Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


What is our real nature, and what sort of a curious and contemptible understanding do we possess? A man may, it appears, draw the most correct and luminous conclusions, and yet be destitute of common sense. This is, in fact, too true. The Athenian fool, who believed that all the vessels which came into the port belonged to him, could calculate to a nicety what the cargoes of those vessels were worth, and within how many days they would arrive from Smyrna at the Piræus.

We have seen idiots who could calculate and reason in a still more extraordinary manner. They were not idiots, then, you tell me. I ask your pardon — they certainly were. They rested their whole superstructure on an absurd principle; they regularly strung together chimeras. A man may walk well, and go astray at the same time; and, then, the better he walks the farther astray he goes.

The Fo of the Indians was son of an elephant, who condescended to produce offspring by an Indian princess, who, in consequence of this species of left-handed union, was brought to bed of the god Fo. This princess was sister to an emperor of the Indies. Fo, then, was the nephew of that emperor, and the grandson of the elephant and the monarch were cousins-german; therefore, according to the laws of the state, the race of the emperor being extinct, the descendants of the elephant become the rightful successors. Admit the principle, and the conclusion is perfectly correct.

It is said that the divine elephant was nine standard feet in height. You reasonably suppose that the gate of his stable should be above nine feet in height, in order to admit his entering with ease. He consumed twenty pounds of rice every day, and twenty pounds of sugar, and drank twenty-five pounds of water. You find, by using your arithmetic, that he swallows thirty-six thousand five hundred pounds weight in the course of a year; it is impossible to reckon more correctly. But did your elephant ever, in fact, exist? Was he the emperor’s brother-in-law? Had his wife a child by this left-handed union? This is the matter to be investigated. Twenty different authors, who lived in Cochin China, have successively written about it; it is incumbent on you to collate these twenty authors, to weigh their testimonies, to consult ancient records, to see if there is any mention of this elephant in the public registers; to examine whether the whole account is not a fable, which certain impostors have an interest in sanctioning. You proceed upon an extravagant principle, but draw from it correct conclusions.

Logic is not so much wanting to men as the source of logic. It is not sufficient for a madman to say six vessels which belong to me carry two hundred tons each; the ton is two thousand pounds weight; I have therefore twelve hundred thousand pounds weight of merchandise in the port of the Piræus. The great point is, are those vessels yours? That is the principle upon which your fortune depends; when that is settled, you may estimate and reckon up afterwards.

An ignorant man, who is a fanatic, and who at the same time strictly draws his conclusions from his premises, ought sometimes to be smothered to death as a madman. He has read that Phineas, transported by a holy zeal, having found a Jew in bed with a Midianitish woman, slew them both, and was imitated by the Levites, who massacred every household that consisted one-half of Midianites and the other of Jews. He learns that Mr. — his Catholic neighbor, intrigued with Mrs. — another neighbor, but a Huguenot, and he will kill both of them without scruple. It is impossible to act in greater consistency with principle; but what is the remedy for this dreadful disease of the soul? It is to accustom children betimes to admit nothing which shocks reason, to avoid relating to them histories of ghosts, apparitions, witches, demoniacal possessions, and ridiculous prodigies. A girl of an active and susceptible imagination hears a story of demoniacal possessions; her nerves become shaken, she falls into convulsions, and believes herself possessed by a demon or devil. I actually saw one young woman die in consequence of the shock her frame received from these abominable histories.

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