Front Page Titles (by Subject) PHILOSOPHER. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
PHILOSOPHER. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. VI (Philosophical Dictionary Part 4) 
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. VI.
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
Philosopher, “lover of wisdom,” that is, “of truth.” All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one among those of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of moral truth. They might be mistaken, and undoubtedly were so, on subjects of natural philosophy; but that is of comparatively so little importance to the conduct of life, that philosophers had then no need of it. Ages were required to discover a part of the laws of nature. A single day is sufficient to enable a sage to become acquainted with the duties of man.
The philosopher is no enthusiast; he does not set himself up for a prophet; he does not represent himself as inspired by the gods. I shall not therefore place in the rank of philosophers the ancient Zoroaster, or Hermes, or Orpheus, or any of those legislators in whom the countries of Chaldæa, Persia, Syria, Egypt, and Greece made their boast. Those who called themselves the sons of gods were the fathers of imposture; and if they employed falsehood to inculcate truths, they were unworthy of inculcating them; they were not philosophers; they were at best only prudent liars.
By what fatality, disgraceful perhaps to the nations of the West, has it happened that we are obliged to travel to the extremity of the East, in order to find a sage of simple manners and character, without arrogance and without imposture, who taught men how to live happy six hundred years before our era, at a period when the whole of the North was ignorant of the use of letters, and when the Greeks had scarcely begun to distinguish themselves by wisdom? That sage is Confucius, who deemed too highly of his character as a legislator for mankind, to stoop to deceive them. What finer rule of conduct has ever been given since his time, throughout the earth?
“Rule a state as you rule a family; a man cannot govern his family well without giving a good example; virtue should be common to the laborer and the monarch; be active in preventing crimes, that you may lessen the trouble of punishing them.
“Under the good kings Yao and Xu, the Chinese were good; under the bad kings Kie and Chu, they were wicked.
“Do to another as to thyself; love mankind in general, but cherish those who are good; forget injuries, but never benefits.”
I have seen men incapable of the sciences, but never any incapable of virtue. Let us acknowledge that no legislator ever announced to the world more useful truths.
A multitude of Greek philosophers taught afterwards a morality equally pure. Had they distinguished themselves only by their vain systems of natural philosophy, their names would be mentioned at the present day only in derision. If they are still respected, it is because they were just, and because they taught mankind to be so.
It is impossible to read certain passages of Plato, and particularly the admirable exordium of the laws of Zaleucus, without experiencing an ardent love of honorable and generous actions. The Romans have their Cicero who alone is perhaps more valuable than all the philosophers of Greece. After him come men more respectable still, but whom we may almost despair of imitating; these are Epictetus in slavery, and the Antonines and Julian upon a throne.
Where is the citizen to be found among us who would deprive himself, like Julian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, of all the refined accommodations of our delicate and luxurious modes of living? Who would, like them, sleep on the bare ground? Who would restrict himself to their frugal habits? Who would, like them, march bareheaded and barefooted at the head of the armies, exposed sometimes to the burning sun, and at other times to the freezing blast? Who would, like them, keep perfect mastery of all his passions? We have among us devotees, but where are the sages? where are the souls just and tolerant, serene and undaunted?
There have been some philosophers of the closet in France; and all of them, with the exception of Montaigne, have been persecuted. It seems to me the last degree of malignity that our nature can exhibit, to attempt to oppress those who devote their best endeavors to correct and improve it.
I can easily conceive of the fanatics of one sect slaughtering those of another sect; that the Franciscans should hate the Dominicans, and that a bad artist should cabal and intrigue for the destruction of an artist that surpasses him; but that the sage Charron should have been menaced with the loss of life; that the learned and noble-minded Ramus should have been actually assassinated; that Descartes should have been obliged to withdraw to Holland in order to escape the rage of ignorance; that Gassendi should have been often compelled to retire to Digne, far distant from the calumnies of Paris, are events that load a nation with eternal opprobrium.
One of the philosophers who were most persecuted, was the immortal Bayle, the honor of human nature. I shall be told that the name of Jurieu, his slanderer and persecutor, is become execrable; I acknowledge that it is so; that of the Jesuit Letellier is become so likewise; but is it the less true that the great men whom he oppressed ended their days in exile and penury?
