Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


From the commencement of the time in which men began to reason, philosophers have agitated this question, which theologians have rendered unintelligible by their absurd subtleties upon grace. Locke is perhaps the first who, without having the arrogance of announcing a general principle, has examined human nature by analysis. It has been disputed for three thousand years, whether the will is free or not; Locke shows that the question is absurd, and that liberty cannot belong to the will any more than color and motion.

What is meant by the expression to be free? It signifies power, or rather it has no sense at all. To say that the will can, is in itself as ridiculous as if we said that it is yellow, or blue, round, or square.

Will is will, and liberty is power. Let us gradually examine the chain of what passes within us, without confusing our minds with any scholastic terms, or antecedent principle.

It is proposed to you to ride on horseback; it is absolutely necessary for you to make a choice, for it is very clear that you must either go or not; there is no medium, you must absolutely do the one or the other. So far it is demonstrated that the will is not free. You will get on horseback; why? Because I will to do so, an ignoramus will say. This reply is an absurdity; nothing can be done without reason or cause. Your will then is caused by what? The agreeable idea which is presented to your brain; the predominant, or determined idea; but, you will say, cannot I resist an idea which predominates over me? No, for what would be the cause of your resistance? An idea by which your will is swayed still more despotically.

You receive your ideas, and, therefore, receive your will. You will then necessarily; consequently, the word “liberty” belongs not to will in any sense.

You ask me how thought and will are formed within you? I answer that I know nothing about it. I no more know how ideas are created than I know how the world was formed. We are only allowed to grope in the dark in reference to all that inspires our incomprehensible machine.

Will, then, is not a faculty which can be called free. “Free-will” is a word absolutely devoid of sense, and that which scholars have called “indifference,” that is to say, will without cause, is a chimera unworthy to be combated.

In what then consists liberty? In the power of doing what we will? I would go into my cabinet; the door is open, I am free to enter. But, say you, if the door is shut and I remain where I am, I remain freely. Let us explain ourselves — you then exercise the power that you possess of remaining; you possess this power, but not the power of going out.

Liberty, then, on which so many volumes have been written, reduced to its proper sense, is only the power of acting.

In what sense must the expression “this man is free” be spoken? In the same sense in which we use the words “health,” “strength,” and “happiness.” Man is not always strong, healthy, or happy. A great passion, a great obstacle, may deprive him of his liberty, or power of action.

The words “liberty” and “free-will” are, then, abstractions, general terms, like beauty, goodness, justice. These terms do not signify that all men are always handsome, good, and just, neither are they always free.

Further, liberty being only the power of acting, what is this power? It is the effect of the constitution, and the actual state of our organs. Leibnitz would solve a problem of geometry, but falls into an apoplexy; he certainly has not the liberty to solve his problem. A vigorous young man, passionately in love, who holds his willing mistress in his arms, is he free to subdue his passion? Doubtless not. He has the power of enjoying, and has not the power to abstain. Locke then is very right in calling liberty, power. When can this young man abstain, notwithstanding the violence of his passion? When a stronger idea shall determine the springs of his soul and body to the contrary.

But how? Have other animals the same liberty, the same power? Why not? They have sense, memory, sentiment, and perceptions like ourselves; they act spontaneously as we do. They must, also, like us, have the power of acting by virtue of their perception, and of the play of their organs.

We exclaim: If it be thus, all things are machines merely; everything in the universe is subjected to the eternal laws. Well, would you have everything rendered subject to a million of blind caprices? Either all is the consequence of the nature of things, or all is the effect of the eternal order of an absolute master; in both cases, we are only wheels to the machine of the world.

It is a foolish, common-place expression that without this pretended freedom of will, rewards and punishments are useless. Reason, and you will conclude quite the contrary.

If, when a robber is executed, his accomplice, who sees him suffer, has the liberty of not being frightened at the punishment; if his will determines of itself, he will go from the foot of the scaffold to assassinate on the high road; if struck with horror, he experiences an insurmountable terror, he will no longer thieve. The punishment of his companion will become useful to him, and moreover prove to society that his will is not free.

Liberty, then, is not and cannot be anything but the power of doing what we will. That is what philosophy teaches us. But, if we consider liberty in the theological sense, it is so sublime a matter that profane eyes may not be raised so high.

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