Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Of Good and Evil, Physical and Moral.

We here treat of a question of the greatest difficulty and importance. It relates to the whole of human life. It would be of much greater consequence to find a remedy for our evils; but no remedy is to be discovered, and we are reduced to the sad necessity of tracing out their origin. With respect to this origin, men have disputed ever since the days of Zoroaster, and in all probability they disputed on the same subject long before him. It was to explain the mixture of good and evil that they conceived the idea of two principles — Oromazes, the author of light, and Arimanes, the author of darkness; the box of Pandora; the two vessels of Jupiter; the apple eaten by Eve; and a variety of other systems. The first of dialecticians, although not the first of philosophers, the illustrious Bayle, has clearly shown how difficult it is for Christians who admit one only God, perfectly good and just, to reply to the objections of the Manichæans who acknowledge two Gods — one good, and the other evil.

The foundation of the system of the Manichæans, with all its antiquity, was not on that account more reasonable. Lemmas, susceptible of the most clear and rigid geometrical demonstrations, should alone have induced any men to the adoption of such a theorem as the following: “There are two necessary beings, both supreme, both infinite, both equally powerful, both in conflict with each other, yet, finally, agreeing to pour out upon this little planet — one, all the treasures of his beneficence, and the other all the stores of his malice.” It is in vain that the advocates of this hypothesis attempt to explain by it the cause of good and evil: even the fable of Prometheus explains it better. Every hypothesis which only serves to assign a reason for certain things, without being, in addition to that recommendation, established upon indisputable principles, ought invariably to be rejected.

The Christian doctors — independently of revelation, which makes everything credible — explain the origin of good and evil no better than the partnergods of Zoroaster.

When they say God is a tender father, God is a just king; when they add the idea of infinity to that of love, that kindness, that justice which they observe in the best of their own species, they soon fall into the most palpable and dreadful contradictions. How could this sovereign, who possessed in infinite fulness the principle or quality of human justice, how could this father, entertaining an infinite affection for his children; how could this being, infinitely powerful, have formed creatures in His own likeness, to have them immediately afterwards tempted by a malignant demon, to make them yield to that temptation to inflict death on those whom He had created immortal, and to overwhelm their posterity with calamities and crimes! We do not here speak of a contradiction still more revolting to our feeble reason. How could God, who ransomed the human race by the death of His only Son; or rather, how could God, who took upon Himself the nature of man, and died on the cross to save men from perdition, consign over to eternal tortures nearly the whole of that human race for whom He died? Certainly, when we consider this system merely as philosophers — without the aid of faith — we must consider it as absolutely monstrous and abominable. It makes of God either pure and unmixed malice, and that malice infinite, which created thinking beings, on purpose to devote them to eternal misery, or absolute impotence and imbecility, in not being able to foresee or to prevent the torments of his offspring.

But the eternity of misery is not the subject of this article, which relates properly only to the good and evil of the present life. None of the doctors of the numerous churches of Christianity, all of which advocate the doctrine we are here contesting, have been able to convince a single sage.

We cannot conceive how Bayle, who managed the weapons of dialectics with such admirable strength and dexterity, could content himself with introducing in a dispute a Manichæan, a Calvinist, a Molinist, and a Socinian. Why did he not introduce, as speaking, a reasonable and sensible man? Why did not Bayle speak in his own person? He would have said far better what we shall now venture to say ourselves.

A father who kills his children is a monster; a king who conducts his subjects into a snare, in order to obtain a pretext for delivering them up to punishment and torture, is an execrable tyrant. If you conceive God to possess the same kindness which you require in a father, the same justice that you require in a king, no possible resource exists by which, if we may use the expression, God can be exculpated; and by allowing Him to possess infinite wisdom and infinite goodness you, in fact, render Him infinitely odious; you excite a wish that He had no existence; you furnish arms to the atheist, who will ever be justified in triumphantly remarking to you: Better by far is it to deny a God altogether, than impute to Him such conduct as you would punish, to the extremity of the law, in men.

We begin then with observing, that it is unbecoming in us to ascribe to God human attributes. It is not for us to make God after our own likeness. Human justice, human kindness, and human wisdom can never be applied or made suitable to Him. We may extend these attributes in our imagination as far as we are able, to infinity; they will never be other than human qualities with boundaries perpetually or indefinitely removed; it would be equally rational to attribute to Him infinite solidity, infinite motion, infinite roundness, or infinite divisibility. These attributes can never be His.

Philosophy informs us that this universe must have been arranged by a Being incomprehensible, eternal, and existing by His own nature; but, once again, we must observe that philosophy gives us no information on the subject of the attributes of that nature. We know what He is not, and not what He is.

With respect to God, there is neither good nor evil, physically or morally. What is physical or natural evil? Of all evils, the greatest, undoubtedly, is death. Let us for a moment consider whether man could have been immortal.

In order that a body like ours should have been indissoluble, imperishable, it would have been necessary that it should not be composed of parts; that it should not be born; that it should have neither nourishment nor growth; that it should experience no change. Let any one examine each of these points; and let every reader extend their number according to his own suggestions, and it will be seen that the proposition of an immortal man is a contradiction.

