Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

IGNORANCE.

§ I.

There are many kinds of ignorance; but the worst of all is that of critics, who, it is well known, are doubly bound to possess information and judgment as persons who undertake to affirm and to censure. When they pronounce erroneously, therefore, they are doubly culpable.

A man, for example, composes two large volumes upon a few pages of a valuable book which he has not understood, and in the first place examines the following words:

“The sea has covered immense tracts. . . . . The deep beds of shells which are found in Touraine and elsewhere, could have been deposited there only by the sea.”

True, if those beds of shells exist in fact; but the critic ought to be aware that the author himself discovered, or thought he had discovered, that those regular beds of shells have no existence.

He ought to have said:

“The universal Deluge is related by Moses with the agreement of all nations.”

1. Because the Pentateuch was long unknown, not only to the other nations of the world, but to the Jews themselves.

2. Because only a single copy of the law was found at the bottom of an old chest in the time of King Josiah.

3. Because that book was lost during the captivity.

4. Because it was restored by Esdras.

5. Because it was always unknown to every other nation till the time of its being translated by the Seventy.

6. Because, even after the translation ascribed to the Seventy, we have not a single author among the Gentiles who quotes a single passage from this book, down to the time of Longinus, who lived under the Emperor Aurelian.

7. Because no other nation ever admitted a universal deluge before Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”; and even Ovid himself does not make his deluge extend beyond the Mediterranean.

8. Because St. Augustine expressly acknowledges that the universal deluge was unknown to all antiquity.

9. Because the first deluge of which any notice is taken by the Gentiles, is that mentioned by Berosus, and which he fixes at about four thousand four hundred years before our vulgar era; which deluge did not extend beyond the Euxine Sea.

10. Finally, because no monument of a universal deluge remains in any nation in the world.

In addition to all these reasons, it must be observed, that the critic did not even understand the simple state of the question. The only inquiry is, whether we have any natural proof that the sea has successively abandoned many tracts of territory? and upon this plain and mere matter-of-fact subject, M. Abbé François has taken occasion to abuse men whom he certainly neither knows nor understands. It is far better to be silent, than merely to increase the quantity of bad books.

The same critic, in order to prop up old ideas, now almost universally despised and derided, and which have not the slightest relation to Moses, thinks proper to say: “Berosus perfectly agrees with Moses in the number of generations before the Deluge.”

Be it known to you, my dear reader, that this same Berosus is the writer who informs us that the fish Oannes came out to the river Euphrates every day, to go and preach to the Chaldæans; and that the same fish wrote with one of its bones a capital book about the origin of things. Such is the writer whom the ingenious abbé brings forward as a voucher for Moses.

“Is it not evident,” he says, “that a great number of European families, transplanted to the coasts of Africa, have become, without any mixture of African blood, as black as any of the natives of the country?”

It is just the contrary of this, M. l’Abbé, that is evident. You are ignorant that the reticulum mucosum” of the negroes is black, although I have mentioned the fact times innumerable. Were you to have ever so large a number of children born to you in Guinea, of a European wife, they would not one of them have that black unctuous skin, those dark and thick lips, those round eyes, or that woolly hair, which form the specific differences of the negro race. In the same manner, were your family established in America, they would have beards, while a native American will have none. Now extricate yourself from the difficulty, with Adam and Eve only, if you can.

“Who was this ‘Melchom,’ you ask, who had taken possession of the country of God? A pleasant sort of god, certainly, whom the God of Jeremiah would carry off to be dragged into captivity.”

Ah, M. l’Abbé! you are quite smart and lively. You ask, who is this Melchom? I will immediately inform you. Melek or Melkom signified the Lord, as did Adoni or Adonai, Baal or Bel, Adad or Shadai, Eloi or Eloa. Almost all the nations of Syria gave such names to their gods; each had its lord, its protector, its god. Even the name of Jehovah was a Phœnician and proper name; this we learn from Sanchoniathon, who was certainly anterior to Moses; and also from Diodorus.

We well know that God is equally the God, the absolute master, of Egyptians and Jews, of all men and all worlds; but it is not in this light that he is represented when Moses appears before Pharaoh. He never speaks to that monarch but in the name of the God of the Hebrews, as an ambassador delivers the orders of the king his master. He speaks so little in the name of the Master of all Nature, that Pharaoh replies to him, “I do not know him.” Moses performs prodigies in the name of this God; but the magicians of Pharaoh perform precisely the same prodigies in the name of their own. Hitherto both sides are equal; the contest is, who shall be deemed most powerful, not who shall be deemed alone powerful. At length, the God of the Hebrews decidedly carries the day; he manifests a power by far the greater; but not the only power. Thus, speaking after the manner of men, Pharaoh’s incredulity is very excusable. It is the same incredulity as Montezuma exhibited before Cortes, and Atahualpa before the Pizarros.

