Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The gradation of beings rising from the lowest to the Great Supreme — the scale of infinity — is an idea that fills us with admiration, but when steadily regarded this phantom disappears, as apparitions were wont to vanish at the crowing of the cock.

The imagination is pleased with the imperceptible transition from brute matter to organized matter, from plants to zoophytes, from zoophytes to animals, from animals to men, from men to genii, from these genii, clad in a light aërial body, to immaterial substances of a thousand different orders, rising from beauty to perfection, up to God Himself. This hierarchy is very pleasing to young men who look upon it as upon the pope and cardinals, followed by the archbishops and bishops, after whom are the vicars, curates and priests, the deacons and subdeacons, then come the monks, and the capuchins bring up the rear.

But there is, perhaps, a somewhat greater distance between God and His most perfect creatures than between the holy father and the dean of the sacred college. The dean may become pope, but can the most perfect genii created by the Supreme Being become God? Is there not infinity between them?

Nor does this chain, this pretended gradation, any more exist in vegetables and animals; the proof is that some species of plants and animals have been entirely destroyed. We have no murex. The Jews were forbidden to eat griffin and ixion, these two species, whatever Bochart may say, have probably disappeared from the earth. Where, then, is the chain?

Supposing that we had not lost some species, it is evident that they may be destroyed. Lions and rhinoceroses are becoming very scarce, and if the rest of the nations had imitated the English, there would not now have been a wolf left. It is probable that there have been races of men who are no longer to be found. Why should they not have existed as well as the whites, the blacks, the Kaffirs, to whom nature has given an apron of their own skin, hanging from the belly to the middle of the thigh; the Samoyeds, whose women have nipples of a beautiful jet.

Is there not a manifest void between the ape and man? Is it not easy to imagine a two-legged animal without feathers having intelligence without our shape or the use of speech — one which we could tame, which would answer our signs, and serve us? And again, between this species and man, cannot we imagine others?

Beyond man, divine Plato, you place in heaven a string of celestial substances, in some of which we believe because the faith so teaches us. But what reason had you to believe in them? It does not appear that you had spoken with the genius of Socrates, and though Heres, good man, rose again on purpose to tell you the secrets of the other world, he told you nothing of these substances. In the sensible universe the pretended chain is no less interrupted.

What gradation, I pray you, is there among the planets? The moon is forty times smaller than our globe. Travelling from the moon through space, you find Venus, about as large as the earth. From thence you go to Mercury, which revolves in an ellipsis very different from the circular orbit of Venus; it is twenty-seven times smaller than the earth, the sun is a million times larger, and Mars is five times smaller. The latter goes his round in two years, his neighbor Jupiter in twelve, and Saturn in thirty; yet Saturn, the most distant of all, is not so large as Jupiter. Where is the pretended gradation?

And then, how, in so many empty spaces, do you extend a chain connecting the whole? There can certainly be no other than that which Newton discovered — that which makes all the globes of the planetary world gravitate one towards another in the immense void.

Oh, much admired Plato! I fear that you have told us nothing but fables, that you have spoken to us only as a sophist! Oh, Plato! you have done more mischief than you are aware of. How so? you will ask. I will not tell you.

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