Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

POWER— OMNIPOTENCE.

I presume every reader of this article to be convinced that the world is formed with intelligence, and that a slight knowledge of astronomy and anatomy is sufficient to produce admiration of that universal and supreme intelligence. Once more I repeat “mens agitat molem.”

Can the reader of himself ascertain that this intelligence is omnipotent, that is to say, infinitely powerful? Has he the slightest notion of infinity, to enable him to comprehend the meaning and extent of almighty power?

The celebrated philosophic historian, David Hume, says, “A weight of ten ounces is raised in a balance by another weight; this other weight therefore is more than ten ounces; but no one can rationally infer that it must necessarily be a hundred weight.”

We may fairly and judiciously apply here the same argument. You acknowledge a supreme intelligence sufficiently powerful to form yourself, to preserve you for a limited time in life, to reward you and to punish you. Are you sufficiently acquainted with it to be able to demonstrate that it can do more than this? How can you prove by your reason that a being can do more than it has actually done?

The life of all animals is short. Could he make it longer? All animals are food for one another without exception; everything is born to be devoured. Could he form without destroying? You know not what his nature is. It is impossible, therefore, that you should know whether his nature may not have compelled him to do only the very things which he has done.

The globe on which we live is one vast field of destruction and carnage. Either the Supreme Being was able to make of it an eternal mode of enjoyment for all beings possessed of sensation, or He was not. If He was able and yet did not do it, you will undoubtedly tremble to pronounce or consider Him a maleficent being; but if He was unable to do so, do not tremble to regard Him as a power of very great extent indeed, but nevertheless circumscribed by His nature within certain limits.

Whether it be infinite or not, is not of any consequence to you. It is perfectly indifferent to a subject whether his sovereign possesses five hundred leagues of territory or five thousand; he is in either case neither more nor less a subject. Which would reflect most strongly on this great and ineffable Being: to say He made miserable beings because it was indispensable to do so; or that He made them merely because it was His will and pleasure?

Many sects represent Him as cruel; others, through fear of admitting the existence of a wicked Deity, are daring enough to deny His existence at all. Would it not be far preferable to say that probably the necessity of His own nature and that of things have determined everything?

The world is the theatre of moral and natural evil; this is too decidedly found and felt to be the case; and the “all is for the best” of Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, and Pope, is nothing but the effusion of a mind devoted to eccentricity and paradox; in short, nothing but a dull jest.

The two principles of Zoroaster and Manes, so minutely investigated by Bayle, are a duller jest still. They are, as we have already observed, the two physicians of Molière, one of whom says to the other: “You excuse my emetics, and I will excuse your bleedings.” Manichæism is absurd; and that circumstance will account for its having had so many partisans.

I acknowledge that I have not had my mind enlightened by all that Bayle has said about the Manichæans and Paulicians. It is all controversy; what I wanted was pure philosophy. Why speak about our mysteries to Zoroaster? As soon as ever we have the temerity to discuss the critical subject of our mysteries, we open to our view the most tremendous precipices.

The trash of our own scholastic theology has nothing to do with the trash of Zoroaster’s reveries. Why discuss with Zoroaster the subject of original sin? That subject did not become a matter of dispute until the time of St. Augustine. Neither Zoroaster nor any other legislator of antiquity ever heard it mentioned. If you dispute with Zoroaster, lock up your Old and New Testament, with which he had not the slightest acquaintance, and which it is our duty to revere without attempting to explain.

What I should myself have said to Zoroaster would have been this: My reason opposes the admission of two gods in conflict with each other; such an idea is allowable only in a poem in which Minerva quarrels with Mars. My weak understanding much more readily acquiesces in the notion of only one Great Being, than in that of two great beings, of whom one is constantly counteracting and spoiling the operations of the other. Your evil principle, Arimanes, has not been able to derange a single astronomical and physical law established by the good principle of Oromazes; everything proceeds, among the numberless worlds which constitute what we call the heavens, with perfect regularity and harmony; how comes it that the malignant Arimanes has power only over this little globe of earth?

