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"Of Idolatry" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticism: "Of Idolatry." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of Idolatry" by Voltaire



After having read all that has been written upon idolatry, there is nothing that communicates a precise idea of it. It seems that Locke was the first who taught men to define the words they used, and not to speak at random.

The term that answers to idolatry is not to be found in any ancient language; it is an expression of the Greeks of the last ages, which was never in use before the second century of our era. It signifies the adoration of images. It is a term of reproach -- an expression of abuse. No people ever took upon themselves the title of idolaters -- no government ever ordained that the people should adore an image as the supreme God of nature.

The ancient Chaldeans, the ancient Arabians, the ancient Persians, had, for a long time, neither images nor temples. How could those who venerated the emblems of divinity in the sun, the stars, and fire, be called idolaters? They revered what they saw. But revering the sun and the stars is surely not adoring a graven image, made by a workman. It is, undoubtedly, an erroneous doctrine, but it is not idolatry.

Suppose that the Egyptians really adored the dog Anubis, and the bull Apis -- that they were ignorant enough to consider them not as animals consecrated to the divinity, and as an emblem of the good which their Isheth and their Isis did unto man, but that they really believed that a celestial ray had animated the consecrated ox and dog, still it is evident that this belief was not adoring a statue. A beast is not a idol.

Men had, no doubt, objects of devotion before they had sculptors; and it is clear that those men who were so ancient, could not be called idolaters. It remains then to ascertain if those who afterwards placed statues in the temples, and who ordained the reverence of those statues, were called "worshipers of images," and their people, also, " worshipers of images." This certainly is not to be found in any monument of antiquity.

But without taking upon themselves the title of idolaters, were they really so in fact? Was it ordained that they should believe that the brazen statue, which represented the fantastical figures of Bel and Babylon, was the master, the God, the creator of the world? Was the figure of Jupiter, Jupiter himself? Is it not, (if it be allowable to compare the customs of our holy religion with the customs of antiquity) like saying that we adore the figure of the eternal Father with a long beard, the figure of a woman and a child, the figure of a dove? these forming the emblematical ornaments in our temples. We adore them so little, that if these images happen to be of wood, and begin to decay, we use them for firewood, and erect others in their places. They are merely significant emblems appealing to the eyes and the imagination. The Turks, and those of the reformed church, think that the Catholics are idolaters, but the Catholics loudly protest against the accusation.

It is impossible really to adore a statue, or to believe that any statue can be the supreme God. There was but one Jupiter, but there are a thousand statues of him. Now, this Jupiter, who was supposed to dart his lightning, was thought to inhabit the clouds, or Mount Olympus, or the planet which bears his name. His emblems did not dart lightning, and were neither in a planet, in the clouds, nor upon Mount Olympus. All prayers were dedicated to the immortal Gods, and, assuredly, the statues were not immortal.

Knaves and impostors have asserted, and the superstitious have believed that statues have spoken. The ignorant are almost invariably credulous; but these absurdities were never, amongst any people, the religion of the state. Some credulous old woman may not have distinguished the statue from the god; but this is no reason for maintaining that the government thought like this old woman. The magistrates were willing that the representation of the gods they adored should be revered, and that the attention of the people should be fixed by these visible signs. If the ancients were idolaters for having statues in their temples, one half of Christendom are also idolaters; and, if the latter were not so, neither were the nations of antiquity.

In a word, there is not in all antiquity a single poet, a single philosopher, a single man of any rank, who has said that stone, marble, brass, or wood should be adored; but there are innumerable testimonies to the contrary. Idolatrous nations are then like sorcerers; they are frequently spoken of, but they never existed.

A commentator has concluded that the statue of Priapus was really adored, because Horace, in making this bug-bear speak, causes it to say -- " I was formerly the trunk of a tree; the artisan undetermined whether he should make a god, or a joint-stool of me, finally resolved to make me a god," &c. This commentator cites the prophet Baruch, to prove that in the time of Horace, the statue of Priapus was worshiped as a real divinity. He does not perceive that Horace is making a jest, both of the pretended god and his statue. It may be possible that, one of the servant-maids, in seeing this enormous figure, might conceive there was something divine in it; but it will not, assuredly, be pretended, that all those wooden figures of Priapus, with which the gardens were filled for the purpose of driving away the birds, were regarded as the Creators of the world!

It is said that Moses, notwithstanding the divine law which forbade the making of images of men or animals, erected a brazen serpent, which was an imitation of the silver serpent carried by the Egyptian priests in procession; but though this serpent was made to cure the bites of real serpents, it was not, however, adored. Solomon placed two cherubims in the temple, but these cherubims were not looked upon as gods. If, then, in the temple of the Jews, and in our temples, statues have been respected without idolatry, why should other nations be so greatly reproached? We should either absolve them, or they should accuse us.

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