Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

GOOD— THE SOVEREIGN GOOD, A CHIMERA.

§ I.

Happiness is an abstract idea composed of certain pleasurable sensations. Plato, who wrote better than he reasoned, conceived the notion of his world in archetype; that is, his original world — of his general ideas of the beautiful, the good, the orderly, and the just, as if there had existed eternal beings, called order, good, beauty, and justice; whence might be derived the feeble copies exhibited here below of the just, the beautiful, and the good.

It is, then, in consequence of his suggestions that philosophers have occupied themselves in seeking for the sovereign good, as chemists seek for the philosopher’s stone; but the sovereign good has no more existence than the sovereign square, or the sovereign crimson: there is the crimson color, and there are squares; but there is no general existence so denominated. This chimerical manner of reasoning was for a long time the bane of philosophy.

Animals feel pleasure in performing all the functions for which they are destined. The happiness which poetical fancy has imagined would be an uninterrupted series of pleasures; but such a series would be incompatible with our organs and our destination. There is great pleasure in eating, drinking, and connubial endearments; but it is clear that if a man were always eating, or always in the full ecstasy of enjoyment, his organs would be incapable of sustaining it: it is further evident that he would be unable to fulfil the destinies he was born to, and that, in the case supposed, the human race would absolutely perish through pleasure.

To pass constantly and without interruption from one pleasure to another is also a chimera. The woman who has conceived must go through childbirth, which is a pain; the man is obliged to cleave wood and hew stone, which is not a pleasure.

If the name of happiness is meant to be applied to some pleasures which are diffused over human life, there is in fact, we must admit, happiness. If the name attaches only to one pleasure always permanent, or a continued although varied range of delicious enjoyment, then happiness belongs not to this terraqueous globe. Go and seek for it elsewhere.

If we make happiness consist in any particular situation that a man may be in, as for instance, a situation of wealth, power, or fame, we are no less mistaken. There are some scavengers who are happier than some sovereigns. Ask Cromwell whether he was more happy when he was lord protector of England, than when, in his youthful days, he enjoyed himself at a tavern; he will probably tell you in answer, that the period of his usurpation was not the period most productive of pleasures. How many plain or even ugly country women are more happy than were Helen and Cleopatra.

We must here however make one short remark; that when we say such a particular man is probably happier than some other; that a young muleteer has advantages very superior to those of Charles V.; that a dressmaker has more enjoyment than a princess, we should adhere to the probability of the case. There is certainly every appearance that a muleteer, in full health, must have more pleasure than Charles the Fifth, laid up with the gout; but nevertheless it may also be, that Charles, on his crutches, revolves in his mind with such ecstasy the facts of his holding a king of France and a pope prisoners, that his lot is absolutely preferable to that of the young and vigorous muleteer.

It certainly belongs to God alone, to a being capable of seeing through all hearts, to decide which is the happiest man. There is only one case in which a person can affirm that his actual state is worse or better than that of his neighbor; this case is that of existing rivalship, and the moment that of victory.

I will suppose that Archimedes has an assignation at night with his mistress. Nomentanus has the same assignation at the same hour. Archimedes presents himself at the door, and it is shut in his face; but it is opened to his rival, who enjoys an excellent supper, which he enlivens by his repeated sallies of wit upon Archimedes, and after the conclusion of which he withdraws to still higher enjoyments, while the other remains exposed in the street to all the pelting of a pitiless storm. There can be no doubt that Nomentanus has a right to say: “I am more happy to-night than Archimedes: I have more pleasure than he”; but it is necessary, in order to admit the truth and justness of the inference of the successful competitors in his own favor, to suppose that Archimedes is thinking only about the loss of his good supper, about being despised and deceived by a beautiful woman, about being supplanted by his rival, and annoyed by the tempest; for, if the philosopher in the street should be calmly reflecting that his soul ought to be above being discomposed by a strumpet or a storm, if he should be absorbed in a profound and interesting problem, and if he should discover the proportions between the cylinder and the sphere, he may experience a pleasure a hundred times superior to that of Nomentanus.

