Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is not to be believed that Alexander’s preceptor, chosen by Philip, was wrong-headed and pedantic. Philip was assuredly a judge, being himself well informed, and the rival of Demosthenes in eloquence.

Aristotle’s Logic.

Aristotle’s logic — his art of reasoning — is so much the more to be esteemed as he had to deal with the Greeks, who were continually holding captious arguments, from which fault his master Plato was even less exempt than others.

Take, for example, the article by which, in the “Phædon,” Plato proves the immortality of the soul:

“Do you not say that death is the opposite of life? Yes. And that they spring from each other? Yes. What, then, is it that springs from the living? The dead. And what from the dead? The living. It is, then, from the dead that all living creatures arise. Consequently, souls exist after death in the infernal regions.”

Sure and unerring rules were wanted to unravel this extraordinary nonsense, which, through Plato’s reputation, fascinated the minds of men. It was necessary to show that Plato gave a loose meaning to all his words.

Death does not spring from life, but the living man ceases to live. The living springs not from the dead, but from a living man who subsequently dies. Consequently, the conclusion that all living things spring from dead ones is ridiculous.

From this conclusion you draw another, which is no way included in the premises, that souls are in the infernal regions after death. It should first have been proved that dead bodies are in the infernal regions, and that the souls accompany them.

There is not a correct word in your argument. You should have said — That which thinks has no parts; that which has no parts is indestructible: therefore, the thinking faculty in us, having no parts, is indestructible. Or — the body dies because it is divisible; the soul is indivisible; therefore it does not die. Then you would at least have been understood.

It is the same with all the captious reasonings of the Greeks. A master taught rhetoric to his disciple on condition that he should pay him after the first cause that he gained. The disciple intended never to pay him. He commenced an action against his master, saying: “I will never pay you anything, for, if I lose my cause I was not to pay you until I had gained it, and if I gain it my demand is that I may not pay you.”

The master retorted, saying: “If you lose you must pay; if you gain you must also pay; for our bargain is that you shall pay me after the first cause that you have gained.”

It is evident that all this turns on an ambiguity. Aristotle teaches how to remove it, by putting the necessary terms in the argument:

A sum is not due until the day appointed for its payment. The day appointed is that when a cause shall have been gained. No cause has yet been gained. Therefore the day appointed has not yet arrived. Therefore the disciple does not yet owe anything.

But not yet does not mean never. So that the disciple instituted a ridiculous action. The master, too, had no right to demand anything, since the day appointed had not arrived. He must wait until the disciple had pleaded some other cause.

Suppose a conquering people were to stipulate that they would restore to the conquered only onehalf of their ships; then, having sawed them in two, and having thus given back the exact half, were to pretend that they had fulfilled the treaty. It is evident that this would be a very criminal equivocation.

Aristotle did, then, render a great service to mankind by preventing all ambiguity; for this it is which causes all misunderstandings in philosophy, in theology, and in public affairs. The pretext for the unfortunate war of 1756 was an equivocation respecting Acadia.

It is true that natural good sense, combined with the habit of reasoning, may dispense with Aristotle’s rules. A man who has a good ear and voice may sing well without musical rules, but it is better to know them.

His Physics.

They are but little understood, but it is more than probable that Aristotle understood himself, and was understood in his own time. We are strangers to the language of the Greeks; we do not attach to the same words the same ideas.

For instance, when he says, in his seventh chapter, that the principles of bodies are matter, privation, and form, he seems to talk egregious nonsense; but such is not the case. Matter, with him, is the first principle of everything — the subject of everything — indifferent to everything. Form is essential to its becoming any certain thing. Privation is that which distinguishes any being from all those things which are not in it. Matter may, indifferently, become a rose or an apple; but, when it is an apple or a rose it is deprived of all that would make it silver or lead. Perhaps this truth was not worth the trouble of repeating; but we have nothing here but what is quite intelligible, and nothing at all impertinent.

The “act of that which is in power” also seems a ridiculous phrase, though it is no more so than the one just noticed. Matter may become whatever you will — fire, earth, water, vapor, metal, mineral, animal, tree, flower. This is all that is meant by the expression, act in power. So that there was nothing ridiculous to the Greeks in saying that motion was an act of power, since matter may be moved; and it is very likely that Aristotle understood thereby that motion was not essential to matter.

Aristotle’s physics must necessarily have been very bad in detail. This was common to all philosophers until the time when the Galileos, the Torricellis, the Guerickes, the Drebels, and the Academy del Cimento began to make experiments. Natural philosophy is a mine which cannot be explored without instruments that were unknown to the ancients. They remained on the brink of the abyss, and reasoned upon without seeing its contents.

Aristotle’s Treatise on Animals.

His researches relative to animals formed, on the contrary, the best book of antiquity, because here Aristotle made use of his eyes. Alexander furnished him with all the rare animals of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This was one fruit of his conquests. In this way that hero spent immense sums, which at this day would terrify all the guardians of the royal treasury, and which should immortalize Alexander’s glory, of which we have already spoken.

