Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

IDEA.

§ I.

What is an idea?

It is an image painted upon my brain.

Are all your thoughts, then, images?

Certainly; for the most abstract thoughts are only the consequences of all the objects that I have perceived. I utter the word “being” in general, only because I have known particular beings; I utter the word “infinity,” only because I have seen certain limits, and because I push back those limits in my mind to a greater and still greater distance, as far as I am able. I have ideas in my head only because I have images.

And who is the painter of this picture?

It is not myself; I cannot draw with sufficient skill; the being that made me, makes my ideas.

And how do you know that the ideas are not made by yourself?

Because they frequently come to me involuntarily when I am awake, and always without my consent when I dream.

You are persuaded, then, that your ideas belong to you only in the same manner as your hairs, which grow and become white, and fall off, without your having anything at all to do with the matter?

Nothing can possibly be clearer; all that I can do is to frizzle, cut, and powder them; but I have nothing to do with producing them.

You must, then, I imagine, be of Malebranche’s opinion, that we see all in God?

I am at least certain of this, that if we do not see things in the Great Being, we see them in consequence of His powerful and immediate action.

And what was the nature or process of this action?

I have already told you repeatedly, in the course of our conversation, that I do not know a single syllable about the subject, and that God has not communicated His secret to any one. I am completely ignorant of that which makes my heart beat, and my blood flow through my veins; I am ignorant of the principle of all my movements, and yet you seem to expect how I should explain how I feel and how I think. Such an expectation is unreasonable.

But you at least know whether your faculty of having ideas is joined to extension?

Not in the least. It is true that Tatian, in his discourse to the Greeks, says the soul is evidently composed of a body. Irenæus, in the twenty-sixth chapter of his second book, says, “The Lord has taught that our souls preserve the figure of our body in order to retain the memory of it.” Tertullian asserts, in his second book on the soul, that it is a body. Arnobius, Lactantius, Hilary, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose, are precisely of the same opinion. It is pretended that other fathers of the Church assert that the soul is without extension, and that in this respect they adopt the opinion of Plato; this, however, may well be doubted. With respect to myself, I dare not venture to form an opinion; I see nothing but obscurity and incomprehensibility in either system; and, after a whole life’s meditation on the subject, I am not advanced a single step beyond where I was on the first day.

The subject, then, was not worth thinking about?

That is true; the man who enjoys knows more of it, or at least knows it better, than he who reflects; he is more happy. But what is it that you would have? It depended not, I repeat, upon myself whether I should admit or reject all those ideas which have crowded into my brain in conflict with each other, and actually converted my medullary magazine into their field of battle. After a hard-fought contest between them, I have obtained nothing but uncertainty from the spoils.

It is a melancholy thing to possess so many ideas, and yet to have no precise knowledge of the nature of ideas?

It is, I admit; but it is much more melancholy, and inexpressibly more foolish, for a man to believe he knows what in fact he does not.

But, if you do not positively know what an idea is, if you are ignorant whence ideas come, you at least know by what they come?

Yes; just in the same way as the ancient Egyptians, who, without knowing the source of the Nile, knew perfectly well that its waters reached them by its bed. We know perfectly that ideas come to us by the senses; but we never know whence they come. The source of this Nile will never be discovered.

If it is certain that all ideas are given by means of the senses, why does the Sorbonne, which has so long adopted this doctrine from Aristotle, condemn it with so much virulence in Helvetius?

Because the Sorbonne is composed of theologians.

§ II.
All in God.

In God we live and move and have our being.

— St. Paul, Acts xvii, 28.

Aratus, who is thus quoted and approved by St. Paul, made this confession of faith, we perceive among the Greeks.

The virtuous Cato says the same thing: “Jupiter est quodcumque vides quocumque moveris.” — Lucan’s “Pharsalia,” ix, 580. “Whate’er we see, whate’er we feel, is Jove.”

Malebranche is the commentator on Aratus, St. Paul, and Cato. He succeeded, in the first instance, in showing the errors of the senses and imagination; but when he attempted to develop the grand system, that all is in God, all his readers declared the commentary to be more obscure than the text. In short, having plunged into this abyss, his head became bewildered; he held conversations with the Word; he was made acquainted with what the Word had done in other planets; he became, in truth, absolutely mad; a circumstance well calculated to excite apprehension in our own minds, apt as we some of us are to attempt soaring, upon our weak and puny opinions, very far beyond our reach.

In order to comprehend the notion of Malebranche, such as he held it while he retained his faculties, we must admit nothing that we do not clearly conceive, and reject what we do not understand. Attempting to explain an obscurity by obscurities, is to act like an idiot.

I feel decidedly that my first ideas and my sensations have come to me without any co-operation or volition on my part. I clearly see that I cannot give myself a single idea. I cannot give myself anything. I have received everything. The objects which surround me cannot, of themselves, give me either idea or sensation; for how is it possible for a little particle of matter to possess the faculty of producing a thought?

I am therefore irresistibly led to conclude that the Eternal Being, who bestows everything, gives me my ideas, in whatever manner this may be done. But what is an idea, what is a sensation, a volition, etc.? It is myself perceiving, myself feeling, myself willing.

