Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


There have been disputes at all times, on all subjects:— “Mundum tradidit disputationi eorum.” There have been violent quarrels about whether the whole is greater than a part; whether a body can be in several places at the same time; whether the whiteness of snow can exist without snow, or the sweetness of sugar without sugar; whether there can be thinking without a head, etc.

I doubt not that as soon as a Jansenist shall have written a book to demonstrate that one and two are three, a Molinist will start up and demonstrate that two and one are five.

We hope to please and instruct the reader by laying before him the following verses on “Disputation.” They are well known to every man of taste in Paris, but they are less familiar to those among the learned who still dispute on gratuitous predestination, concomitant grace, and that momentous question — whether the mountains were produced by the sea.


Each brain its thought, each season has its mode;

 Manners and fashions alter every day;

 Examine for yourself what others say; —

This privilege by nature is bestowed; —

But, oh! dispute not — the designs of heaven

To mortal insight never can be given.

What is the knowledge of this world worth knowing?

What, but a bubble scarcely worth the blowing?

“Quite full of errors was the world before;”

Then, to preach reason is but one error more.

 Viewing this earth from Luna’s elevation,
Or any other convenient situation,
What shall we see? The various tricks of man:
Here is a synod — there is a divan;
Behold the mufti, dervish, iman, bonze,
The lama and the pope on equal thrones.
The modern doctor and the ancient rabbi,
The monk, the priest, and the expectant abbé:
If you are disputants, my friends, pray travel —
When you come home again, you’ll cease to cavil.

 That wild Ambition should lay waste the earth,
Or Beauty’s glance give civil discord birth;
That, in our courts of equity, a suit
Should hang in doubt till ruin is the fruit;
That an old country priest should deeply groan,
To see a benefice he’d thought his own
Borne off by a court abbé; that a poet
Should feel most envy when he least should show it;
And, when another’s play the public draws,
Should grin damnation while he claps applause;
With this, and more, the human heart is fraught —
But whence the rage to rule another’s thought;
Say, wherefore — in what way — can you design
To make your judgment give the law to mine?

 But chiefly I detest those tiresome elves,
Half-learned critics, worshipping themselves,
Who, with the utmost weight of all their lead,
Maintain against you what yourself have said;
Philosophers — and poets — and musicians —
Great statesmen — deep in third and fourth editions —
They know all — read all — and (the greatest curse)
They talk of all — from politics to verse;
On points of taste they’ll contradict Voltaire;
In law e’en Montesquieu they will not spare;
They’ll tutor Broglio in affairs of arms;
And teach the charming d’Egmont higher charms.
See them, alike in great and small things clever,
Replying constantly, though answering never;
Hear them assert, repeat, affirm, aver,
Wax wroth. And wherefore all this mighty stir?
This the great theme that agitates their breast —
Which of two wretched rhymesters rhymes the best?

 Pray, gentle reader, did you chance to know
One Monsieur d’Aube, who died not long ago?
One whom the disputatious mania woke
Early each morning? If, by chance, you spoke
Of your own part in some well-fought affair,
Better than you he knew how, when, and where;
What though your own the deed and the renown?
His “letters from the army” put you down;
E’en Richelieu he’d have told — if he attended —
How Mahon fell, or Genoa was defended.
Although he wanted neither wit nor sense,
His every visit gave his friends offence;
I’ve seen him, raving in a hot dispute,
Exhaust their logic, force them to be mute,
Or, if their patience were entirely spent,
Rush from the room to give their passion vent.
His kinsmen, whom his property allured,
At last were wearied, though they long endured.
His neighbors, less athletic than himself,
For health’s sake laid him wholly on the shelf.
Thus, ’midst his many virtues, this one failing
Brought his old age to solitary wailing; —
For solitude to him was deepest woe —
A sorrow which the peaceful ne’er can know
At length, to terminate his cureless grief,
A mortal fever came to his relief,
Caused by the great, the overwhelming pang,
Of hearing in the church a long harangue
Without the privilege of contradiction;
So, yielding to this crowning dire affliction,
His spirit fled. But, in the grasp of death,
’Twas some small solace, with his parting breath,
To indulge once more his ruling disposition
By arguing with the priest and the physician.
 Oh! may the Eternal goodness grant him now
The rest he ne’er to mortals would allow!
If, even there, he like not disputation
Better than uncontested, calm salvation.

 But see, my friends, this bold defiance made
To every one of the disputing trade,
With a young bachelor their skill to try;
And God’s own essence shall the theme supply.
 Come and behold, as on the theatric stage,
The pitched encounter, the contending rage;
Dilemmas, enthymemes, in close array —
Two-edged weapons, cutting either way;
The strong-built syllogism’s pondering might,
The sophism’s vain ignis fatuus light;
Hot-headed monks, whom all the doctors dread,
And poor Hibernians arguing for their bread,
Fleeing their country’s miseries and morasses
To live at Paris on disputes and masses;
While the good public lend their strict attention
To what soars far above their sober comprehension.

