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:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

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

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

Facing the Furies

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of U.S. major-league baseball players this year who are natives of the Dominican Republic:

79

A psychopharmacologist named David Nutt declared that there was no good reason why scientists couldn’t come up with a cocktail of drugs that mimics all the pleasurable effects of alcohol without any of the negative side effects.

Three bodies were tossed from a low-flying plane in the Sinaloa state of Mexico.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today