws; and were we to travel to Asia, we should discover the existence of exactly similar contradictions.
Men are everywhere inconsistent alike. They have made laws by piecemeal, as breaches are repaired in walls. Here the eldest sons take everything they are able from the younger ones; there all share equally. Sometimes the Church has ordered duels, sometimes it has anathematized them. The partisans and the opponents of Aristotle have been both excommunicated in their turn; as have also the wearers of long hair and short hair. There has been but one perfect law in the world, and that was designed to regulate a species of folly—that is to say, play. The laws of play are the only ones which admit of no exception, relaxation, change or tyranny. A man who has been a lackey, if he plays at lansquenet with kings, is paid with perfect readiness when he wins. In other cases the law is everywhere a sword, with which the strongest party cuts in pieces the weakest.
In the meantime the world goes on as if everything was wisely arranged; irregularity is part of our nature. Our social world is like the natural globe, rude and unshapely, but possessing a principle of preservation; it would be folly to wish that mountains, seas, and rivers were traced in regular and finished forms; it would be a still greater folly to expect from man the perfection of wisdom; it would be as weak as to wish to attach wings to dogs or horns to eagles.
Examples Taken from History, from Sacred Scripture, from Numerous Authors, etc.
We have just been instancing a variety of contradictions in our usages, our manners, and our laws, but we have not said enough. Everything, particularly in Europe, has been made in the same manner as Harlequin’s habit. His master, when he wanted to have a dress made for him, had not a piece of cloth, and therefore took old cuttings of all sorts of colors. Harlequin was laughed at, but then he was clothed.
The Germans are a brave nation, whom neither the Germanicuses nor the Trajans were ever able completely to subjugate. All the German nations that dwelt beyond the Elbe were invincible, although badly armed; and from these gloomy climes issued forth, in part, the avengers of the world. Germany, far from constituting the Roman Empire, has been instrumental in destroying it.
This empire had found a refuge at Constantinople, when a German—an Austrasian—went from Aix-la-Chapelle to Rome, to strip the Greek Cæsars of the remainder of their possessions in Italy. He assumed the name of Cæsar Imperator; but neither he nor his successors even ventured to reside at Rome. That capital could not either boast or regret that from the time of Augustulus, the final excrement of the genuine Roman Empire, a single Cæsar had lived and been buried within its walls.
It is difficult to suppose the empire can be “holy,” as it professes three different religions, of which two are declared impious, abominable, damnable, and damned, by the court of Rome, which the whole imperial court considers in such cases to be supreme. It is certainly not Roman, since the emperor has not any residence at Rome.
In England people wait upon the king kneeling. The constant maxim is, “The king can do no wrong”; his ministers only can deserve blame; he is as infallible in his actions as the pope in his judgments. Such is the fundamental, the “Salic” law of England. Yet the parliament sat in judgment on its king, Edward II., who had been vanquished and taken prisoner by his wife; he was declared to have done all possible wrong, and deprived of all his rights to the crown. Sir William Tressel went to him in prison, and made him the following complimentary address:
“I, William Tressel, as proxy for the parliament and the whole English nation, revoke the homage formerly paid you; I put you to defiance, and deprive you of royal power, and from this time forth we will hold no allegiance to you.”
The parliament tried and sentenced King Richard II., grandson of the great Edward III. Thirty-one articles of accusation were brought against him, among which two are not a little singular—that he had borrowed money and not repaid it; and that he had asserted before witnesses that he was master of the lives and properties of his subjects.
The parliament deposed Henry VI., who, undoubtedly, was exceedingly wrong, but in a somewhat different sense: he was imbecile.
The parliament declared Edward IV. a traitor, and confiscated his goods; and afterwards, on his being successful, restored him. As for Richard III., he undoubtedly committed more wrong than all the others; he was a Nero, but a bold one; and the parliament did not declare his wrongs till after he was slain.
The House of Commons imputed to Charles I. more wrongs than he was justly chargeable with, and brought him to the scaffold. Parliament voted that James II. had committed very gross and flagrant wrongs, and particularly that of withdrawing himself from the kingdom. It declared the throne vacant; that is, it deposed him. In the present day, Junius writes to the king of England that he is faulty in being good and wise. If these are not contradictions, I know not where to find them.
