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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

On the Contradictions of this World

By Voltaire (1694–1778)

From the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’

THE MORE one knows this world of ours, the more contradictions and inconsistencies he finds. To begin with the Grand Turk: he is under an indispensable necessity to cut off the head of whoever displeases him, and he can at the same time hardly preserve his own.

If from the Grand Turk we pass to St. Peter, his Holiness confirms the election of emperors, he has kings for his vassals, but has no more power than a Duke of Savoy. He sends his commands into America and the East Indies; yet can he not take away one privilege from the republic of Lucca. The Emperor is King of the Romans; but his whole right and prerogative consists in holding the Pope’s stirrup, and the basin for him to dip his hands at mass.

The English serve their monarch on the knee; but then they depose him, imprison him, behead him.

Men who are vowed to poverty, obtain, by the very virtue of that vow, an estate of two hundred thousand crowns yearly revenue; and by means of their humility, become absolute sovereigns.

At Rome they rigorously condemn pluralities of benefices, while at the same instant they will issue bulls to enable some German to hold half a dozen bishoprics at once. It is, say they, because the German bishops have no church cures. The chancellor of France is the second person in the State, and yet he is never permitted to eat at the king’s table; at least it has never happened hitherto: while a colonel, who is scarce a gentleman, enjoys that honor. An intendant’s lady is a queen in her husband’s province, and at court no more than a simple country madam.

Men convicted of the heinous sin of nonconformity are publicly burnt: whilst the second Eclogue of Virgil, in which is that warm declaration of love which Corydon makes the beauteous Alexis, “Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin,” is gravely expounded in every college; and pupils are asked to note that though Corydon was fair and Amyntas swarthy, yet still Amyntas had the preference.

Should a poor, harmless philosopher, who never dreamed of doing the least harm to any one, take it into his head that the earth moves, that light comes from the sun, that matter might have other properties than those we are acquainted with, immediately the hue and cry is raised against him; he is an impious disturber of the public peace: though his persecutors have translated and published, in usum Delphini, Lucretius, and Cicero’s ‘Tusculan Questions,’ which are two complete bodies of irreligion.

Our courts of justice have rejected the belief in evil spirits, and witches are subjects of laughter: but Gaufredy and Grandier were both burnt for witchcraft; and lately, by a majority of voices, a monk was condemned to the stake by one of our Parliaments for having bewitched a young damsel of eighteen years by breathing upon her.

The skeptical philosophy of Bayle was persecuted even in Holland. La Motte le Vayer, a still greater skeptic, though not near so good a philosopher, was preceptor to Louis XIV. and his brother. Gourville was hanged in effigy at Paris, whilst he was the ambassador of France in Germany.

The famous atheist Spinoza lived and died in peace. Vanini, whose only crime was writing against Aristotle, was burnt for an atheist; in this character he has the honor to fill a considerable space in the history of the republic of letters, as well as in all the dictionaries,—those enormous archives of lies, with a small mixture of truth. Do but open those books, you will find it recorded that Vanini not only taught atheism in his writings, but also that twelve professors of the same creed had actually set out from Naples to make proselytes for their gospel. Then open Vanini’s books, and you will be astonished to find that they contain so many proofs of the existence of a Deity. See here what he says in his ‘Amphitheatrum,’ a work condemned upon hearsay because it is wholly unknown:—“God is his own sole principle and boundary, without end, without beginning, having no need of either; and the father of all beginning and of every end: he exists forever, but in no space of time; there is no duration, a parte ante,—that is to say, which is past,—nor futurity, which will come hereafter: he is present everywhere, without occupying any place; immovable, yet without stopping, and rapid without motion: he is all, but without inclusion of all; he is in everything, but without being excluded from other beings; good without quality; and whilst he produces all the various changes in nature, he is himself unvaried and immutable: his will is his power; he is simplicity itself: there is no such thing as mere possibility; all in him is real: he is the first, the middle, and the last act; in one word, he is all: yet he is above all kings, without them, within them, beyond them, eternally before them, yet present with them.” After such a confession of his faith was Vanini denounced as an atheist! On what grounds? The simple deposition of a fellow called Francon. In vain did his works bear witness for him. A single enemy robbed him at one stroke of life and reputation.