If our organized body were immortal, that of mere animals would be so likewise; but it is evident that, in the course of a very short time, the whole globe would, in this case, be incompetent to supply nourishment to those animals; those immortal beings which exist only in consequence of renovation by food, would then perish for want of the means of such renovation. All this involves contradiction. We might make various other observations on the subject, but every reader who deserves the name of a philosopher will perceive that death was necessary to everything that is born; that death can neither be an error on the part of God, nor an evil, an injustice, nor a chastisement to man.

Man, born to die, can no more be exempt from pain than from death. To prevent an organized substance endowed with feeling from ever experiencing pain, it would be necessary that all the laws of nature should be changed; that matter should no longer be divisible; that it should neither have weight, action, nor force; that a rock might fall on an animal without crushing it; and that water should have no power to suffocate, or fire to burn it. Man, impassive, then, is as much a contradiction as man immortal.

This feeling of pain was indispensable to stimulate us to self-preservation, and to impart to us such pleasures as are consistent with those general laws by which the whole system of nature is bound and regulated.

If we never experienced pain, we should be every moment injuring ourselves without perceiving it. Without the excitement of uneasiness, without some sensation of pain, we should perform no function of life; should never communicate it, and should be destitute of all the pleasures of it. Hunger is the commencement of pain which compels us to take our required nourishment. Ennui is a pain which stimulates to exercise and occupation. Love itself is a necessity which becomes painful until it is met with corresponding attachment. In a word, every desire is a want, a necessity, a beginning of pain. Pain, therefore, is the mainspring of all the actions of animated beings. Every animal possessed of feeling must be liable to pain, if matter is divisible; and pain was as necessary as death. It is not, therefore, an error of Providence, nor a result of malignity, nor a creature of imagination. Had we seen only brutes suffer, we should, for that, never have accused nature of harshness or cruelty; had we, while ourselves were impassive, witnessed the lingering and torturing death of a dove, when a kite seized upon it with his murderous talons, and leisurely devouring its bleeding limbs, doing in that no more than we do ourselves, we should not express the slightest murmur of dissatisfaction. But what claim have we for an exemption of our own bodies from such dismemberment and torture beyond what might be urged in behalf of brutes? Is it that we possess an intellect superior to theirs? But what has intellect to do with the divisibility of matter? Can a few ideas more or less in a brain prevent fire from burning, or a rock from crushing us?

Moral evil, upon which so many volumes have been written is, in fact, nothing but natural evil. This moral evil is a sensation of pain occasioned by one organized being to another. Rapine, outrage, etc., are evil only because they produce evil. But as we certainly are unable to do any evil, or occasion any pain to God, it is evident by the light of reason — for faith is altogether a different principle — that in relation to the Supreme Being and as affecting Him, moral evil can have no existence.

As the greatest of natural evils is death, the greatest of moral evils is, unquestionably, war. All crimes follow in its train; false and calumnious declarations, perfidious violation of the treaties, pillage, devastation, pain, and death under every hideous and appalling form.

All this is physical evil in relation to man, but can no more be considered moral evil in relation to God than the rage of dogs worrying and destroying one another. It is a mere commonplace idea, and as false as it is feeble, that men are the only species that slaughter and destroy one another. Wolves, dogs, cats, cocks, quails, all war with their respective species: house spiders devour one another; the male universally fights for the female. This warfare is the result of the laws of nature, of principles in their very blood and essence; all is connected; all is necessary.

Nature has granted man about two and twenty years of life, one with another; that is, of a thousand children born in the same month, some of whom have died in their infancy, and the rest lived respectively to the age of thirty, forty, fifty, and even eighty years, or perhaps beyond, the average calculation will allow to each the above-mentioned number of twenty-two years.

How can it affect the Deity, whether a man die in battle or of a fever? War destroys fewer human beings than smallpox. The scourge of war is transient, that of smallpox reigns with paramount and permanent fatality throughout the earth, followed by a numerous train of others; and taking into consideration the combined, and nearly regular operation of the various causes which sweep mankind from the stage of life, the allowance of two and twenty years for every individual will be found in general to be tolerably correct.

Man, you say, offends God by killing his neighbor; if this be the case, the directors of nations must indeed be tremendous criminals; for, while even invoking God to their assistance, they urge on to slaughter immense multitudes of their fellow-beings, for contemptible interests which it would show infinitely more policy, as well as humanity, to abandon. But how — to reason merely as philosophers — how do they offend God? Just as much as tigers and crocodiles offend him. It is, surely, not God whom they harass and torment, but their neighbor. It is only against man that man can be guilty. A highway robber can commit no robbery on God. What can it signify to the eternal Deity, whether a few pieces of yellow metal are in the hands of Jerome, or of Bonaventure? We have necessary desires, necessary passions, and necessary laws for the restraint of both; and while on this our ant-hill, during the little day of our existence, we are engaged in eager and destructive contest about a straw, the universe moves on in its majestic course, directed by eternal and unalterable laws, which comprehend in their operation the atom that we call the earth.

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