One of the pretexts made use of for reducing Bayle to poverty, was his article on David, in his valuable dictionary. He was reproached with not praising actions which were in themselves unjust, sanguinary, atrocious, contrary to good faith, or grossly offensive to decency.
Bayle certainly has not praised David for having, according to the Hebrew historian, collected six hundred vagabonds overwhelmed with debts and crimes; for having pillaged his countrymen at the head of these banditti; for having resolved to destroy Nabal and his whole family, because he refused paying contributions to him; for having hired out his services to King Achish, the enemy of his country; for having afterwards betrayed Achish, notwithstanding his kindness to him; for having sacked the villages in alliance with that king; for having massacred in these villages every human being, including even infants at the breast, that no one might be found on a future day to give testimony of his depredations, as if an infant could have possibly disclosed his villainy; for having destroyed all the inhabitants of some other villages under saws, and harrows, and axes, and in brick-kilns; for having wrested the throne from Ishbosheth, the son of Saul, by an act of perfidy; for having despoiled of his property and afterwards put to death Mephibosheth, the grandson of Saul, and son of his own peculiar friend and generous protector, Jonathan; or for having delivered up to the Gibeonites two other sons of Saul, and five of his grandsons who perished by the gallows.
I do not notice the extreme incontinence of David, his numerous concubines, his adultery with Bathsheba, or his murder of Uriah.
What then! is it possible that the enemies of Bayle should have expected or wished him to eulogize all these cruelties and crimes? Ought he to have said: Go, ye princes of the earth, and imitate the man after God’s own heart; massacre without pity the allies of your benefactor; destroy or deliver over to destruction the whole family of your king; appropriate to your own pleasures all the women, while you are pouring out the blood of the men; and you will thus exhibit models of human virtue, especially if, in addition to all the rest, you do but compose a book of psalms?
Was not Bayle perfectly correct in his observation, that if David was the man after God’s own heart, it must have been by his penitence, and not by his crimes? Did not Bayle perform a service to the human race when he said, that God, who undoubtedly dictated the Jewish history, has not consecrated all the crimes recorded in that history?
However, Bayle was in fact persecuted, and by whom? By the very men who had been elsewhere persecuted themselves; by refugees who in their own country would have been delivered over to the flames; and these refugees were opposed by other refugees called Jansenists, who had been driven from their own country by the Jesuits; who have at length been themselves driven from it in their turn.
Thus all the persecutors declare against each other mortal war, while the philosopher, oppressed by them all, contents himself with pitying them.
It is not generally known, that Fontenelle, in 1718, was on the point of losing his pensions, place, and liberty, for having published in France, twenty years before, what may be called an abridgement of the learned Van Dale’s “Treatise on Oracles,” in which he had taken particular care to retrench and modify the original work, so as to give no unnecessary offence to fanaticism. A Jesuit had written against Fontenelle, and he had not deigned to make him any reply; and that was enough to induce the Jesuit Letellier, confessor to Louis XIV., to accuse Fontenelle to the king of atheism.
But for the fortunate mediation of M. d’Argenson, the son of a forging solicitor of Vire—a son worthy of such a father, as he was detected in forgery himself—would have proscribed, in his old age, the nephew of the great Corneille.
It is so easy for a confessor to seduce his penitent, that we ought to bless God that Letellier did no more harm than is justly imputed to him. There are two situations in which seduction and calumny cannot easily be resisted—the bed and the confessional.
We have always seen philosophers persecuted by fanatics. But can it be really possible, that men of letters should be seen mixed up in a business so odious; and that they should often be observed sharpening the weapons against their brethren, by which they are themselves almost universally destroyed or wounded in their turn. Unhappy men of letters, does it become you to turn informers? Did the Romans ever find a Garasse, a Chaumieux, or a Hayet, to accuse a Lucretius, a Posidonius, a Varro, or a Pliny?
How inexpressible is the meanness of being a hypocrite! how horrible is it to be a mischievous and malignant hypocrite! There were no hypocrites in ancient Rome, which reckoned us a small portion of its innumerable subjects. There were impostors, I admit, but not religious hypocrites, which are the most profligate and cruel species of all. Why is it that we see none such in England, and whence does it arise that there still are such in France? Philosophers, you will solve this problem with ease.
