Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

GEOGRAPHY.

Geography is one of those sciences which will always require to be perfected. Notwithstanding the pains that have been taken, it has hitherto been impossible to have an exact description of the earth. For this great work, it would be necessary that all sovereigns should come to an understanding, and lend mutual assistance. But they have ever taken more pains to ravage the world than they have to measure it.

No one has yet been able to make an exact map of upper Egypt, nor of the regions bordering on the Red Sea, nor of the vast country of Arabia. Of Africa we know only the coasts; all the interior is no more known than it was in the times of Atlas and Hercules. There is not a single well-detailed map of all the Grand Turk’s possessions in Asia; all is placed at random, excepting some few large towns, the crumbling remains of which are still existing. In the states of the Great Mogul something is known of the relative positions of Agra and Delhi; but thence to the kingdom of Golconda everything is laid down at a venture.

It is known that Japan extends from about the thirtieth to the fortieth degree of north latitude; there cannot be an error of more than two degrees, which is about fifty leagues; so that, relying on one of our best maps, a pilot would be in danger of losing his track or his life.

As for the longitude, the first maps of the Jesuits determined it between the one hundred and fifty-seventh and the one hundred and seventy-fifth degree; whereas, it is now determined between the one hundred and forty-sixth and the one hundred and sixtieth.

China is the only Asiatic country of which we have an exact measurement; because the emperor Kam-hi employed some Jesuit astronomers to draw exact maps, which is the best thing the Jesuits have done. Had they been content with measuring the earth, they would never have been proscribed.

In our western world, Italy, France, Russia, England, and the principal towns of the other states, have been measured by the same method as was employed in China; but it was not until a very few years ago, that in France it was undertaken to form an entire topography. A company taken from the Academy of Sciences despatched engineers or surveyors into every corner of the kingdom, to lay down even the meanest hamlet, the smallest rivulet, the hills, the woods, in their true places. Before that time, so confused was the topography, that on the eve of the battle of Fontenoy, the maps of the country being all examined, every one of them was found entirely defective.

If a positive order had been sent from Versailles to an inexperienced general to give battle, and post himself as appeared most advisable from the maps, as sometimes happened in the time of the minister Chamillar, the battle would infallibly have been lost.

A general who should carry on a war in the country of the Morlachians, or the Montenegrins, with no knowledge of places but from the maps, would be at as great a loss as if he were in the heart of Africa.

Happily, that which has often been traced by geographers, according to their own fancy, in their closets, is rectified on the spot. In geography, as in morals, it is very difficult to know the world without going from home.

It is not with this department of knowledge, as with the arts of poetry, music, and painting. The last works of these kinds are often the worst. But in the sciences, which require exactness rather than genius, the last are always the best, provided they are done with some degree of care.

One of the greatest advantages of geography, in my opinion, is this: your fool of a neighbor, and his wife almost as stupid, are incessantly reproaching you with not thinking as they think in Rue St. Jacques. “See,” say they, “what a multitude of great men have been of our opinion, from Peter the Lombard down to the Abbé Petit-pied. The whole universe has received our truths; they reign in the Faubourg St. Honoré, at Chaillot and at Étampes, at Rome and among the Uscoques.” Take a map of the world; show them all Africa, the empires of Japan, China, India, Turkey, Persia, and that of Russia, more extensive than was the Roman Empire; make them pass their finger over all Scandinavia, all the north of Germany, the three kingdoms of Great Britain, the greater part of the Low Countries, and of Helvetia; in short make them observe, in the four great divisions of the earth, and in the fifth, which is as little known as it is great in extent, the prodigious number of races, who either never heard of those opinions, or have combated them, or have held them in abhorrence, and you will thus oppose the whole universe to Rue St. Jacques.

You will tell them that Julius Cæsar, who extended his power much farther than that street, did not know a word of all which they think so universal; and that our ancestors, on whom Julius Cæsar bestowed the lash, knew no more of them than he did.

They will then, perhaps, feel somewhat ashamed at having believed that the organ of St. Severin’s church gave the tone to the rest of the world.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/voltaire/dictionary/chapter235.html

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