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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

The Pike’s Roe

From “Dialogues”

CU-SU, a Disciple of Confucius, and PRINCE KOU.

Kou.I cannot bear with the silliness of the sects about us. On one side is Laotze, whom his mother conceived by the junction of heaven and earth, and was for fourscore years pregnant with him. I as little believe his doctrine of universal deprivation and annihilation as of his being born with white hair, or of his going to promulgate his doctrine riding on a black cow. The god Fo I put on the same footing, notwithstanding he had a white elephant for his father, and promises immortal life. One thing, at which I cannot forbear taking great offense, is that the priests continually preach such chimeras, thus deceiving the people in order the better to sway them. They gain for themselves respect by mortification, at which, indeed, Nature shudders. Some deny themselves, during their whole lives, the most salutary foods, as if there were no way of pleasing God but by a bad diet. Others carry a pillory about their necks, and sometimes they richly deserve it. They drive nails into their thighs, as into boards, and for this fanaticism the people follow them in crowds. On the king’s issuing any edict which does not suit their humor, they coolly tell their auditors that this edict is not to be found in the commentary of the god Fo, and that god is to be obeyed in preference to men. Now, how am I to remedy this popular distemper, which is extravagant in the highest degree, and not less dangerous? Toleration, you know, is the principle of the Chinese, and, indeed, of all Asiatic governments, but such an indulgence must be owned to be highly mischievous, as exposing an empire to be overthrown on account of some fanatical notions.

Cu-Su.God forbid that I should try to extinguish in you the spirit of toleration, that quality so eminently respectable, and which, to souls, is what the permission of eating is to bodies. By the law of Nature, every one may believe what he will, as well as eat what he will. A physician is not to kill his patients for not observing the diet he had prescribed to them; neither has a sovereign a right to hang his subjects for not thinking as he thinks; but he has a right to prevent disturbances, and, with prudent measures, he will very easily root out superstitions of all kinds. You know what happened to Daon, the sixth king of Chaldea, about four thousand years ago?

Kou.No. I pray you oblige me with an account of it.

Cu-Su.The Chaldean priests had taken it into their heads to worship the pikes of the Euphrates, pretending that a famous fish called Oannes had formerly taught them divinity; that this fish was immortal, three feet in length, and a small crescent was on the tail. In veneration of this Oannes, no pikes were to be eaten. A violent dispute arose among the divines, whether the fish Oannes had a soft or hard roe. Both parties not only fulminated excommunications, but, at several times, they came to blows. To put an end to such disturbances, King Daon made use of this expedient. He ordered a strict fast for three days to both parties, and at the expiration of it, sent for the sticklers of the hard-roed pike, who, accordingly, were present at his dinner. A pike was brought to him, three feet in length, and on the tail a small crescent had been put.

“Is this your god?” said he to the doctors.

“Yes, sir,” answered they; “we know him by the crescent on the tail, and make no question but he is hard-roed.”

On this, the king ordered the pike to be opened. It was found to have the finest melt that could be.

“Now,” said the king, “you see that this is not your god, it being soft-roed.” And the king and his nobles ate the pike. The hard-roed divines were not a little pleased that the god of their adversaries had been fried.

Immediately after, the doctors of the opposite side were sent for, and a pike of three feet, with a crescent on his tail, being shown to them, they, with great joy, assured his Majesty that it was the god Oannes, and that he had a soft roe. But, behold! on being opened, it was found hard-roed. At this, the two parties, equally out of countenance, and still fasting, the good-natured king told them that he could only give them a dinner of pikes. And they greedily fell to eating both hard and soft roed, indiscriminately. This closed the war with great distinction for King Daon’s wisdom and goodness, and since that time the people have been allowed to eat pikes as often as they pleased.

Kou.Well done, King Daon! And I give you my word that I will follow his example on every occasion, and, as far as I can, without injuring any one, and without worshiping Fo’s or pikes. I know that in the countries of Pegu and Tonquin there are little gods and little Tapolins which bring down the moon, when in the wane, and clearly foretell what is to come; that is, they clearly see what is not. I will take care that the Tapolins shall not come within my reach to make futurity present, and bring down the moon. It is a shame that there should be sects rambling from town to town, propagating their delusions, as quacks do their medicaments. What a disgrace it is to the human mind, for petty nations to think that truth belongs to them alone, and that the vast empire of China is given up to error.