Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


When we have seen with our own eyes a mountain advancing into a plain — that is, an immense rock detached from that mountain, and covering the fields, an entire castle buried in the earth, or a swallowed-up river bursting from below, indubitable marks of an immense mass of water having once inundated a country now inhabited, and so many traces of other revolutions, we are even more disposed to believe in the great changes that have altered the face of the world than a Parisian lady who knows that the square in which her house stands was formerly a cultivated field, but a lady of Naples who has seen the ruins of Herculaneum underground is still less enthralled by the prejudice which leads us to believe that everything has always been as it now is.

Was there a great burning of the world in the time of Phaethon? Nothing is more likely, but this catastrophe was no more caused by the ambition of Phaethon or the anger of Jupiter the Thunderer than at Lisbon, in 1755, the Divine vengeance was drawn down, the subterraneous fires kindled, and half the city destroyed by the fires so often lighted there by the inquisition — besides, we know that Mequinez, Teutan and considerable hordes of Arabs have been treated even worse than Lisbon, though they had no inquisition. The island of St. Domingo, entirely devastated not long ago, had no more displeased the Great Being than the island of Corsica; all is subject to eternal physical laws.

Sulphur, bitumen, nitre, and iron, enclosed within the bowels of the earth have overturned many a city, opened many a gulf, and we are constantly liable to these accidents attached to the way in which this globe is put together, just as, in many countries during winter, we are exposed to the attacks of famishing wolves and tigers. If fire, which Heraclitus believed to be the principle of all, has altered the face of a part of the earth, Thales’s first principle, water, has operated as great changes.

One-half of America is still inundated by the ancient overflowings of the Maranon, Rio de la Plata, the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, and all the rivers perpetually swelled by the eternal snows of the highest mountains in the world, stretching from one end of that continent to the other. These accumulated floods have almost everywhere produced vast marshes. The neighboring lands have become uninhabitable, and the earth, which the hands of man should have made fruitful, has produced only pestilence.

The same thing happened in China and in Egypt: a multitude of ages were necessary to dig canals and dry the lands. Add to these lengthened disasters the irruptions of the sea, the lands it has invaded and deserted, the islands it has detached from the continent and you will find that from east to west, from Japan to Mount Atlas, it has devastated more than eighty thousand square leagues.

The swallowing up of the island Atlantis from the ocean may, with as much reason, be considered historical, as fabulous. The shallowness of the Atlantic as far as the Canaries might be taken as a proof of this great event and the Canaries themselves for fragments of the island Atlantis.

Plato tells us in his “Timæus,” that the Egyptian priests, among whom he had travelled, had in their possession ancient registers which certified that island’s going under water. Plato says that this catastrophe happened nine thousand years before his time. No one will believe this chronology on Plato’s word only, but neither can any one adduce against it any physical proof, nor even a historical testimony from any profane writer.

Pliny, in his third book, says that from time immemorial the people of the southern coasts of Spain believed that the sea had forced a passage between Calpe and Abila: “Indigenæ columnas Herculis vocant, creduntque per fossas exclusa antea admisisse maria, et rerum naturæ mutasse faciem.”

An attentive traveller may convince himself by his own eyes that the Cyclades and the Sporades were once part of the continent of Greece, and especially that Sicily was once joined to Apulia. The two volcanos of Etna and Vesuvius having the same basis in the sea, the little gulf of Charybdis, the only deep part of that sea, the perfect resemblance of the two soils are incontrovertible testimonies. The floods of Deucalion and Ogyges are well known, and the fables founded upon this truth are still more the talk of all the West.

The ancients have mentioned several deluges in Asia. The one spoken of by Berosus happened (as he tells us) in Chaldæa, about four thousand three, or four hundred years before the Christian era, and Asia was as much inundated with fables about this deluge as it was by the overflowings of the Tigris and Euphrates, and all the rivers that fall into the Euxine.

It is true that such overflowings cannot cover the country with more than a few feet of water, but the consequent sterility, the washing away of houses, and the destruction of cattle are losses which it requires nearly a century to repair. We know how much they have cost Holland, more than the half of which has been lost since the year 1050. She is still obliged to maintain a daily conflict with the ever-threatening ocean. She has never employed so many soldiers in resisting her enemies as she employs laborers in continually defending her against the assaults of a sea always ready to swallow her.

The road from Egypt to Phœnicia, along the borders of Lake Serbo, was once quite practicable, but it has long ceased to be so; it is now nothing but a quicksand, moistened by stagnant water. In short, a great portion of the earth would be no other than a vast poisonous marsh inhabited by monsters, but for the assiduous labor of the human race.

We shall not here speak of the universal deluge of Noah. Let it suffice to read the Holy Scriptures with submission. Noah’s flood was an incomprehensible miracle supernaturally worked by the justice and goodness of an ineffable Providence whose will it was to destroy the whole guilty human race and form a new and innocent race. If the new race was more wicked than the former, and became more criminal from age to age, from reformation to reformation, this is but another effect of the same Providence, of which it is impossible for us to fathom the depths, the inconceivable mysteries transmitted to the nations of the West for many ages, in the Latin translation of the Septuagint. We shall never enter these awful sanctuaries; our questions will be limited to simple nature.

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