It is only therefore in the single case of actual pleasure and actual pain, and without a reference to anything else whatever, that a comparison between any two individuals can be properly made. It is unquestionable that he who enjoys the society of his mistress is happier at the moment than his scorned rival deploring over his misfortune. A man in health, supping on a fat partridge, is undoubtedly happier at the time than another under the torment of the colic; but we cannot safely carry our inferences farther; we cannot estimate the existence of one man against that of another; we possess no accurate balance for weighing desires and sensations.

We began this article with Plato and his sovereign good; we will conclude it with Solon and the saying of his which has been so highly celebrated, that “we ought to pronounce no man happy before his death.” This maxim, when examined into, will be found nothing more than a puerile remark, just like many other apothegms consecrated by their antiquity. The moment of death has nothing in common with the lot experienced by any man in life; a man may perish by a violent and ignominious death, and yet, up to that moment, may have enjoyed all the pleasures of which human nature is susceptible. It is very possible and very common for a happy man to cease to be so; no one can doubt it; but he has not the less had his happy moments.

What, then, can Solon’s expression strictly and fairly mean? that a man happy to-day is not certain of being so to-morrow! In this case it is a truth so incontestable and trivial that, not merely is it not worthy of being elevated into a maxim, but it is not worthy delivering at all.

§ II.

Well-being is a rare possession. May not the sovereign good in this world be considered as a sovereign chimera? The Greek philosophers discussed at great length, according to their usual practice, this celebrated question. The reader will, probably, compare them to just so many mendicants reasoning about the philosopher’s stone.

The sovereign good! What an expression! It might as well have been asked: What is the sovereign blue, or the sovereign ragout, or the sovereign walk, or the sovereign reading?

Every one places his good where he can, and has as much of it as he can, in his own way, and in very scanty measure. Castor loved horses; his twin brother, to try a fall —

Quid dem? quid non dem? renuis tu quod jubet alter . . . .

Castor gaudet equis, ovo prognatus eodem

Pugnis, etc.

The greatest good is that which delights us so powerfully as to render us incapable of feeling anything else; as the greatest evil is that which goes so far as to deprive us of all feeling. These are the two extremes of human nature, and these moments are short. Neither extreme delight nor extreme torture can last a whole life. The sovereign good and the sovereign evil are nothing more than chimeras.

We all know the beautiful fable of Crantor. He introduces upon the stage at the Olympic games, Wealth, Pleasure, Health, and Virtue. Each claims the apple. Wealth says, I am the sovereign good, for with me all goods are purchased. Pleasure says, the apple belongs to me, for it is only on my account that wealth is desired. Health asserts, that without her there can be no pleasure, and wealth is useless. Finally, Virtue states that she is superior to the other three, because, although possessed of gold, pleasures, and health, a man may make himself very contemptible by misconduct. The apple was conferred on Virtue.

The fable is very ingenious; it would be still more so if Crantor had said that the sovereign good consists in the combination of the four rivals, Virtue, Health, Wealth, and Pleasure; but this fable neither does, nor can, resolve the absurd question about the sovereign good. Virtue is not a good; it is a duty. It is of a different nature; of a superior order. It has nothing to do with painful or with agreeable sensations. A virtuous man, laboring under stone and gout, without aid, without friends, destitute of necessaries, persecuted, and chained down to the floor by a voluptuous tyrant who enjoys good health, is very wretched; and his insolent persecutor, caressing a new mistress on his bed of purple, is very happy. Say, if you please, that the persecuted sage is preferable to the persecuting profligate; say that you admire the one and detest the other; but confess that the sage in chains is scarcely less than mad with rage and pain; if he does not himself admit that he is so, he completely deceives you; he is a charlatan.

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