from Vol. #8, Issue 1: Spring 2017
translated from French by Adi S. Bharat
In Praise of Reason
Delivered in a Provincial Academy by Monsieur de Chambon
In the sixteenth century, Erasmus extolled the virtues of Folly. Today, you ask me to do the same for Reason. This Reason is indeed celebrated only some two hundred years after its rival, often much later; and there are nations in which she has not yet been seen at all.
She was so unknown among us during the time of our druids that she did not even have a word to represent her in our language. Caesar brought her neither to Switzerland, nor to Autun, nor to Paris, which was then but a hamlet of fishermen—and Caesar himself hardly knew her.
The grand qualities he possessed were so abundant in number that Reason could not find a place among them. This senseless magnanimous soul left our land devastated in order to go devastate his own, and to end up being stabbed twenty-three times by twenty-three other illustrious madmen who were far from being his equals.
Around five hundred years later, the Sicambrian Clodvich—or Clovis—arrived to exterminate one part of our nation, and to subjugate the other. Reason—if it was not the reason of the strongest—was heard neither in his army nor in our wretched little villages.
For a long time we languished in this horrible and degrading barbarism from which the crusades did not deliver us. It was at once the most universal, the most atrocious, the most ridiculous and the most miserable of follies. These faraway crusades were followed by the abominable folly of the civil and holy war that exterminated so many speakers of the langue d'Oc and the langue d'Oil. Reason kept herself from there. At the time Politics reigned supreme in Rome; she had as ministers her two sisters, Deception and Greed. Under her orders, one saw Ignorance, Fanaticism, Rage spreading through Europe, with Poverty following them everywhere. Meanwhile, Reason hid herself and her daughter, Verity, in a well. No one knew where this well was; and, if there had been an inkling so as to where it was located, they would have descended into the well to slaughter mother and daughter.
After the Turks had taken Constantinople and redoubled the frightful tribulations of Europe, two or three Greeks, who were fleeing, fell into this well, or rather into this cavern, half dead of fatigue, hunger, and fear.
Reason received them with humanity, nourished them indiscriminately with viands—an act as such they had never known in Constantinople. They received from her a few brief instructions—for Reason is not loquacious. She made them swear not to reveal the location of her sanctuary. They left and arrived, after much journeying, at the courts of Charles V and of Francis I.
They were received as if they were jugglers who had come to perform feats of agility to relieve the courtiers and the ladies of their boredom in between their rendezvous. The ministers deigned to watch them during the moments of rest that they could afford in the midst of the torrent of affairs. They were even welcomed by the Emperor and the King of France, who both glanced at them in passing as they were heading to see their mistresses. But their time bore more fruit in the little cities where they found a number of good bourgeois folk who still possessed—I do not know how—a glimmer of common sense.
These furtive glints of common sense had all but come to pass in all of Europe desolated by civil wars. Two or three flashes of reason could not illuminate the world in the midst of fiery torches and pyres ignited for so many years by fanaticism. Reason and her daughter hid themselves more than ever.
The disciples of their first apostles kept quiet, except for a few who were reckless enough to preach reason unreasonably and against the winds of their time. For this, they paid with their lives, as did Socrates, but no one paid attention. Nothing is as unpleasant as being hung in obscurity. For so long we were preoccupied with the Saint Bartholomew massacre, the massacres in Ireland, the scaffolds of Hungary, the assassinations of kings, that we did not have enough time nor enough free spirit to think of the petty crimes and the secret calamities that were flooding the world, from one end to the other.
Despite not being the sentimental type, Reason was touched with pity after being informed by a few exiles, who had sought refuge in her sanctuary, of what was happening. Her daughter, more daring than her, encouraged her mother to see the world, to attempt to heal it. They appeared, they spoke; but they found so many wicked people interested in contradicting them, so many imbeciles in the pay of the wicked, so many who were indifferent and solely concerned with themselves and the present moment, who were neither bothered with Reason and her daughter nor with their own enemies, that mother and daughter sagely decided to return to their sanctuary.
Nevertheless, a few seeds of the fruits that they always carry about them, and that they had spread, germinated in the soil—without rotting at all.
