Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Body and matter are here the same thing although there is hardly any such thing as synonym in the most rigorous sense of the word. There have been persons who by this word “body” have understood “spirit” also. They have said spirit originally signifies breath; only a body can breathe, therefore body and spirit may, after all, be the same thing. In this sense La Fontaine said to the celebrated Duke de la Rochefoucauld: “J’entens les esprits corps et pétris de matière.” In the same sense he says to Madame Sablière:

Je subtiliserais un morceau de matière,

Quintessence d’atome, extrait de la lumière,

Je ne sais quoi plus vif et plus subtil encor . . . .

No one thought of harassing good Monsieur La Fontaine, or bringing him to trial for his expressions. Were a poor philosopher, or even a poet, to say as much nowadays, how many would there be to fall on him! How many scribblers to sell their extracts for sixpence! How many knaves, for the sole purpose of making mischief, to cry philosopher! peripatetic! disciple of Gassendi! pupil of Locke, and the primitive fathers! damnable!

As we know not what a spirit is, so also we are ignorant of what a body is; we see various properties, but what is the subject in which those properties reside? “There is nothing but body,” said Democritus and Epicurus; “there is no such thing as body,” said the disciples of Zeno, of Elia.

Berkeley, bishop of Cloyne, is the last who, by a hundred captious sophisms, has pretended to prove that bodies do not exist. They have, says he, neither color, nor smell, nor heat; all these modalities are in your sensations, not in the objects. He might have spared himself the trouble of proving this truth for it was already sufficiently known. But thence he passed to extent and solidity, which are essential to body, and thinks he proves that there is no extent in a piece of green cloth because the cloth is not in reality green, the sensation of green being in ourselves only, therefore the sensation of extent is likewise in ourselves only. Having thus destroyed extent he concludes that solidity, which is attached to it, falls of itself, and therefore that there is nothing in the world but our ideas. So that, according to this doctor, ten thousand men killed by ten thousand cannon shots are in reality nothing more than ten thousand apprehensions of our understanding, and when a female becomes pregnant it is only one idea lodged in another idea from which a third idea will be produced.

Surely, the bishop of Cloyne might have saved himself from falling into this excessive absurdity. He thinks he shows that there is no extent because a body has appeared to him four times as large through a glass as to his naked eye, and four times as small through another glass. Hence he concludes, that, since a body cannot be at the same time four feet, sixteen feet, and but one foot in extent, there is no extent, therefore there is nothing. He had only to take any measure and say: of whatever extent this body may appear to me to be, it extends to so many of these measures.

He might very easily see that extent and solidity were quite different from sound, color, taste, smell. It is quite clear that these are sensations excited in us by the configuration of parts, but extent is not a sensation. When this lighted coal goes out, I am no longer warm; when the air is no longer struck, I cease to hear; when this rose withers, I no longer smell it: but the coal, the air, and the rose have extent without me. Berkeley’s paradox is not worth refuting.

Thus argued Zeno and Parmenides of old, and very clever they were; they would prove to you that a tortoise went along as swiftly as Achilles, for there was no such thing as motion; they discussed a hundred other questions equally important. Most of the Greeks made philosophy a juggle, and they transmitted their art to our schoolmen. Bayle himself was occasionally one of the set and embroidered cobwebs like the rest. In his article, “Zeno,” against the divisible extent of matter and the contiguity of bodies he ventures to say what would not be tolerated in any six-months geometrician.

It is worth knowing how Berkeley was drawn into this paradox. A long while ago I had some conversation with him, and he told me that his opinion originated in our being unable to conceive what the subject of this extension is, and certainly, in his book, he triumphs when he asks Hylas what this subject, this substratum, this substance is? It is the extended body, answers Hylas. Then the bishop, under the name of Philonous, laughs at him, and poor Hylas, finding that he has said that extension is the subject of extension, and has therefore talked nonsense, remains quite confused, acknowledges that he understands nothing at all of the matter; that there is no such thing as body; that the natural world does not exist, and that there is none but an intellectual world.

Hylas should only have said to Philonous: We know nothing of the subject of this extension, solidity, divisibility, mobility, figure, etc.; I know no more of it than I do of the subject of thought, feeling, and will, but the subject does not the less exist for it has essential properties of which it cannot be deprived.

We all resemble the greater part of the Parisian ladies who live well without knowing what is put in their ragoûts; just so do we enjoy bodies without knowing of what they are composed. Of what does a body consist? Of parts, and these parts resolve themselves into other parts. What are these last parts? They, too, are bodies; you divide incessantly without making any progress.

In short, a subtle philosopher, observing that a picture was made of ingredients of which no single ingredient was a picture, and a house of materials of which no one material was a house, imagined that bodies are composed of an infinity of small things which are not bodies, and these are called monads. This system is not without its merits, and, were it revealed, I should think it very possible. These little beings would be so many mathematical points, a sort of souls, waiting only for a tenement: here would be a continual metempsychosis. This system is as good as another; I like it quite as well as the declination of atoms, the substantial forms, the versatile grace, or the vampires.

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