Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Is fire anything more than an element which lights, warms, and burns us? Is not light always fire, though fire is not always light? And is not Boerhaave in the right?

Is not the purest fire extracted from our combustibles, always gross, and partaking of the bodies consumed, and very different from elementary fire? How is fire distributed throughout nature, of which it is the soul?

Ignis ubique latet, naturam amplectitur omnem,

Cuncta parit, renovat, dividit, unit, alit.

Why did Newton, in speaking of rays of light, always say, “De natura radiorum lucis, utrum corpora sint necne non disputamus”; without examining whether they were bodies or not?

Did he only speak geometrically? In that case, this doubt was useless. It is evident that he doubted of the nature of elementary fire, and doubted with reason.

Is elementary fire a body like others, as earth and water? If it was a body of this kind, would it not gravitate like all other matter? Would it escape from the luminous body in the right line? Would it have a uniform progression? And why does light never move out of a right line when it is unimpeded in its rapid course?

May not elementary fire have properties of matter little known to us, and properties of substance entirely so? May it not be a medium between matter and substances of another kind? And who can say that there are not a million of these substances? I do not say that there are, but I say it is not proved that there may not be.

It was very difficult to believe about a hundred years ago that bodies acted upon one another, not only without touching, and without emission, but at great distances; it is, however, found to be true, and is no longer doubted. At present, it is difficult to believe that the rays of the sun are penetrable by each other, but who knows what may happen to prove it?

However that may be, I wish, for the novelty of the thing, that this incomprehensible penetrability could be admitted. Light has something so divine that we should endeavor to make it a step to the discovery of substances still more pure.

Come to my aid, Empedocles and Democritus; come and admire the wonders of electricity; see if the sparks which traverse a thousand bodies in the twinkling of an eye are of ordinary matter; judge if elementary fire does not contract the heart, and communicate that warmth which gives life! Judge if this element is not the source of all sensation, and if sensation is not the origin of thought; though ignorant and insolent pedants have condemned the proposition, as one which should be persecuted.

Tell me, if the Supreme Being, who presides over all nature, cannot forever preserve these elementary atoms which he has so rarely endowed? “Igneus est ollis vigor et cœlestis origo.”

The celebrated Le Cat calls this vivifying fluid “an amphibious being, endowed by its author with a superior refinement which links it to immaterial beings, and thereby ennobles and elevates it into that medium nature which we recognize, and which is the source of all its properties.”

You are of the opinion of Le Cat? I would be so too if I could; but there are so many fools and villains that I dare not. I can only think quietly in my own way at Mount Krapak. Let others think as well as they are allowed to think, whether at Salamanca or Bergamo.

§ II.
What is Understood by Fire Used Figuratively.

Fire, particularly in poetry, often signifies love, and is employed more elegantly in the plural than in the singular. Corneille often says “un beau feu” for a virtuous and noble love. A man has fire in his conversation; that does not mean that he has brilliant and enlightened ideas, but lively expressions animated by action.

Fire in writing does not necessarily imply lightness and beauty, but vivacity, multiplied figures, and spontaneous ideas. Fire is a merit in speech and writing only when it is well managed. It is said that poets are animated with a divine fire when they are sublime; genius cannot exist without fire, but fire may be possessed without genius.

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