Contradictions in Certain Rites.
Next to those great political contradictions, which are subdivided into innumerable little ones, nothing more forcibly attracts our notice than the contradiction apparent in reference to some of our rites. We hate Judaism. No longer than fifteen years ago Jews were still burned at the stake. We consider them as murderers of our God, and yet we assemble every Sunday to chant Jewish psalms and canticles; it is only owing to our ignorance of the language that we do not recite them in Hebrew. But the fifteen first bishops, the priests, deacons and congregation of Jerusalem, which was the cradle of the Christian religion, always recited the Jewish psalms in the Jewish idiom of the Syriac language; and, till the time of the Caliph Omar, almost all the Christians, from Tyre to Aleppo, prayed in that Jewish idiom. At present any one reciting the psalms as they were originally composed, or chanting them in the Jewish language, would be suspected of being a circumcised Jew, and might be burned as one; at least, not more than twenty years since, that would have been his fate, although Jesus Christ was circumcised, as were also his apostles and disciples. I set aside the mysterious doctrines of our holy religion—everything that is an object of faith—everything that we ought to approach only with awe and submission. I look only at externals; I refer simply to observances; I ask if anything was ever more contradictory?
Contradictions in Things and Men.
If any literary society is inclined to undertake a history of contradictions, I will subscribe for twenty folio volumes. The world displays nothing but contradictions. What would be necessary to put an end to them? To assemble the states-general of the human race. But, according to the nature and constitution of mankind, it would be a new contradiction were they to agree. Bring together all the rabbits in the world, and there would not be two different minds among them.
I know only two descriptions of immovable beings in the world—geometricians and brute animals; they are guided by two invariable rules—demonstration and instinct. Some disputes, indeed, have occurred between geometricians, but brutes have never varied.
The contrasts, the lights and shades, in which men are represented in history, are not contradictions; they are faithful portraits of human nature. Every day both censure and admiration are applied to Alexander, the murderer of Clitus, but the avenger of Greece; the conqueror of Persia, and the founder of Alexandria; to Cæsar, the debauchee, who robbed the public treasury of Rome to enslave his country, but whose clemency was equal to his valor, and whose genius was equal to his courage; to Mahomet, the impostor and robber, but the only legislator of religion that ever displayed courage, or founded a great empire; to the enthusiast, Cromwell, at once knave and fanatic, the murderer of his king by form of law, but equally profound as a politician, and valiant as a warrior. A thousand contrasts frequently present themselves at once to the mind, and these contrasts are in nature. They are not more astonishing than a fine day followed by a tempest.
Apparent Contradictions in Books.
We must accurately distinguish in books, and particularly the sacred ones, between apparent and real contradictions. It is said in the Pentateuch that Moses was the meekest of men, and that he ordered twenty-three thousand Hebrews to be slain who had worshipped the golden calf, and twenty-four thousand more, who had, like himself, married Midianitish women. But sagacious commentators have adduced solid proofs that Moses possessed a most amiable temper, and that he only executed the vengeance of God in massacring these forty-seven thousand Israelites, as just stated.
Some daring critics have pretended to perceive a contradiction in the narrative in which it is said that Moses changed all the waters of Egypt into blood, and that the magicians of Pharaoh afterwards performed the same prodigy—the Book of Exodus leaving no interval of time between the miracle of Moses and the magical operation of the enchanters.
It appears, at first view, impossible that these magicians should change to blood that which was already made such; but the difficulty may be removed by supposing that Moses had allowed the waters to resume their original nature, in order to give Pharaoh time for reflection. This supposition is the more plausible, inasmuch as, if not expressly favored by the text, the latter is not contrary to it.
The same skeptics inquire how, after all the horses were destroyed by hail, in the sixth plague, Pharaoh was able to pursue the Jewish nation with cavalry. But this contradiction is not even an apparent one, since the hail which killed all the horses that were out in the fields, could not fall on those which were in the stables.
One of the greatest contradictions which has been supposed to be found in the history of the kings is the utter scarcity of offensive and defensive arms among the Jews at the time of the accession of Saul, compared with the army of three hundred and thirty thousand men, whom he conducted against the Ammonites who were besieging Jabesh Gilead.
