Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CERTAIN— CERTAINTY.

I am certain; I have friends; my fortune is secure; my relations will never abandon me; I shall have justice done me; my work is good, it will be well received; what is owing to me will be paid; my friend will be faithful, he has sworn it; the minister will advance me — he has, by the way, promised it — all these are words which a man who has lived a short time in the world erases from his dictionary.

When the judges condemned L’Anglade, Le Brun, Calas, Sirven, Martin, Montbailli, and so many others, since acknowledged to have been innocent, they were certain, or they ought to have been certain, that all these unhappy men were guilty; yet they were deceived. There are two ways of being deceived; by false judgment and self-blindness — that of erring like a man of genius, and that of deciding like a fool.

The judges deceived themselves like men of genius in the affair of L’Anglade; they were blinded by dazzling appearances and did not sufficiently examine the probabilities on the other side. Their wisdom made them believe it certain that L’Anglade had committed a theft, which he certainly had not committed; and on this miserable uncertain certainty of the human mind, a gentleman was put to the ordinary and extraordinary question; subsequent thrown, without succor, into a dungeon and condemned to the galleys, where he died. His wife was shut up in another dungeon, with her daughter, aged seven years, who afterwards married a counsellor of the same parliament which had condemned her father to the galleys and her mother to banishment.

It is clear that the judges would not have pronounced this sentence had they been really certain. However, even at the time this sentence was passed several persons knew that the theft had been committed by a priest named Gagnat, associated with a highwayman, and the innocence of L’Anglade was not recognized till after his death.

They were in the same manner certain when, by a sentence in the first instance, they condemned to the wheel the innocent Le Brun, who, by an arrêt pronounced on his appeal, was broken on the rack, and died under the torture.

The examples of Calas and Sirven are well known, that of Martin is less so. He was an honest agriculturist near Bar in Lorraine. A villain stole his dress and in this dress murdered a traveller whom he knew to have money and whose route he had watched. Martin was accused, his dress was a witness against him; the judges regarded this evidence as a certainty. Not the past conduct of the prisoner, a numerous family whom he had brought up virtuously, neither the little money found on him, nor the extreme probability of his innocence — nothing could save him. The subaltern judge made a merit of his rigor. He condemned the innocent victim to be broken on the wheel, and, by an unhappy fatality the sentence was executed to the full extent. The senior Martin is broken alive, calling God to witness his innocence to his last breath; his family is dispersed, his little property is confiscated, and scarcely are his broken members exposed on the great road when the assassin who had committed the murder and theft is put in prison for another crime, and confesses on the rack, to which he is condemned in his turn, that he only was guilty of the crime for which Martin had suffered torture and death.

Montbailli, who slept with his wife, was accused with having, in concert with her, killed his mother, who had evidently died of apoplexy. The council of Arras condemned Montbailli to expire on the rack, and his wife to be burnt. Their innocence was discovered, but not until Montbailli had been tortured. Let us cease advertence to these melancholy adventures, which make us groan at the human condition; but let us continue to lament the pretended certainty of judges, when they pass such sentences.

There is no certainty, except when it is physically or morally impossible that the thing can be otherwise. What! is a strict demonstration necessary to enable us to assert that the surface of a sphere is equal to four times the area of its great circle; and is not one required to warrant taking away the life of a citizen by a disgraceful punishment?

If such is the misfortune of humanity that judges must be contented with extreme probabilities, they should at least consult the age, the rank, the conduct of the accused — the interest which he could have in committing the crime, and the interest of his enemies to destroy him. Every judge should say to himself: Will not posterity, will not entire Europe condemn my sentence? Shall I sleep tranquilly with my hands tainted with innocent blood? Let us pass from this horrible picture to other examples of a certainty which leads directly to error.

Why art thou loaded with chains, fanatical and unhappy Santon? Why hast thou added a large iron ring on thy miserable scourge? It is because I am certain of being one day placed in the first heaven, by the side of our great prophet. Alas, my friend, come with me to the neighborhood of Mount Athos and thou wilt see three thousand mendicants who are as certain that thou wilt go to the gulf which is under the narrow bridge, as that they will all go to the first heaven!

Stop, miserable Malabar widow, believe not the fool who persuades you that you shall be reunited to your husband in all the delights of another world, if you burn yourself on his funeral pile! No, I persist in burning myself because I am certain of living in felicity with my husband; my brahmin told me so.

Let us attend to less frightful certainties, and which have a little more appearance of truth. What is the age of your friend Christopher? Twenty-eight years. I have seen his marriage contract, and his baptismal register; I knew him in his infancy; he is twenty-eight — I am certain of it.

Scarcely have I heard the answer of this man, so sure of what he said, and of twenty others who confirmed the same thing, when I learn that for secret reasons, and by a singular circumstance the baptismal register of Christopher has been antedated. Those to whom I had spoken as yet know nothing of it, yet they have still the same certainty of that which is not.

If you had asked the whole earth before the time of Copernicus: has the sun risen? has it set to-day? all men would have answered: We are quite certain of it. They were certain and they were in error.

Witchcraft, divinations, and possessions were for a long time the most certain things in the world in the eyes of society. What an innumerable crowd of people who have seen all these fine things and who have been certain of them! At present this certainty is a little shaken.

A young man who is beginning to study geometry comes to me; he is only at the definition of triangles. Are you not certain, said I to him, that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles? He answered that not only was he not certain of it, but that he had not the slightest idea of the proposition. I demonstrated it to him. He then became very certain of it, and will remain so all his life. This is a certainty very different from the others; they were only probabilities and these probabilities, when examined, have turned out errors, but mathematical certainty is immutable and eternal.

I exist, I think, I feel grief — is all that as certain as a geometrical truth? Yes, skeptical as I am, I avow it. Why? It is that these truths are proved by the same principle that it is impossible for a thing to exist and not exist at the same time. I cannot at the same time feel and not feel. A triangle cannot at the same time contain a hundred and eighty degrees, which are the sum of two right angles, and not contain them. The physical certainty of my existence, of my identity, is of the same value as mathematical certainty, although it is of a different kind.

It is not the same with the certainty founded on appearances, or on the unanimous testimony of mankind.

But how, you will say to me, are you not certain that Pekin exists? Have you not merchandise from Pekin? People of different countries and different opinions have vehemently written against one another while preaching the truth at Pekin; then are you not assured of the existence of this town? I answer that it is extremely probable that there may be a city of Pekin but I would not wager my life that such a town exists, and I would at any time wager my life that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.

In the “Dictionnaire Encyclopédique” a very pleasant thing appears. It is there maintained that a man ought to be as certain that Marshal Saxe rose from the dead, if all Paris tells him so, as he is sure that Marshal Saxe gained the battle of Fontenoy, upon the same testimony. Pray observe the beauty of this reasoning: as I believe all Paris when it tells me a thing morally possible, I ought to believe all Paris when it tells me a thing morally and physically impossible. Apparently the author of this article has a disposition to be risible; as to ourselves who have only undertaken this little dictionary to ask a few questions, we are very far from possessing this very extensive certainty.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25