This brilliant and beautiful name has been sometimes honored, and sometimes disgraced; like that of poet, mathematician, monk, priest, and everything dependent on opinion. Domitian banished the philosophers, and Lucian derided them. But what sort of philosophers and mathematicians were they whom the monster Domitian exiled? They were jugglers with their cups and balls; the calculators of horoscopes, fortune-tellers, miserable peddling Jews, who composed philtres and talismans; gentry who had special and sovereign power over evil spirits, who evoked them from their infernal habitations, made them take possession of the bodies of men and women by certain words or signs, and dislodged them by other words or signs.
And what were the philosophers that Lucian held up to public ridicule? They were the dregs of the human race. They were a set of profligate beggars incapable of applying to any useful profession or occupation; men perfectly resembling the “Poor Devil,” who has been described to us with so much both of truth and humor; men who are undecided whether to wear a livery, or to write the almanac of the “Annus Mirabilis,” the marvellous year; whether to work on reviews, or on roads; whether to turn soldiers or priests; who in the meantime frequent the coffee-houses, to give their opinion upon the last new piece, upon God, upon being in general, and the various modes of being; who will then borrow your money, and immediately go away and write a libel against you in conjunction with the barrister Marchand, or the creature called Chaudon, or the equally despicable wretch called Bonneval.
It was not from such a school that the Ciceros, the Atticuses, the Epictetuses, the Trajans, Adrians, Antonines, and Julians proceeded. It was not such a school that formed a king of Prussia, who has composed as many philosophical treatises as he has gained battles, and who has levelled with the dust as many prejudices as enemies.
A victorious empress, at whose name the Ottomans tremble, and who so gloriously rules an empire more extensive than that of Rome, would never have been a great legistratrix, had she not been a philosopher. Every northern prince is so, and the North puts the South to absolute shame. If the confederates of Poland had only a very small share of philosophy, they would not expose their country, their estates, and their houses, to pillage; they would not drench their territory in blood; they would not obstinately and wantonly reduce themselves to being the most miserable of mankind; they would listen to the voice of their philosophic king, who has given so many noble proofs and so many admirable lessons of moderation and prudence in vain.
The great Julian was a philosopher when he wrote to his ministers and pontiffs his exquisite letters abounding in clemency and wisdom, which all men of judgment and feeling highly admire, even at the present day, however sincerely they may condemn his errors.
Constantine was not a philosopher when he assassinated his relations, his son and his wife, and when, reeking with the blood of his family, he swore that God had sent to him the “Labarum” in the clouds. It is a long bound that carries us from Constantine to Charles IX., and Henry III., kings of one of the fifty great provinces of the Roman Empire. But if these kings had been philosophers, one would not have been guilty of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and the other would not have made scandalous processions, nor have been reduced to the necessity of assassinating the duke of Guise and the cardinal, his brother, and at length have been assassinated himself by a young Jacobin, for the love of God and of the holy church.
If Louis the Just, the thirteenth monarch of that name, had been a philosopher, he would not have permitted the virtuous de Thou and the innocent Marshal de Marillac to have been dragged to the scaffold; he would not have suffered his mother to perish with hunger at Cologne; and his reign would not have been an uninterrupted succession of intestine discords and calamities.
Compare with those princes, thus ignorant, superstitious, cruel, and enslaved by their own passions or those of their ministers, such a man as Montaigne, or Charron, or the Chancellor de l’Hôpital, or the historian de Thou, or la Mothe Le Vayer, or a Locke, a Shaftesbury, a Sidney, or a Herbert; and say whether you would rather be governed by those sovereigns or by these sages.
When I speak of philosophers I do not mean the coarse and brutal cynics who appear desirous of being apes of Diogenes, but the men who imitate Plato and Cicero. As for you, voluptuous courtiers, and you also, men of petty minds, invested with a petty employment which confers on you a petty authority in a petty country, who uniformly exclaim against and abuse philosophy, proceed as long as you please with your invective railing. I consider you as the Nomentanuses inveighing against Horace; and the Cotins attempting to cry down Boileau.
The stiff Lutheran, the savage Calvinist, the proud Anglican high churchman, the fanatical Jansenist, the Jesuit always aiming at dominion, even in exile and at the very gallows, the Sorbonnist who deems himself one of the fathers of a council; these, and some imbecile beings under their respective guidance, inveigh incessantly and bitterly against philosophy. They are all different species of the canine race, snarling and howling in their peculiar ways against a beautiful horse that is pasturing in a verdant meadow, and who never enters into contest with them about any of the carrion carcasses upon which they feed, and for which they are perpetually fighting with one another.