At the present day a hero, when he has the misfortune to make war, can scarcely give any encouragement to the sciences; he must borrow money of a Jew, and consult other Jews in order to make the substance of his subjects flow into his coffer of the Danaides, whence it escapes through a thousand openings. Alexander sent to Aristotle elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, crocodiles, gazelles, eagles, ostriches, etc.; and we, when by chance a rare animal is brought to our fairs, go and admire it for sixpence, and it dies before we know anything about it.

Of the Eternal World.

Aristotle expressly maintains, in his book on heaven, chap. xi., that the world is eternal. This was the opinion of all antiquity, excepting the Epicureans. He admitted a God — a first mover — and defined Him to be “one, eternal, immovable, indivisible, without qualities.”

He must, therefore, have regarded the world as emanating from God, as the light emanates from the sun, and is co-existent with it. About the celestial spheres he was as ignorant as all the rest of the philosophers. Copernicus was not yet come.

His Metaphysics.

God being the first mover, He gives motion to the soul. But what is God, and what is the soul, according to him? The soul is an entelechia. “It is,” says he, “a principle and an act — a nourishing, feeling, and reasoning power.” This can only mean that we have the faculties of nourishing ourselves, of feeling, and of reasoning. The Greeks no more knew what an entelechia was than do the South Sea islanders; nor have our doctors any more knowledge of what a soul is.

His Morals.

Aristotle’s morals, like all others, are good, for there are not two systems of morality. Those of Confucius, of Zoroaster, of Pythagoras, of Aristotle, of Epictetus, of Antoninus, are absolutely the same. God has placed in every breast the knowledge of good, with some inclination for evil.

Aristotle says that to be virtuous three things are necessary — nature, reason, and habit; and nothing is more true. Without a good disposition, virtue is too difficult; reason strengthens it; and habit renders good actions as familiar as a daily exercise to which one is accustomed.

He enumerates all the virtues, and does not fail to place friendship among them. He distinguishes friendship between equals, between relatives, between guests, and between lovers. Friendship springing from the rights of hospitality is no longer known among us. That which, among the ancients, was the sacred bond of society is, with us, nothing but an innkeeper’s reckoning; and as for lovers, it is very rarely nowadays that virtue has anything to do with love. We think we owe nothing to a woman to whom we have a thousand times promised everything.

It is a melancholy reflection that our first thinkers have never ranked friendship among the virtues — have rarely recommended friendship; but, on the contrary, have often seemed to breathe enmity, like tyrants, who dread all associations.

It is, moreover, with very good reason that Aristotle places all the virtues between the two extremes. He was, perhaps, the first who assigned them this place. He expressly says that piety is the medium between atheism and superstition.

His Rhetoric.

It was probably his rules for rhetoric and poetry that Cicero and Quintilian had in view. Cicero, in his “Orator” says that “no one had more science, sagacity, invention, or judgment.” Quintilian goes so far as to praise, not only the extent of his knowledge, but also the suavity of his elocution — suavitatem eloquendi.

Aristotle would have an orator well informed respecting laws, finances, treaties, fortresses, garrisons, provisions, and merchandise. The orators in the parliaments of England, the diets of Poland, the states of Sweden, the pregadi of Venice, etc., would not find these lessons of Aristotle unprofitable; to other nations, perhaps, they would be so. He would have his orator know the passions and manners of men, and the humors of every condition.

I think there is not a single nicety of the art which has escaped him. He particularly commends the citing of instances where public affairs are spoken of; nothing has so great an effect on the minds of men.

What he says on this subject proves that he wrote his “Rhetoric” long before Alexander was appointed captain-general of the Greeks against the great king.

“If,” says he, “any one had to prove to the Greeks that it is to their interest to oppose the enterprises of the king of Persia, and to prevent him from making himself master of Egypt, he should first remind them that Darius Ochus would not attack Greece until Egypt was in his power; he should remark that Xerxes had pursued the same course; he should add that it was not to be doubted that Darius Codomannus would do the same; and that, therefore, they must not suffer him to take possession of Egypt.”

He even permits, in speeches delivered to great assemblies, the introduction of parables and fables; they always strike the multitude. He relates some ingenious ones, which are of the highest antiquity, as the horse that implored the assistance of man to avenge himself on the stag, and became a slave through having sought a protector.

It may be remarked that, in the second book, where he treats of arguing from the greater to the less, he gives an example which plainly shows what was the opinion of Greece, and probably of Asia, respecting the extent of the power of the gods.

“If,” says he, “it be true that the gods themselves, enlightened as they are, cannot know everything, much less can men.” This passage clearly proves that omniscience was not then attributed to the Divinity. It was conceived that the gods could not know what was not; the future was not, therefore it seemed impossible that they should know it. This is the opinion of the Socinians at the present day.

