A New Translation of the Article from Voltaire’s Portable Philosophical Dictionary.
WHEN ARCADIUS WAS emperor, Logomachos, a theologian of Constantinople, went to Scythia, and stopped at the foot of the Caucasus, in the fertile plains of Zephirim, on the frontiers of Colchis. The good old man Dondindac was in his big low room, between his big sheepfold and his vast barn; he was on his knees with his wife, their five sons and five daughters, his parents and his servants, and all were singing the praises of God, after a light meal.
“What are you doing, you idolater?” Logomachos said to him.
“I am not an idolater,” said Dondindac.
“You must be an idolater,” said Logomachos, “since you are Scythian, and you aren’t Greek. Tell me, what were you singing in your barbarous Scythian jargon?”
“All languages are equal in the ears of God,” answered the Scythian; “we were singing his praises.”
“Well, that’s extraordinary,” answered the theologian; “a Scythian family who pray to God without having been instructed by us!”
Soon he started up a conversation with the Scythian Dondindac; for the theologian knew a little Scythian, and the other a little Greek. This conversation was discovered in a manuscript preserved in the library of Constantinople.
Logomachos. Let’s see whether you know your catechism. Why do you pray to God?
Dondindac. Because it is right to adore the Supreme Being, who gives us everything we have.
Logomachos. Not bad for a barbarian! And what do you ask him for?
Dondindac. I thank him for the good things I enjoy, and even for the evils with which he tests me; but I make sure not to ask him for anything: he knows better than we do what we need, and I’m afraid I might ask for fair weather when my neighbor is asking for rain.
Logomachos. Well, I was afraid he was going to say something stupid. Let’s go back to basics. Barbarian, who told you there was a God?
Dondindac. All nature told me.
Logomachos. That’s not enough. What idea have you of God?
Dondindac. The idea of my Creator, my Master, who will recompense me if I do good, and punish me if I do evil.
Logomachos. What silly nonsense! Let’s cut to the chase. Is God infinite secundum quid, or according to his essence?
Dondindac. I don’t understand you.
Logomachos. Stupid brute! Is God in a place, or outside of every place, or everywhere?
Dondindac. I don’t know anything about that…whatever you like.
Logomachos. Ignoramus! Can he make what has been not have been, and a stick without two ends? Does he see the future as future or as present? By what means does he pull being out of nothing, and make nothing out of being?
Dondindac. I’ve never thought about those things.
Logomachos. What a twit! Well, then, we have to go lower, to match your intellect. Tell me, my friend, do you believe that matter can be eternal?
Dondindac. What does it matter to me whether it exists for all eternity or not? I myself do not exist for all eternity. God is always my master; he has given me the notion of justice, and I must follow it; I don’t want to be a philosopher, I want to be a man.
Logomachos. It takes a lot of work to deal with hard heads like these. Let’s go step by step: What is God?
Dondindac. My sovereign, my judge, my father.
Logomachos. That’s not what I’m asking. What is his nature?
Dondindac. To be powerful and good.
Logomachos. But is he corporal or spiritual?
Dondindac. How do you expect me to know?
Logomachos. What? You don’t know what a spirit is?
Dondindac. Not in the least: what good would it do me? Would it make me more righteous? Would it make me a better husband, a better father, a better master, a better citizen?
Logomachos. It is absolutely necessary to teach you what a spirit is. Listen: it’s—it’s—it’s…I’ll tell you some other time.
Dondindac. I’m really afraid that you’ve told me less what it is than what it isn’t. Allow me to ask a question of my own. I once saw one of your temples: why do you paint God with a big beard?
Logomachos. That’s a very hard question, and one that requires some preliminary instruction.
Dondindac. Before you give me your instruction, I must tell you what happened to me one day. I had just built a shed in my garden; I heard a mole who was debating with a maybug. “There’s a fine structure,” said the mole; “it must have been a very powerful mole who built it.” “You’re joking,” said the maybug; “a maybug of great genius is the architect of that building.” Since that time, I’ve resolved never to argue.