The little book called the ‘Cymballum Mundi’—a cold imitation of Lucian, without the slightest, the most distant relation to Christianity—has in like manner been condemned to the flames: yet Rabelais has been printed cum privilegio, and the ‘Turkish Spy’ and even the ‘Persian Letters’ suffered to pass unmolested,—particularly the latter, that ingenious, diverting, and daring performance which contains an entire letter in defense of suicide; another in which are the words, “If we suppose such a thing as religion”; another where it is said in express terms, that the bishops have properly no other function but that of dispensing with the laws; another which calls the Pope a magician who endeavors to persuade us that three and one are the same, and that the bread we eat is not bread. The Abbé de St. Pierre, a man possibly deceived but ever upright, and whose works Cardinal Du Bois used to call the “Dreams of a Good Citizen,”—this Abbé de St. Pierre, I say, was excluded from the French Academy, nemine contradicente, for having in a political work advocated boards of council in place of secretaries of State, and for saying that the finances had been shamefully managed towards the close of that glorious reign. The author of the ‘Persian Letters’ made mention of Louis XIV. only to tell the world that the King was a magician who undertook to persuade his subjects that paper was gold and silver; who preferred the Turkish to all other forms of government; who held a man that handed him a napkin in higher esteem than one who had won him battles; who had given a pension to a runaway who had fled a matter of two leagues from the field of battle without once looking behind him, and a considerable position to another who had run four leagues; who was miserably poor, although his finances are inexhaustible. What did this same author say of Louis XIV., the protector of the French Academy? for on the reputation of this book he was admitted into their number. We may add to this, what crowns the inconsistency, that this body received him amongst them chiefly for having made them ridiculous; for of all the books in which authors have laughed at their company, in none are they worse handled than in the ‘Persian Letters.’ Listen: “The members who compose this body have nothing to do but to prate everlastingly; panegyric flows naturally out of that babbling of theirs, which is truly world without end,” etc. After being treated in this manner, they praised him for his skill in drawing a strong likeness.

Were I disposed to treat the contrarieties of the republic of letters, I must write the history of all the literati, and of all the wits who have ever existed. Or had I a mind to consider the inconsistencies of society, I must write a history of the human race. An Asiatic traveling in Europe might take us all for pagans. The very days of our week pay tribute to Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus; the marriage of Cupid and Psyche is painted in a palace belonging to the Pope! If this Asiatic attended our opera, he could not doubt that it was a festival in honor of the heathen gods. Were he to study our manners, he would be still more astonished. Spain excludes all foreigners from the smallest commerce, directly or indirectly, with her American settlements, whilst those very Americans carry on, through Spanish factors, a trade to the amount of fifty millions per annum; so that Spain could never grow rich were it not for the violation of that law, which still stands though perpetually trampled upon. Another government encourages an India company, while its theologians declare its dividends criminal before God. Our Asiatic would behold the seats of judges, the command of armies, the places of counselors of State, bought with money: nor could he comprehend the assertion of the patents entitling them to hold these places, that these have been granted without caballing, fee, or reward, and purely on the score of merit, whilst the valuable consideration given is plainly disclosed in their letters of provision! What would he think to see our players at the same instant paid by the sovereign and excommunicated by the clergy? Suppose he were to ask why a lieutenant-general—who is only a roturier, a man of the common class, though he may have won battles—should, in the estimation of the court, be ranked with a peasant, whilst an echevin or city sheriff is held as noble as the Montmorencies? Why, when all regular shows are prohibited in the week consecrated to edification, should mountebanks be tolerated whose language is offensive to the least delicate ear? In short, he would see our laws in direct opposition to our customs. Yet were we to travel into Asia, we should come upon like inconsistencies.

Men are everywhere fools: they make laws much as we repair breaches in walls. In one place the elder brothers contrive to leave the younger mere beggars; in others they share alike. At one time the Church authorizes duels, at another she anathematizes them. The partisans and enemies of Aristotle have been excommunicated each in turn; as have the wearers of long hair or short hair. In the known world no law has been discovered able to redress a very silly piece of folly, which is gaming. The laws of play are the only ones which admit of neither exception, relaxation, imposition, nor variation. An ex-lackey, if he plays at lansquenet with a king, and happens to win, is paid without the least hesitation; in every other respect the law is a sword, with which the stronger cuts the weaker in pieces.

Yet the world gets on as if it were constituted in the wisest manner imaginable! Irregularity is a part of ourselves. Our political world is much like our globe: though ugly enough, it manages to get on. It would be folly to wish that all the mountains, seas, and rivers were drawn in regular geometrical figures: it would be a still greater folly to expect consummate wisdom from men; as if one should suggest giving wings to dogs, or horns to eagles. Indeed, these pretended oppositions that we call contradictions are necessary ingredients in the composition of man; who like the rest of nature is what he has to be.