Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.



THERE are cases where one must not judge a nation by its customs and popular superstitions. I suppose that Caesar, having conquered Egypt, wanting to make trade flourish in the Roman Empire, has sent an embassy to China, by the port of Arsinoe, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The Emperor Yventi, first of his name, was then reigning; the annals of China represent him as a very wise and learned prince. After receiving Caesar's ambassadors with all the Chinese politeness, he informs himself secretly through his interpreters of the customs, science and religion of this Roman people, as celebrated in the West as the Chinese people is in the East. He learns first of all that this people's pontiffs have arranged their year in so absurd a fashion that the sun has already the heavenly signs of spring when the Romans are celebrating the first festivals of winter.

He learns that this nation supports at great cost a college of priests who know exactly the time when one should set sail and when one should give battle, by inspecting an ox's liver, or by the way in which the chickens eat barley. This sacred Science was brought formerly to the Romans by a little god named Tages, who emerged from the earth in Tuscany. These peoples worship one supreme God whom they always call the very great and very good God. Nevertheless, they have built a temple to a courtesan named Flora; and almost all the good women of Rome have in their homes little household gods four or five inches high. One of these little divinities is the goddess of the breasts; the other the goddess of the buttocks. There is a household god who is called the god Pet. The emperor Yventi starts laughing: the tribunals of Nankin think first of all with him that the Roman ambassadors are madmen or impostors who have taken the title of envoys of the Roman Republic; but as the emperor is as just as he is polite, he has private talks with the ambassadors. He learns that the Roman pontiffs have been very ignorant, but that Caesar is now reforming the calendar; they admit to him that the college of augurs was established in early barbarous times; that this ridiculous institution, become dear to a people long uncivilized, has been allowed to subsist; that all honest people laugh at the augurs; that Caesar has never consulted them; that according to a very great man named Cato, never has an augur been able to speak to his comrade without laughter; and that finally Cicero, the greatest orator and the best philosopher in Rome, has just written against the augurs a little work entitled "Of Divination," in which he commits to eternal ridicule all the soothsayers, all the predictions, and all the sorcery of which the world is infatuated. The emperor of China is curious to read Cicero's book, the interpreters translate it; he admires the book and the Roman Republic.

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