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"Of Oracles" by Voltaire

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

Visit these other works by Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)
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Dialogues: Liberty
The Good Brahmin
Grecian Metamorphoses and Mysteries of the Egyptians
Jeannot and Colin

Memnon, the Philosopher
Of Bacchus
Of Idolatry
Of Miracles
Of the Egyptian Rites
Of the Greek Sibyls
Of Zaleucus
Plato's Dream
The Study of Nature
The Travels of Scarmentado
The Two Comforters
The World As It Goes

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of Oracles" by Voltaire



It is evident we cannot be acquainted with futurity, because we cannot be acquainted with what does not exist; but it is also clear that conjectures may be formed of an event.

You see a numerous and well disciplined army, conducted by a skillful chief, advancing in an advantageous place, against an imprudent captain, followed by only a few troops, badly armed, badly posted, and half of whom you know to be traitors. You foretell that this captain will be defeated.

You have observed that a young man and a young woman are desperately fond of each other; you saw them meet at an appointed rendezvous; you announce that in a short time they will be married. You cannot be much mistaken. All predictions are reduced to the calculation of probabilities: there is therefore no nation in which some predictions have not been made that have come to pass. The most celebrated and best attested, is that which the traitor Flavian Josephus made to Vespasian and Titus his son, the conquerors of the Jews. He saw Vespasian and Titus adored by the Roman armies in the East, and Nero detested by the whole empire. He had the audacity, in order to obtain the good graces of Vespasian, to predict to him, in the name of the God of the Jews, that he and his son would become emperors. They, in effect, were so; but it is evident that Josephus ran no risk. If the day of Vespasian's overthrow had come, he would not have been in a situation to punish Josephus: if he obtained the imperial throne, he must recompense his prophet; and till such time as he reigned, he was in hopes of doing it. Vespasian informed this Josephus, that if he were a prophet, he should have foretold him the loss of Jotapat, which he had ineffectually defended against the Roman army: Josephus replied, that he had in fact foretold it, which was not very surprising. What commander, who sustains a siege in a small place against a numerous army, does not foretell that the place will be taken?

It was not very difficult to discover that respect and money might be drawn from the multitude by playing the prophet, and the credulity of the people must be a revenue for any who knew how to cheat them. There were in all places soothsayers; but it was not sufficient to foretell in their own name, it was necessary to speak in the name of the divinity; and from the time of the prophets of Egypt, who called themselves seers, till the time of Ulpius, who was prophet to the favorite of the empire, Adrian, who became a god, there was a prodigious number of sacred quacks, who made the gods speak, to make a jest of man. It is well known how they might succeed; sometimes by an ambiguous reply, which they afterwards explained as they pleased; at other times, by corrupting servants, and thereby penetrating the secrets of those devotees, who came to consult them. An idiot was greatly astonished that a cheat should tell him of what he had done in the most hidden manner.

These prophets were supposed to know the past, the present, and the future: this is the eulogium which Homer makes upon Calchas. I shall add nothing in this place to what the learned Vandale and the judicious Fontenelle his reviser, have said of oracles; they have sagaciously convicted the ages of imposture; and the Jesuit Balthus displayed very little sense, or much malignity, when he supported, in opposition to them, the truth of the Pagan oracles, upon the principles of the Christian religion. It was really doing God an injury, to suppose this God of goodness and truth had left loose the devils from hell, to come upon earth, and there perform what he does not exercise himself, in order to produce oracles.

Either these devils uttered truths, and in that case it was impossible not to believe them, and God himself supporting every kind of false religion by daily miracles, gave the world up to his enemy's will; or else they spoke false; and in this case, God must have unfettered the devils to deceive all mankind. There never was, perhaps, a more absurd opinion.

The most famous oracle was that of Delphos. They at first chose innocent young girls, as more proper than any other to be inspired; that is to say, to utter with faith, all the nonsense the priests dictated to them. The young Pythia mounted a tripod, fixed in the opening of a cavity, from whence her prophetic utterances issued; but a young Pythia having been run away with by a devotee, an old woman supplied the young one's place to carry on the trade; and, I believe, that upon this account the oracle of Delphos began to lose much of its credit.

Divinations and auguries were a kind of oracles, and are, I believe, of higher antiquity; for many ceremonies were necessary, much time was required, to draw custom to a divine oracle, that could not do without a temple and priests; and nothing was easier than to tell fortunes in the cross-ways. This art was subdivided into a thousand shapes; predictions were extracted from the flight of birds, sheep's livers, the lines of the palm of the hand, circles drawn upon the ground, water, fire, small flints, wands, and, in a word, from every thing that could be devised, and frequently from enthusiasm alone, which supplied the place of all rules. But who invented this art? The first rogue that met with a fool.

The greatest part of the predictions were like those of the Liege Almanac; "A great man will depart this life." Storms will "arise." Does a village magistrate die within a twelve-month? this was the great man, with respect to that village, whose death was foretold. Is a fishing boat stranded? these are the violent storms predicted. The author of the Liege Almanac is a sorcerer, whether his predications are or are not accomplished; for if any event favors them, his magic is demonstrated; if the events are opposite, the prediction is applied to a quite different thing, and he saves himself allegorically.

The Liege Almanac has told us that there would come a people from the North, who would destroy every thing; this people did not come, but a north wind froze up some vines, this was what was predicted by Matthew Lansberg. Does any one dare to doubt of his knowledge? the hawkers would as soon arraign him for a bad citizen, or the astrologers treat him as a man of shallow parts and little reason.

The Mahometan Sunnites have greatly availed themselves of this method, in their explanation of Mahomet's Koran. Aldebaran's star was in great veneration amongst the Arabians, it signifies the ox's eye; this meant that Mahomet's eye would enlighten the Arabians, and that, like an ox, he would strike his enemies with his horns.

The acacian tree was in esteem in Arabia; great hedges were made of it, to preserve the crops from the heat of the sun; Mahomet is the acacia, who is to cover the earth with his salutary form. The sensible Turks laugh at these subtle stupidities; the young women do not think about them; the old female devotees firmly believe them; and he who should say to a dervish, that he teaches nonsense, would run the risk of being impaled. There have been learned men who have traced the history of their own times in the Iliad and Odyssey; but these learned men did not acquire the same fortune as the commentators of the Koran.

The most brilliant function of the oracles was to insure victory in war. Each army, each nation, had its own peculiar oracles, that promised triumphs. The oraculous intelligence of one of the parties was infallibly true. The vanquished, who had been deceived, attributed their defeat to some fault committed towards the gods, after the oracle had been consulted, and they hoped the oracle's prediction would eventually be accomplished. Thus is almost the whole earth fed with illusions. There were scarce any people who did not preserve in their archives, or who had not, by oral tradition, some prediction which insured them the conquest of the world, that is to say, of the neighboring nations. No conqueror ever gained a victory, without its being predicted in form, as soon as the battle was over. Even the Jews, who were shut up in a corner of the earth, almost unknown, between Anti-libanus and Arabia Deserta and Petraea, hoped, like the other people, to be the masters of the universe, upon the foundation of a thousand oracles, which we explain in a mystical sense, but which they understood quite literally.

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