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:

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

No Comment November 4, 2013, 5:17 pm

The Torture Doctors

An expert panel concludes that the Pentagon and the CIA ordered physicians to violate the Hippocratic Oath

No Comment August 12, 2013, 7:55 am

Obama’s Snowden Dilemma

How will the Obama Administration handle Edward Snowden’s case in the long term?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

Article
50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was warned that there would likely be a lot of emotions coming out in the room.”
Illustration by Katherine Streeter
Post
Dan Halpern’s “Citizen Walmart” (2012)·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”
Photograph by Thomas Allen
Article
The Quinoa Quarrel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Bolivia’s gene banks contain far more quinoa varieties than any other country’s, yet the Bolivians are dead set against sharing them.”
Photograph by Lisa M. Hamilton
Article
You Had to Be There·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He explained how sober Doug structured the bits and worked out the material’s logic; drunk Doug found the funny.”
Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:

2:1

Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.

Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.

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

HARPER’S FINEST