They every day produce from the press their trash of philosophic theology, their philosophico-theological dictionaries; their old and battered arguments, as common as the streets, which they denominate “demonstrations”; and their ten thousand times repeated and ridiculous assertions which they call “lemmas,” and “corollaries”; as false coiners cover a lead crown with a plating of silver.
They perceive that they are despised by all persons of reflection, and that they can no longer deceive any but a few weak old women. This state is far more humiliating and mortifying than even being expelled from France and Spain and Naples. Everything can be supported except contempt. We are told that when the devil was conquered by Raphael—as it is clearly proved he was—that haughty compound of body and spirit at first easily consoled himself with the idea of the chances of war. But when he understood that Raphael laughed at him, he roundly swore that he would never forgive him. Accordingly, the Jesuits never forgave Pascal; accordingly, Jerieu went on calumniating Bayle even to the grave; and just in the same manner all the Tartuffes, all the hypocrites, in Molière’s time, inveighed against that author to his dying day. In their rage they resort to calumnies, as in their folly they publish arguments.
One of the most determined slanderers, as well as one of the most contemptible reasoners that we have among us, is an ex-Jesuit of the name of Paulian, who published a theologico-philosophical rhapsody in the city of Avignon, formerly a papal city, and perhaps destined to be so again. This person accuses the authors of the “Encyclopædia” of having said:
“That as man is by his nature open only to the pleasures of the senses, these pleasures are consequently the sole objects of his desires; that man in himself has neither vice nor virtue, neither good nor bad morals, neither justice nor injustice; that the pleasures of the senses produce all the virtues; that in order to be happy, men must extinguish remorse, etc.”
In what articles of the “Encyclopædia,” of which five new editions have lately commenced, are these horrible propositions to be found? You are bound actually to produce them. Have you carried the insolence of your pride and the madness of your character to such an extent as to imagine that you will be believed on your bare word? These ridiculous absurdities may be found perhaps in the works of your own casuists, or those of the Porter of the Chartreux, but they are certainly not to be found in the articles of the “Encyclopædia” composed by M. Diderot, M. d’Alembert, the chevalier Jaucourt, or M. de Voltaire. You have never seen them in the articles of the Count de Tressan, nor in those of Messrs. Blondel, Boucher-d’Argis, Marmontel, Venel, Tronchin, d’Aubenton, d’Argenville, and various others, who generously devoted their time and labors to enrich the “Encyclopædic Dictionary,” and thereby conferred an everlasting benefit on Europe. Most assuredly, not one of them is chargeable with the abominations you impute to them. Only yourself, and Abraham Chaumieux, the vinegar merchant and crucified convulsionary, could be capable of broaching so infamous a calumny.
You confound error with truth, because you have not sense sufficient to distinguish between them. You wish to stigmatize as impious the maxim adopted by all publicists, “That every man is free to choose his country.”
What! you contemptible preacher of slavery, was not Queen Christina free to travel to France and reside at Rome? Were not Casimir and Stanislaus authorized to end their days in France? Was it necessary, because they were Poles, that they should die in Poland? Did Goldoni, Vanloo, and Cassini give offense to God by settling at Paris? Have all the Irish, who have established themselves in fame and fortune in France, committed by so doing a mortal sin?
And you have the stupidity to print such extravagance and absurdity as this, and Riballier has stupidity enough to approve and sanction you; and you range in one and the same class Bayle, Montesquieu, and the madman de La Metrie; and it may be added, you have found the French nation too humane and indulgent, notwithstanding all your slander and malignity, to deliver you over to anything but scorn!
What! do you dare to calumniate your country—if indeed a Jesuit can be said to have a country? Do you dare to assert “that philosophers alone in France attribute to chance the union and disunion of the atoms which constitute the soul of man?” “Mentiris impudentissime!” I defy you to produce a single book, published within the last thirty years, in which anything at all is attributed to chance, which is merely a word without a meaning.
Do you dare to accuse the sagacious and judicious Locke of having said “that it is possible the soul may be a spirit, but that he is not perfectly sure it is so; and that we are unable to decide what it may be able or unable to acquire?”
