Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We will here attempt to draw from the word “extreme” an idea that may be attended with some utility.

It is every day disputed whether in war success is ascribable to conduct or to fortune.

Whether in diseases, nature or medicine is most operative in healing or destroying.

Whether in law it is not judicious for a man to compromise, although he is in the right, and to defend a cause although he is in the wrong.

Whether the fine arts contribute to the glory or to the decline of a state.

Whether it is wise or injudicious to encourage superstition in a people.

Whether there is any truth in metaphysics, history, or morals.

Whether taste is arbitrary, and whether there is in reality a good and a bad taste.

In order to decide at once all these questions, take an advantage of the extreme cases under each, compare these two extremes, and you will immediately discover the truth.

You wish to know whether success in war can be infallibly decided by conduct; consider the most extreme case, the most opposed situations in which conduct alone will infallibly triumph. The hostile army must necessarily pass through a deep mountain gorge; your commander knows this circumstance; he makes a forced march, gets possession of the heights, and completely encloses the enemy in the defile; there they must either perish or surrender. In this extreme case fortune can have no share in the victory. It is demonstrable, therefore, that skill may decide the success of a campaign, and it hence necessarily follows that war is an art.

Afterwards imagine an advantageous but not a decisive position; success is not certain, but it is exceedingly probable. And thus, from one gradation to another, you arrive at what may be considered a perfect equality between the two armies. Who shall then decide? Fortune; that is, some unexpected circumstance or event; the death of a general officer going to execute some important order; the derangement of a division in consequence of a false report, the operation of sudden panic, or various other causes for which prudence can find no remedy; yet it is still always certain that there is an art, that there is a science in war.

The same must be observed concerning medicine; the art of operating with the head or hand to preserve the life which appears likely to be lost.

The first who applied bleeding as speedily as possible to a patient under apoplexy; the first who conceived the idea of plunging a bistoury into the bladder to extract the stone from it, and of closing up the wound; the first who found out the method of stopping gangrene in any part of the human frame, were undoubtedly men almost divine, and totally unlike the physicians of Molière.

Descend from this strong and decisive example to cases less striking and more equivocal; you perceive fevers and various other maladies cured without its being possible to ascertain whether this is done by the physician or by nature; you perceive diseases, the issue of which cannot be judged; various physicians are mistaken in their opinions of the seat or nature of them; he who has the acutest genius, the keenest eye, develops the character of the complaint. There is then an art in medicine, and the man of superior mind is acquainted with its niceties. Thus it was that La Peyronie discovered that one of the courtiers had swallowed a sharp bone, which had occasioned an ulcer and endangered his life; and thus also did Boerhaave discover the complaint, as unknown as it was dreadful, of a countess of Wassenaer. There is, therefore, it cannot be doubted, an art in medicine, but in every art there are Virgils and Mæviuses.

In jurisprudence, take a case that is clear, in which the law pronounces decisively; a bill of exchange correctly drawn and regularly accepted; the acceptor is bound to pay it in every country in the world. There is, therefore, a useful jurisprudence, although in innumerable cases sentences are arbitrary, because, to the misery of mankind, the laws are ill-framed.

Would you wish to know whether the fine arts are beneficial to a nation? Compare the two extremes: Cicero and a perfect ignoramus. Decide whether the fall of Rome was owing to Pliny or to Attila.

It is asked whether we should encourage superstition in the people. Consider for a moment what is the greatest extreme on this baleful subject, the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the massacres of Ireland, or the Crusades; and the question is decided.

Is there any truth in metaphysics? Advert to those points which are most striking and true. Something exists; something, therefore, has existed from all eternity. An eternal being exists of himself; this being cannot be either wicked or inconsistent. To these truths we must yield; almost all the rest is open to disputation, and the clearest understanding discovers the truth.

It is in everything else as it is in colors; bad eyes can distinguish between black and white; better eyes, and eyes much exercised, can distinguish every nicer gradation: “Usque adeo quod tangit idem est, tamen ultima distant.”

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