Eventually, the desire to go on pilgrimage to Rome seized them and so they went, disguising and concealing their names out of fear of the Inquisition. As soon as they arrived, they addressed themselves to the chef of Pope Ganganelli, Clement XIV. They knew him to be the least busy chef of Rome. One might even say that, after your confessors, Messieurs, he was the most idle of his profession.
This good man, after having given the two pilgrims a dinner almost as frugal as that of the Pope, introduced them to his Holiness whom they found reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The Pope recognized them through their disguises and, ignoring convention, embraced them cordially. "My ladies," he said to them, "had I been able to imagine that you were on Earth, I would have payed you the first visit myself."
After the compliments, they spoke business. As early as the day after, Ganganelli annulled the papal bull In cona Domini—one of the greatest monuments of human folly that had for so long outraged the potentates. On the second day, he resolved to dissolve the Jesuit societies of Garasse, Guignard, Garnet, Busembaum, Malagrida, Paulian, Patouillet, Nonotte; and Europe applauded. On the third day, he reduced the taxes against which the people had been complaining. He encouraged agriculture and all the arts; his actions led to him being loved by all those who had been enemies of his position. One would have then said in Rome that there was but one nation and one law in the world.
The two pilgrims, very surprised and very satisfied, took leave of the Pope, who presented them, not with Agnus Dei or relics, but with carriage in which to continue their journey. Reason and Verity had not been till then in the habit of taking comfortable pleasures.
They then visited all of Italy and were surprised to find there, instead of machiavellism, friendly rivalry between the princes and the republics, from Parma to Turin, as to whom rendered their subjects more virtuous, richer and happier.
"My daughter," said Reason to Verity, "after our long imprisonment, here now, I believe, might be the beginning of the advent of our reign. Some of the prophets who came to visit us in our well must have been powerful enough in words and actions in order to so change the face of the Earth. You see, everything takes time; it had been necessary to pass through the darkness of ignorance and of lies before returning to your palace of light, from which you had been driven along with me for so many centuries. What happened to us happened too to Nature—she had been covered by a wicked veil, all disfigured for innumerable centuries. In the end, a Gallileo, a Copernicus, a Newton, arrived and displayed her almost naked and made men become enamoured by her.
They arrived in Venice, while thus conversing. What they considered there with the greatest of attention was a procurator of Saint Mark who held a great pair of scissors before a table completely covered with claws, beaks and black feathers.
"Ah!," cried out Reason, "God forgive me, illustrissimo signore, I believe that these here are one of my pairs of scissors that I have brought into my well when I sought refuge there with my daughter! How did Your Excellency get them and what are you doing with them? "
" Illustrissima signora,"replied the procurator, "it is possible that these scissors had once belonged to Your Excellency, but it was someone named Fra Paolo who brought them to us a long time ago. And these scissors have been put in the service of cutting the claws of the Inquisition that you see laid out on this table.
"These black feathers belonged to the harpies that would came to feast upon the dinner of the republic; we clip their nails and the end of their beaks every day. Without this precaution, they would end up devouring everything and there would be nothing left for the wisemen, nor for the pregadi, nor for the people of the city.
"If you pass by France, you will perhaps find in Paris your other pair of scissors with a Spanish minister who uses them in his country in the same way that we do, and who will one day be blessed by the human species."
After attending a performance of Venetian opera, the travellers left for Germany. With much satisfaction, they saw this country, which was, during the time of Charlemagne, but an immense forest interspersed with swamps, now covered with flourishing and peaceful cities; this country, once populated by barbaric and poor sovereigns, was now filled with polite and magnificent people; this country, which, in ancient times, had nothing but sorcerers for priests, who would immolate men on rudely carved out stone; this country, which had then been flooded by its own blood in order to find out if the thing was in, cum, sub, or not; this country, which finally received within it three enemy religions that found themselves surprised at living peacefully together. "Praise be to God!," said Reason, "through their folly, these people have finally come to me." The travellers were then introduced to an empress, who was more than reasonable, for she was charitable. The pilgrims were so pleased with her that they did not take much notice of certain customs that shocked them; but they were enamoured with her son, the emperor. Their surprise was redoubled upon their arrival in Sweden. "What!," they said, "a revolution so difficult, and yet so prompt! So perilous, and yet so peaceful! And since that great day not a single moment has been lost without good being done—and all this in an age that is so rarely that of reason! We did well in leaving our hiding place at a time when this great event was seizing the admiration of all of Europe!"