But to return to Aristotle’s “Rhetoric.” What I shall chiefly remark on in his book on elocution and diction is the good sense with which he condemns those who would be poets in prose. He would have pathos, but he banishes bombast, and proscribes useless epithets. Indeed, Demosthenes and Cicero, who followed his precepts, never affected the poetic style in their speeches. “The style,” says Aristotle, “must always be conformable to the subject.”

Nothing can be more misplaced than to speak of physics poetically, and lavish figure and ornament where there should be only method, clearness, and truth. It is the quackery of a man who would pass off false systems under cover of an empty noise of words. Weak minds are caught by the bait, and strong minds disdain it.

Among us the funeral oration has taken possession of the poetic style in prose; but this branch of oratory, consisting almost entirely of exaggeration, seems privileged to borrow the ornaments of poetry.

The writers of romances have sometimes taken this licence. La Calprenède was, I think, the first who thus transposed the limits of the arts, and abused this facility. The author of “Telemachus” was pardoned through consideration for Homer, whom he imitated, though he could not make verses, and still more in consideration of his morality, in which he infinitely surpasses Homer, who has none at all. But he owed his popularity chiefly to the criticism on the pride of Louis XIV. and the harshness of Louvois, which, it was thought, were discoverable in “Telemachus.”

Be this as it may, nothing can be a better proof of Aristotle’s good sense and good taste than his having assigned to everything its proper place.

Aristotle on Poetry.

Where, in our modern nations, shall we find a natural philosopher, a geometrician, a metaphysician, or even a moralist who has spoken well on the subject of poetry? They teem with the names of Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Ariosto, Tasso, and so many others who have charmed the world by the harmonious productions of their genius, but they feel not their beauties; or if they feel them they would annihilate them.

How ridiculous is it in Pascal to say: “As we say poetical beauty, we should likewise say geometrical beauty, and medicinal beauty. Yet we do not say so, and the reason is that we well know what is the object of geometry, and what is the object of medicine, but we do not know in what the peculiar charm — which is the object of poetry — consists. We know not what that natural model is which must be imitated; and for want of this knowledge we have invented certain fantastic terms, as age of gold, wonder of the age, fatal wreath, fair star, etc. And this jargon we call poetic beauty.”

The pitifulness of this passage is sufficiently obvious. We know that there is nothing beautiful in a medicine, nor in the properties of a triangle; and that we apply the term “beautiful” only to that which raises admiration in our minds and gives pleasure to our senses. Thus reasons Aristotle; and Pascal here reasons very ill. Fatal wreath, fair star, have never been poetic beauties. If he wished to know what is poetic beauty, he had only to read.

Nicole wrote against the stage, about which he had not a single idea; and was seconded by one Dubois, who was as ignorant of the belles lettres as himself.

Even Montesquieu, in his amusing “Persian Letters,” has the petty vanity to think that Homer and Virgil are nothing in comparison with one who imitates with spirit and success Dufrénoy’s “Siamois,” and fills his book with bold assertions, without which it would not have been read. “What,” says he, “are epic poems? I know them not. I despise the lyric as much as I esteem the tragic poets.” He should not, however, have despised Pindar and Horace quite so much. Aristotle did not despise Pindar.

Descartes did, it is true, write for Queen Christina a little divertissement in verse, which was quite worthy of his matière cannelée.

Malebranche could not distinguish Corneille’s Qu’il mourût” from a line of Jodèle’s or Garnier’s.

What a man, then, was Aristotle, who traced the rules of tragedy with the same hand with which he had laid down those of dialectics, of morals, of politics, and lifted, as far as he found it possible, the great veil of nature!

To his fourth chapter on poetry Boileau is indebted for these fine lines:

Il n’est point de serpent, ni de monstre odieux

Qui, par l’art imité, ne puisse plaire aux yeux.

D’un pinceau délicat l’artifice agréable

Du plus affreux object fait un objet aimable;

Ainsi, pour nous charmer, la tragédie eut pleurs

D’Œdipe tout-sanglant fit parler les douleurs.

Each horrid shape, each object of affright,

Nice imitation teaches to delight;

So does the skilful painter’s pleasing art

Attractions to the darkest form impart;

So does the tragic Muse, dissolved in tears,

With tales of woe and sorrow charm our ears.

Aristotle says: “Imitation and harmony have produced poetry. We see terrible animals, dead or dying men, in a picture, with pleasure — objects which in nature would inspire us only with fear and sorrow. The better they are imitated the more complete is our satisfaction.”

This fourth chapter of Aristotle’s reappears almost entire in Horace and Boileau. The laws which he gives in the following chapters are at this day those of our good writers, excepting only what relates to the choruses and music. His idea that tragedy was instituted to purify the passions has been warmly combated; but if he meant, as I believe he did, that an incestuous love might be subdued by witnessing the misfortune of Phædra, or anger be repressed by beholding the melancholy example of Ajax, there is no longer any difficulty.

This philosopher expressly commands that there be always the heroic in tragedy and the ridiculous in comedy. This is a rule from which it is, perhaps, now becoming too customary to depart.

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