Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Pilate therefore said unto him, ‘Art thou a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto truth: every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.’ Pilate saith unto him, ‘What is truth?’ and when he had said this, he went out,” etc. — St. John, chap. xviii.

It is a pity for mankind that Pilate went out, without hearing the reply: we should then have known what truth is. Pilate was not very curious. The accused, brought before him, told him that he was a king, that he was born to be a king, and he informs himself not how this can be. He was supreme judge in the name of Cæsar, he had the power of the sword, his duty was to penetrate into the meaning of these words. He should have said: Tell me what you understand by being king? how are you born to be king, and to bear witness unto the truth? It is said that you can only arrive at the ear of kings with difficulty; I, who am a judge, have always had extreme trouble in reaching it. Inform me, while your enemies cry outside against you; and you will render me the greatest service ever rendered to a judge. I would rather learn to know the truth, than condescend to the tumultuous demand of the Jews, who wish me to hang you.

We doubtless dare not pretend to guess what the Author of all truth would have said to Pilate. Would he have said: “Truth is an abstract word which most men use indifferently in their books and judgments, for error and falsehood”? This definition would be wonderfully convenient to all makers of systems. Thus the word wisdom is often taken for folly, and wit for nonsense. Humanly speaking, let us define truth, to better understand that which is declared — such as it is.

Suppose that six months only had been taken to teach Pilate the truths of logic he would doubtless have made this concluding syllogism: A man’s life should not have been taken away who has only preached a good doctrine; now he who is brought before me, according even to his enemies, has often preached an excellent doctrine; therefore, he should not be punished with death.

He might also have inferred this other argument: My duty is to dissipate the riots of a seditious people, who demand the death of a man without reason or juridical form; now such are the Jews on this occasion; therefore I should send them away, and break up their assembly. We take for granted that Pilate knew arithmetic; we will not therefore speak of these kinds of truths.

As to mathematical truths, I believe that he would have required three years at least before he would have been acquainted with transcendent geometry. The truths of physics, combined with those of geometry, would have required more than four years. We generally consume six years in studying theology; I ask twelve for Pilate, considering that he was a Pagan, and that six years would not have been too many to root out all his old errors, and six more to put him in a state worthy to receive the bonnet of a doctor. If Pilate had a well organized head, I would only have demanded two years to teach him metaphysical truths, and as these truths are necessarily united with those of morality, I flatter myself that in less than nine years Pilate would have become a truly learned and perfectly honest man.

Historical Truths.

I should afterwards have said to Pilate: Historical truths are but probabilities. If you have fought at the battle of Philippi, it is to you a truth, which you know by intuition, by sentiment; but to us who live near the desert of Syria, it is merely a probable thing, which we know by hearsay. How can we, from report, form a persuasion equal to that of a man, who having seen the thing, can boast of feeling a kind of certainty?

He who has heard the thing told by twelve thousand ocular witnesses, has only twelve thousand probabilities equal to one strong one, which is not equal to certainty. If you have the thing from only one of these witnesses, you are sure of nothing — you must doubt. If the witness is dead, you must doubt still more, for you can enlighten yourself no further. If from several deceased witnesses, you are in the same state. If from those to whom the witnesses have only spoken, the doubt is still augmented. From generation to generation the doubt augments, and the probability diminishes, and the probability is soon reduced to zero.

Of the Degrees of Truth, According to Which the Accused are Judged.

We can be made accountable to justice either for deeds or words. If for deeds, they must be as certain as will be the punishment to which you will condemn the prisoner; if, for example, you have but twenty probabilities against him, these twenty probabilities cannot equal the certainty of his death. If you would have as many probabilities as are required to be sure that you shed not innocent blood, they must be the fruit of the unanimous evidences of witnesses who have no interest in deposing. From this concourse of probabilities, a strong opinion will be formed, which will serve to excuse your judgment; but as you will never have entire certainty, you cannot flatter yourself with knowing the truth perfectly. Consequently you should always lean towards mercy rather than towards rigor. If it concerns only facts, from which neither manslaughter nor mutilation have resulted, it is evident that you should neither cause the accused to be put to death nor mutilated.

If the question is only of words, it is still more evident that you should not cause one of your fellow-creatures to be hanged for the manner in which he has used his tongue; for all the words in the world being but agitated air, at least if they have not caused murder, it is ridiculous to condemn a man to death for having agitated the air. Put all the idle words which have been uttered into one scale, and into the other the blood of a man, and the blood will weigh down. Now, if he who has been brought before you is only accused of some words which his enemies have taken in a certain sense, all that you can do is to repeat these words to him, which he will explain in the sense he intended; but to deliver an innocent man to the most cruel and ignominious punishment, for words that his enemies do not comprehend, is too barbarous. You make the life of a man of no more importance than that of a lizard; and too many judges resemble you.

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