Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

APPEARANCE.

Are all appearances deceitful? Have our senses been given us only to keep us in continual delusion? Is everything error? Do we live in a dream, surrounded by shadowy chimeras? We see the sun setting when he is already below the horizon; before he has yet risen we see him appear. A square tower seems to be round. A straight stick, thrust into the water, seems to be bent.

You see your face in a mirror and the image appears to be behind the glass: it is, however, neither behind nor before it. This glass, which to the sight and the touch is so smooth and even, is no other than an unequal congregation of projections and cavities. The finest and fairest skin is a kind of bristled network, the openings of which are incomparably larger than the threads, and enclose an infinite number of minute hairs. Under this network there are liquors incessantly passing, and from it there issue continual exhalations which cover the whole surface. What we call large is to an elephant very small, and what we call small is to insects a world.

The same motion which would be rapid to a snail would be very slow in the eye of an eagle. This rock, which is impenetrable by steel, is a sieve consisting of more pores than matter, and containing a thousand avenues of prodigious width leading to its centre, in which are lodged multitudes of animals, which may, for aught we know, think themselves the masters of the universe.

Nothing is either as it appears to be, or in the place where we believe it to be. Several philosophers, tired of being constantly deceived by bodies, have in their spleen pronounced that bodies do not exist, and that there is nothing real but our minds. As well might they have concluded that, all appearances being false, and the nature of the soul being as little known as that of the matter, there is no reality in either body or soul. Perhaps it is this despair of knowing anything which has caused some Chinese philosophers to say that nothing is the beginning and the end of all things. This philosophy, so destructive to being, was well known in Molière’s time. Doctor Macphurius represents the school; when teaching Sganarelle, he says, “You must not say, ‘I am come,’ but ‘it seems to me that I am come’; for it may seem to you, without such being really the case.” But at the present day a comic scene is not an argument, though it is sometimes better than an argument; and there is often as much pleasure in seeking after truth as in laughing at philosophy.

You do not see the network, the cavities, the threads, the inequalities, the exhalations of that white and delicate skin which you idolize. Animals a thousand times less than a mite discern all these objects which escape your vision; they lodge, feed, and travel about in them, as in an extensive country, and those on the right arm are perfectly ignorant that there are creatures of their own species on the left. If you were so unfortunate as to see what they see, your charming skin would strike you with horror.

The harmony of a concert, to which you listen with delight, must have on certain classes of minute animals the effect of terrible thunder; and perhaps it kills them. We see, touch, hear, feel things only in the way in which they ought to be seen, touched, heard, or felt by ourselves.

All is in due proportion. The laws of optics, which show you an object in the water where it is not, and break a right line, are in entire accordance with those which make the sun appear to you with a diameter of two feet, although it is a million times larger than the earth. To see it in its true dimensions would require an eye collecting his rays at an angle as great as his disk, which is impossible. Our senses, then, assist much more than they deceive us.

Motion, time, hardness, softness, dimensions, distance, approximation, strength, weakness, appearances, of whatever kind, all is relative. And who has created these relations?

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