Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Virgil says (“Æneid,” book vi. 727):

Mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.

This active mind infused, through all the space

Unites and mingles with the mighty mass.

— Dryden.

Virgil said well: and Benedict Spinoza, who has not the brilliancy of Virgil, nor his merit, is compelled to acknowledge an intelligence presiding over all. Had he denied this, I should have said to him: Benedict, you are a fool; you possess intelligence, and you deny it, and to whom do you deny it?

In the year 1770, there appeared a man, in some respects far superior to Spinoza, as eloquent as the Jewish Hollander is dry, less methodical, but infinitely more perspicuous; perhaps equal to him in mathematical science; but without the ridiculous affectation of applying mathematical reasonings to metaphysical and moral subjects. The man I mean is the author of the “System of Nature.” He assumed the name of Mirabaud, the secretary of the French Academy. Alas! the worthy secretary was incapable of writing a single page of the book of our formidable opponent. I would recommend all you who are disposed to avail yourselves of your reason and acquire instruction, to read the following eloquent though dangerous passage from the “System of Nature.” (Part II. v. 153.)

It is contended that animals furnish us with a convincing evidence that there is some powerful cause of their existence; the admirable adaptation of their different parts, mutually receiving and conferring aid towards accomplishing their functions, and maintaining in health and vigor the entire being, announce to us an artificer uniting power to wisdom. Of the power of nature, it is impossible for us to doubt; she produces all the animals that we see by the help of combinations of that matter, which is in incessant action; the adaptation of the parts of these animals is the result of the necessary laws of their nature, and of their combination. When the adaptation ceases, the animal is necessarily destroyed. What then becomes of the wisdom, the intelligence, or the goodness of that alleged cause, to which was ascribed all the honor of this boasted adaptation? Those animals of so wonderful a structure as to be pronounced the works of an immutable God, do not they undergo incessant changes; and do not they end in decay and destruction? Where is the wisdom, the goodness, the foresight, the immutability of an artificer, whose sole object appears to be to derange and destroy the springs of those machines which are proclaimed to be masterpieces of his power and skill? If this God cannot act otherwise than thus, he is neither free nor omnipotent. If his will changes, he is not immutable. If he permits machines, which he has endowed with sensibility, to experience pain, he is deficient in goodness. If he has been unable to render his productions solid and durable, he is deficient in skill. Perceiving as we do the decay and ruin not only of all animals, but of all the other works of deity, we cannot but inevitably conclude, either that everything performed in the course of nature is absolutely necessary — the unavoidable result of its imperative and insuperable laws, or that the artificer who impels her various operations is destitute of plan, of power, of constancy, of skill, and of goodness.

“Man, who considers himself the master-work of the Divinity, supplies us more readily and completely than any other production, with evidence of the incapacity or malignity of his pretended author. In this being, possessed of feeling, intuition, and reason, which considers itself as the perpetual object of divine partiality, and forms its God on the model of itself, we see a machine more changeable, more frail, more liable to derangement from its extraordinary complication, than that of the coarsest and grossest beings. Beasts, which are destitute of our mental powers and acquirements; plants, which merely vegetate; stones, which are unendowed with sensation, are, in many respects, beings far more favored than man. They are, at least, exempt from distress of mind, from the tortures of thought, and corrosions of care, to which the latter is a victim. Who would not prefer being a mere unintelligent animal, or a senseless stone, when his thoughts revert to the irreparable loss of an object dearly beloved? Would it not be infinitely more desirable to be an inanimate mass, than the gloomy votary and victim of superstition, trembling under the present yoke of his diabolical deity, and anticipating infinite torments in a future existence? Beings destitute of sensation, life, memory, and thought experience no affliction from the idea of what is past, present, or to come; they do not believe there is any danger of incurring eternal torture for inaccurate reasoning; which is believed, however, by many of those favored beings who maintain that the great architect of the world has created the universe for themselves.

“Let us not be told that we have no idea of a work without having that of the artificer distinguished from the work. Nature is not a work. She has always existed of herself. Every process takes place in her bosom. She is an immense manufactory, provided with materials, and she forms the instruments by which she acts; all her works are effects of her own energy, and of agents or causes which she frames, contains, and impels. Eternal, uncreated elements — elements indestructible, ever in motion, and combining in exquisite and endless diversity, originate all the beings and all the phenomena that we behold; all the effects, good or evil, that we feel; the order or disorder which we distinguish, merely by different modes in which they affect ourselves; and, in a word, all those wonders which excite our meditation and confound our reasoning. These elements, in order to effect objects thus comprehensive and important, require nothing beyond their own properties, individual or combined, and the motion essential to their very existence; and thus preclude the necessity of recurring to an unknown artificer, in order to arrange, mould, combine, preserve, and dissolve them.

