Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

INSTINCT.

Instinctus, impulsus,” impulse; but what power impels us?

All feeling is instinct. A secret conformity of our organs to their respective objects forms our instinct. It is solely by instinct that we perform numberless involuntary movements, just as it is by instinct that we possess curiosity, that we run after novelty, that menaces terrify us, that contempt irritates us, that an air of submission appeases us, and that tears soften us.

We are governed by instinct, as well as cats and goats; this is one further circumstance in which we resemble the mere animal tribes — a resemblance as incontestable as that of our blood, our necessities, and the various functions of our bodies.

Our instinct is never so shrewd and skilful as theirs, and does not even approach it; a calf and a lamb, as soon as they are born, rush to the fountain of their mother’s milk; but unless the mother of the infant clasped it in her arms, and folded it to her bosom, it would inevitably perish.

No woman in a state of pregnancy was ever invincibly impelled to prepare for her infant a convenient wicker cradle, as the wren with its bill and claws prepares a nest for her offspring. But the power of reflection which we possess, in conjunction with two industrious hands presented to us by nature, raises us to an equality with the instinct of animals, and in the course of time places us infinitely above them, both in respect to good and evil — a proposition condemned by the members of the ancient parliament and by the Sorbonne, natural philosophers of distinguished eminence, and who, it is well known, have admirably promoted the perfection of the arts.

Our instinct, in the first place, impels us to beat our brother when he vexes us, if we are roused into a passion with him and feel that we are stronger than he is. Afterwards, our sublime reason leads us on to the invention of arrows, swords, pikes, and at length muskets, to kill our neighbors with.

Instinct alone urges us all to make love — “Amor omnibus idem;” but Virgil, Tibullus, and Ovid sing it. It is from instinct alone that a young artisan stands gazing with respect and admiration before the superfine gilt coach of a commissioner of taxes. Reason comes to the assistance of the young artisan; he is made a collector; he becomes polished; he embezzles; he rises to be a great man in his turn, and dazzles the eyes of his former comrades as he lolls at ease in his own carriage, more profusely gilded than that which originally excited his admiration and ambition.

What is this instinct which governs the whole animal kingdom, and which in us is strengthened by reason or repressed by habit? Is it “divinæ particula auræ?” Yes, undoubtedly it is something divine; for everything is so. Everything is the incomprehensible effect of an incomprehensible cause. Everything is swayed, is impelled by nature. We reason about everything, and originate nothing.

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