Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


What is space? “There is no space in void,” exclaimed Leibnitz, after having admitted a void; but when he admitted a void, he had not embroiled himself with Newton, nor disputed with him on the calculus of fluxions, of which Newton was the inventor. This dispute breaking out, there was no longer space or a void for Leibnitz.

Fortunately, whatever may be said by philosophers on these insolvable questions, whether it be for Epicurus, for Gassendi, for Newton, for Descartes, or Rohaut, the laws of motion will be always the same.

Que Rohaut vainement sèche pour concevoir

Comment tout étant plein, tout a pu se mouvoir.

— Boileau, Ep. v, 31-32.

That Rohaut exhausts himself by vainly endeavoring to understand how motion can exist in a plenum will not prevent our vessels from sailing to the Indies, and all motion proceeding with regularity. Pure space, you say, can neither be matter, nor spirit; and as there is nothing in this world but matter and spirit, there can therefore be no space.

So, gentlemen, you assert that there is only matter and spirit, to us who know so little either of the one or the other — a pleasant decision, truly! “There are only two things in nature, and these we know not.” Montezuma reasons more justly in the English tragedy of Dryden: “Why come you here to tell me of the emperor Charles the Fifth? There are but two emperors in the world; he of Peru and myself.” Montezuma spoke of two things with which he was acquainted, but we speak of two things of which we have no precise idea.

We are very pleasant atoms. We make God a spirit in a mode of our own; and because we denominate that faculty spirit, which the supreme, universal, eternal, and all-powerful Being has given us, of combining a few ideas in our little brain, of the extent of six inches more or less, we suppose God to be a spirit in the same sense. God always in our image — honest souls!

But how, if there be millions of beings of another nature from our matter, of which we know only a few qualities, and from our spirit, our ideal breath of which we accurately know nothing at all? and who can assert that these millions of beings exist not; or suspects not that God, demonstrated to exist by His works, is eminently different from all these beings, and that space may not be one of them?

We are far from asserting with Lucretius —

Ergo, præter inane et corpora, tertia per se

Nulla potest rerum in numero natura referri.

— Lib., i, v. 446, 447.

That all consists of body and of space. — Creech.

But may we venture to believe with him, that space is infinite?

Has any one been ever able to answer his question: Speed an arrow from the limits of the world — will it fall into nothing, into nihility?

Clarke, who spoke in the name of Newton, pretends that “space has properties, for since it is extended, it is measurable, and therefore exists.” But if we answer, that something may be put where there is nothing, what answer will be made by Newton and Clarke?

Newton regards space as the sensorium of God. I thought that I understood this grand saying formerly, because I was young; at present, I understand it no more than his explanation of the Apocalypse. Space, the sensorium, the internal organ of God! I lose both Newton and myself there.

Newton thought, according to Locke, that the creation might be explained by supposing that God, by an act of His will and His power, had rendered space impenetrable. It is melancholy that a genius so profound as that possessed by Newton should suggest such unintelligible things.

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