Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The greater part of the Greek philosophers held the universe to be eternal both with respect to commencement and duration. But as to this petty portion of the world or universe, this globe of stone and earth and water, of minerals and vapors, which we inhabit, it was somewhat difficult to form an opinion; it was, however, deemed very destructible. It was even said that it had been destroyed more than once, and would be destroyed again. Every one judged of the whole world from his own particular country, as an old woman judges of all mankind from those in her own nook and neighborhood.

This idea of the end of our little world and its renovation strongly possessed the imagination of the nations under subjection to the Roman Empire, amidst the horrors of the civil wars between Cæsar and Pompey. Virgil, in his “Georgics” (i., 468), alludes to the general apprehension which filled the minds of the common people from this cause: “Impiaque eternam timuerunt secula noctem.” —“And impious men now dread eternal night.”

Lucan, in the following lines, expresses himself much more explicitly:

Hos Cæsar populos, si nunc non usserit ignis

Uret cum terris, uret cum gurgite ponti.

Communis mundo superest rogus . . . .

— Phars. vii. v. 812, 14.

Though now thy cruelty denies a grave,

These and the world one common lot shall have;

One last appointed flame, by fate’s decree,

Shall waste yon azure heavens, the earth, and sea.

— Rowe.

And Ovid, following up the observations of Lucan, says:

Esse quoque in fatis reminiscitur affore tempus,

Quo mare, quo tellus, correptaque regia cœli,

Ardent et mundi moles operosa laboret.

— Met. i. v. 256, 58.

For thus the stern, unyielding fates decree,

That earth, air, heaven, with the capacious sea,

All shall fall victims to consuming fire,

And in fierce flames the blazing world expire.

Consult Cicero himself, the philosophic Cicero. He tells us, in his book concerning the “Nature of the Gods,” the best work perhaps of all antiquity, unless we make an exception in favor of his treatise on human duties, called “The Offices”; in that book, I say, he remarks:

“Ex quo eventurum nostri putant id, de quo Panætium addubitare dicebant; ut ad extremum omnis mundus ignosceret, cum, humore consumpto, neque terra ali posset, neque remearet, aer cujus ortus, aqua omni exhausta, esse non posset; ita relinqui nihil præter ignem, a quo rursum animante ac Deo renovatio mundi fieret; atque idem ornatus oriretur.”

“According to the Stoics, the whole world will eventually consist only of fire; the water being then exhausted, will leave no nourishment for the earth; and the air, which derives its existence from water, can of course no longer be supplied. Thus fire alone will remain, and this fire, reanimating everything with, as it were, god-like power and energy, will restore the world with improved beauty.”

This natural philosophy of the Stoics, like that indeed of all antiquity, is not a little absurd; it shows, however, that the expectation of a general conflagration was universal.

Prepare, however, for greater astonishment than the errors of antiquity can excite. The great Newton held the same opinion as Cicero. Deceived by an incorrect experiment of Boyle, he thought that the moisture of the globe would at length be dried up, and that it would be necessary for God to apply His reforming hand “manum emendatricem.” Thus we have the two greatest men of ancient Rome and modern England precisely of the same opinion, that at some future period fire will completely prevail over water.

This idea of a perishing and subsequently to be renewed world was deeply rooted in the minds of the inhabitants of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, from the time of the civil wars of the successors of Alexander. Those of the Romans augmented the terror, upon this subject, of the various nations which became the victims of them. They expected the destruction of the world and hoped for a new one. The Jews, who are slaves in Syria and scattered through every other land, partook of this universal terror.

Accordingly, it does not appear that the Jews were at all astonished when Jesus said to them, according to St. Matthew and St. Luke: “Heaven and earth shall pass away.” He often said to them: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” He preached the gospel of the kingdom of God.

St. Peter announces that the gospel was preached to them that were dead, and that the end of the world drew near. “We expect,” says he, ‘new heavens and a new earth.”

St. John, in his first Epistle, says: “There are at present many antichrists, which shows that the last hour draws near.”

St. Luke, in much greater detail, predicts the end of the world and the last judgment. These are his words:

“There shall be signs in the moon and in the stars, roarings of the sea and the waves; men’s hearts failing them for fear shall look with trembling to the events about to happen. The powers of heaven shall be shaken; and then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with great power and majesty. Verily I say unto you, the present generation shall not pass away till all this be fulfilled.”

We do not dissemble that unbelievers upbraid us with this very prediction; they want to make us blush for our faith, when we consider that the world is still in existence. The generation, they say, is passed away, and yet nothing at all of this is fulfilled. Luke, therefore, ascribes language to our Saviour which he never uttered, or we must conclude that Jesus Christ Himself was mistaken, which would be blasphemy. But we close the mouth of these impious cavillers by observing that this prediction, which appears so false in its literal meaning, is true in its spirit; that the whole world meant Judæa, and that the end of the world signified the reign of Titus and his successors.

St. Paul expresses himself very strongly on the subject of the end of the world in his Epistle to the Thessalonians: “We who survive, and who now address you, shall be taken up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

According to these very words of Jesus and St. Paul, the whole world was to have an end under Tiberius, or at latest under Nero. St. Paul’s prediction was fulfilled no more than St. Luke’s.

These allegorical predictions were undoubtedly not meant to apply to the times of the evangelists and apostles, but to some future time, which God conceals from all mankind.

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi

Finem Dii dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios

Tentaris numeros. Ut melius, quicquid erit, pati!

— Horace i. ode xi.

Strive not, Leuconoe, to pry

 Into the secret will of fate,

Nor impious magic vainly try

 To know our lives’ uncertain date.

— Francis.

It is still perfectly certain that all nations then known entertained the expectation of the end of the world, of a new earth and a new heaven. For more than sixteen centuries we see that donations to monkish institutions have commenced with these words: “Adventante mundi vespere,” etc. —“The end of the world being at hand, I, for the good of my soul, and to avoid being one of the number of the goats on the left hand . . . . leave such and such lands to such a convent.” Fear influenced the weak to enrich the cunning.

The Egyptians fixed this grand epoch at the end of thirty-six thousand five hundred years; Orpheus is stated to have fixed it at the distance of a hundred and twenty thousand years.

The historian Flavius Josephus asserts that Adam, having predicted that the world would be twice destroyed, once by water and next by fire, the children of Seth were desirous of announcing to the future race of men the disastrous catastrophe. They engraved astronomical observations on two columns, one made of bricks, which should resist the fire that was to consume the world; the other of stones, which would remain uninjured by the water that was to drown it. But what thought the Romans, when a few slaves talked to them about an Adam and a Seth unknown to all the world besides? They smiled. Josephus adds that the column of stones was to be seen in his own time in Syria.

From all that has been said, we may conclude that we know exceedingly little of past events — that we are but ill acquainted with those present — that we know nothing at all about the future — and that we ought to refer everything relating to them to God, the master of those three divisions of time and of eternity.

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