Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

THUNDER.

§ I.

Vidi et crudeles dantem Salmonea pœnas

Dum flammas Jovis et sonitus imitatur Olympia, etc.

— Virgil, Æneid, b. vi, l. 585.

Salmoneus suffering cruel pains I found,

For imitating Jove, the rattling sound

Of mimic thunder, and the glittering blaze

Of pointed lightnings and their forked rays.

Those who invented and perfected artillery are so many other Salmoneuses. A cannon-ball of twenty-four pounds can make, and has often made, more ravage than an hundred thunder-claps; yet no cannoneer has ever been struck by Jupiter for imitating that which passes in the atmosphere.

We have seen that Polyphemus, in a piece of Euripides, boasts of making more noise, when he had supped well, than the thunder of Jupiter. Boileau, more honest than Polyphemus, says that another world astonishes him, and that he believes in the immortality of the soul, and that it is God who thunders:

Pour moi, qu’en santé même un autre monde étonne,

Qui crois l’âme immortelle, et que c’est Dieu qui tonne.

— Sat. i, line 161, 162.

I know not why he is so astonished at another world, since all antiquity believed in it. Astonish was not the proper word; it was alarm. He believes that it is God who thunders; but he thunders only as he hails, as he rains, and as he produces fine weather — as he operates all, as he performs all. It is not because he is angry that he sends thunder and rain. The ancients paint Jupiter taking thunder, composed of three burning arrows, and hurling it at whomsoever he chose. Sound reason does not agree with these poetical ideas.

Thunder is like everything else, the necessary effect of the laws of nature, prescribed by its author. It is merely a great electrical phenomenon. Franklin forces it to descend tranquilly on the earth; it fell on Professor Richmann as on rocks and churches; and if it struck Ajax Oileus, it was assuredly not because Minerva was irritated against him.

If it had fallen on Cartouche, or the abbé Desfontaines, people would not have failed to say: “Behold how God punishes thieves and —.” But it is a useful prejudice to make the sky fearful to the perverse. Thus all our tragic poets, when they would rhyme to “poudre” or “resoudre,” invariably make use of “foudre”; and uniformly make “tonnerre” roll, when they would rhyme to “terre.

Theseus, in “Phèdre,” says to his son — act iv, scene 2:

Monstre, qu’a trop longtemps épargné le tonnerre,

Reste impur des brigands dont j’ai purgé la terre!

Severus, in “Polyeucte,” without even having occasion to rhyme, when he learns that his mistress is married, talks to Fabian, his friend, of a clap of thunder. He says elsewhere to the same Fabian — act iv, scene 6 — that a new clap of “foudre” strikes upon his hope, and reduces it to “poudre”:

Qu’est ceci, Fabian, quel nouveau coup de foudre

Tombe sur mon espoir, et le réduit en poudre?

A hope reduced to powder must astonish the pit!

Lusignan, in “Zaïre,” prays God that the thunder will burst on him alone:

Que la foudre en éclats ne tombe que sur moi.

If Tydeus consults the gods in the cave of a temple, the cave answers him only by great claps of thunder.

I’ve finally seen the thunder and “foudre”

Reduce verses to cinders and rhymes into “poudre.”

We must endeavor to thunder less frequently.

I could never clearly comprehend the fable of Jupiter and Thunder, in La Fontaine — b. viii, fable 20.

Vulcain remplit ses fourneaux

De deux sortes de carreaux.

L’un jamais ne se fourvoie,

Et c’est celni que toujours

L’Olympe en corps nous envoie.

L’autre s’écarte en son cours,

Ce n’est qu’ aux monts qu’il en coûte;

Bien souvent même il se perd;

Et ce dernier en sa route

Nous vient du seul Jupiter.

“Vulcan fills his furnaces with two sorts of thunderbolts. The one never wanders, and it is that which comes direct from Olympus. The other diverges in its route, and only spends itself on mountains; it is often even altogether dissipated. It is this last alone which proceeds from Jupiter.”

Was the subject of this fable, which La Fontaine put into bad verse so different from his general style, given to him? Would it infer that the ministers of Louis XIV. were inflexible, and that the king pardoned? Crébillon, in his academical discourse in foreign verse, says that Cardinal Fleury is a wise depositary, the eagle, using his thunder, yet the friend of peace:

Usant en citoyen du pouvoir arbitraire,

Aigle de Jupiter, mais ami de la paix,

Il gouverne la foudre, et ne tonne jamais.

He says that Marshal Villars made it appear that he survived Malplaquet only to become more celebrated at Denain, and that with a clap of thunder Prince Eugene was vanquished:

Fit voir, qu’à Malplaquet il n’avait survéecu

Que pour rendre à Denain sa valeur plus célèbre

Et qu’un foudre du moins Eugène était vaincu.

Thus the eagle Fleury governed thunder without thundering, and Eugene was vanquished by thunder. Here is quite enough of thunder.

§ II.

Horace, sometimes the debauched and sometimes the moral, has said — book i, ode 3 — that our folly extends to heaven itself: “Cœlum ipsum petimus stultitia.”

We can say at present that we carry our wisdom to heaven, if we may be permitted to call that blue and white mass of exhalations which causes winds, rain, snow, hail, and thunder, heaven. We have decomposed the thunderbolt, as Newton disentangled light. We have perceived that these thunderbolts, formerly borne by the eagle of Jupiter, are really only electric fire; that in short we can draw down thunder, conduct it, divide it, and render ourselves masters of it, as we make the rays of light pass through a prism, as we give course to the waters which fall from heaven, that is to say, from the height of half a league from our atmosphere. We plant a high fir with the branches lopped off, the top of which is covered with a cone of iron. The clouds which form thunder are electrical; their electricity is communicated to this cone, and a brass wire which is attached to it conducts the matter of thunder wherever we please. An ingenious physician calls this experiment the inoculation of thunder.

It is true, that inoculation for the smallpox, which has preserved so many mortals, caused some to perish, to whom the smallpox had been inconsiderately given; and in like manner the inoculation of thunder ill-performed would be dangerous. There are great lords whom we can only approach with the greatest precaution, and thunder is of this number. We know that the mathematical professor Richmann was killed at St. Petersburg, in 1753, by a thunderbolt which he had drawn into his chamber: “Arte sua periit.” As he was a philosopher, a theological professor failed not to publish that he had been thunderstruck like Salmoneus, for having usurped the rights of God, and for wishing to hurl the thunder: but if the physician had directed the brass wire outside the house, and not into his pent-up chamber, he would not have shared the lot of Salmoneus, Ajax Oileus, the emperor Carus, the son of a French minister of state, and of several monks in the Pyrenees.

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