When Joshua called together the Jews, he said to them: “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, whether the gods which your father served, that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The people, therefore, had already given themselves up to other gods, and might serve whom they pleased.

When the family of Micah, in Ephraim, hire a Levitical priest to conduct the service of a strange god, when the whole tribe of Dan serve the same god as the family of Micah; when a grandson of Moses himself becomes a hired priest of the same god — no one murmurs; every one has his own god, undisturbed; and the grandson of Moses becomes an idolater without any one’s reviling or accusing him. At that time, therefore, every one chose his own local god, his own protector.

The same Jews, after the death of Gideon, adore Baal-berith, which means precisely the same as Adonai — the lord, the protector; they change their protector.

Adonai, in the time of Joshua, becomes master of the mountains; but he is unable to overcome the inhabitants of the valleys, because they had chariots armed with scythes. Can anything more correctly represent the idea of a local deity, a god who is strong in one place, but not so in another?

Jephthah, the son of Gilead, and a concubine, says to the Moabites: “Wilt thou not possess what Chemosh, thy god, giveth thee to possess? So, whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.”

It is then perfectly proved, that the undistinguishing Jews, although chosen by the God of the universe, regarded him notwithstanding as a mere local god, the god of a particular territory of people, like the god of the Amorites, or that of the Moabites, of the mountains or of the valleys.

It is unfortunately very evident that it was perfectly indifferent to the grandson of Moses whether he served Micah’s god or his grandfather’s. It is clear, and cannot but be admitted, that the Jewish religion was not formed, that it was not uniform, till the time of Esdras; and we must, even then, except the Samaritans.

You may now, probably, have some idea of the meaning of this lord or god Melchom. I am not in favor of his cause — the Lord deliver me from such folly! — but when you remark, “the god which Jeremiah threatened to carry into slavery must be a curious and pleasant sort of deity,” I will answer you, M. l’Abbé, with this short piece of advice:—“From your own house of glass do not throw stones at those of your neighbors.”

They were the Jews who were at that very time carried off in slavery to Babylon. It was the good Jeremiah himself who was accused of being bribed by the court of Babylon, and of having consequently prophesied in his favor. It was he who was the object of public scorn and hatred, and who it is thought ended his career by being stoned to death by the Jews themselves. This Jeremiah, be assured from me, was never before understood to be a joker.

The God of the Jews, I again repeat, is the God of all nature. I expressly make this repetition that you may have no ground for pretending ignorance of it, and that you may not accuse me before the ecclesiastical court. I still, however, assert and maintain, that the stupid Jews frequently knew no other God than a local one.

“It is not natural to attribute the tides to the phases of the moon. They are not the high tides which occur at the full moon, that are ascribed to the phases of that planet.” Here we see ignorance of a different description.

It occasionally happens that persons of a certain description are so much ashamed of the part they play in the world, that they are desirous of disguising themselves sometimes as wits, and sometimes as philosophers.

In the first place, it is proper to inform M. l’Abbé, that nothing is more natural than to attribute an effect to that which is always followed by this effect. If a particular wind is constantly followed by rain, it is natural to attribute the rain to the wind. Now, over all the shores of the ocean, the tides are always higher in the moon’s “syzygies”— if you happen to know the meaning of the term — than at its quarterings. The moon rises every day later; the tide is also every day later. The nearer the moon approaches our zenith, the greater is the tide; the nearer the moon approaches its perigee, the higher the tide still rises. These experiences and various others, these invariable correspondences with the phases of the moon, were the foundation of the ancient and just opinion, that that body is a principal cause of the flux and reflux of the ocean.

After numerous centuries appeared the great Newton — Are you at all acquainted with Newton? Did you ever hear, that after calculating the square of the progress of the moon in its orbit during the space of a minute, and dividing that square by the diameter of that orbit, he found the quotient to be fifteen feet? that he thence demonstrated that the moon gravitates towards the earth three thousand six hundred times less than if she were near the earth? that he afterwards demonstrated that its attractive force is the cause of three-fourths of the elevation of the sea by the tide, and that the force of the sun is the cause of the remaining fourth? You appear perfectly astonished. You never read anything like this in the “Christian Pedagogue.” Endeavor henceforward, both you and the porters of your parish, never to speak about things of which you have not even the slightest idea.

You can form no conception of the injury you do to religion by your ignorance, and still more by your reasonings. In order to preserve in the world the little faith that remains in it, it would be the most judicious measure possible to restrain you, and such as you, from writing and publishing in behalf of it.

