Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We begin with observing that we are believers in the universal deluge, because it is recorded in the holy Hebrew Scriptures transmitted to Christians. We consider it as a miracle:

1. Because all the facts by which God condescends to interfere in the sacred books are so many miracles.

2. Because the sea could not rise fifteen cubits, or one-and-twenty standard feet and a half, above the highest mountains, without leaving its bed dry, and, at the same time, violating all the laws of gravity and the equilibrium of fluids, which would evidently require a miracle.

3. Because, even although it might rise to the height mentioned, the ark could not have contained, according to known physical laws, all the living things of the earth, together with their food, for so long a time; considering that lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, ounces, rhinoceroses, bears, wolves, hyenas, eagles, hawks, kites, vultures, falcons, and all carnivorous animals, which feed on flesh alone, would have died of hunger, even after having devoured all the other species.

There was printed some time ago, in an appendix to Pascal’s “Thoughts,” a dissertation of a merchant of Rouen, called Le Peletier, in which he proposes a plan for building a vessel in which all kinds of animals might be included and maintained for the space of a year. It is clear that this merchant never superintended even a poultry-yard. We cannot but look upon M. Le Peletier, the architect of the ark, as a visionary, who knew nothing about menageries; and upon the deluge as an adorable miracle, fearful, and incomprehensible to the feeble reason of M. Le Peletier, as well as to our own.

4. Because the physical impossibility of a universal deluge, by natural means, can be strictly demonstrated. The demonstration is as follows: All the seas cover half the globe. A common measure of their depths near the shores, and in the open ocean, is assumed to be five hundred feet.

In order that they might cover both hemispheres to the depth of five hundred feet, not only would an ocean of that depth be necessary over all the land, but a new sea would, in addition, be required to envelop the ocean at present existing, without which the laws of hydrostatics would occasion the dispersion of that other new mass of water five hundred feet deep, which should remain covering the land. Thus, then, two new oceans are requisite to cover the terraqueous globe merely to the depth of five hundred feet.

Supposing the mountains to be only twenty thousand feet high, forty oceans, each five hundred feet in height, would be required to accumulate on each other, merely in order to equal the height of the mountains. Every successive ocean would contain all the others, and the last of them all would have a circumference containing forty times that of the first.

In order to form this mass of water, it would be necessary to create it out of nothing. In order to withdraw it, it would be necessary to annihilate it. The event of the deluge, then, is a double miracle, and the greatest that has ever manifested the power of the eternal Sovereign of all worlds.

We are exceedingly surprised that some learned men have attributed to this deluge some small shells found in many parts of our continent. We are still more surprised at what we find under the article on “Deluge,” in the grand “Encyclopædia.” An author is quoted in it, who says things so very profound that they may be considered as chimerical. This is the first characteristic of Pluche. He proves the possibility of the deluge by the history of the giants who made war against the gods!

Briareus, according to him, is clearly the deluge, for it signifies “the loss of serenity”: and in what language does it signify this loss? — in Hebrew. But Briareus is a Greek word, which means “robust”: it is not a Hebrew word. Even if, by chance, it had been so, we should beware of imitating Bochart, who derives so many Greek, Latin, and even French words from the Hebrew idiom. The Greeks certainly knew no more of the Jewish idiom than of the language of the Chinese.

The giant Othus is also in Hebrew, according to Pluche, “the derangement of the seasons.” But it is also a Greek word, which does not signify anything, at least, that I know; and even if it did, what, let me ask, could it have to do with the Hebrew?

Porphyrion is “a shaking of the earth,” in Hebrew; but in Greek, it is porphyry. This has nothing to do with the deluge.

Mimos is “a great rain”; for once, he does mention a name which may bear upon the deluge. But in Greek mimos means mimic, comedian. There are no means of tracing the deluge of such an origin.

Enceladus is another proof of the deluge in Hebrew; for, according to Pluche, it is the fountain of time; but, unluckily, in Greek it is “noise.”

Ephialtes, another demonstration of the deluge in Hebrew; for ephialtes, which signifies leaper, oppressor, incubus, in Greek is, according to Pluche, “a vast accumulation of clouds.”

But the Greeks, having taken everything from the Hebrews, with whom they were unacquainted, clearly gave to their giants all those names which Pluche extracts from the Hebrew as well as he can, and all as a memorial of the deluge.

Such is the reasoning of Pluche. It is he who cites the author of the article on “Deluge” without refuting him. Does he speak seriously, or does he jest? I do not know. All I know is, that there is scarcely a single system to be found at which one can forbear jesting.

I have some apprehension that the article in the grand “Encyclopædia,” attributed to M. Boulanger, is not serious. In that case, we ask whether it is philosophical. Philosophy is so often deceived, that we shall not venture to decide against M. Boulanger.

Still less shall we venture to ask what was that abyss which was broken up, or what were the cataracts of heaven which were opened. Isaac Vossius denies the universality of the deluge: “Hoc est pie nugari.” Calmet maintains it; informing us, that bodies have no weight in air, but in consequence of their being compressed by air. Calmet was not much of a natural philosopher, and the weight of the air has nothing to do with the deluge. Let us content ourselves with reading and respecting everything in the Bible, without comprehending a single word of it.

I do not comprehend how God created a race of men in order to drown them, and then substituted in their room a race still viler than the first.

How seven pairs of all kinds of clean animals should come from the four quarters of the globe, together with two pairs of unclean ones, without the wolves devouring the sheep on the way, or the kites the pigeons, etc.

How eight persons could keep in order, feed, and water, such an immense number of inmates, shut up in an ark for nearly two years; for, after the cessation of the deluge, it would be necessary to have food for all these passengers for another year, in consequence of the herbage being so scanty.

I am not like M. Le Peletier. I admire everything, and explain nothing.

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