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The Ruins of Empire

By C. F. Volney



THUS spoke the orator in the name of those men who had studied the origin and succession of religious ideas.

The theologians of various systems, reasoning on this discourse: "It is an impious representation," said some, "whose tendency is nothing less than to overturn all belief, to destroy subordination in the minds of men, and annihilate our ministry and power." "It is a romance," said others, "a tissue of conjectures, composed with art, but without foundation." The moderate and prudent men added: "Supposing all this to be true, why reveal these mysteries? Doubtless our opinions are full of errors; but these errors are a necessary restraint on the multitude. The world has gone thus for two thousand years; why change it now?"

A murmur of disapprobation, which never fails to rise at every innovation, now began to increase; when a numerous group of the common classes of people, and of untaught men of all countries and of every nation, without prophets, without doctors, and without doctrine, advancing in the circle, drew the attention of the whole assembly; and one of them, in the name of all, thus addressed the multitude:

"Mediators and arbiters of nations! the strange relations which have occupied the present debate were unknown to us until this day. Our understanding, confounded and amazed at so many statements, some of them learned, others absurd and all incomprehensible, remains in uncertainty and doubt. One only reflection has struck us: on reviewing so many prodigious facts, so many contradictory assertions, we ask ourselves: What are all these discussions to us? What need {163} have we of knowing what passed five or six thousand years ago, in countries we never heard of, and among men who will ever be unknown to us? True or false, what interest have we in knowing whether the world has existed six thousand, or twenty-five thousand years? Whether it was made of nothing, or of something; by itself, or by a maker, who in his turn would require another maker? What! we are not sure of what happens near us, and shall we answer for what happens in the sun, in the moon, or in imaginary regions of space? We have forgotten our own infancy, and shall we know the infancy of the world? And who will attest what no one has seen? who will certify what no man comprehends?

"Besides, what addition or diminution will it make to our existence, to answer yes or no to all these chimeras? Hitherto neither our fathers nor ourselves have has the least knowledge or notion of them, and we do not perceive that we have had on this account either more or less of the sun, more of less of subsistence, more or less of good or of evil.

"If the knowledge of these things is so necessary, why have we lived as well without it as those who have taken so much trouble concerning it? If this knowledge is superfluous, why should we burden ourselves with it to-day?"

Then addressing himself to the doctors and theologians:

"What!" said he, "is it necessary that we, poor and ignorant men, whose every moment is scarcely sufficient for the cares of life, and the labors of which you take the profit, -- is it necessary for us to learn the numberless histories that you have recounted, to read the quantity of books that you have cited, and to study the various languages in which they are composed! A thousand years of life would not suffice--"

"It is not necessary," replied the doctors, "that you should acquire all this science; we have it for you--"

"But even you," replied the simple men, "with all your science, you are not agreed; of what advantage, then, is your science? Besides, how can you answer for us? If the faith of one man is applicable to many, what need have even you to believe? your fathers may have believed for you; and this would be reasonable, since they have seen for you.

"Farther, what is believing, if believing influences no ac- {164} tion? And what action is influenced by believing, for instance, that the world is or is not eternal?

"The latter would be offensive to God," said the doctors.

"How prove you that?" replied the simple men.

"In our books," answered the doctors.

"We do not understand them," returned the simple men.

"We understand them for you," said the doctors.

"That is the difficulty," replied the simple men. "By what right do you constitute yourselves mediators between God and us?"

"By his orders," said the doctors.

"Where is the proof of these orders?" said the simple men.

"In our books," said the doctors.

"We understand them not," said the simple men; "and how came this just God to give you this privilege over us? Why did this common father oblige us to believe on a less degree of evidence than you? He has spoken to you; be it so; he is infallible, and deceives you not. But it is you who speak to us! And who shall assure us that you are not in error yourselves, or that you will not lead us into error? And if we should be deceived, how will that just God save us contrary to law, or condemn us on a law which we have not known?"

"He has given you the natural law," said the doctors.

"And what is the natural law?" replied the simple men. "If that law is sufficient, why has he given any other? If it is not sufficient, why did he make it imperfect?"

"His judgements are mysteries," said the doctors, "and his justice is not like that of men."

"If his justice," replied the simple men, "is not like ours, by what rule are we to judge of it? And, moreover, why all these laws, and what is the object proposed by them?"

"To render you more happy," replied a doctor, "by rendering you better and more virtuous. It is to teach man to enjoy his benefits, and not injure his fellows, that God has manifested himself by so many oracles and prodigies."

"In that case," said the simple men, "there is no necessity for so many studies, nor of such a variety of arguments; only tell us which is the religion that best answers the end which they all propose." {165}

Immediately, on this, every group, extolling it own morality above that of all others, there arose among the different sects a new and most violent dispute.

