Saturday, April 21, 2018

Voltaire on the Worth of the Pyramids

Although the great, sober-minded reference works of the Enlightenment era, the 'dictionaries' of pre-Revolutionary France, are unknown territory to me, I enjoy two of the satirical dictionaries that arose then and centuries afterward: Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911 in the United States, and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764 in Geneva. (Being a sort of liber non grata in the French skeptic's native country.)

It's as refreshing as ever, by the way, to read books that are meant to be enjoyed by the reader.

And I'm naive — i.e., my standards might not be high — but I was charmed, surprised, and pleased by this passage in one of Voltaire's articles (which is related to the debate about whether contemporary culture is equally good as, better, or far worse than, the literature and other culture of the Romans and Greeks):
"The Chinese, more than two hundred years before our era, constructed that great wall which was not able to save them from the invasion of the Tartars. The Egyptians, three thousand years before, had overloaded the earth with their astonishing pyramids, which had a base of about ninety thousand square feet. Nobody doubts that, if one wished to undertake today these useless works, one could easily succeed by a lavish expenditure of money. The great wall of China is a monument to fear; the pyramids are monuments to vanity and superstition. Both bear witness to a great patience in the peoples, but to no superior genius. Neither the Chinese nor the Egyptians would have been able to make even such a statue such as those which our sculptors form today." 1 °
These condemnations of ancient Chinese and Egyptian inspiration evidently aren't logically watertight. Perhaps pharaohs and emperors and other patrons, who were the ones at whose whim some of the ancient art and architecture survive into the present day, had a rather pedestrian aesthetic and perhaps their guidelines were metaphorical straight-jackets. Their legacy is no realistic reflection on the potential of ancient Chinese and Egyptians on the whole.

'Nankow Pass: Gate of the Great Wall'
in China, its Marvel and Mystery
T. Hodgson Liddell, New York: J. Lane Co. (1910)
via Wikimedia Commons


But I like Voltaire's skepticism of the pyramids' purpose. (And his reduction of e.g. the Great Wall of China to the embodiment of 'a great patience in the peoples.') I grew up reading about Ancient Egypt, watching televised documentaries, exploring the dynasties in school and briefly in university; all, reverentially. Less rosily, I was taught or told as an urban legend, if I remember correctly, that the Great Wall of China was built so brutally that the bones of the workers are trapped within the stones — a mirror of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the country where I grew up, where (in the 19th century) around a thousand Chinese guest workers were killed by dynamite as well as by other dangers and privations.* But what good did building the pyramids, the mastabas and the Sphinx achieve? Is uncritical admiration for them out of keeping with our respect for democratic principles and the rights of the individual? (It's true, of course, that Egyptians who were oppressed 4,000 or more years ago would have fared no better if our generation were perfectly skeptical and enlightened about the monumental building initiatives of their day.) Perhaps our thoughtless amazement at the monuments of ancient Egypt is a clue that we are more attracted to pharaonical, and other, dictatorships than we'd like to think.

1 Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, "Ancients and Moderns"
Selected and Translated by H. I. Woolf
Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (2010), pp. 18-19

° Original French:
Les Chinois, plus de deux cents ans avant notre ère vulgaire, contruisirent cette grande muraille qui n'a pu les sauver de l'invasion des Tartares. Les Égyptiens, trois mille ans auparavant, avaient surchargé la terre de leurs étonnantes pyramides, qui avaient environ quatre-vingt-dix mille pieds carrés de base. Personne ne doute que si on voulait entreprendre aujourd'hui ces inutiles ouvrages, on n'en vînt aisément à bout en prodiguant beaucoup d'argent. La grande muraille de la Chine est un monument de la crainte; les pyramides sont des monuments de la vanité et de la superstition. Les unes et les autres attestent une grande patience dans les peuples, mais aucun génie supérieur. Ni les Chinois, ni les Égyptiens n'auraient pu faire seulement une statue telle que nos sculpteurs en forment aujourd'hui.
From: Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol. VII, Paris: Furne et Cie. (1947), p. 102
[Google Books]

* "A quiz for Joe Oliver: How many died building CPR?" [Globe and Mail]
by Michael Babad, January 10, 2012

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