It is a fact related that then, and even after that battle, there was not a lance, not even a single sword, among the whole Hebrew people; that the Philistines prevented the Hebrews from manufacturing swords and lances; that the Hebrews were obliged to have recourse to the Philistines for sharpening and repairing their plowshares, mattocks, axes, and pruning-hooks.
This acknowledgment seems to prove that the Hebrews consisted of only a very small number, and that the Philistines were a powerful and victorious nation, who kept the Israelites under the yoke, and treated them as slaves; in short, that it was impossible for Saul to collect three hundred and thirty thousand fighting men, etc.
The reverend Father Calmet says it is probable “that there is a little exaggeration in what is stated about Saul and Jonathan”; but that learned man forgets that the other commentators ascribe the first victories of Saul and Jonathan to one of those decided miracles which God so often condescended to perform in favor of his miserable people. Jonathan, with his armor-bearer only, at the very beginning, slew twenty of the enemy; and the Philistines, utterly confounded, turned their arms against each other. The author of the Book of Kings positively declares that it was a miracle of God: “Accidit quasi miraculum a Deo.” There is, therefore, no contradiction.
The enemies of the Christian religion, the Celsuses, the Porphyrys, and the Julians, have exhausted the sagacity of their understandings upon this subject. The Jewish writers have availed themselves of all the advantages they derived from their superior knowledge of the Hebrew language to explain these apparent contradictions. They have been followed even by Christians, such as Lord Herbert, Wollaston, Tindal, Toland, Collins, Shaftesbury, Woolston, Gordon, Bolingbroke, and many others of different nations. Fréret, perpetual secretary of the Academy of Belles Lettres in France, the learned Le Clerc himself, and Simon of the Oratory thought they perceived some contradictions which might be ascribed to the copyists. An immense number of other critics have endeavored to remove or correct contradictions which appeared to them inexplicable.
We read in a dangerous little book, composed with much art: “St. Matthew and St. Luke give each a genealogy of Christ different from the other; and lest it should be thought that the differences are only slight, such as might be imputed to neglect or oversight, the contrary may easily be shown by reading the first chapter of Matthew and the third of Luke. We shall then see that fifteen generations more are enumerated in the one than in the other; that, from David, they completely separate; that they join again at Salathiel; but that, after his son, they again separate, and do not reunite again but in Joseph.
“In the same genealogy, St. Matthew again falls into a manifest contradiction, for he says that Uzziah was the father of Jotham; and in the “Paralipomena,” book 1, chap. iii., v. 11, 12, we find three generations between them—Joas, Amazias, and Azarias—of whom Luke, as well as Matthew, make no mention. Further, this genealogy has nothing to do with that of Jesus, since, according to our creed, Joseph had had no intercourse with Mary.”
In order to reply to this objection, urged from the time of Origen, and renewed from age to age, we must read Julius Africanus. See the two genealogies reconciled in the following table, as we find it in the repository of ecclesiastical writers:
There is another method to reconcile the two genealogies, by St. Epiphanius. According to him, Jacob Panther, descended from Solomon, is the father of Joseph and of Cleophas. Joseph has six children by his first wife—James, Joshua, Simeon, Jude, Mary, and Salome. He then espouses the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the daughter of Joachim and Anne.
There are many other methods of explaining these two genealogies. See the “Dissertation” of Father Calmet, in which he endeavors to reconcile St. Matthew with St. Luke, on the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The same learned skeptics, who make it their business to compare dates, to explore books and medals, to collate ancient authors, and to seek for truth by human skill and study, and who lose in their knowledge the simplicity of their faith, reproach St. Luke with contradicting the other evangelists, and in being mistaken in what he advances on the subject of our Lord’s birth. The author of the “Analysis of the Christian Religion” thus rashly expresses himself on the subject (p. 23):
“St. Luke says that Cyrenius was the governor of Syria, when Augustus ordered the numbering of all the people of the empire. We will show how many decided falsehoods are contained in these few words. First, Tacitus and Suetonius, the most precise of historians, say not a single word of the pretended numbering of the whole empire, which certainly would have been a very singular event, since there never had been one under any emperor—at least, no author mentions such a case. Secondly, Cyrenius did not arrive in Syria till ten years after the time fixed by St. Luke; it was then governed by Quintilius Varus, as Tertullian relates, and as is confirmed by medals.”