“Mentiris impudentissime!” Locke, the truly respectable and venerable Locke, says expressly, in his answer to the cavilling and sophistical Stilling-fleet, “I am strongly persuaded, although it cannot be shown, by mere reason, that the soul is immaterial, because the veracity of God is a demonstration of the truth of all that He has revealed, and the absence of another demonstration can never throw any doubt upon what is already demonstrated.”
See, moreover, under the article “Soul,” how Locke expresses himself on the bounds of human knowledge, and the immensity of the power of the Supreme Being. The great philosopher Bolingbroke declares that the opinion opposite to Locke’s is blasphemy. All the fathers, during the first three ages of the church, regarded the soul as a light, attenuated species of matter, but did not the less, in consequence, regard it as immortal. But now, forsooth, even your college drudges consequentially put themselves forward and denounce as “atheists” those who, with the fathers of the Christian church, think that God is able to bestow and to preserve the immortality of the soul, whatever may be the substance it consists of.
You carry your audacity so far as to discover atheism in the following words, “Who produces motion in nature? God. Who produces vegetation in plants? God. Who produces motion in animals? God. Who produces thought in man? God.”
We cannot so properly say on this occasion, “Mentiris impudentissime”; but we should rather say you impudently blaspheme the truth. We conclude with observing that the hero of the ex-Jesuit Paulian is the ex-Jesuit Patouillet, the author of a bishop’s mandate in which all the parliaments of the kingdom are insulted. This mandate was burned by the hands of the executioner. Nothing after this was wanting but for the ex-Jesuit Paulian to elevate the ex-Jesuit Nonnotte to be a father of the church, and to canonize the Jesuits Malagrida, Guignard, Garnet, and Oldham, and all other Jesuits to whom God has granted the grace of being hanged or quartered; they were all of them great metaphysicians, great philosophico-theologians.
People who never think frequently inquire of those who do think, what has been the use of philosophy? To destroy in England the religious rage which brought Charles I. to the scaffold; to deprive an archbishop in Sweden of the power, with a papal bull in his hand, of shedding the blood of the nobility; to preserve in Germany religious peace, by holding up theological disputes to ridicule; finally, to extinguish in Spain the hideous and devouring flames of the Inquisition.
Gauls! unfortunate Gauls! it prevents stormy and factious times from producing among you a second “Fronde,” and a second “Damiens.” Priests of Rome! it compels you to suppress your bull “In cœna domini,” that monument of impudence and stupidity. Nations! it humanizes your manners. Kings, it gives you instruction!
The philosopher is the lover of wisdom and truth; to be a sage is to avoid the senseless and the depraved. The philosopher, therefore, should live only among philosophers.
I will suppose that there are still some sages among the Jews; if one of these, when dining in company with some rabbis, should help himself to a plate of eels or hare, or if he cannot refrain from a hearty laugh at some superstitious and ridiculous observations made by them in the course of conversation, he is forever ruined in the synagogue; the like remark may be made of a Mussulman, a Gueber, or a Banian.
I know it is contended by many that the sage should never develop his opinions to the vulgar; that he should be a madman with the mad, and foolish among fools; no one, however, has yet ventured to say that he should be a knave among knaves. But if it be required that a sage should always join in opinion with the deluders of mankind, is not this clearly the same as requiring that he should not be an honest man? Would any one require that a respectable physician should always be of the same opinion as charlatans?
The sage is a physician of souls. He ought to bestow his remedies on those who ask them of him, and avoid the company of quacks, who will infallibly persecute him. If, therefore, a madman of Asia Minor, or a madman of India, says to the sage: My good friend, I think you do not believe in the mare Borac, or in the metamorphoses of Vishnu; I will denounce you, I will hinder you from being bostanji, I will destroy your credit; I will persecute you—the sage ought to pity him and be silent.
If ignorant persons, but at the same time persons of good understanding and dispositions, and willing to receive instruction, should ask him: Are we bound to believe that the distance between the moon and Venus is only five hundred leagues, and that between Mercury and the sun the same, as the principal fathers of the Mussulman religion insist, in opposition to all the most learned astronomers?—the sage may reply to them that the fathers may possibly be mistaken. He should at all times inculcate upon them that a hundred abstract dogmas are not of the value of a single good action, and that it is better to relieve one individual in distress than to be profoundly acquainted with the abolishing and abolished. When a rustic sees a serpent ready to dart at him, he will kill it; when a sage perceives a bigot and a fanatic, what will he do? He will prevent them from biting.