We see, in short, that what is called an idea is no more a real being than there is a real being called motion, although there are bodies moved. In the same manner there is not any particular being called memory, imagination, judgment; but we ourselves remember, imagine, and judge.

The truth of all this, it must be allowed, is sufficiently plain and trite; but it is necessary to repeat and inculcate such truth, as the opposite errors are more trite still.

Laws of Nature.

How, let us now ask, would the Eternal Being, who formed all, produce all those various modes or qualities which we perceive in organized bodies?

Did He introduce two beings in a grain of wheat, one of which should produce germination in the other? Did He introduce two beings in the composition of a stag, one of which should produce swiftness in the other? Certainly not. All that we know on the subject is that the grain is endowed with the faculty of vegetating, and the stag with that of speed.

There is evidently a grand mathematical principle directing all nature, and affecting everything produced. The flying of birds, the swimming of fishes, the walking or running of quadrupeds, are visible effects of known laws of motion. “Mens agitat molem.” Can the sensations and ideas of those animals, then, be anything more than the admirable effects or mathematical laws more refined and less obvious?

Organization of the Senses and Ideas.

It is by these general and comprehensive laws that every animal is impelled to seek its appropriate food. We are naturally, therefore, led to conjecture that there is a law by which it has the idea of this food, and without which it would not go in search of it.

The eternal intelligence has made all the actions of an animal depend upon a certain principle; the eternal intelligence, therefore, has made the sensations which cause those actions depend on the same principle.

Would the author of nature have disposed and adjusted those admirable instruments, the senses, with so divine a skill; would he have exhibited such astonishing adaptation between the eyes and light; between the atmosphere and the ears, had it, after all, been necessary to call in the assistance of other agency to complete his work? Nature always acts by the shortest ways. Protracted processes indicate want of skill; multiplicity of springs, and complexity of co-operation are the result of weakness. We cannot but believe, therefore, that one main spring regulates the whole system.

The Great Being Does Everything.

Not merely are we unable to give ourselves sensations, we cannot even imagine any beyond those which we have actually experienced. Let all the academies of Europe propose a premium for him who shall imagine a new sense; no one will ever gain that premium. We can do nothing, then, of our mere selves, whether there be an invisible and intangible being enclosed in our brain or diffused throughout our body, or whether there be not; and it must be admitted, upon every system, that the author of nature has given us all that we possess — organs, sensations, and the ideas which proceed from them.

As we are thus secured under His forming hand, Malebranche, notwithstanding all his errors, had reason to say philosophically, that we are in God and that we see all in God; as St. Paul used the same language in a theological sense, and Aratus and Cato in a moral one.

What then are we to understand by the words seeing all in God? They are either words destitute of meaning, or they mean that God gives us all our ideas.

What is the meaning of receiving an idea? We do not create it when we receive it; it is not, therefore, so unphilosophical as has been thought, to say it is God who produces the ideas in my head, as it is He who produces motion in my whole body. Everything is an operation of God upon His creatures.

How is Everything an Action of God?

There is in nature only one universal, eternal, and active principle. There cannot be two such principles; for they would either be alike or different. If they are different, they destroy one another; if they are alike, it is the same as if they were only one. The unity of design, visible through the grand whole in all its infinite variety, announces one single principle, and that principle must act upon all being, or it ceases to be a universal opinion.

If it acts upon all being, it acts upon all the modes of all being. There is not, therefore, a single remnant, a single mode, a single idea, which is not the immediate effect of a universal cause perpetually present.

The matter of the universe, therefore, belongs to God, as much as the ideas and the ideas as much as the matter. To say that anything is out of Him would be saying that there is something out of the vast whole. God being the universal principle of all things, all, therefore, exists in Him, and by Him.

The system includes that of “physical premotion,” but in the same manner as an immense wheel includes a small one that endeavors to fly off from it. The principle which we have just been unfolding is too vast to admit of any particular and detailed view.

Physical premotion occupies the great supreme with all the changing vagaries which take place in the head of an individual Jansenist or Molinist; we, on the contrary, occupy the Being of Beings only with the grand and general laws of the universe. Physical premotion makes five propositions a matter of attention and occupation to God, which interest only some lay-sister, the sweeper of a convent; while we attribute to Him employment of the most simple and important description — the arrangement of the whole system of the universe.

Physical premotion is founded upon that subtle and truly Grecian principle, that if a thinking being can give himself an idea, he would augment his existence; but we do not, for our parts, know what is meant by augmenting our being. We comprehend nothing about the matter. We say that a thinking being might give himself new modes without adding to his existence; just in the same manner as when we dance, our sliding steps and crossings and attitudes give us no new existence; and to suppose they do so would appear completely absurd. We agree only so far in the system of physical premotion, that we are convinced we give ourselves nothing.

Both the system of premotion and our own are abused, as depriving men of their liberty. God forbid we should advocate such deprivation. To do away with this imputation, it is only necessary to understand the meaning of the word liberty. We shall speak of it in its proper place; and in the meantime the world will go on as it has gone on hitherto, without the Thomists or their opponents, or all the disputants in the world, having any power to change it. In the same manner we shall always have ideas, without precisely knowing what an idea is.

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