Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Everything around exercises some influence upon us, either physically or morally. With this truth we are well acquainted. Influence may be exerted upon a being without touching, without moving that being.

In short, matter has been demonstrated to possess the astonishing power of gravitating without contact, of acting at immense distances. One idea influences another; a fact not less incomprehensible.

I have not with me at Mount Krapak the book entitled, “On the Influence of the Sun and Moon,” composed by the celebrated physician Mead; but I well know that those two bodies are the cause of the tides; and it is not in consequence of touching the waters of the ocean that they produce that flux and reflux: it is demonstrated that they produce them by the laws of gravitation.

But when we are in a fever, have the sun and moon any influence upon the accesses of it, in its days of crisis? Is your wife constitutionally disordered only during the first quarter of the moon? Will the trees, cut at the time of full moon, rot sooner than if cut down in its wane? Not that I know. But timber cut down while the sap is circulating in it, undergoes putrefaction sooner than other timber; and if by chance it is cut down at the full moon, men will certainly say it was the full moon that caused all the evil. Your wife may have been disordered during the moon’s growing; but your neighbor’s was so in its decline.

The fitful periods of the fever which you brought upon yourself by indulging too much in the pleasures of the table occur about the first quarter of the moon; your neighbor experiences his in its decline. Everything that can possibly influence animals and vegetables must of course necessarily exercise that influence while the moon is making her circuit.

Were a woman of Lyons to remark that the periodical affections of her constitution had occurred in three or four successive instances on the day of the arrival of the diligence from Paris, would her medical attendant, however devoted he might be to system, think himself authorized in concluding that the Paris diligence had some peculiar and marvellous influence on the lady’s constitution?

There was a time when the inhabitants of every seaport were persuaded, that no one would die while the tide was rising, and that death always waited for its ebb.

Many physicians possessed a store of strong reasons to explain this constant phenomenon. The sea when rising communicates to human bodies the force or strength by which itself is raised. It brings with it vivifying particles which reanimate all patients. It is salt, and salt preserves from the putrefaction attendant on death. But when the sea sinks and retires, everything sinks or retires with it; nature languishes; the patient is no longer vivified; he departs with the tide. The whole, it must be admitted, is most beautifully explained, but the presumed fact, unfortunately, is after all untrue.

The various elements, food, watching, sleep, and the passions, are constantly exerting on our frame their respective influences. While these influences are thus severally operating on us, the planets traverse their appropriate orbits, and the stars shine with their usual brillancy. But shall we really be so weak as to say that the progress and light of those heavenly bodies are the cause of our rheums and indigestion, and sleeplessness; of the ridiculous wrath we are in with some silly reasoner; or of the passion with which we are enamored of some interesting woman?

But the gravitation of the sun and moon has made the earth in some degree flat at the pole, and raises the sea twice between the tropics in four-and-twenty hours. It may, therefore, regulate our fits of fever, and govern our whole machine. Before, however, we assert this to be the case, we should wait until we can prove it.

The sun acts strongly upon us by its rays, which touch us, and enter through our pores. Here is unquestionably a very decided and a very benignant influence. We ought not, I conceive, in physics, to admit of any action taking place without contact, until we have discovered some well-recognized and ascertained power which acts at a distance, like that of gravitation, for example, or like that of your thoughts over mine, when you furnish me with ideas. Beyond these cases, I at present perceive no influences but from matter in contact with matter.

The fish of my pond and myself exist each of us in our natural element. The water which touches them from head to tail is continually acting upon them. The atmosphere which surrounds and closes upon me acts upon me. I ought not to attribute to the moon, which is ninety thousand miles distant, what I might naturally ascribe to something incessantly in contact with my skin. This would be more unphilosophical than my considering the court of China responsible for a lawsuit that I was carrying on in France. We should never seek at a distance for what is absolutely within our immediate reach.

I perceive that the learned and ingenious M. Menuret is of a different opinion in the “Encyclopædia” under the article on “Influence.” This certainly excites in my mind considerable diffidence with respect to what I have just advanced. The Abbé de St. Pierre used to say, we should never maintain that we are absolutely in the right, but should rather say, “such is my opinion for the present.”

Influence of the Passions of Mothers upon their Fœtus.

I think, for the present, that violent affections of pregnant women produce often a prodigious effect upon the embryo within them; and I think that I shall always think so: my reason is that I have actually seen this effect. If I had no voucher of my opinion but the testimony of historians who relate the instance of Mary Stuart and her son James I., I should suspend my judgment; because between that event and myself, a series of two hundred years has intervened, a circumstance naturally tending to weaken belief; and because I can ascribe the impression made upon the brain of James to other causes than the imagination of Mary. The royal assassins, headed by her husband, rush with drawn swords into the cabinet where she is supping in company with her favorite, and kill him before her eyes; the sudden convulsion experienced by her in the interior of her frame extends to her offspring; and James I., although not deficient in courage, felt during his whole life an involuntary shuddering at the sight of a sword drawn from a scabbard. It is, however, possible that this striking and peculiar agitation might be owing to a different cause.

There was once introduced, in my presence, into the court of a woman with child, a showman who exhibited a little dancing dog with a kind of red bonnet on its head: the woman called out to have the figure removed; she declared that her child would be marked like it; she wept; and nothing could restore her confidence and peace. “This is the second time,” she said, “that such a misfortune has befallen me. My first child bears the impression of a similar terror that I was exposed to; I feel extremely weak. I know that some misfortune will reach me.” She was but too correct in her prediction. She was delivered of a child similar to the figure which had so terrified her. The bonnet was particularly distinguishable. The little creature lived two days.

In the time of Malebranche no one entertained the slightest doubt of the adventure which he relates, of the woman who, after seeing a criminal racked, was delivered of a son, all whose limbs were broken in the same places in which the malefactor had received the blows of the executioner. All the physicians at the time were agreed, that the imagination had produced this fatal effect upon her offspring.

Since that period, mankind is believed to have refined and improved; and the influence under consideration has been denied. It has been asked, in what way do you suppose that the affections of a mother should operate to derange the members of the fœtus? Of that I know nothing; but I have witnessed the fact. You new-fangled philosophers inquire and study in vain how an infant is formed, and yet require me to know how it becomes deformed.

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