No Comment, Quotation — December 21, 2007, 12:00 am

Voltaire on the Danger of Being Right When Those in Authority Are Wrong

fontenelle2

En 1686, il fit l’allégorie de Miro et d’Énégu; c’est Rome et Genève. Cette plaisanterie si connue, jointe à l’Histoire des oracles, excita depuis contre lui une persécution. Il en essuya une moins dangereuse, et qui n’était que littéraire, pour avoir soutenu qu’à plusieurs égards les modernes valaient bien les anciens. Racine et Boileau, qui avaient pourtant intérêt que Fontenelle eût raison, affectèrent de le mépriser, et lui fermèrent longtemps les portes de l’Académie. Ils firent contre lui des épigrammes; il en fit contre eux, et ils furent toujours ses ennemis. Il fit beaucoup d’ouvrages légers, dans lesquels on remarquait déjà cette finesse et cette profondeur qui décèlent un homme supérieur à ses ouvrages mêmes. Sa Pluralité des mondes fut un ouvrage unique en son genre. Il sut faire, des Oracles de Van Dale, un livre agréable. Les matières délicates auxquelles on touche dans ce livre lui attirèrent des ennemis violents, auxquels il eut le bonheur d’échapper. Il vit combien il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort.

In 1686, he created the allegory of Miro et Éngénu, referring of course to Rome and Geneva. This well known pleasantry, added to the Histoire des oracles, gave rise to his persecution. In it he had attempted something less dangerous, it was indeed merely literary, he argued that many contemporary writers were the equal of the classics. Racine and Boileau, even while considering that Fontenelle was right, pretended to scorn him, and sealed the doors of the academy to him. They crafted epigrams against him; and he reciprocated, and they were always his enemies. He authored a number of witty works in which one sees the depth and finesse that reveal a man who is superior to his published works… His Pluralité des mondes was a unique work in its genre. He created Des Oracles de Van Dale, an excellent book. The delicate matters upon which one comes in this book brought him violent enemies, which he had the good fortune to evade. He saw how dangerous it is to be right about things when those in positions of power are wrong.

–Jean Marie Arouet (Voltaire), “Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle” in the “Catalogue pour la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans Le Siècle de Louis XIV, pour servir à l’histoire littéraire de ce temps,” part of the introduction to Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1752)(S.H. transl.)

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