Random Quote #68 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778
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_CUSTOMS_

CONTEMPTIBLE CUSTOMS DO NOT ALWAYS SUPPOSE A CONTEMPTIBLE NATION

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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