Wednesday, June 30, 2021

That the Kings May Fear Him

 The previous post, on the necessity of higher law and social pluralism to oppose totalitarianism, reminds me of a poem by Voltaire, which gives what is perhaps his most famous line. A book had been anonymously published called The Three Imposters; the 'three imposters' of the title are Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, and it unimaginatively (but very frankly) gives the standard early modern freethinking account of religion as an 'empire of falsehood'  based on fear and encouraged by nefarious priests. Voltaire, no fan of organized religion himself, nonetheless regarded it as an odious book, saying of it, "This book of the Three Imposters is a very bad work, full of a coarse, mindless, and unphilosophical atheism." He wrote a poem against it, in which he turns on its head the argument that God is invented out of human fear and tries to differentiate his own view from that of the book being criticized. The poem insists vigorously on the need for higher law against tyranny, but as Voltaire does not, as far as I know, accept any kind of social pluralism, he would count as a poseur by my test. It's interesting how badly Voltaire's prophecy for the Enlightenment fails, which is linked, I think, to the naivete of the program, in which elimination of religious tests for office and the fading of religious rules will become a utopia of toleration. In reality, it's difficult to see what the particular sort of interreligious toleration he envisages would be, beyond a voluntary surrender by religious communities of every ability by which they could resist persecution, oppression, and harassment by the state. Ceasing to be robust and distinctive, they cease to be checks on usurpers of power. (Contrast, for instance, his comment about Jews giving up kosher laws with the argument of IV Maccabees, in which Jewish law, including particularly kosher law, is a form by which virtue can resist tyranny.)

Letter to the Author of the Three Imposters
by Voltaire

Insipid writer, who pretends for his readers
to draw the portrait of the Three Imposters,
how is it that, mindless, you become the fourth?
Because, poor enemy of the supreme being,
do you not confuse Mohammad with God,
and the works of man with God, his author?
Correct the servant but respect the master.
God ought not suffer for the stupidities of the priest;
recognize God, even when very badly served.

Of lizards and rats my house is full,
but the architect exists, and whoever denies it
under the guise of wisdom is touched with madness.
Ask Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
and the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
they all adore one master, one judge, one father.
This sublime system is necessary to men.
It is the sacred bond of society,
the first foundation of holy equity,
the bridle on the wicked, the hope for the just.

If the heavens, stripped of his august imprint,
were ever to stop manifesting him,
if God did not exist, we would have to invent him.
Let the wise proclaim him that the kings may fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your majesties disdain
the tears of the innocent that you make to flow,
my avenger is in heaven: learn to tremble.
Such is at least the fruit of a useful belief.

But you, false reasoner, whose sad imprudence
establishes them on the path of crime,
what fruit can you draw from your pretty arguments?
Will your children be more docile to your voice?
Your friends, in your need, more sure and useful?
Your wife more faithful? And your tenant,
will he pay you better for not believing in God?
Ah, leave mankind their fear and their hope!

You object to me in vain the hypocritical insolence
of fierce charlatans raised to honors,
nourished by our works, watered by our tears,
of Caesars tainted by usurped greatness,
a priest on the Capitoline where Pompey triumphed,
of these sandaled wretches, excrement of humanity,
washing their detestable hands in our blood,
a hundred towns at their word ruined,
and the horrible mornings of blooded Paris.
I know better than you these awful monuments;
I have exposed them with my pen for fifty years.
But as the implacable enemy of this fanaticism
I adored God when I vanquished the devil.
I have always distinguished religion
from the evils that support superstition.
Europe has thanked me; twenty crowned heads
deigned to cheer my fortunate works
when Patouillet insulted me in vain.
I have done more in my time than Luther or Calvin.
They were seen to oppose, by fatal mistake,
abuse to abuse and scandal to scandal;
eager to throw themselves into faction,
they condemned the Pope and wanted to imitate him.
By them Europe was long desolated;
they troubled the earth, but I have comforted it.
I said to the disputants as they hounded each other:
"Stop, impertinent ones; stop, unfortunate ones;
foolish children of God, cherish your brothers
and stop biting each other over absurd chimeras."
Good people have believed me; the evil, crushed,
have hurled replies that are scorned by the wise,
and in Europe at last a happy toleration
has become the catechism of well-ordered minds.

I see coming in the distance those times, peaceful days,
when philosophy, enlightening mankind,
will bring them in peace to the foot of a common master;
fierce fanaticism will tremble to appear there:
there will be less dogma with more virtue.

If someone wants to enter office,
he will no longer bring the two witnesses
to testify to his faith but to swear to his conduct.

The attractive sister of a major cleric
a Huguenot swain will be able to marry,
we will see poverty clothed and nourished
with the treasures of Loreto, amassed for Mary;
the children of Sarah, whom we now treat like dogs,
will eat ham cured by Christians.
The Turk, without wondering whether the imam will pardon him,
will drink with abbé Tamponet at the Sorbonne.
My nephews will dine happily and without rancor
with the descendants of the Pompignan brothers.
They will be able to pardon this harsh La Bleterie
for having cut short the course of my life.
Among beautiful minds there will be true union.
But who will ever be able to dine with Freron?

My translation. The last part of the poem deals with Voltaire's enemies -- it's Voltaire, you don't think he would be able to resist a jab at his enemies, do you? (Note, for that matter, how he quickly gets the business of God out of the way to talk about himself; although, in fairness, he does give God the courtesy of first billing in the fight against tyranny. It's a sign of how seriously Voltaire takes his theism that he is willing to take second place to God.) But it's interesting how differently his enemies fare. The Marquis de Pompignan was known as the enemy of Voltaire; they had an ongoing literary and philosophical feud, and the Marquis's brother was Archbishop of Vienne, and wrote a book Voltaire satirized. But apparently Voltaire thought they gave as good as they got, because he treats their descendants well in his imaginary future, with no need even for pardon; La Bleterie, a major historian whose works were criticized by Voltaire, and who quipped that Voltaire forgot to have himself buried (a quip that seems to have both stung and impressed Voltaire), needs pardon, but will receive it (one day in the future, at least); but still nobody will like Freron, who repeatedly attacked Voltaire's character (and became one of Voltaire's favorite butts of insult). It's an unusual scale of merit, based not on religion but on the ability to skewer without scurrility.