Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ATOMS.

Epicurus, equally great as a genius, and respectable in his morals; and after him Lucretius, who forced the Latin language to express philosophical ideas, and — to the great admiration of Rome — to express them in verse — Epicurus and Lucretius, I say, admitted atoms and the void. Gassendi supported this doctrine, and Newton demonstrated it. In vain did a remnant of Cartesianism still combat for the plenum; in vain did Leibnitz, who had at first adopted the rational system of Epicurus, Lucretius, Gassendi, and Newton, change his opinion respecting the void after he had embroiled himself with his master Newton. The plenum is now regarded as a chimera.

In this Epicurus and Lucretius appear to have been true philosophers, and their intermediaries, who have been so much ridiculed, were no other than the unresisting space in which Newton has demonstrated that the planets move round their orbits in times proportioned to their areas. Thus it was not Epicurus’ intermediaries, but his opponents, that were ridiculous. But when Epicurus afterwards tells us that his atoms declined in the void by chance; that this declination formed men and animals by chance; that the eyes were placed in the upper part of the head and the feet at the end of the legs by chance; that ears were not given to hear, but that the declination of atoms having fortuitously composed ears, men fortuitously made use of them to hear with — this madness, called physics, has been very justly turned into ridicule.

Sound philosophy, then, has long distinguished what is good in Epicurus and Lucretius, from their chimeras, founded on imagination and ignorance. The most submissive minds have adopted the doctrine of creation in time, and the most daring have admitted that of creation before all time. Some have received with faith a universe produced from nothing; others, unable to comprehend this doctrine in physics, have believed that all beings were emanations from the Great — the Supreme and Universal Being; but all have rejected the fortuitous concurrence of atoms; all have acknowledged that chance is a word without meaning. What we call chance can be no other than the unknown cause of a known effect. Whence comes it then, that philosophers are still accused of thinking that the stupendous and indescribable arrangement of the universe is a production of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms — an effect of chance? Neither Spinoza nor any one else has advanced this absurdity.

Yet the son of the great Racine says, in his poem on Religion:

O toi! qui follement fais ton Dieu du hasard,

Viens me développer ce nid qu’avec tant d’art,

Au même ordre toujours architecte fidèle,

À l’aide de son bec maçonne l’hirondelle;

Comment, pour élever ce hardi bâtiment,

A-t-elle en le broyant arrondi son ciment?

Oh ye, who raise Creation out of chance,

As erst Lucretius from th’ atomic dance!

Come view with me the swallow’s curious nest,

Where beauty, art, and order, shine confessed.

How could rude chance, forever dark and blind,

Preside within the little builder’s mind?

Could she, with accidents unnumbered crowned,

Its mass concentrate, and its structure round!

These lines are assuredly thrown away. No one makes chance his God; no one has said that while a swallow “tempers his clay, it takes the form of his abode by chance.” On the contrary, it is said that “he makes his nest by the laws of necessity,” which is the opposite of chance.

The only question now agitated is, whether the author of nature has formed primordial parts unsusceptible of division, or if all is continually dividing and changing into other elements. The first system seems to account for everything, and the second, hitherto at least, for nothing.

If the first elements of things were not indestructible one element might at last swallow up all the rest, and change them into its own substance. Hence, perhaps it was that Empedocles imagined that everything came from fire, and would be destroyed by fire.

This question of atoms involves another, that of the divisibility of matter ad infinitum. The word atom signifies without parts — not to be divided. You divide it in thought, for if you were to divide it in reality it would no longer be an atom.

You may divide a grain of gold into eighteen millions of visible parts; a grain of copper dissolved in spirit of sal ammoniac has exhibited upwards of twenty-two thousand parts; but when you have arrived at the last element the atom escapes the microscope, and you can divide no further except in imagination.

The infinite divisibility of atoms is like some propositions in geometry. You may pass an infinity of curves between a circle and its tangent, supposing the circle and the tangent to be lines without breadth; but there are no such lines in nature.

You likewise establish that asymptotes will approach one another without ever meeting; but it is under the supposition that they are lines having length without breadth — things which have only a speculative existence.

So, also, we represent unity by a line, and divide this line and this unity into as many fractions as you please; but this infinity of fractions will never be any other than our unity and our line.

It is not strictly demonstrated that atoms are indivisible, but it appears that they are not divided by the laws of nature.

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