"It is we," said the Mussulmans, "who possess the most excellent morals, who teach all the virtues useful to men and agreeable to God. We profess justice, disinterestedness, resignation to providence, charity to our brethren, alms-giving, and devotion; we torment not the soul with superstitious fears; we live without alarm, and die without remorse."

"How dare you speak of morals," answered the Christian priests, "you, whose chief lived in licentiousness and preached impurity? You, whose first precept is homicide and war? For this we appeal to experience: for these twelve hundred years your fanatical zeal has not ceased to spread commotion and carnage among the nations. If Asia, so flourishing in former times, is now languishing in barbarity and depopulation, it is in your doctrine that we find the cause; in that doctrine, the enemy of all instruction, which sanctifies ignorance, which consecrates the most absolute despotism in the governors, imposes the most blind and passive obedience in the people, that has stupefied the faculties of man, and brutalized the nations.

"It is not so with our sublime and celestial morals; it was they which raised the world from its primitive barbarity, from the senseless and cruel superstitions of idolatry, from human sacrifices,1 from the shameful orgies of pagan mysteries; they it was that purified manners, proscribed incest and adultery, polished savage nations, banished slavery, and introduced new and unknown virtues, charity for men, their equality in the sight of God, forgiveness and forgetfulness of injuries, the restraint of all the passions, the contempt of worldly greatness, a life completely spiritual and completely holy!"

"We admire," said the Mussulmans, "the ease with which you reconcile that evangelical meekness, of which you are so ostentatious, with the injuries and outrages with which you {166} are constantly galling your neighbors. When you criminate so severely the great man whom we revere, we might fairly retort on the conduct of him whom you adore; but we scorn such advantages, and confining ourselves to the real object in question, we maintain that the morals of your gospel have by no means that perfection which you ascribe to them; it is not true that they have introduced into the world new and unknown virtues: for example, the equality of men in the sight of God, -- that fraternity and that benevolence which follow from it, were formal doctrines of the sect of the Hermetics or Samaneans,2 from whom you descend. As to the forgiveness of injuries, the Pagans themselves had taught it; but in the extent that you give it, far from being a virtue, it becomes an immorality, a vice. Your so much boasted precept of turning one cheek after the other, is not only contrary to every sentiment of man, but is opposed to all ideas of justice. It emboldens the wicked by impunity, debases the virtuous by servility, delivers up the world to despotism and tyranny, and dissolves all society. Such is the true spirit of your doctrines. Your gospels in their precepts and their parables, never represent God but as a despot without any rules of equity; a partial father treating a debauched and prodigal son with more favor than his respectful and virtuous children; a capricious master, who gives the same wages to workmen who had wrought but one hour, as to those who had labored through the whole day; one who prefers the last comers to the first. The moral is everywhere misanthropic and anti-social; it disgusts men with life and with society; and tends only to encourage hermitism and celibacy.

"As to the manner in which you have practiced these morals, we appeal in our turn to the testimony of facts. We ask whether it is this evangelical meekness which has excited your interminable wars between your sects, your atrocious persecutions of pretended heretics, your crusades against Arianism, Manicheism, Protestantism, without speaking of your crusades against us, and of those sacrilegious associations, still subsisting, of men who take an oath to continue {167} them?3 We ask you whether it be gospel charity which has made you exterminate whole nations in America, to annihilate the empires of Mexico and Peru; which makes you continue to dispeople Africa and sell its inhabitants like cattle, notwithstanding your abolition of slavery; which makes you ravage India and usurp its dominions; and whether it be the same charity which, for three centuries past, has led you to harass the habitations of the people of three continents, of whom the most prudent, the Chinese and Japanese, were constrained to drive you off, that they might escape your chains and recover their internal peace?"

Here the Bramins, the Rabbins, the Bonzes, the Chamans, the Priests of the Molucca islands, and the coasts of Guinea, loading the Christian doctors with reproaches: "Yes!" cried they, "these men are robbers and hypocrites, who preach simplicity, to surprise confidence; humility, to enslave with more ease; poverty, to appropriate all riches to themselves. They promise another world, the better to usurp the present; and while they speak to you of tolerance and charity, they burn, in the name of God, the men who do not worship him in their manner."

"Lying priests," retorted the missionaries, "it is you who abuse the credulity of ignorant nations to subjugate them. It is you who have made of your ministry an art of cheating and imposture; you have converted religion into a traffic of cupidity and avarice. You pretend to hold communications with spirits, and they give for oracles nothing but your wills. You feign to read the stars, and destiny decrees only your desires. You cause idols to speak, and the gods are but the instruments of your passions. You have invented sacrifices and libations, to collect for your own profit the milk of flocks, and the flesh and fat of victims; and under the cloak of piety you devour the offerings of the gods, who cannot eat, and the substance of the people who are forced to labor."

