Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The present, we say, is pregnant with the future; events are linked one with another by an invincible fatality. This is the fate which, in Homer, is superior to Jupiter himself. The master of gods and men expressly declares that he cannot prevent his son Sarpedon from dying at the time appointed. Sarpedon was born at the moment when it was necessary that he should be born, and could not be born at any other; he could not die elsewhere than before Troy; he could not be buried elsewhere than in Lycia; his body must, in the appointed time, produce vegetables, which must change into the substance of some of the Lycians; his heirs must establish a new order of things in his states; that new order must influence neighboring kingdoms; thence must result a new arrangement in war and in peace with the neighbors of Lycia. So that, from link to link, the destiny of the whole earth depended on the elopement of Helen, which had a necessary connection with the marriage of Hecuba, which, ascending to higher events, was connected with the origin of things.

Had any one of these occurrences been ordered otherwise, the result would have been a different universe. Now, it was not possible for the actual universe not to exist; therefore it was not possible for Jupiter, Jove as he was, to save the life of his son. We are told that this doctrine of necessity and fatality has been invented in our own times by Leibnitz, under the name of sufficing reason. It is, however, of great antiquity. It is no recent discovery that there is no effect without a cause and that often the smallest cause produces the greatest effects.

Lord Bolingbroke acknowledges that he was indebted to the petty quarrels between the duchess of Marlborough and Mrs. Masham for an opportunity of concluding the private treaty between Queen Anne and Louis XIV. This treaty led to the peace of Utrecht; the peace of Utrecht secured the throne of Spain to Philip V.; Philip took Naples and Sicily from the house of Austria. Thus the Spanish prince, who is now king of Naples, evidently owes his kingdom to Mrs. Masham; he would not have had it, nor even have been born, if the duchess of Marlborough had been more complaisant towards the queen of England; his existence at Naples depended on one folly more or less at the court of London.

Examine the situations of every people upon earth; they are in like manner founded on a train of occurrences seemingly without connection, but all connected. In this immense machine all is wheel, pulley, cord, or spring. It is the same in physical order. A wind blowing from the southern seas and the remotest parts of Africa brings with it a portion of the African atmosphere, which, falling in showers in the valleys of the Alps, fertilizes our lands; on the other hand our north wind carries our vapors among the negroes; we do good to Guinea, and Guinea to us. The chain extends from one end of the universe to the other.

But the truth of this principle seems to me to be strangely abused; for it is thence concluded that there is no atom, however small, the movement of which has not influenced the actual arrangement of the whole world; that the most trivial accident, whether among men or animals, is an essential link in the great chain of destiny.

Let us understand one another. Every effect evidently has its cause, ascending from cause to cause, into the abyss of eternity; but every cause has not its effect, going down to the end of ages. I grant that all events are produced one by another; if the past was pregnant with the present, the present is pregnant with the future; everything is begotten, but everything does not beget. It is a genealogical tree; every house, we know, ascends to Adam, but many of the family have died without issue.

The events of this world form a genealogical tree. It is indisputable that the inhabitants of Spain and Gaul are descended from Gomer, and the Russians from his younger brother Magog, for in how many great books is this genealogy to be found! It cannot then be denied that the grand Turk, who is also descended from Magog, is obliged to him for the good beating given him in 1769 by the Empress Catherine II. This occurrence is evidently linked with other great events; but whether Magog spat to the right or to the left near Mount Caucasus — made two or three circles in a well — or whether he lay on his right side or his left, I do not see that it could have much influence on present affairs.

It must be remembered, because it is proved by Newton, that nature is not a plenum, and that motion is not communicated by collision until it has made the tour of the universe. Throw a body of a certain density into water, you easily calculate that at the end of such a time the movement of this body, and that which it has given to the water, will cease; the motion will be lost and rest will be restored. So the motion produced by Magog in spitting into a well cannot have influenced what is now passing in Moldavia and Wallachia. Present events, then, are not the offspring of all past events, they have their direct lines, but with a thousand small collateral lines they have nothing to do. Once more be it observed that every being has a parent but every one has not an offspring.

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