Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Of all the books written in the western climes of the world, which have reached our times, Homer is the most ancient. In his works we find the manners of profane antiquity, coarse heroes, and material gods, made after the image of man, but mixed up with reveries and absurdities; we also find the seeds of philosophy, and more particularly the idea of destiny, or necessity, who is the dominatrix of the gods, as the gods are of the world.

When the magnanimous Hector determines to fight the magnanimous Achilles, and runs away with all possible speed, making the circuit of the city three times, in order to increase his vigor; when Homer compares the light-footed Achilles, who pursues him, to a man that is asleep! and when Madame Dacier breaks into a rapture of admiration at the art and meaning exhibited in this passage, it is precisely then that Jupiter, desirous of saving the great Hector who has offered up to him so many sacrifices, bethinks him of consulting the destinies, upon weighing the fates of Hector and Achilles in a balance. He finds that the Trojan must inevitably be killed by the Greek, and is not only unable to oppose it, but from that moment Apollo, the guardian genius of Hector, is compelled to abandon him. It is not to be denied that Homer is frequently extravagant, and even on this very occasion displays a contradictory flow of ideas, according to the privilege of antiquity; but yet he is the first in whom we meet with the notion of destiny. It may be concluded, then, that in his days it was a prevalent one.

The Pharisees, among the small nation of Jews, did not adopt the idea of a destiny till many ages after. For these Pharisees themselves, who were the most learned class among the Jews, were but of very recent date. They mixed up, in Alexandria, a portion of the dogmas of the Stoics with their ancient Jewish ideas. St. Jerome goes so far as to state that their sect is but a little anterior to our vulgar era.

Philosophers would never have required the aid of Homer, or of the Pharisees, to be convinced that everything is performed according to immutable laws, that everything is ordained, that everything is, in fact, necessary. The manner in which they reason is as follows:

Either the world subsists by its own nature, by its own physical laws, or a Supreme Being has formed it according to His supreme laws: in both cases these laws are immovable; in both cases everything is necessary; heavy bodies tend towards the centre of the earth without having any power or tendency to rest in the air. Pear-trees cannot produce pine-apples. The instinct of a spaniel cannot be the instinct of an ostrich; everything is arranged, adjusted, and fixed.

Man can have only a certain number of teeth, hairs, and ideas; and a period arrives when he necessarily loses his teeth, hair, and ideas.

It is contradictory to say that yesterday should not have been; or that to-day does not exist; it is just as contradictory to assert that that which is to come will not inevitably be.

Could you derange the destiny of a single fly there would be no possible reason why you should not control the destiny of all other flies, of all other animals, of all men, of all nature. You would find, in fact, that you were more powerful than God.

Weak-minded persons say: “My physician has brought my aunt safely through a mortal disease; he has added ten years to my aunt’s life.” Others of more judgment say, the prudent man makes his own destiny.

Nullum numen abest, si sit Prudentia, sed te

Nos facimus, Fortuna, deam cœloque locamus.

— Juvenal, Sat. x. v. 365.

We call on Fortune, and her aid implore,

While Prudence is the goddess to adore.

But frequently the prudent man succumbs under his destiny instead of making it; it is destiny which makes men prudent. Profound politicians assure us that if Cromwell, Ludlow, Ireton, and a dozen other parliamentary leaders, had been assassinated eight days before Charles I. had his head cut off, that king would have continued alive and have died in his bed; they are right; and they may add, that if all England had been swallowed up in the sea, that king would not have perished on a scaffold before Whitehall. But things were so arranged that Charles was to have his head cut off.

Cardinal d’Ossat was unquestionably more clever than an idiot of the petites maisons; but is it not evident that the organs of the wise d’Ossat were differently formed than those of that idiot? — Just as the organs of a fox are different from those of a crane or a lark.

Your physician saved your aunt, but in so doing he certainly did not contradict the order of nature, but followed it. It is clear that your aunt could not prevent her birth in a certain place, that she could not help being affected by a certain malady, at a certain time; that the physician could be in no other place than where he was, that your aunt could not but apply to him, that he could not but prescribe medicines which cured her, or were thought to cure her, while nature was the sole physician.

A peasant thinks that it hailed upon his field by chance; but the philosopher knows that there was no chance, and that it was absolutely impossible, according to the constitution of the world, for it not to have hailed at that very time and place.

There are some who, being shocked by this truth, concede only half of it, like debtors who offer one moiety of their property to their creditors, and ask remission for the other. There are, they say, some events which are necessary, and others which are not so. It would be curious for one part of the world to be changed and the other not; that one part of what happens should happen inevitably, and another fortuitously. When we examine the question closely, we see that the doctrine opposed to that of destiny is absurd; but many men are destined to be bad reasoners, others not to reason at all, and others to persecute those who reason well or ill.

Some caution us by saying, “Do not believe in fatalism, for, if you do, everything appearing to you unavoidable, you will exert yourself for nothing; you will sink down in indifference; you will regard neither wealth, nor honors, nor praise; you will be careless about acquiring anything whatever; you will consider yourself meritless and powerless; no talent will be cultivated, and all will be overwhelmed in apathy.”

Do not be afraid, gentlemen; we shall always have passions and prejudices, since it is our destiny to be subjected to prejudices and passions. We shall very well know that it no more depends upon us to have great merit or superior talents than to have a fine head of hair, or a beautiful hand; we shall be convinced that we ought to be vain of nothing, and yet vain we shall always be.

I have necessarily the passion for writing as I now do; and, as for you, you have the passion for censuring me; we are both equally fools, both equally the sport of destiny. Your nature is to do ill, mine is to love truth, and publish it in spite of you.

The owl, while supping upon mice in his ruined tower, said to the nightingale, “Stop your singing there in your beautiful arbor, and come to my hole that I may eat you.” The nightingale replied, “I am born to sing where I am, and to laugh at you.”

You ask me what is to become of liberty: I do not understand you; I do not know what the liberty you speak of really is. You have been so long disputing about the nature of it that you do not understand it. If you are willing, or rather, if you are able to examine with me coolly what it is, turn to the letter L.

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