We contend that in fact there never was a numbering of the whole Roman empire, but only a census of Roman citizens, according to usage; although it is possible that the copyists may have written “numbering” for “census.” With regard to Cyrenius, whom the copyists have made Cirinus, it is certain that he was not governor of Syria at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, the governor being Quintilius Varus; but it is very probable that Quintilius might send into Judæa this same Cyrenius, who ten years after succeeded him in the government of Syria. We cannot dissemble, however, that this explanation still leaves some difficulties.
In the first place, the census made under Augustus does not correspond in time with the birth of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the Jews were not comprised in that census. Joseph and his wife were not Roman citizens. Mary, therefore, it is said, being under no necessity, was not likely to go from Nazareth, which is at the extremity of Judæa, within a few miles of Mount Tabor, in the midst of the desert, to lie in at Bethlehem, which is eighty miles from Nazareth.
But it might easily happen that Cirinus, or Cyrenius, having been sent to Jerusalem by Quintilius Varus to impose a poll-tax, Joseph and Mary were summoned by the magistrate of Bethlehem to go and pay the tax in the town of Bethlehem, the place of their birth. In this there is nothing contradictory. The critics may endeavor to weaken this solution by representing that it was Herod only who imposed taxes; that the Romans at that time levied nothing on Judæa; that Augustus left Herod completely his own master for the tribute which that Idumean paid to the empire. But, in an emergency, it is not impossible to make some arrangement with a tributary prince, and send him an intendant to establish in concert with him the new tax.
We will not here say, like so many others, that copyists have committed many errors, and that in the version we possess there are to be found more than ten thousand; we had rather say with the doctors of the Church and the most enlightened persons, that the Gospels were given us only to teach us to live holily, and not to criticise learnedly.
These pretended contradictions produced a dreadful impression on the much lamented John Meslier, rector of Etrepigni and But in Champagne. This truly virtuous and charitable, but at the same time melancholy, man, being possessed of scarcely any other books than the Bible and some of the fathers, read them with a studiousness of attention that became fatal to him. Although bound by the duties of his office to inculcate docility upon his flock, he was not sufficiently docile himself. He saw apparent contradictions, and shut his eyes to the means suggested for reconciling them. He imagined that he perceived the most frightful contradictions between Jesus being born a Jew and afterwards being recognized as God; in regard to that God known from the first as the son of Joseph the carpenter and the brother of James, yet descended from an empyrean which does not exist, to destroy sin upon earth that is still covered with crimes; in regard to that God, the son of a common artisan and a descendant of David on the side of his father, who was not in fact his father; between the creator of all worlds, and the descendant of the adulterous Bathsheba, the prurient Ruth, the incestuous Tamar, the prostitute of Jericho, the wife of Abraham, so suspiciously attractive to a king of Egypt, and again at the age of ninety years to a king of Gerar.
Meslier expatiates with an impiety absolutely monstrous on these pretended contradictions, as they struck him, for which, however, he might easily have found an explanation, had he possessed only a small portion of docility. At length his gloom so grew upon him in his solitude that he actually became horror-stricken at that holy religion which it was his duty to preach and love; and, listening only to his seduced and wandering reason, he abjured Christianity by a will written in his own hand, of which he left three copies behind him at his death, which took place in 1732. The copy of this will has been often printed, and exhibits, in truth, a most cruel stumbling-block. A clergyman, who at the point of death, asks pardon of God and his parishioners for having taught the doctrines of Christianity; a charitable clergyman, who holds Christianity in execration because many who profess it are depraved; who is shocked at the pomp and pride of Rome, and exasperated by the difficulties of the sacred volume; a clergyman who speaks of Christianity like Porphyry, Jamblichus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Julian! And this just as he is to make his appearance before God! How fatal a case for him, and for all who may be led astray by his example!
In a similar manner the unfortunate preacher Antony, misled by the apparent contradictions which he imagined he saw between the new and the old law, between the cultivated olive and the wild olive, wretchedly abandoned the Christian religion for the Jewish; and, more courageous than John Meslier, preferred death to recantation.