From there, they passed quickly through Poland. "Ah! My mother, what a contrast!," exclaimed Verity. "It makes me want to go back to my well. This is what happens when it is always the most useful portion of the human species that is wiped out and when farmers are treated worse than the animals that plow their fields. This chaos of anarchy can only be ended by ruin—such as had been quite clearly predicted. I feel for a virtuous, wise and humane monarch and I daresay that I hope he will be happy, since the other kings are beginning to be so and since your enlightenment is being communicated step by step.
"Let us go see," she continued, "a more favorable and surprising change. Let us go to the immense hyperborean region, which was so barbaric eighty years ago and, which is today so enlightened and invincible. Let us go contemplate she who has achieved the miracle of a new creation." They rushed over there and soon admitted that they had not been told enough.
They could not stop admiring how much the world had changed in just a few years. They thus concluded that one day Chili and the Austral Lands would be the center of civility and good taste and that it would be necessary to go to the antarctic pole to learn how to live.
When they arrived in England, Verity said to her mother: "It seems to me that the happiness of this nation is not like that of the others; it has been more crazy, more fanatic, more cruel and more miserable than any other nation of which I know; and yet here it is now with a unique government in which everything useful in a monarchy and everything necessary in a republic has been conserved. It is superior in war, in law, in the arts and in commerce. I see it only to be embarrassed by Northern America, which it has conquered at one end of the universe, and by the finest provinces of India, subjugated at the other end. How will this nation manage the weight of these burdens on its felicity?"
"The weight is heavy," said Reason, "but, if this nation might listen to me, it will find the levers that will make its burdens very light."
Finally, Reason and Verity came to France—they had previously made a few appearances there, but had been chased away.
"Do you remember," Verity began to ask her mother, "the extreme desire that we had to establish ourselves among the French during the beautiful days of Louis XIV? But the impertinent quarrels between Jesuits and Jansenists led us to flee soon after. The continuous complaints of the people did not call us back. I hear presently the cheering of twenty million men blessing heaven. Some are saying: "This advent is all the more joyous as we are not paying for the joy." Others exclaim: "Luxury is only vanity. Double payments, superfluous expenditures, excessive profits will all be taken away"—and they are correct. "All taxes will be abolished"—and they are wrong, for every individual pays for collective happiness.
"The laws will be uniform"—nothing is more desirable than this, but neither is anything more difficult. "The immense assets of certain idlers, who have taken the vow of poverty, will be redistributed to indigent workers, and especially to the poor officers. No longer shall that relic of serfdom—mortmain—be allowed to persist. No longer shall policing monks be seen chasing orphans reduced to mendicancy away from the house of the Father in order to enrich with their remains a convent enjoying seigniorial rights, which are the rights of erstwhile conquerors. No longer shall entire families be seen begging in vain at the door of the convent that is stripping them bare." Pray to Heaven that this be so! Nothing is more worthy of a king. The king of Sardinia has abolished this abominable excess in his kingdom. Pray to Heaven that it too be abolished in France.
"Do you not hear, mother, all these voices that are saying: "The marriages of a hundred thousand families useful to the State shall no longer be considered concubinage and the children issued from such marriages shall no longer be declared bastards by the law"? Nature, justice and you, my mother, are all calling on this subject for a wise settlement that would be compatible with the repose of the State and with the rights of all men.
"We shall make the profession of the soldier so honorable that no longer will anyone be tempted to desert." Such a thing is possible, but delicate.
"Petty mistakes shall not be punished as great crimes, for there must be proportion in everything. A barbaric law, obscurely worded, badly interpreted, will no longer cause tactless and careless children to perish behind bars and in flames, as if they had assassinated their fathers and their mothers." This should be the first axiom of criminal justice.
"The assets of the father of a family shall no longer be confiscated because his children do not deserve to die of hunger for the mistakes of their father and because the king has no need for such a miserable confiscation." Such a thing fits wonderfully and is worthy of the magnanimity of the sovereign.
"Torture, invented formerly by highwaymen in order to force the robbed to reveal their treasure, employed today among a small number of nations to save the robust criminal and to consume the weak-bodied and weak-minded innocent, shall no longer be in use except for serious crimes of lèse-société, and even then only in order to get the individuals in question to reveal their accomplices." It could not be better.
