Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LIBERTY.

Either I am much deceived, or Locke has very well defined liberty to be “power.” I am still further deceived, or Collins, a celebrated magistrate of London, is the only philosopher who has profoundly developed this idea, while Clarke has only answered him as a theologian. Of all that has been written in France on liberty, the following little dialogue has appeared to me the most comprehensive:

A.

A battery of cannon is discharged at our ears; have you the liberty to hear it, or not to hear it, as you please?

B.

Undoubtedly I cannot hinder myself from hearing it.

A.

Are you willing that these cannon shall take off your head and those of your wife and daughter who walk with you?

B.

What a question! I cannot, at least while I am in my right senses, wish such a thing; it is impossible.

A.

Good; you necessarily hear these cannon, and you necessarily wish not for the death of yourself and your family by a discharge from them. You have neither the power of not hearing it, nor the power of wishing to remain here.

B.

That is clear.

A.

You have, I perceive, advanced thirty paces to be out of the reach of the cannon; you have had the power of walking these few steps with me.

B.

That is also very clear.

A.

And if you had been paralytic, you could not have avoided being exposed to this battery; you would necessarily have heard, and received a wound from the cannon; and you would have as necessarily died.

B.

Nothing is more true.

A.

In what then consists your liberty, if not in the power that your body has acquired of performing that which from absolute necessity your will requires?

B.

You embarrass me. Liberty then is nothing more than the power of doing what I wish?

A.

Reflect; and see whether liberty can be understood otherwise.

B.

In this case, my hunting dog is as free as myself; he has necessarily the will to run when he sees a hare; and the power of running, if there is nothing the matter with his legs. I have therefore nothing above my dog; you reduce me to the state of the beasts.

A.

These are poor sophisms, and they are poor sophists who have instructed you. You are unwilling to be free like your dog. Do you not eat, sleep, and propagate like him, and nearly in the same attitudes? Would you smell otherwise than by your nose? Why would you possess liberty differently from your dog?

B.

But I have a soul which reasons, and my dog scarcely reasons at all. He has nothing beyond simple ideas, while I have a thousand metaphysical ideas.

A.

Well, you are a thousand times more free than he is; you have a thousand times more power of thinking than he has; but still you are not free in any other manner than your dog is free.

B.

What! am I not free to will what I like?

A.

What do you understand by that?

B.

I understand what all the world understands. Is it not every day said that the will is free?

A.

An adage is not a reason; explain yourself better.

B.

I understand that I am free to will as I please.

A.

With your permission, that is nonsense; see you not that it is ridiculous to say — I will will? Consequently, you necessarily will the ideas only which are presented to you. Will you be married, yes or no?

B.

Suppose I answer that I will neither the one nor the other.

A.

In that case you would answer like him who said: Some believe Cardinal Mazarin dead, others believe him living; I believe neither the one nor the other.

B.

Well, I will marry!

A.

Aye, that is an answer. Why will you marry?

B.

Because I am in love with a young, beautiful, sweet, well-educated, rich girl, who sings very well, whose parents are very honest people, and I flatter myself that I am beloved by her and welcome to the family.

A.

There is a reason. You see that you cannot will without a motive. I declare to you that you are free to marry, that is to say, that you have the power of signing the contract, keeping the wedding, and sleeping with your wife.

B.

How! I cannot will without a motive? Then what will become of the other proverb —“Sit pro ratione voluntas” — my will is my reason — I will because I will?

A.

It is an absurd one, my dear friend; you would then have an effect without a cause.

B.

What! when I play at odd or even, have I a reason for choosing even rather than odd?

A.

Undoubtedly.

B.

And what is the reason, if you please?

A.

It is, that the idea of even is presented to your mind rather than the opposite idea. It would be extraordinary if there were cases in which we will because there is a motive, and others in which we will without one. When you would marry, you evidently perceive the predominant reason for it; you perceive it not when you play at odd or even, and yet there must be one.

B.

Therefore, once more, I am not free.

A.

Your will is not free, but your actions are. You are free to act when you have the power of acting.

B.

But all the books that I have read on the liberty of indifference —

A.

What do you understand by the liberty of indifference?

B.

I understand spitting on the right or the left hand — sleeping on the right or left side — walking up and down four times or five.

A.

That would be a pleasant liberty, truly! God would have made you a fine present, much to boast of, certainly! What use to you would be a power which could only be exercised on such futile occasions? But in truth it is ridiculous to suppose the will of willing to spit on the right or left. Not only is the will of willing absurd, but it is certain that several little circumstances determine these acts which you call indifferent. You are no more free in these acts than in others. Yet you are free at all times, and in all places, when you can do what you wish to do.

B.

I suspect that you are right. I will think upon it.

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