Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Is not a fiction, which teaches new and interesting truths, a fine thing? Do you not admire the Arabian story of the sultan who would not believe that a little time could appear long, and who disputed with his dervish on the nature of duration? The latter to convince him of it, begged him only to plunge his head for a moment into the basin in which he was washing. Immediately the sultan finds himself transported into a frightful desert; he is obliged to labor to get a livelihood; he marries, and has children who grow up and ill treat him; finally he returns to his country and his palace and he there finds the dervish who has caused him to suffer so many evils for five and twenty years. He is about to kill him, and is only appeased when he is assured that all passed in the moment in which, with his eyes shut, he put his head into the water.

You still more admire the fiction of the loves of Dido and Æneas, which caused the mortal hatred between Carthage and Rome, as also that which exhibits in Elysium the destinies of the great men of the Roman Empire.

You also like that of Alcina, in Ariosto, who possesses the dignity of Minerva with the beauty of Venus, who is so charming to the eyes of her lovers, who intoxicates them with voluptuous delights, and unites all the loves and graces, but who, when she is at last reduced to her true self and the enchantment has passed away, is nothing more than a little shrivelled, disgusting, old woman.

As to fictions which represent nothing, teach nothing, and from which nothing results, are they anything more than falsities? And if they are incoherent and heaped together without choice, are they anything better than dreams?

You will possibly tell me that there are ancient fictions which are very incoherent, without ingenuity, and even absurd, which are still admired; but is it not rather owing to the fine images which are scattered over these fictions than to the inventions which introduce them? I will not dispute the point, but if you would be hissed at by all Europe, and afterwards forgotten forever, write fictions similar to those which you admire.

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