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Caroline Warman

6. Diderot (1713-1784), ‘Aius Locutius’, from the Encyclopédie, 17511

Texte intégral

  • 1 Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772.

1In this article from the Encyclopédie, Diderot seems to be describing an obscure Roman deity named Aius Locutius or Aius Loquens, whose claim to fame is to have assumed the form of a voice in order to warn the Romans of an imminent Gaulish attack. In fact what he’s doing is playing with ideas of free speech, ironically assuming a persona to argue that a little bit of free speech, as long as it’s all in Latin, can’t do any harm.

2AIUS-LOCUTIUS. God of speech, on which the Romans bestowed this extraordinary name, though since it is also necessary to know when to keep quiet, they also had a god of silence. When the Gauls were about to invade Italy, a voice from the wood of Vesta was heard to cry out: if you do not raise the height of the city walls, the city will be taken. That advice was ignored; the Gauls arrived, and Rome was taken. Once the Gauls had retreated, the Romans remembered the oracle, and built an altar to the god with the name that we are discussing. It then acquired a temple in Rome on the exact spot where the voice was first heard. Cicero says in the first book of On Divination that when no one had any knowledge of this god, it spoke, but once it had a temple and altars, it fell silent, and that the god of speech was struck dumb as soon as it became the object of worship. It is hard to reconcile the particular veneration the pagans showed for their gods with the patience they showed for the claims of certain Philosophers. And did those Christians they persecuted so mercilessly, say anything worse than Cicero? The books of On Divination are nothing other than irreligious treatises. Yet what sort of impression did those eloquent passages in which the Gods are invoked, called upon as witnesses, and their threats repeated, passages in which, in short, the existence of Gods is presupposed, what sort of impression did these passages make on the masses when they heard them? When they were delivered by men who had also produced a host of philosophical writings that treat the Gods and religion as mere fictions! Might the answer to these various problems not be the scarcity of manuscripts in ancient times? In those days, people didn’t read much; they would listen instead to their Orators’ speeches, which were always filled with piety towards the Gods, and they would have had no idea what the Orator thought about the Gods, nor what he wrote about them in the privacy of his study because those writings were kept for the eyes of only a few intimates. Now since there will never be any way of stopping men from thinking and writing, would it not be a good idea to do as the Ancients did? The works of unbelief are only to be feared for their effects on the masses and on the faith of simple people. Those who know how to think also know what to believe, and a pamphlet will not lead them abandon a path they have chosen carefully and want to follow. Absurd little arguments will not persuade a Philosopher to abandon his God, and so impiety is something only to be feared for those who would allow themselves to be influenced. There is one way, however, of reconciling the respect owed to the beliefs of a people and to the religion of a nation with the freedom of thought that is so desirable for the discovery of truth and for that civil peace without which there can be no happiness for either the Philosopher or the people, and that is to ban all works against the government and religion that are written in the vernacular, to allow all those who write in a learned language to get on with it, and just persecute the translators. Then, it seems to me, the nonsense that Authors produce would do no harm to anyone. In fact, the degree of freedom of speech that would thereby be achieved is, in my view, the greatest that a well-ordered society can afford. So while those societies in which this freedom is not enjoyed to any great extent may be no less well governed, there will be, without fail, a defect in the government of any society in which this freedom has been allowed to extend any further.

3This is, I believe, to be the case in England and Holland, where it seems people think they have no freedom at all if they do not have complete impunity to say, unhindered, whatever they like.

Read the entry for ‘Aius Locutius’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (text):​cgi-bin/​philologic/​

Read the entry for ‘Aius Locutius’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (facsimile):​cgi-bin/​extras/​​ENC_1-241.jpeg


1 Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772.

Table des illustrations

Titre Portrait of Denis Diderot by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1766)
Fichier image/jpeg, 415k