"And you," replied the Bramins, the Bonzes, the Chamans, "you sell to the credulous living, your vain prayers for the souls of the dead. With your indulgences and your absolutions you have usurped the power of God himself; and {168} making a traffic of his favors and pardons, you have put heaven at auction; and by your system of expiations you have formed a tariff of crimes, which has perverted all consciences."4

"Add to this," said the Imans, "that these men have invented the most insidious of all systems of wickedness, -- the absurd and impious obligation of recounting to them the most intimate secrets of actions and of thoughts (confessions); so their insolent curiosity has carried their inquisition even into the sanctuary of the marriage bed,5 and the inviolable recesses of the heart."

Thus by mutual reproaches the doctors of the different sects began to reveal all the crimes of their ministry -- all the vices of their craft; and it was found that among all nations the spirit of the priesthood, their system of conduct, their actions, their morals, were absolutely the same:

That they had everywhere formed secret associations and corporations at enmity with the rest of society:6 {169} That they had everywhere attributed to themselves prerogatives and immunities, by means of which they lived exempt from the burdens of other classes:

That they everywhere avoided the toils of the laborer, the dangers of the soldier, and the disappointments of the merchant:

That they lived everywhere in celibacy, to shun even the cares of a family:

That, under the cloak of poverty, they found everywhere the secret of procuring wealth and all sorts of enjoyments:

That under the name of mendicity they raised taxes to a greater amount than princes:

That in the form of gifts and offerings they had established fixed and certain revenues exempt from charges:

That under pretence of retirement and devotion they lived in idleness and licentiousness:

That they had made a virtue of alms-giving, to live quietly on the labors of others:

{170} That they had invented the ceremonies of worship, as a means of attracting the reverence of the people, while they were playing the parts of gods, of whom they styled themselves the interpreters and mediators, to assume all their powers; that, with this design, they had (according to the degree of ignorance or information of their people) assumed by turns the character of astrologers, drawers of horoscopes, fortune-tellers, magicians,7 necromancers, quacks, physicians, courtiers, confessors of princes, always aiming at the great object to govern for their own advantage:

That sometimes they had exalted the power of kings and consecrated their persons, to monopolize their favors, or participate their sway:

That sometimes they had preached up the murder of tyrants (reserving it to themselves to define tyranny), to avenge themselves of their contempt or their disobedience:

And that they always stigmatised with impiety whatever crossed their interests; that they hindered all public instruction, to exercise the monopoly of science; that finally, at all times and in all places, they had found the secret of living in peace in the midst of the anarchy they created, in safety under the despotism that they favored, in idleness amidst the industry they preached, and in abundance while surrounded with scarcity; and all this by carrying on the singular trade of selling words and gestures to credulous people, who purchase them as commodities of the greatest value.8

{171} Then the different nations, in a transport of fury, were going to tear in pieces the men who had thus abused them; but the legislator, arresting this movement of violence, addressed the chiefs and doctors:

"What!" said he, "instructors of nations, is it thus that you have deceived them?"

And the terrified priests replied.

"O legislator! we are men. The people are so superstitious! they have themselves encouraged these errors."9

And the kings said:

"O legislator! the people are so servile and so ignorant! they prostrated themselves before the yoke, which we scarcely dared to show them."10

Then the legislator, turning to the people -- "People!" said he, "remember what you have just heard; they are two indelible truths. Yes, you yourselves cause the evils of which you complain; yourselves encourage the tyrants, by a base adulation of their power, by an imprudent admiration of their false beneficence, by servility in obedience, by licentiousness in liberty, and by a credulous reception of every imposition. On whom shall you wreak vengeance for the faults committed by your own ignorance and cupidity?"

And the people, struck with confusion, remained in mournful silence.


1. Read the cold declaration of Eusebius (Præp. Evang. lib. 1, p. 11,), who pretends that, since the coming of Christ, there have been neither wars, nor tyrants, nor cannibals, nor sodomies, nor persons committing incest, nor savages destroying their parents, etc. When we read these fathers of the church we are astonished at their insincerity or infatuation.

2. The equality of mankind in a state of nature and in the eyes of God was one of the principal tenets of the Samaneans, and they appear to be the only ancients that entertained this opinion.

3. The oath taken by the knights of the Order of Malta, is to kill, or make the Mahometans prisoners, for the glory of God.

4. As long as it shall be possible to obtain purification from crimes and exemption from punishment by means of money or other frivolous practices; as long sa kings and great men shall suppose that building temples or instituting foundations, will absolve them from the guilt of oppression and homicide; as long as individuals shall imagine that they may rob and cheat, provided they observe fast during Lent, go to confession, and receive extreme unction, it is impossible there should exist in society any morality or virtue; and it is from a deep conviction of truth, that a modern philosopher has called the doctrine of expiations la vérole des sociétés.

