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.)

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today