Voltaire

 

From LETTERS ON ENGLAND, 1733 by Voltaire

 

LETTER 7

*

ON THE SOCINIANS, ARIANS OR
ANTI-TRINITARIANS

 

There is a small sect here composed of priests and a few very clever laymen who do not adopt the name of Arians nor of Socinians, but are not at all of the opinion of St Athanasius in the matter of the Trinity, but tell you straight out that the Father is greater than the Son.

Do you remember a certain orthodox bishop who, to convince an Emperor about consubstantiation, took it into his head to chuck the Emperor's son under the chin and tweak his nose in the presence of His Sacred Majesty ? The Emperor was on the point of being very angry with the bishop when the old boy utters these fine, convincing words : 'My Lord, if your Majesty is angry because I am showing lack of respect for your son, how do you think God will treat those who refuse Jesus Christ the titles that are His due ?' The people I am telling you about say that the holy bishop was very unwise, that his argument was anything but conclusive, and that the Emperor should have answered : 'Note that there are two ways of lacking respect for me, the first by not paying enough honour to my son, and the second by paying as much to him as to me.'

However that may be, the Arian faction is beginning to revive in England as well as in Holland and Poland. The great Mr Newton honoured this opinion by favouring it : this philosopher thought that the Unitarians reasoned more mathematically than we do. But the strongest upholder of the Arian doctrine is the illustrious Dr. Clarke. This is a man of unswerving virtue and a gentle disposition, more interested in his opinions than excited about making converts, solely concerned with calculations and demonstrations a real reasoning machine.

He is the author of a little understood but much admired book on the existence of God, and of another, better understood but rather looked down upon, about the truth of the Christian faith.

He has taken no part in fine scholastic controversies which our friend . . . calls hoary old nonsense, but has confined himself to publishing a book containing all the arguments in early ;times for and against the Unitarians, leaving to the reader the responsibility of counting the votes and deciding. This book of the Doctor's has gained him many supporters, but prevented him from becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. I think the Doctor has has miscalculated and that it would have been better to be Primate of England than an Arian parish priest.

You see what revolutions take place in opinions as they do in Empires. The Arian faction, after three hundred years of triumph and twelve centuries of oblivion, is at last being reborn from its ashes, but it chooses a bad time to reappear in a period when everybody is sick and tired of sectarian disputes. This sect is still too small to have freedom of public assembly, but it will no doubt obtain it if it gets more numerous. However, just now people are so indifferent to all this that there is not much chance of success for a new religion or a revived one. Is it not amusing that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, writers nobody can read, have founded sects that divide up Europe, that the ignorant Mahomet has given a religion to Asia and Africa, but that Newton, Clarke, Locke, Leclerc, the greatest thinkers and finest writers of their age, have hardly managed to establish a little flock, and even that dwindles day by day ?

That is what it means to come into the world at the right moment. If Cardinal de Retz reappeared today he would not collect together ten women in Paris.

If Cromwell, the man who had his King's head cut off and made himself sovereign, were born again, he would be an ordinary London merchant.

Penguin 1980, pp. 42-43.

 

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Last updated 16 November 2003

W. Paul Tabaka
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