I should absolutely make your astonished eyes stare almost to starting, were I to inform you, that this same Newton was persuaded that Samuel is the author of the Pentateuch. I do not mean to say that he demonstrated it in the same way as he calculated and deduced the power of gravitation. Learn, then, to doubt and to be modest. I believe in the Pentateuch, remember; but I believe, also, that you have printed and published the most enormous absurdities. I could here transcribe a large volume of instances of your own individual ignorance and imbecility, and many of those of your brethren and colleagues. I shall not, however, take the trouble of doing it. Let us go on with our questions.

§ II.

I am ignorant how I was formed, and how I was born. I was perfectly ignorant, for a quarter of my life, of the reasons of all that I saw, heard, and felt, and was a mere parrot, talking by rote in imitation of other parrots.

When I looked about me and within me, I conceived that something existed from all eternity. Since there are beings actually existing, I concluded that there is some being necessary and necessarily eternal. Thus the first step I took to extricate myself from my ignorance, overpassed the limits of all ages — the boundaries of time.

But when I was desirous of proceeding in this infinite career, I could neither perceive a single path, nor clearly distinguish a single object; and from the flight which I took to contemplate eternity, I have fallen back into the abyss of my original ignorance.

I have seen what is denominated “matter,” from the star Sirius, and the stars of the “milky way,” as distant from Sirius as that is from us, to the smallest atom that can be perceived by the microscope; and yet I know not what matter is.

Light, which has enabled me to see all these different and distant beings, is perfectly unknown to me; I am able by the help of a prism to anatomize this light, and divide it into seven pencillings of rays; but I cannot divide these pencillings themselves; I know not of what they are composed. Light resembles matter in having motion and impinging upon objects, but it does not tend towards a common centre like all other bodies; on the contrary it flies off by some invincible power from the centre, while all matter gravitates towards a centre. Light appears to be penetrable, and matter is impenetrable. Is light matter, or is it not matter? What is it? With what numberless properties can it be invested? I am completely ignorant.

This substance so brilliant, so rapid, and so unknown, and those other substances which float in the immensity of space — seeming to be infinite — are they eternal? I know nothing on the subject. Has a necessary being, sovereignly intelligent, created them from nothing, or has he only arranged them? Did he produce this order in time, or before time? Alas! what is this time, of which I am speaking? I am incapable of defining it. O God, it is Thou alone by whom I can be instructed, for I am neither enlightened by the darkness of other men nor by my own.

Mice and moles have their resemblances of structure, in certain respects, to the human frame. What difference can it make to the Supreme Being whether animals like ourselves, or such as mice, exist upon this globe revolving in space with innumerable globes around it?

Why have we being? Why are there any beings? What is sensation? How have I received it? What connection is there between the air which vibrates on my ear and the sensation of sound? between this body and the sensation of colors? I am perfectly ignorant, and shall ever remain ignorant.

What is thought? Where does it reside? How is it formed? Who gives me thoughts during my sleep? Is it in virtue of my will that I think? No, for always during sleep, and often when I am awake, I have ideas against, or at least without, my will. These ideas, long forgotten, long put away, and banished in the lumber room of my brain, issue from it without any effort or volition of mine, and suddenly present themselves to my memory, which had, perhaps, previously made various vain attempts to recall them.

External objects have not the power of forming ideas in me, for nothing can communicate what it does not possess; I am well assured that they are not given me by myself, for they are produced without my orders. Who then produces them in me? Whence do they come? Whither do they go? Fugitive phantoms! What invisible hand produces and disperses you?

Why, of all the various tribes of animals, has man alone the mad ambition of domineering over his fellow? Why and how could it happen, that out of a thousand millions of men, more than nine hundred and ninety-nine have been sacrificed to this mad ambition?

How is it that reason is a gift so precious that we would none of us lose it for all the pomp or wealth of the world, and yet at the same time that it has merely served to render us, in almost all cases, the most miserable of beings? Whence comes it, that with a passionate attachment to truth, we are always yielding to the most palpable impostures?

Why do the vast tribes of India, deceived and enslaved by the bonzes, trampled upon by the descendant of a Tartar, bowed down by labor, groaning in misery, assailed by diseases, and a mark for all the scourges and plagues of life, still fondly cling to that life? Whence comes evil, and why does it exist?

O atoms of a day! O companions in littleness, born like me to suffer everything, and be ignorant of everything! — are there in reality any among you so completely mad as to imagine you know all this, or that you can solve all these difficulties? Certainly there can be none. No; in the bottom of your heart you feel your own nothingness, as completely as I do justice to mine. But you are nevertheless arrogant and conceited enough to be eager for our embracing your vain systems; and not having the power to tyrannize over our bodies, you aim at becoming the tyrants of our souls.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/voltaire/dictionary/chapter267.html

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