Treatise of the Three Impostors
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Treatise of the Three Impostors or of L ‘esprit dr Spinosa (The Spirit of Spinoza) is an anonymously published pamphlet of the Enlightenment which helped to advance the critique of religious dominance, denoted as "these silly ideas of God". Its Latin original De tribus impostoribus is a possible literary mystification, but has been attributed to various authors.
The work denies all three Abrahamic religions - Christ, Moses and Muhammed. The existence of such a book, and the attribution of its authorship to various heretics and political enemies was a running theme from the 11th Century to the 18th when hoaxes in Germany and France produced two physical books.
Various authors have been attributed to this anonymously published pamphlet, including Kaiser Friedrich II., Abu Tahir Al-Djannabi (907-944), Simon de Tournai (c.1130-1201), Pietro della Vigna, Guillaume Postel, Jan Nachtegal, Averroes, Petrus Pomponatius, Pietro Aretino, Michael Servet, Gerolamo Cardano, Niccolò Machiavelli, François Rabelais, Erasmus, John Milton, Matthias Knutzen, Angelus Merula, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Giovanni Boccaccio, Baron d'Holbach, Sa'd ibn Mansur ibn Kammuna, Uriel da Costa and Baruch Spinoza. Its current English-language edition, based on a 1904 translation is attributed to Alcofribas Nasier, a pseudonym of Rabelais.
Its first printing was accredited to the printer Marc-Michel Rey, but may have existed in manuscript form for some time before it was published. It is unlikely to have been around since the time of Frederick II which was part of the mythology of the manuscript. The first trace we have of it as a manuscript comes from a letter to Prosper Marchand from his old friend, Caspar Fritsch. He reminds Marchand about how another friend, Charles Levier, got the manuscript of the treatise from the library of Benjamin Furly in 1711. It is almost certainly from the early eighteenth century and may be traceable to Marchand's circle that included Rousset de Missy.
It was nominally a text handed down from generation to generation detailing how the three major figures of Biblical religion: Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses were in fact misrepresenting what had happened to them. At the time, this novel approach was used to allow thinkers to conceptualize a world where explanation ruled over mere "mystery", a term used for the miraculous intervention on earth by God. It was useful to both Deists and Atheists in legitimizing their world view and being a common source of intellectual reference. The work was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1783.
In 1846, Emil Weller published "De Tribus Impostoribus," and also a later edition in 1876, at Heilbronn, from a Latin copy of one of the only four known to be in existence and printed in 1598. The copy from which it was taken, consisting of title and forty-six leaves, quarto, is at the Royal Library at Dresden, and was purchased for one hundred gulden.
However important it may be for all men to know the Truth, very few, nevertheless, are acquainted with it, because the majority are incapable of searching it themselves, or perhaps, do not wish the trouble. Thus we must not be astonished if the world is filled with vain and ridiculous opinions, and nothing is more capable of making them current than ignorance, which is the sole source of the false ideas that exist regarding the Divinity, the soul, and the spirit, and all the errors depending thereon.
The custom of being satisfied with born prejudice has prevailed, and by following this custom, mankind agrees in all things with persons interested in supporting stubbornly the opinions thus received, and who would speak otherwise did they not fear to destroy themselves.
What renders the evil without remedy, is, that after having established these silly ideas of God, they teach the people to receive them without examination. They take great care to impress them with aversion for philosophers, fearing that the Truth which they teach will alienate them. The errors in which the partisans of these absurdities have been plunged, have thrived so well that it is dangerous to combat them. It is too important for these impostors that the people remain in this gross and culpable ignorance than to allow them to be disabused. Thus they are constrained to disuse the truth, or to be sacrificed to the rage of false prophets and selfish souls.