It is evident from the will of John Meslier that the apparent contradictions of the gospel were the principal cause of unsettling the mind of that unfortunate pastor, who was, in other respects, a man of the strictest virtue, and whom it is impossible to think of without compassion. Meslier is deeply impressed by the two genealogies, which seem in direct opposition; he had not seen the method of reconciling them; he feels agitated and provoked to see that St. Matthew makes the father and mother of the child travel into Egypt, after having received the homage of the three eastern magi or kings, and while old King Herod, under the apprehension of being dethroned by an infant just born at Bethlehem, causes the slaughter of all the infants in the country, in order to prevent such a revolution. He is astonished that neither St. Luke, nor St. Mark, nor St. John make any mention of this massacre. He is confounded at observing that St. Luke makes Joseph, and the blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus our Saviour, remain at Bethlehem, after which they withdraw to Nazareth. He should have seen that the Holy Father might at first go into Egypt, and some time afterwards to Nazareth, which was their country.
If St. Matthew alone makes mention of the three magi, and of the star which guided them to Bethlehem from the remote climes of the East, and of the massacre of the children; if the other evangelists take no notice of these events, they do not contradict St. Matthew; silence is not contradiction.
If the three first evangelists—St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke—make Jesus Christ to have lived but three months from his baptism in Galilee till his crucifixion at Jerusalem; and if St. John extends that time to three years and three months, it is easy to approximate St. John to the other evangelists, as he does not expressly state that Jesus Christ preached in Galilee for three years and three months, but only leaves it to be inferred from his narrative. Should a man renounce his religion upon simple inferences, upon points of controversy, upon difficulties in chronology?
It is impossible, says Meslier, to harmonize St. Mark and St. Luke; since the first says that Jesus, when he left the wilderness, went to Capernaum, and the second that he went to Nazareth. St. John says that Andrew was the first who became a follower of Jesus Christ; the three other evangelists say that it was Simon Peter.
He pretends, also, that they contradict each other with respect to the day when Jesus celebrated the Passover, the hour and place of His execution, the time of His appearance and resurrection. He is convinced that books which contradict each other cannot be inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is not an article of faith to believe that the Holy Spirit inspired every syllable; it did not guide the hand of the copyist; it permitted the operation of secondary causes; it was sufficient that it condescended to reveal the principal mysteries, and that in the course of time it instituted a church for explaining them. All those contradictions, with which the gospels have been so often and so bitterly reproached, are explained by sagacious commentators; far from being injurious, they mutually clear up each other; they present reciprocal helps in the concordances and harmony of the four gospels.
And if there are many difficulties which we cannot solve, mysteries which we cannot comprehend, adventures which we cannot credit, prodigies which shock the weakness of the human understanding, and contradictions which it is impossible to reconcile, it is in order to exercise our faith and to humiliate our reason.
Contradictions in Judgments Upon Works of Literature or Art.
I have sometimes heard it said of a good judge on these subjects, and of exquisite taste, that man decides according to mere caprice. He yesterday described Poussin as an admirable painter; to-day he represents him as an ordinary one. The fact is, that Poussin has merited both praise and censure.
There is no contradiction in being enraptured by the delicious scenes of the Horatii and Curiatii, of the Cid, of Augustus and of Cinna, and afterwards in seeing, with disgust and indignation, fifteen tragedies in succession, containing no interest, no beauty, and not even written in French.
It is the author himself who is contradictory. It is he who has the misfortune to differ entirely from himself. The critic would contradict himself, if he equally applauded what is excellent and detestable. He will admire in Homer the description of the girdle of Venus; the parting of Hector and Andromache; the interview between Achilles and Priam. But will he equally applaud those passages which describe the gods as abusing and fighting with one another; the uniformity in battles which decide nothing; the brutal ferocity of the heroes, and the avarice by which they are almost all actuated; in short, a poem which terminates with a truce of eleven days, unquestionably exciting an expectation of the continuation of the war and the taking of Troy, which, however, are not related?
A good critic will frequently pass from approbation to censure, however excellent the work may be which he is perusing.