Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

MATTER.

§ I.

A Polite Dialogue Between a Demoniac and a Philosopher.

demoniac.

Yes, thou enemy of God and man, who believest that God is all-powerful, and is at liberty to confer the gift of thought on every being whom He shall vouchsafe to choose, I will go and denounce thee to the inquisitor; I will have thee burned. Beware, I warn thee for the last time.

philosopher.

Are these your arguments? Is it thus you teach mankind? I admire your mildness.

demoniac.

Come, I will be patient for a moment while the fagots are preparing. Answer me: What is spirit?

philosopher.

I know not.

demoniac.

What is matter?

philosopher.

I scarcely know. I believe it to have extent, solidity, resistance, gravity, divisibility, mobility. God may have given it a thousand other qualities of which I am ignorant.

demoniac.

A thousand other qualities, traitor! I see what thou wouldst be at; thou wouldst tell me that God can animate matter, that He has given instinct to animals, that He is the Master of all.

philosopher.

But it may very well be, that He has granted to this matter many properties which you cannot comprehend.

demoniac.

Which I cannot comprehend, villain!

philosopher.

Yes. His power goes much further than your understanding.

demoniac.

His power! His power! thou talkest like a true atheist.

philosopher.

However, I have the testimony of many holy fathers on my side.

demoniac.

Go to, go to: neither God nor they shall prevent us from burning thee alive — the death inflicted on parricides and on philosophers who are not of our opinion.

philosopher.

Was it the devil or yourself that invented this method of arguing?

demoniac.

Vile wretch! darest thou to couple my name with the devil’s?

(Here the demoniac strikes the philosopher, who returns him the blow with interest.)

philosopher.

Help! philosophers!

demoniac.

Holy brotherhood! help!

(Here half a dozen philosophers arrive on one side, and on the other rush in a hundred Dominicans, with a hundred Familiars of the Inquisition, and a hundred alguazils. The contest is too unequal.)

§ II.

When wise men are asked what is the soul they answer that they know not. If they are asked what matter is, they make the same reply. It is true that there are professors, and particularly scholars, who know all this perfectly; and when they have repeated that matter has extent and divisibility, they think they have said all; being pressed, however, to say what this thing is which is extended, they find themselves considerably embarrassed. It is composed of parts, say they. And of what are these parts composed? Are the elements of the parts divisible? Then they are mute, or they talk a great deal; which are equally suspicious. Is this almost unknown being called matter, eternal? Such was the belief of all antiquity. Has it of itself force? Many philosophers have thought so. Have those who deny it a right to deny it? You conceive not that matter can have anything of itself; but how can you be assured that it has not of itself the properties necessary to it? You are ignorant of its nature, and you refuse it the modes which nevertheless are in its nature: for it can no sooner have been, than it has been in a certain fashion — it has had figure, and having necessarily figure, is it impossible that it should not have had other modes attached to its configuration? Matter exists, but you know it only by your sensations. Alas! of what avail have been all the subtleties of the mind since man first reasoned? Geometry has taught us many truths, metaphysics very few. We weigh matter, we measure it, we decompose it; and if we seek to advance one step beyond these gross operations, we find ourselves powerless, and before us an immeasurable abyss.

Pray forgive all mankind who were deceived in thinking that matter existed by itself. Could they do otherwise? How are we to imagine that what is without succession has not always been? If it were not necessary for matter to exist, why should it exist? And if it were necessary that it should be, why should it not have been forever? No axiom has ever been more universally received than this: “Of nothing, nothing comes.” Indeed the contrary is incomprehensible. With every nation, chaos preceded the arrangement which a divine hand made of the whole world. The eternity of matter has with no people been injurious to the worship of the Divinity. Religion was never startled at the recognition of an eternal God as the master of an eternal matter. We of the present day are so happy as to know by faith that God brought matter out of nothing; but no nation has ever been instructed in this dogma; even the Jews were ignorant of it. The first verse of Genesis says, that the Gods — Eloïm, not Eloi — made heaven and earth. It does not say, that heaven and earth were created out of nothing.

Philo, who lived at the only time when the Jews had any erudition, says, in his “Chapter on the Creation,” “God, being good by nature, bore no envy against substance, matter; which of itself had nothing good, having by nature only inertness, confusion, and disorder; it was bad, and He vouchsafed to make it good.”

The idea of chaos put into order by a God, is to be found in all ancient theogonies. Hesiod repeated the opinion of the Orientals, when he said in his “Theogony,” “Chaos was that which first existed.” The whole Roman Empire spoke in these words of Ovid: “Sic ubi dispositam quisquis fuit ille Deorum Congeriem secuit.”

Matter then, in the hands of God, was considered like clay under the potter’s wheel, if these feeble images may be used to express His divine power.

Matter, being eternal, must have had eternal properties — as configuration, the vis inertiæ, motion, and divisibility. But this divisibility is only a consequence of motion; for without motion nothing is divided, nor separated, nor arranged. Motion therefore was regarded as essential to matter. Chaos had been a confused motion, and the arrangement of the universe was a regular motion, communicated to all bodies by the Master of the world. But how can matter have motion by itself, as it has, according to all the ancients, extent and divisibility?

But it cannot be conceived to be without extent, and it may be conceived to be without motion. To this it was answered: It is impossible that matter should not be permeable; and being permeable, something must be continually passing through its pores. Why should there be passages, if nothing passes?

Reply and rejoinder might thus be continued forever. The system of the eternity of matter, like all other systems, has very great difficulties. That of the formation of matter out of nothing is no less incomprehensible. We must admit it, and not flatter ourselves with accounting for it; philosophy does not account for everything. How many incomprehensible things are we not obliged to admit, even in geometry! Can any one conceive two lines constantly approaching each other, yet never meeting?

Geometricians indeed will tell you, the properties of asymptotes are demonstrated; you cannot help admitting them — but creation is not; why then admit it? Why is it hard for you to believe, like all the ancients, in the eternity of matter? The theologian will press you on the other side, and say: “If you believe in the eternity of matter then you acknowledge two principles — God and matter; you fall into the error of Zoroaster and of Manes.”

No answer can be given to the geometricians, for those folks know of nothing but their lines, their superficies, and their solids; but you may say to the theologians: “Wherein am I a Manichæan? Here are stones which an architect has not made, but of which he has erected an immense building. I do not admit two architects; the rough stones have obeyed power and genius.”

Happily, whatever system a man embraces, it is in no way hurtful to morality; for what imports it whether matter is made or arranged? God is still an absolute master. Whether chaos was created out of nothing, or only reduced to order, it is still our duty to be virtuous; scarcely any of these metaphysical questions affect the conduct of life. It is with disputes as with table talk; each one forgets after dinner what he has said, and goes whithersoever his interest or his inclination calls him.

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