Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

NATURE.

Dialogue Between the Philosopher and Nature.

philosopher.

What are you, Nature? I live in you? but I have been searching for you for fifty years, and have never yet been able to find you.

nature.

The ancient Egyptians, whose lives it is said extended to twelve hundred years, attached the same reproach to me. They called me Isis; they placed a thick veil over my head; and they said that no one could ever raise it.

philosopher.

It is on that account that I apply directly to yourself. I have been able to measure some of your globes, to ascertain their courses, and to point out the laws of motion; but I have never been able to ascertain what you are yourself.

Are you always active? Are you always passive? Do your elements arrange themselves, as water places itself over sand, oil over water, and air over oil? Have you a mind which directs all your operations — as councils are inspired as soon as they meet, although the individual members composing them are often ignorant? Explain to me, I entreat, the enigma in which you are enveloped.

nature.

I am the great universal system. I know nothing farther. I am no mathematician, and yet everything in and about me is arranged agreeably to mathematical laws. Conjecture, if you can, how all this is effected.

philosopher.

Certainly, since your great universal system knows nothing of mathematics, and yet the laws by which you are regulated are those of the most profound geometry, there must necessarily be an eternal geometrician, who directs you, and presides over your operations.

nature.

You are perfectly right; I am water, earth, fire, air, metal, mineral, stone, vegetable, and animal. I clearly perceive that there is an intelligence in me: you possess an intelligence, although you see it not. Neither do I see mine; I feel this invisible power; I am unable to know it: why should you, who are only a very minute portion of myself, be anxious to know what I myself am ignorant of?

philosopher.

We are curious. I should be pleased to learn how it is, that while so rough and coarse in your mountains, and deserts, and seas, you are at the same time so ingenious and finished in your animals and vegetables?

nature.

My poor child, shall I tell you the real truth? I have had bestowed upon me a name that does not at all suit me: I am called nature, while I am all art.

philosopher.

That word deranges all my ideas. What! is it possible that nature should be nothing but art.

nature.

It is undoubtedly the case. Do you not know that there is infinite art in those seas and mountains which you represent as so rough and so coarse? Do you not know that all those waters gravitate towards the centre of the earth, and are raised only by immutable laws; and that those mountains which crown the earth are immense reservoirs of eternal snows, incessantly producing the fountains, lakes, and rivers, without which my animal and vegetable off-spring would inevitably perish? And, with respect to what are denominated my animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, constituting thus only three kingdoms, be assured that I have in fact millions of them. But if you consider the formation of an insect, of an ear of corn, of gold, or of copper, all will exhibit to you prodigies of art.

philosopher.

It is undoubtedly true. The more I reflect on the subject, the more clearly I perceive that you are only the art of some Great Being, extremely powerful and skilful, who conceals Himself and exhibits you. All the reasoners, from the time of Thales, and probably long before him, have been playing at hide and seek with you. They have said, “I have hold of you”; and they in fact held nothing. We all resemble Ixion: he thought he embraced Juno, when he embraced only a cloud.

nature.

Since I am the whole that exists, how is it possible for a being like you, so small a portion of myself, to comprehend me? Be contented, my dear little atomic children, with seeing a few particles that surround you, with drinking a few drops of my milk, with vegetating for a few moments in my bosom, and at last dying without any knowledge of your mother and your nurse.

philosopher.

My beloved mother, pray tell me a little why you exist — why anything has existed?

nature.

I will answer you in the language in which I always have answered, for so long a series of ages, those who have interrogated me on the subject of first principles: “I know nothing at all about the matter.”

philosopher.

Nothing itself, would it not be preferable to that multitude of existences formed to be continually dissolved; those tribes of animals born and reproduced to devour others, and devoured in their turn; those numberless beings endued with sensation, and formed to experience so many sensations of pain; and those other tribes of reasoning beings which never, or at least only rarely, listen to reason? For what purpose, Nature, was all this?

nature.

Oh! pray go and inquire of Him who made me.

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