Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


[From the Greek word signifying Impression, Engraving. — It is what nature has engraved in us.]

Can we change our character? Yes, if we change our body. A man born turbulent, violent, and inflexible, may, through falling in his old age into an apoplexy, become like a silly, weak, timid, puling child. His body is no longer the same, but so long as his nerves, his blood, and his marrow remain in the same state his disposition will not change any more than the instinct of a wolf or a polecat. The English author of “The Dispensary,” a poem much superior to the Italian “Capitoli,” and perhaps even to Boileau’s “Lutrin,” has, as it seems to me, well observed.

How matter, by the varied shape of pores,

Or idiots frames, or solemn senators.

The character is formed of our ideas and our feelings. Now it is quite clear that we neither give ourselves feelings nor ideas, therefore our character cannot depend on ourselves. If it did so depend, every one would be perfect. We cannot give ourselves tastes, nor talents, why, then, should we give ourselves qualities? When we do not reflect we think we are masters of all: when we reflect we find that we are masters of nothing.

If you would absolutely change a man’s character purge him with diluents till he is dead. Charles XII., in his illness on the way to Bender, was no longer the same man; he was as tractable as a child. If I have a wry nose and cat’s eyes I can hide them behind a mask, and can I do more with the character that nature has given me?

A man born violent and passionate presents himself before Francis I., king of France, to complain of a trespass. The countenance of the prince, the respectful behavior of the courtiers, the very place he is in make a powerful impression upon this man. He mechanically casts down his eyes, his rude voice is softened, he presents his petition with humility, you would think him as mild as (at that moment at least) the courtiers appear to be, among whom he is often disconcerted, but if Francis I. knows anything of physiognomy, he will easily discover in his eye, though downcast, glistening with a sullen fire, in the extended muscles of his face, in his fast-closed lips, that this man is not so mild as he is forced to appear. The same man follows him to Pavia, is taken prisoner along with him and thrown into the same dungeon at Madrid. The majesty of Francis I. no longer awes him as before, he becomes familiar with the object of his reverence. One day, pulling on the king’s boots, and happening to pull them on ill, the king, soured by misfortune, grows angry, on which our man of courtesy wishes his majesty at the devil and throws his boots out the window.

Sixtus V. was by nature petulant, obstinate, haughty, impetuous, vindictive, arrogant. This character, however, seems to have been softened by the trials of his novitiate. But see him beginning to acquire some influence in his order; he flies into a passion against a guardian and knocks him down. Behold him an inquisitor at Venice, he exercises his office with insolence. Behold him cardinal; he is possessed della rabbia papale; this rage triumphs over his natural propensities; he buries his person and his character in obscurity and counterfeits humility and infirmity. He is elected pope, and the spring which policy had held back now acts with all the force of its long-restrained elasticity; he is the proudest and most despotic of sovereigns.

Naturam expellas furea, tamen usque recurret.

Howe’er expelled, nature will still return.

Religion and morality curb the strength of the disposition, but they cannot destroy it. The drunkard in a cloister, reduced to a quarter of a pint of cider each meal will never more get drunk, but he will always be fond of wine.

Age weakens the character; it is as an old tree producing only a few degenerate fruits, but always of the same nature, which is covered with knots and moss and becomes worm-eaten, but is ever the same, whether oak or pear tree. If we could change our character we could give ourselves one and become the master of nature. Can we give ourselves anything? do not we receive everything? To strive to animate the indolent man with persevering activity, to freeze with apathy the boiling blood of the impetuous, to inspire a taste for poetry into him who has neither taste nor ear were as futile as to attempt to give sight to one born blind. We perfect, we ameliorate, we conceal what nature has placed in us, but we place nothing there ourselves.

An agriculturist is told: “You have too many fish in this pond; they will not thrive, here are too many cattle in your meadows; they will want grass and grow lean.” After this exhortation the pikes come and eat one-half this man’s carps, the wolves one-half of his sheep, and the rest fatten. And will you applaud his economy? This countryman is yourself; one of your passions devours the rest and you think you have gained a triumph. Do we not almost all resemble the old general of ninety, who, having found some young officers behaving in a rather disorderly manner with some young women, said to them in anger: “Gentlemen, is this the example that I set you?”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01