“But, even admitting for a moment, that it is impossible to conceive of the universe without an artificer who formed it, and who preserves and watches over his work, where shall we place that artificer? Shall he be within or without the universe? Is he matter or motion? Or is he mere space, nothingness, vacuity? In each of these cases, he will either be nothing, or he will be comprehended in nature, and subjected to her laws. If he is in nature, I think I see in her only matter in motion, and cannot but thence conclude that the agent impelling her is corporeal and material, and that he is consequently liable to dissolution. If this agent is out of nature, then I have no idea of what place he can occupy, nor of an immaterial being, nor of the manner in which a spirit, without extension, can operate upon the matter from which it is separated. Those unknown tracts of space which imagination has placed beyond the visible world may be considered as having no existence for a being who can scarcely see to the distance of his own feet; the ideal power which inhabits them can never be represented to my mind, unless when my imagination combines at random the fantastic colors which it is always forced to employ in the world on which I am. In this case, I shall merely reproduce in idea what my senses have previously actually perceived; and that God, which I, as it were, compel myself to distinguish from nature, and to place beyond her circuit, will ever, in opposition to all my efforts, necessarily withdraw within it.

“It will be observed and insisted upon by some that if a statue or a watch were shown to a savage who had never seen them, he would inevitably acknowledge that they were the productions of some intelligent agent, more powerful and ingenious than himself; and hence it will be inferred that we are equally bound to acknowledge that the machine of the universe, that man, that the phenomena of nature, are the productions of an agent, whose intelligence and power are far superior to our own.

“I answer, in the first place, that we cannot possibly doubt either the great power or the great skill of nature; we admire her skill as often as we are surprised by the extended, varied and complicated effects which we find in those of her works that we take the pains to investigate; she is not, however, either more or less skilful in any one of her works than in the rest. We no more comprehend how she could produce a stone or a piece of metal than how she could produce a head organized like that of Newton. We call that man skilful who can perform things which we are unable to perform ourselves. Nature can perform everything; and when anything exists, it is a proof that she was able to make it. Thus, it is only in relation to ourselves that we ever judge nature to be skilful; we compare it in those cases with ourselves; and, as we possess a quality which we call intelligence, by the aid of which we produce works, in which we display our skill, we thence conclude that the works of nature, which must excite our astonishment and admiration, are not in fact hers, but the productions of an artificer, intelligent like ourselves, and whose intelligence we proportion, in our minds, to the degree of astonishment excited in us by his works; that is, in fact, to our own weakness and ignorance.”

See the reply to these arguments under the articles on “Atheism” and “God,” and in the following section, written long before the “System of Nature.”

§ II.

If a clock is not made in order to tell the time of the day, I will then admit that final causes are nothing but chimeras, and be content to go by the name of a final-cause-finder — in plain language, fool — to the end of my life.

All the parts, however, of that great machine, the world, seem made for one another. Some philosophers affect to deride final causes, which were rejected, they tell us, by Epicurus and Lucretius. But it seems to me that Epicurus and Lucretius rather merit the derision. They tell you that the eye is not made to see; but that, since it was found out that eyes were capable of being used for that purpose, to that purpose they have been applied. According to them, the mouth is not formed to speak and eat, nor the stomach to digest, nor the heart to receive the blood from the veins and impel it through the arteries, nor the feet to walk, nor the ears to hear. Yet, at the same time, these very shrewd and consistent persons admitted that tailors made garments to clothe them, and masons built houses to lodge them; and thus ventured to deny nature — the great existence, the universal intelligence — what they conceded to the most insignificant artificers employed by themselves.

The doctrine of final causes ought certainly to be preserved from being abused. We have already remarked that M. le Prieur, in the “Spectator of Nature,” contends in vain that the tides were attached to the ocean to enable ships to enter more easily into their ports, and to preserve the water from corruption; he might just as probably and successfully have urged that legs were made to wear boots, and noses to bear spectacles.

In order to satisfy ourselves of the truth of a final cause, in any particular instance, it is necessary that the effect produced should be uniform and invariably in time and place. Ships have not existed in all times and upon all seas; accordingly, it cannot be said that the ocean was made for ships. It is impossible not to perceive how ridiculous it would be to maintain that nature had toiled on from the very beginning of time to adjust herself to the inventions of our fortuitous and arbitrary arts, all of which are of so late a date in their discovery; but it is perfectly clear that if noses were not made for spectacles, they were made for smelling, and there have been noses ever since there were men. In the same manner, hands, instead of being bestowed for the sake of gloves, are visibly destined for all those uses to which the metacarpus, the phalanges of the fingers, and the movements of the circular muscle of the wrist, render them applicable by us. Cicero, who doubted everything else, had no doubt about final causes.

It appears particularly difficult to suppose that those parts of the human frame by which the perpetuation of the species is conducted should not, in fact, have been intended and destined for that purpose, from their mechanism so truly admirable, and the sensation which nature has connected with it more admirable still. Epicurus would be at least obliged to admit that pleasure is divine, and that that pleasure is a final cause, in consequence of which beings, endowed with sensibility, but who could never have communicated it to themselves, have been incessantly introduced into the world as others have passed away from it.