Had I been Arimanes, I should have assailed Oromazes in his immense and noble provinces, comprehending numbers of suns and stars. I should never have been content to confine the war to an insignificant and miserable village. There certainly is a great deal of misery in this same village; but how can we possibly ascertain that it is not absolutely inevitable?

You are compelled to admit an intelligence diffused through the universe. But in the first place, do you absolutely know that this intelligence comprises a knowledge of the future? You have asserted a thousand times that it does; but you have never been able to prove it to me, or to comprehend it yourself. You cannot have any idea how any being can see what does not exist; well, the future does not exist, therefore no being can see it. You are reduced to the necessity of saying that he foresees it; but to foresee is only to conjecture.

Now a god who, according to your system, conjectures may be mistaken. He is, on your principles, really mistaken; for if he had foreseen that his enemy would poison all his works in this lower world, he would never have produced them; he would not have been accessory to the disgrace he sustains in being perpetually vanquished.

Secondly, is he not much more honored upon my hypothesis, which maintains that he does everything by the necessity of his own nature, than upon yours, which raises up against him an enemy, disfiguring, polluting, and destroying all his works of wisdom and kindness throughout the world!

In the third place, it by no means implies a mean and unworthy idea of God to say that, after forming millions of worlds, in which death and evil may have no residence, it might be necessary that death and evil should reside in this.

Fourth, it is not deprecating God to say that He could not form man without bestowing on him self-love; that this self-love could not be his guide without almost always leading him astray; that his passions are necessary, but at the same time noxious; that the continuation of the species cannot be accomplished without desires; that these desires cannot operate without exciting quarrels; and that these quarrels necessarily bring on wars, etc.

Fifth, on observing a part of the combinations of the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms, and the porous nature of the earth, in every part so minutely pierced and drilled like a sieve, and from which exhalations constantly rrise in immense profusion, what philosopher will be bold enough, what schoolman will be weak enough, decidedly to maintain that nature could possibly prevent the ravages of volcanoes, the intemperature of seasons, the rage of tempests, the poison of pestilence, or, in short, any of those scourages which afflict the world?

Sixth, a very great degree of power and skill are required to form lions who devour bulls, and to produce men who invent arms which destroy, by a single blow, not merely the life of bulls and lions, but — melancholy as the idea is — the life of one another. Great power is necessary to produce the spiders which spread their exquisitely fine threads and net-work to catch flies; but this power amounts not to omnipotence — it is not boundless power.

In the seventh place, if the Supreme Being had been infinitely powerful, no reason can be assigned why He should not have made creatures endowed with sensation infinitely happy; He has not in fact done so; therefore we ought to conclude that He could not do so.

Eighth, all the different sects of philosophers have struck on the rock of physical and moral evil. The only conclusion that can be securely reached is, that God, acting always for the best, has done the best that He was able to do.

Ninth, this necessity cuts off all difficulties and terminates all disputes. We have not the hardihood to say: “All is good”; we say: “There is no more evil than was absolutely inevitable.”

Tenth, why do some infants die at the mother’s breast? Why are others, after experiencing the first misfortune of being born, reserved for tormentes as lasting as their lives, which are at length ended by an appalling death? Why has the source of life been poisoned throughout the world since the discovery of America? Why, since the seventh century of the Christian era, has the smallpox swept away an eighth portion of the human species? Why, in every age of the world, have human bladders been liable to be converted into stone quarries? Why pestilence, and war, and famine, and the Inquisition? Consider the subject as carefully, as profoundly, as the powers of the mind will absolutely permit, you will find no other possible solution than that all is necessary.

I address myself here solely to philosophers, and not to divines. We know that faith is the clue to guide us through the labyrinth. We know full well that the fall of Adam and Eve, original sin, the vast power communicated to devils, the predilection entertained by the Supreme Being for the Jewish people, and the ceremony of baptism substituted for that of circumcision, are answers that clear up every difficulty. We have been here arguing only against Zoroaster, and not against the University of Coimbra, to whose decisions and doctrines, in all the articles of our work, we submit with all possible deference and faith. See the letters of Memmius to Cicero; and answer them if you can.

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