"These are the resolutions that I hear being made everywhere; and I, Verity, shall record all these great changes in my annals.
"All around me, in all the tribunals, I hear the proliferation of these remarkable words: "We shall no longer cite the two powers, for there can only be one: that of the king or of the law in a monarchy; and that of the nation in a republic. Divine power is of such a different and superior nature that it should not be compromised by a profane relation to human laws. The infinite cannot join itself to the finite. Gregory VII was the first who dared to summon the infinite to his aid during his till then unheard-of wars against Henry IV, a quite finite emperor—I mean to say one who was too obtuse. These wars have bloodied Europe for so long; but finally we have separated these two venerable entities who have nothing in common, and this is the only way to be in peace."
"These speeches, which all the law ministers are giving, seem quite forceful to me. I know that two powers are recognized neither in China, nor in India, nor in Persia, nor in Constantinople, nor in Moscow, nor in London, etc. But I place my trust in you, mother. I shall write nothing save that which you will have dictated."
Reason replied to her: "My daughter, you sense quite well that I desire nearly the same things and many others. All this demands time and reflection. I have always been very pleased when, in my sorrow, I have obtained part of the respite I wanted. I am today so happy.
"Do you recall the time when all the kings of the earth, being in profound peace, would amuse themselves by playing puzzles: and when the beautiful queen of Sheba came in person to offer logogriphs to Solomon?"
"Yes, mother; it was a good time, but it did not last."
"Oh well," began the mother, "this is infinitely better. Back then, one only dreamed of showing a little wit; and I see that, since the last ten to twelve years, there has been much attention paid, in Europe, to the arts and the necessary virtues, which sweeten the bitterness of life. In general, it seems that the word has been passed around to think more solidly than had been the case for thousands of centuries. You, who have never been able to lie, tell me which period you would have chosen or preferred over the current period if you were to live in France.
"I have the reputation," replied the daughter, "of liking to say rather harsh things to the people in whose company I find myself, and you know that I have always been forced to do so; but I admit that I have only had good things to say about the present period, despite the writers who only praise the past.
"I must inform future generations that it is in this age that men learnt to protect themselves from a dreadful and mortal malady by giving themselves a less deadly one; to restore life to those who seemingly lost it in the seas; to control and confront lightning; to compensate for a fixed point desired in vain from West to East. In terms of morality, more has been done: justice has been daringly demanded of the laws against the laws which had condemned virtue to torture; and this justice has been, on occasion, obtained. Finally, the word tolerance has been courageously pronounced."
Indeed, my dear daughter, let us enjoy these beautiful days; let us stay here, if it lasts; and, if the storm clouds the skies, we shall return to our well."
>> Original written in 1774. Readers will find the French source text on Wikisource: "Éloge historique de la Raison", as appears in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Vol. 21 pp. 513-522, published by Garnier, 1877.
Note bene: The translation above is current as of 9-25-2017. Between this date of publication and the appearance of the text in print, additional revisions may be made. To request a copy of the most up-to-date translation, readers may wish to contact the editors directly by email.
Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet in 1694 in Paris, was one of the most prominent Enlightenment philosophes. Not without his flaws, which mainly revolved around his problematic understandings of “race,” Voltaire was nevertheless a fearless advocate for freedom of speech and of thought, and remained till his death a formidable critic of religious dogmatism and intolerance. He famously took up the case of the persecuted Jean Calas, thereby becoming arguably one of the first public and engaged intellectuals in France. He was also a versatile and prolific writer who wrote works of history, philosophy, poetry, and prose. His most famous works include, but are certainly not limited to, Lettres philosophiques (1734), Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751), Candide (1759), and Dictionnaire philosophique (1764).
About the translator: Adi S. Bharat is a PhD candidate in French Studies at the University of Manchester, where he is working on a dissertation on representations of Jewish-Muslim relations in contemporary France. Bharat’s research interests include antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism (often called "Islamophobia") in France, Jewish-Muslim relations in France, LGBT-affirming interpretations of Islam and the lived experiences of LGBT+ Muslims, the situation and experiences of ex-Muslims, the transnational debates around the relation between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, as well as twentieth and twenty-first century French literature. His work has been published in The Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, The Journal of Language, Literature and Culture, and Neophilologus.
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