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A Greek word, signifying "belief, or elected opinion" 

It is not greatly to the honor of human reason that men should be hated, persecuted, massacred, or burned at the stake, on account of their chosen opinions; but what is exceedingly little to our honor is that this mischievous and destructive madness has been as peculiar to us as leprosy was to the Hebrews, or lues formerly to the Caribs.

We well know, theologically speaking, that heresy having become a crime, as even the word itself is a reproach; we well know, I say, that the Latin church, which alone can possess reason, has also possessed the right of reproving all who were of a different opinion from her own.

On the other side, the Greek church had the same right; accordingly, it reproved the Romans when they chose a different opinion from the Greeks on the procession of the Holy Spirit, the viands which might be taken in Lent, the authority of the pope, etc.

But upon what ground did any arrive finally at the conclusion that, when they were the strongest, they might burn those who entertained chosen opinions of their own? Those who had such opinions were undoubtedly criminal in the sight of God, since they were obstinate. They will, therefore, as no one can possibly doubt, be burned to all eternity in another world; but why burn them by a slow fire in this? The sufferers have represented that such conduct is a usurpation of the jurisdiction of God; that this punishment is very hard and severe, considered as an infliction by men; and that it is, moreover, of no utility, since one hour of suffering added to eternity is an absolute cipher.

The pious inflicters, however, replied to these reproaches that nothing was more just than to put upon burning coals whoever had a self-formed opinion; that to burn those whom God Himself would burn, was in fact a holy conformity to God; and finally, that since, by admission, the burning for an hour or two was a mere cipher in comparison with eternity, the burning of five or six provinces for chosen opinions--for heresies--was a matter in reality of very little consequence.

In the present day it is asked, "Among what cannibals have these questions been agitated, and their solutions proved by facts?" We must admit with sorrow and humiliation that it was asked even among ourselves, and in the very same cities where nothing is minded but operas, comedies, balls, fashions, and intrigue.

Unfortunately, it was a tyrant who introduced the practice of destroying heretics--not one of those equivocal tyrants who are regarded as saints by one party, and monsters by another, but one Maximus, competitor of Theodosius I., a decided tyrant, in the strictest meaning of the term, over the whole empire.

He destroyed at Trier, by the hands of the executioner, the Spaniard Priscillian and his adherents, whose opinions were pronounced erroneous by some bishops of Spain. These prelates solicited the capital punishment of the Priscillianists with a charity so ardent that Maximus could refuse them nothing. It was by no means owing to them that St. Martin was not beheaded as a heretic. He was fortunate enough to quit Trier and escape back to Tours.

A single example is sufficient to establish a usage. The first Scythian who scooped out the brains of his enemy and made a drinking-cup of his skull, was allowed all the rank and consequence in Scythia. Thus was consecrated the practice of employing the executioner to cut off "opinions."

No such thing as heresy existed among the religions of antiquity, because they had reference only to moral conduct and public worship. When metaphysics became connected with Christianity, controversy prevailed; and from controversy arose different parties, as in the schools of philosophy. It was impossible that metaphysics should not mingle the uncertainties essential to their nature with the faith due to Jesus Christ. He had Himself written nothing; and His incarnation was a problem which the new Christians, whom He had not Himself inspired, solved in many different ways. "Each," as St. Paul expressly observes, "had his peculiar party; some were for Apollos, others for Cephas."

Christians in general, for a long time, assumed the name of Nazarenes, and even the Gentiles gave them no other appellations during the two first centuries. But there soon arose a particular school of Nazarenes, who believed a gospel different from the four canonical ones. It has even been pretended that this gospel differed only very slightly from that of St. Matthew, and was in fact anterior to it. St. Epiphanius and St. Jerome place the Nazarenes in the cradle of Christianity.

Those who considered themselves as knowing more than the rest, took the denomination of gnostics, "knowers"; and this denomination was for a long time so honorable that St. Clement of Alexandria, in his "_Stromata_" always calls the good Christians true gnostics. "Happy are they who have entered into the gnostic holiness! He who deserves the name of gnostic resists seducers and gives to every one that asks." The fifth and sixth books of the "_Stromata_" turn entirely upon the perfection of gnosticism.

The Ebionites existed incontestably in the time of the apostles. That name, which signifies "poor," was intended to express how dear to them was the poverty in which Jesus was born.

Cerinthus was equally ancient. The "Apocalypse" of St. John was attributed to him. It is even thought that St. Paul and he had violent disputes with each other.

It seems to our weak understandings very natural to expect from the first disciples a solemn declaration, a complete and unalterable profession of faith, which might terminate all past, and preclude any future quarrels; but God permitted it not so to be. The creed called the "Apostles' Creed," which is short, and in which are not to be found the consubstantiality, the word trinity, or the seven sacraments, did not make its appearance before the time of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and the celebrated priest Rufinus. It was by this priest, the enemy of St. Jerome, that we are told it was compiled. Heresies had had time to multiply, and more than fifty were enumerated as existing in the fifth century.

Without daring to scrutinize the ways of Providence, which are impenetrable by the human mind, and merely consulting, as far as we are permitted, our feeble reason, it would seem that of so many opinions on so many articles, there would always exist one which must prevail, which was the orthodox, "the right of teaching." The other societies, besides the really orthodox, soon assumed that title also; but being the weaker parties, they had given to them the designation of "heretics."

When, in the progress of time, the Christian church in the East, which was the mother of that in the West, had irreparably broken with her daughter, each remained sovereign in her distinct sphere, and each had her particular heresies, arising out of the dominant opinion.

The barbarians of the North, having but recently become Christians, could not entertain the same opinions as Southern countries, because they could not adopt the same usages. They could not, for example, for a long time adore images, as they had neither painters nor sculptors. It also was somewhat dangerous to baptize an infant in winter, in the Danube, the Weser, or the Elbe.

It was no easy matter for the inhabitants of the shores of the Baltic to know precisely the opinions held in the Milanese and the march of Ancona. The people of the South and of the North of Europe had therefore chosen opinions different from each other. This seems to me to be the reason why Claude, bishop of Turin, preserved in the ninth century all the usages and dogmas received in the seventh and eighth, from the country of the Allobroges, as far as the Elbe and the Danube.

These dogmas and usages became fixed and permanent among the inhabitants of valleys and mountainous recesses, and near the banks of the Rhône, among a sequestered and almost unknown people, whom the general desolation left untouched in their seclusion and poverty, until they at length became known, under the name of the Vaudois in the twelfth, and that of the Albigenses in the thirteenth century. It is known how their chosen opinions were treated; what crusades were preached against them; what carnage was made among them; and that, from that period to the present day, Europe has not enjoyed a single year of tranquillity and toleration.

It is a great evil to be a heretic; but is it a great good to maintain orthodoxy by soldiers and executioners? Would it not be better that every man should eat his bread in peace under the shade of his own fig-tree? I suggest so bold a proposition with fear and trembling.