5. Confession is a very ancient invention of the priests, who did not fail to avail themselves of that means of governing. It was practised in the Egyptian, Greek, Phrygian, Persian mysteries, etc. Plutarch has transmitted us the remarkable answer of a Spartan whom a priest wanted to confess. "Is it to you or to God I am to confess?" "To God," answered the priest: "In that case," replied the Spartan, "man, begone!" (Remarkable Sayings of the Lacedemonians.) The first Christians confessed their faults publicly, like the Essenians. Afterwards, priests began to be established, with power of absolution from the sin of idolatry. In the time of Theodosius, a woman having publicly confessed an intrigue with a deacon, bishop Necterius, and his successor Chrysostom, granted communion without confession. It was not until the seventh century that the abbots of convents exacted from monks and nuns confession twice a year; and it was at a still later period that bishops of Rome generalized it.

The Mussulmen, who suppose women to have no souls, are shocked at the idea of confession; and say; How can an honest man think of listening to the recital of the actions or the secret thoughts of a woman? May we not also ask, on the other hand, how can an honest woman consent to reveal them?

6. That we may understand the general feelings of priests respecting the rest of mankind, whom they always call by the name of the people, let us hear one of the doctors of the church. "The people," says Bishop Synnesius, in Calvit. page 315, "are desirous of being deceived, we cannot act otherwise respecting them. The case was similar with the ancient priests of Egypt, and for this reason they shut themselves up in their temples, and there composed their mysteries, out of the reach of the eye of the people." And forgetting what he has before just said, he adds: "for had the people been in the secret they might have been offended at the deception played upon them. In the mean time how is it possible to conduct one's self otherwise with the people so long as they are people? For my own part, to myself I shall always be a philosopher, but in dealing with the mass of mankind, I shall be a priest."

"A little jargon," says Gregory Nazianzen to St. Jerome (Hieron. ad. Nep.) "is all that is necessary to impose on the people. The less they comprehend, the more they admire. Our forefathers and doctors of the church have own said, not what they thought, but what circumstances and necessity dictated to them."

"We endeavor," says Sanchoniaton, "to excite admiration by means of the marvellous." (Præp. Evang. lib. 3.)

Such was the conduct of all the priests of antiquity, and is still that of the Bramins and Lamas, who are the exact counterpart of the Egyptian priests. Such was the practice of the Jesuits, who marched with hasty strides in the same career. It is useless to point out the whole depravity of such a doctrine. In general every association which has mystery for its basis, or an oath of secrecy, is a league of robbers against society, a league divided in its very bosom into knaves and dupes, or in other words, agents and instruments. It is thus we ought to judge of those modern clubs, which, under the name of Illuminatists, Martinists, Cagliostronists, and Mesmerites, infest Europe. These societies are the follies and deceptions of the ancient Cabalists, Magicians, Orphics, etc., "who," says Plutarch, "led into errors of considerable magnitude, not only individuals, but kings and nations." 7. A curious work would be the comparative history of the agnuses of the pope and the pastils of the grand Lama. It would be worth while to extend this idea to religious ceremonies in general, and to confront, column by column, the analogous or contrasting points of faith and superstitious practices in all nations. There is one more species of superstition which it would be equally salutary to cure, blind veneration for the great; and for this purpose it would be alone sufficient to write a minute detail of the private life of kings and princes. No work could be so philosophical as this; and accordingly we have seen what a general outcry was excited among kings and the panders of kings, when the Anecdotes of the Court of Berlin first appeared. What would be the alarm were the public put in possession of the sequel of this work? Were the people fairly acquainted with all the absurdities of this species of idol, they would no longer be exposed to covet their specious pleasures, of which the plausible and hollow appearance disturbs their peace, and hinders them from enjoying the much more solid happiness of their own condition. 8. What is a magician, in the sense in which people understand the word? A man who by words and gestures pretends to act on supernatural beings, and compel them to descend at his call and obey his orders. Such was the conduct of the ancient priests, and such is still that of all priests in idolatrous nations; for which reason we have given them the denomination of Magicians.

And when a Christian priest pretends to make God descend from heaven, to fix him to a morsel of leaven, and render, by means of this talisman, souls pure and in a state of grace, what is this but a trick of magic? And where is the difference between a Chaman of Tartary who invokes the Genii, or an Indian Bramin, who makes Vichenou descend in a vessel of water to drive away evil spirits? Yes, the identity of the spirit of priests in every age and country is fully established! Every where it is the assumption of an exclusive privilege, the pretended faculty of moving at will the powers of nature; and this assumption is so direct a violation of the right of equality, that whenever the people shall regain their importance, they will forever abolish this sacrilegious kind of nobility, which has been the type and parent stock of the other species of nobility.

9. Consider in this view the Brabanters.

10. The inhabitants of Vienna, for example, who harnessed themselves like cattle, and drew the chariot of Leopold.