PHILOSOPHER, lover of wisdom, that is to say, of truth. All philosophers have had this dual character; there is not one in antiquity who has not given mankind examples of virtue and lessons in moral truths. They have all contrived to be deceived about natural philosophy; but natural philosophy is so little necessary for the conduct of life, that the philosophers had no need of it. It has taken centuries to learn a part of nature's laws. One day was sufficient for a wise man to learn the duties of man.
The philosopher is not enthusiastic; he does not set himself up as a prophet; he does not say that he is inspired by the gods. Thus I shall not put in the rank of philosophers either the ancient Zarathustra, or Hermes, or the ancient Orpheus, or any of those legislators of whom the nations of Chaldea, Persia, Syria, Egypt and Greece boasted. Those who styled themselves children of the gods were the fathers of imposture; and if they used lies for the teaching of truths, they were unworthy of teaching them; they were not philosophers; they were at best very prudent liars.
By what fatality, shameful maybe for the Western peoples, is it necessary to go to the far Orient to find a wise man who is simple, unostentatious, free from imposture, who taught men to live happily six hundred years before our vulgar era, at a time when the whole of the North was ignorant of the usage of letters, and when the Greeks were barely beginning to distinguish themselves by their wisdom?
This wise man is Confucius, who being legislator never wanted to deceive men. What more beautiful rule of conduct has ever been given since him in the whole world?
"Rule a state as you rule a family; one can only govern one's family well by setting the example.
"Virtue should be common to both husbandman and monarch.
"Apply thyself to the trouble of preventing crimes in order to lessen the trouble of punishing them.
"Under the good kings Yao and Xu the Chinese were good; under the bad kings Kie and Chu they were wicked.
"Do to others as to thyself.
" Love all men; but cherish honest people. Forget injuries, and never kindnesses.
"I have seen men incapable of study; I have never seen them incapable of virtue."
Let us admit that there is no legislator who has proclaimed truths more useful to the human race.
A host of Greek philosophers have since taught an equally pure moral philosophy. If they had limited themselves to their empty systems of natural philosophy, their names would be pronounced to-day in mockery only. If they are still respected, it is because they were just and that they taught men to be so.
One cannot read certain passages of Plato, and notably the admirable exordium of the laws of Zaleucus, without feeling in one's heart the love of honourable and generous actions. The Romans have their Cicero, who alone is worth perhaps all the philosophers of Greece. After him come men still more worthy of respect, but whom one almost despairs of imitating; Epictetus in bondage, the Antonines and the Julians on the throne.
Which is the citizen among us who would deprive himself, like Julian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, of all the delicacies of our flabby and effeminate lives? who would sleep as they did on the ground? who would impose on himself their frugality? who, as they did, would march barefoot and bareheaded at the head of the armies, exposed now to the heat of the sun, now to the hoar-frost? who would command all their passions as they did? There are pious men among us; but where are the wise men ? where are the resolute, just and tolerant souls?
There have been philosophers of the study in France; and all, except Montaigne, have been persecuted. It is, I think, the last degree of the malignity of our nature, to wish to oppress these very philosophers who would correct it.
I quite understand that the fanatics of one sect slaughter the enthusiasts of another sect, that the Franciscans hate the Dominicans, and that a bad artist intrigues to ruin one who surpasses him; but that the wise Charron should have been threatened with the loss of his life, that the learned and generous Ramus should have been assassinated, that Descartes should have been forced to flee to Holland to escape the fury of the ignorant, that Gassendi should have been obliged to withdraw several times to Digne, far from the calumnies of Paris; these things are a nation's eternal shame.
Return to The Philosophical Dictionary