 Is, then, all arguing frivolous or absurd?
Was Socrates himself not sometimes heard
To hold an argument amidst a feast?
E’en naked in the bath he hardly ceased.
Was this a failing in his mental vision?
Genius is sure discovered by collision;
The cold hard flint by one quick blow is fired; —
Fit emblem of the close and the retired,
Who, in the keen dispute struck o’er and o’er,
Acquire a sudden warmth unfelt before.

 All this, I grant, is good. But mark the ill:
Men by disputing have grown blinder still.
The crooked mind is like the squinting eye:
How can you make it see itself awry?
Who’s in the wrong? Will any answer “I”?
Our words, our efforts, are an idle breath;
Each hugs his darling notion until death;
Opinions ne’er are altered; all we do
Is, to arouse conflicting passions, too.
Not truth itself should always find a tongue;
“To be too stanchly right, is to be wrong.”

 In earlier days, by vice and crime unstained,
Justice and Truth, two naked sisters, reigned;
But long since fled — as every one can tell —
Justice to heaven and Truth into a well.
 Now vain Opinion governs every age,
And fills poor mortals with fantastic rage.
Her airy temple floats upon the clouds;
Gods, demons, antic sprites, in countless crowds,
Around her throne — a strange and motley mask —
Ply busily their never-ceasing task,
To hold up to mankind’s admiring gaze
A thousand nothings in a thousand ways;
While, wafted on by all the winds that blow,
Away the temple and the goddess go.
A mortal, as her course uncertain turns,
To-day is worshipped, and to-morrow burns.
We scoff, that young Antinous once had priests;
We think our ancestors were worse than beasts;
And he who treats each modern custom ill,
Does but what future ages surely will.
What female face has Venus smiled upon?
The Frenchman turns with rapture to Brionne,
Nor can believe that men were wont to bow
To golden tresses and a narrow brow.
And thus is vagabond Opinion seen
To sway o’er Beauty — this world’s other queen!
 How can we hope, then, that she e’er will quit
Her vapory throne, to seek some sage’s feet,
And Truth from her deep hiding-place remove,
Once more to witness what is done above?

 And for the learned — even for the wise —
Another snare of false delusion lies;
That rage for systems, which, in dreamy thought,
Frames magic universes out of naught;
Building ten errors on one truth’s foundation.
So he who taught the art of calculation,
In one of these illusive mental slumbers,
Foolishly sought the Deity in numbers;
The first mechanic, from as wild a notion,
Would rule man’s freedom by the laws of motion.
This globe, says one, is an extinguished sun;
 No, says another, ’tis a globe of glass;
And when the fierce contention’s once begun,
 Book upon book — a vast and useless mass —
On Science’s altar are profusely strewn,
While Disputation sits on Wisdom’s throne.

 And then, from contrarieties of speech,
What countless feuds have sprung! For you may teach,
In the same words, two doctrines different quite
As day from darkness, or as wrong from right.
This has indeed been man’s severest curse;
Famine and pestilence have not been worse,
Nor e’er have matched the ills whose aggravations
Have scourged the world through misinterpretations.

How shall I paint the conscientious strife?
 The holy transports of each heavenly soul —
Fanaticism wasting human life
 With torch, with dagger, and with poisoned bow;
The ruined hamlet and the blazing town,
 Homes desolate, and parents massacred,
 And temples in the Almighty’s honor reared
The scene of acts that merit most his frown!
Rape, murder, pillage, in one frightful storm,
 Pleasure with carnage horribly combined,
 The brutal ravisher amazed to find
A sister in his victim’s dying form!
Sons by their fathers to the scaffold led;
The vanquished always numbered with the dead.
Oh, God, permit that all the ills we know
May one day pass for merely fabled woe!

But see, an angry disputant steps forth —
 His humble mien a proud heart ill conceals
In holy guise inclining to the earth,
 Offering to God the venom he distils.
“Beneath all this a dangerous poison lies;
 So — every man is neither right nor wrong,
And, since we never can be truly wise,
 By instinct only should be driven along.”
“Sir, I’ve not said a word to that effect.”
 “It’s true, you’ve artfully disguised your meaning.”
“But, Sir, my judgment ever is correct.”
 “Sir, in this case, ’tis rather overweening.
Let truth be sought, but let all passion yield;
 ‘Discussion’s right, and disputation’s wrong;’
This have I said — and that at court, in field,
 Or town, one often should restrain one’s tongue.”
“But, my dear Sir, you’ve still a double sense;
 I can distinguish —” “Sir, with all my heart;
I’ve told my thoughts with all due deference,
 And crave the like indulgence on your part.”
“My son, all ‘thinking’ is a grievous crime;
So I’ll denounce you without loss of time.”

Blest would be they who, from fanatic power,
 From carping censors, envious critics, free,
 O’er Helicon might roam in liberty,
And unmolested pluck each fragrant flower!
So does the farmer, in his healthy fields,
 Far from the ills in swarming towns that spring,
Taste the pure joys that our existence yields,
 Extract the honey and escape the sting.

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