This philosopher, Epicurus, was a great man for the age in which he lived. He saw that Descartes denied what Gassendi affirmed and what Newton demonstrated — that motion cannot exist without a vacuum. He conceived the necessity of atoms to serve as constituent parts of invariable species. These are philosophical ideas. Nothing, however, was more respectable than the morality of genuine Epicureans; it consisted in sequestration from public affairs, which are incompatible with wisdom, and in friendship, without which life is but a burden. But as to the rest of the philosophy of Epicurus, it appears not to be more admissible than the grooved or tubular matter of Descartes. It is, as it appears to me, wilfully to shut the eyes and the understanding, and to maintain that there is no design in nature; and if there is design, there is an intelligent cause — there exists a God.

Some point us to the irregularities of our globe, the volcanoes, the plains of moving sand, some small mountains swallowed up in the ocean, others raised by earthquakes, etc. But does it follow from the naves of your chariot wheel taking fire, that your chariot was not made expressly for the purpose of conveying you from one place to another?

The chains of mountains which crown both hemispheres, and more than six hundred rivers which flow from the foot of these rocks towards the sea; the various streams that swell these rivers in their courses, after fertilizing the fields through which they pass; the innumerable fountains which spring from the same source, which supply necessary refreshment, and growth, and beauty to animal and vegetable life; all this appears no more to result from a fortuitous concourse and an obliquity of atoms, than the retina which receives the rays of light, or the crystalline humor which refracts it, or the drum of the ear which admits sound, or the circulation of the blood in our veins, the systole and diastole of the heart, the regulating principle of the machine of life.

§ III.

It would appear that a man must be supposed to have lost his senses before he can deny that stomachs are made for digestion, eyes to see, and ears to hear.

On the other hand, a man must have a singular partiality for final causes, to assert that stone was made for building houses, and that silkworms are produced in China that we may wear satins in Europe.

But, it is urged, if God has evidently done one thing by design, he has then done all things by design. It is ridiculous to admit Providence in the one case and to deny it in the others. Everything that is done was foreseen, was arranged. There is no arrangement without an object, no effect without a cause; all, therefore, is equally the result, the product of the final cause; it is, therefore, as correct to say that noses were made to bear spectacles, and fingers to be adorned with rings, as to say that the ears were formed to hear sounds, the eyes to receive light.

All that this objection amounts to, in my opinion, is that everything is the result, nearer or more remote, of a general final cause; that everything is the consequence of eternal laws. When the effects are invariably the same in all times and places, and when these uniform effects are independent of the beings to which they attach, then there is visibly a final cause.

All animals have eyes and see; all have ears and hear; all have mouths with which they eat; stomachs, or something similar, by which they digest their food; all have suitable means for expelling the fæces; all have the organs requisite for the continuation of their species; and these natural gifts perform their regular course and process without any application or intermixture of art. Here are final causes clearly established; and to deny a truth so universal would be a perversion of the faculty of reason.

But stones, in all times and places, do not constitute the materials of buildings. All noses do not bear spectacles; all fingers do not carry a ring; all legs are not covered with silk stockings. A silkworm, therefore, is not made to cover my legs, exactly as your mouth is made for eating, and another part of your person for the “garderobe.” There are, therefore, we see, immediate effects produced from final causes, and effects of a very numerous description, which are remote productions from those causes.

Everything belonging to nature is uniform, immutable, and the immediate work of its author. It is he who has established the laws by which the moon contributes three-fourths to the cause of the flux and reflux of the ocean, and the sun the remaining fourth. It is he who has given a rotatory motion to the sun, in consequence of which that orb communicates its rays of light in the short space of seven minutes and a half to the eyes of men, crocodiles, and cats.

But if, after a course of ages, we started the inventions of shears and spits, to clip the wool of sheep with the one, and with the other to roast in order to eat them, what else can be inferred from such circumstances, but that God formed us in such a manner that, at some time or other, we could not avoid becoming ingenious and carnivorous?

Sheep, undoubtedly, were not made expressly to be roasted and eaten, since many nations abstain from such food with horror. Mankind are not created essentially to massacre one another, since the Brahmins, and the respectable primitives called Quakers, kill no one. But the clay out of which we are kneaded frequently produces massacres, as it produces calumnies, vanities, persecutions, and impertinences. It is not precisely that the formation of man is the final cause of our madnesses and follies, for a final cause is universal, and invariable in every age and place; but the horrors and absurdities of the human race are not at all the less included in the eternal order of things. When we thresh our corn, the flail is the final cause of the separation of the grain. But if that flail, while threshing my grain, crushes to death a thousand insects, that occurs not by an express and determinate act of my will, nor, on the other hand, is it by mere chance; the insects were, on this occasion, actually under my flail, and could not but be there.

It is a consequence of the nature of things that a man should be ambitious; that he should enroll and discipline a number of other men; that he should be a conqueror, or that he should be defeated; but it can never be said that the man was created by God to be killed in war.

The organs with which nature has supplied us cannot always be final causes in action. The eyes which are bestowed for seeing are not constantly open. Every sense has its season for repose. There are some senses that are even made no use of. An imbecile and wretched female, for example, shut up in a cloister at the age of fourteen years, mars one of the final causes of her existence; but the cause, nevertheless, equally exists, and whenever it is free it will operate.

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