Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis,

E terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;

Non quia vexari quemquam est jucunda voluptas,

Sed quibus ipse malis careas, quia cernere suave est.

Suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri

Per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;

Sed nil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere

Edita doctrina sapientum templa serena

Despicere unde queas alios, passimque videre

Errare, atque viam palantes quaerere vitae,

Certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate,

Noctes atque dies niti praestante labore

Ad summas emergere opes, rerumque potiri.

O miseras hominum mentes! O pectora caeca!

’Tis pleasant, when the seas are rough, to stand

And view another’s danger, safe at land;

Not ’cause he’s troubled, but ’tis sweet to see

Those cares and fears, from which ourselves are free;

’Tis also pleasant to behold from far

How troops engage, secure ourselves from war.

But, above all, ’tis pleasantest to get

The top of high philosophy, and set

On the calm, peaceful, flourishing head of it;

Whence we may view, deep, wondrous deep below,

How poor mistaken mortals wandering go,

Seeking the path to happiness; some aim

At learning, not nobility, or fame;

Others, with cares and dangers vie each hour

To reach the top of wealth and sovereign power.

Blind, wretched man, in what dark paths of strife

We walk this little journey of our life.

— Creech’s Lucretius.

I ask your pardon, Lucretius! I suspect that you are here as mistaken in morals as you are always mistaken in physics. In my opinion it is curiosity alone that induces people to hasten to the shore to see a vessel in danger of being overwhelmed in a tempest. The case has happened to myself, and I solemnly assure you that my pleasure, mingled as it was with uneasiness and distress, did not at all arise from reflection, nor originate in any secret comparison between my own security and the danger of the unfortunate crew. I was moved by curiosity and pity.

At the battle of Fontenoy little boys and girls climbed up the surrounding trees to have a view of the slaughter. Ladies ordered seats to be placed for them on a bastion of the city of Liège that they might enjoy the spectacle at the battle of Rocoux.

When I said, “Happy they who view in peace the gathering storm,” the happiness I had in view consists in tranquillity and the search of truth, and not in seeing the sufferings of thinking beings, oppressed by fanatics or hypocrites under persecution for having sought it.

Could we suppose an angel flying on six beautiful wings from the height of the Empyrean, setting out to take a view through some loophole of hell of the torments and contortions of the damned, and congratulating himself on feeling nothing of their inconceivable agonies, such an angel would much resemble the character of Beelzebub.

I know nothing of the nature of angels because I am only a man; divines alone are acquainted with them; but, as a man, I think, from my own experience and also from that of all my brother drivellers, that people do not flock to any spectacle, of whatever kind, but from pure curiosity.

This seems to me so true that if the exhibition be ever so admirable men at last get tired of it. The Parisian public scarcely go any longer to see “Tartuffe,” the most masterly of Molière’s masterpieces. Why is it? Because they have gone often; because they have it by heart. It is the same with “Andromache.”

Perrin Dandin is unfortunately right when he proposes to the young Isabella to take her to see the method of “putting to the torture;” it serves, he says, to pass away an hour or two. If this anticipation of the execution, frequently more cruel than the execution itself, were a public spectacle, the whole city of Toulouse would have rushed in crowds to behold the venerable Calas twice suffering those execrable torments, at the instance of the attorney-general. Penitents, black, white, and gray, married women, girls, stewards of the floral games, students, lackeys, female servants, girls of the town, doctors of the canon law would have been all squeezed together. At Paris we must have been almost suffocated in order to see the unfortunate General Lally pass along in a dung cart, with a six-inch gag in his mouth.

But if these tragedies of cannibals, which are sometimes performed before the most frivolous of nations, and the one most ignorant in general of the principles of jurisprudence and equity; if the spectacles, like those of St. Bartholomew, exhibited by tigers to monkeys and the copies of it on a smaller scale were renewed every day, men would soon desert such a country; they would fly from it with horror; they would abandon forever the infernal land where such barbarities were common.

When little boys and girls pluck the feathers from their sparrows it is merely from the impulse of curiosity, as when they dissect the dresses of their dolls. It is this passion alone which produces the immense attendance at public executions. “Strange eagerness,” as some tragic author remarks, “to behold the wretched.”

I remember being in Paris when Damiens suffered a death the most elaborate and frightful that can be conceived. All the windows in the city which bore upon the spot were engaged at a high price by ladies, not one of whom, assuredly, made the consoling reflection that her own breasts were not torn by pincers; that melted lead and boiling pitch were not poured upon wounds of her own, and that her own limbs, dislocated and bleeding, were not drawn asunder by four horses. One of the executioners judged more correctly than Lucretius, for, when one of the academicians of Paris tried to get within the enclosure to examine what was passing more closely, and was forced back by one of the guards, “Let the gentleman go in,” said he, “he is an amateur.” That is to say, he is inquisitive; it is not through malice that he comes here; it is not from any reflex consideration of self to revel in the pleasure of not being himself quartered; it is only from curiosity, as men go to see experiments in natural philosophy.

Curiosity is natural to man, to monkeys, and to little dogs. Take a little dog with you in your carriage, he will continually be putting up his paws against the door to see what is passing. A monkey searches everywhere, and has the air of examining everything. As to men, you know how they are constituted: Rome, London, Paris, all pass their time in inquiring what’s the news?

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