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Caroline Warman

8. Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), ‘Minds are not Enlightened by the Flames of an Executioner’s Pyre’, from Belisarius, 17671

Texte intégral

  • 1 Jean-François Marmontel, ‘On n’éclaire pas les esprits avec la flamme des bûchers’, Bélisaire, ed. (...)

1An active contributor to the Encyclopédie, Jean-Francois Marmontel is the author of a novel considered scandalous by his contemporaries, Bélisaire [Belisarius] (1767). The work, censored by the Church authorities, was hugely successful throughout Europe. This particular passage, where Belisarius, a general, and the Emperor Justinian discuss the punishment of dissent, has been interpreted as a declaration of deism, that is to say, the belief in a God who created the universe but who is quite different from the God of organised religion.

2‘In the vast expanse of error, truth is but a tiny speck. Who has found it, this single speck? Everyone claims to be the one to have done so, but what is their evidence? And does even the most evident truth give anyone the right to demand, to insist, sword in hand, that somebody else should agree with them […]? Minds are never more united than when everyone is free to think whatever they want. Do you know what makes public opinion jealous, tyrannical and intolerant? It is because rulers quite wrongly attach a very high price to it; it is because of the way they favour one sect to the detriment of all other rival sects which they thereby exclude. Nobody wishes to be humiliated, rejected, and denied the rights of the citizen and loyal subject; thus every time the State creates two classes of people, one of which deprives the other of social advantages, whatever the motive might be for this act of dispossession, the excluded class will regard the fatherland as its wicked stepmother. The most trivial issue takes on the utmost importance as soon as it seriously affects the status of a citizen. And let there be no doubt about it, this is what motivates the different factions. If we were to attach the same significance to a dispute about the number of grains of sand on the sea shore, the same animosity would spring up before our eyes. Fanaticism is, more often than not, nothing other than the spirit of envy, greed, pride, ambition, hatred, and revenge, all espoused in the name of heaven; and these are the gods for which a gullible and brutal ruler will act as the ruthless minister. If there were nothing more to be gained on earth by fighting for heaven; if fervour and truth were no longer a way of defeating one’s rival or one’s enemy, of furthering oneself at their expense, of profiting from their downfall, of winning preferential treatment to which they might themselves have been entitled; if all this were true, then there would everyone would calm down, and all sects would live in peace’.

3‘And we would have abandoned the cause of God’, said Justinian.

4‘God does not need you to defend his cause’, said Belisarius. ‘Is it because of your edicts that the sun rises and the stars shine in the sky? Truth shines with its own light, while the flames of a burning pyre enlighten no one. God gives to princes the responsibility for judging the actions of men but he keeps for himself alone the right to judge their thoughts, and the proof that truth has not chosen princes as its arbiters, is that not a single one is free from error’.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1767 edition:​books?id=bbkFAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover


1 Jean-François Marmontel, ‘On n’éclaire pas les esprits avec la flamme des bûchers’, Bélisaire, ed. Robert Granderoute, Paris: Société des textes français modernes, 1994, ch. XV, pp. 190-195.

Table des illustrations

Titre Portrait of Marmontel by Alexander Roslin (1767)
Fichier image/jpeg, 113k


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