Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Was there ever a time when the globe was entirely inundated? It is physically impossible.

It is possible that the sea may successively have covered every land, one part after another; and even this can only have happened by very slow gradation, and in a prodigious number of centuries. In the course of five hundred years the sea has retired from Aigues-Mortes, Fréjus, and Ravenna, which were considerable ports, and left about two leagues of land dry. According to the ratio of such progression, it is clear that it would require two million and two hundred and fifty thousand years to produce the same effect through the whole circuit of the globe. It is a somewhat remarkable circumstance that this period of time nearly falls in with that which the axis of the earth would require to be raised, so as to coincide with the equator; a change extremely probable, which began to be considered so only about fifty years since, and which could not be completed in a shorter period of time than two million and three hundred thousand years.

The beds or strata of shells, which have been discovered at the distance of some leagues from the sea, are an incontestable evidence that it has gradually deposited these marine productions on tracts which were formerly shores of the ocean; but that the water should have ever covered the whole globe at once is an absurd chimera in physics, demonstrated to be impossible by the laws of gravitation, by the laws of fluids, and by the insufficient quantity of water for the purpose. We do not, however, by these observations, at all mean to impeach the truth of the universal deluge, related in the Pentateuch; on the contrary, that is a miracle which it is our duty to believe; it is a miracle, and therefore could not have been accomplished by the laws of nature.

All is miracle in the history of the deluge — a miracle, that forty days of rain should have inundated the four quarters of the world, and have raised the water to the height of fifteen cubits above the tops of the loftiest mountains; a miracle, that there should have been cataracts, floodgates, and openings in heaven; a miracle, that all sorts of animals should have been collected in the ark from all parts of the world; a miracle that Noah found the means of feeding them for a period of ten months; a miracle that all the animals with all their provisions could have been included and retained in the ark; a miracle, that the greater part of them did not die; a miracle, that after quitting the ark, they found food enough to maintain them; and a further miracle, but of a different kind, that a person, by the name of Lepelletier, thought himself capable of explaining how all the animals could be contained and fed in Noah’s ark naturally, that is, without a miracle.

But the history of the deluge being that of the most miraculous event of which the world ever heard, it must be the height of folly and madness to attempt an explanation of it: it is one of the mysteries which are believed by faith; and faith consists in believing that which reason does not believe — which is only another miracle.

The history of the universal deluge, therefore, is like that of the tower of Babel, of Balaam’s ass, of the falling of the walls of Jericho at the sound of trumpets, of waters turned into blood, of the passage of the Red Sea, and of the whole of the prodigies which God condescended to perform in favor of his chosen people — depths unfathomable to the human understanding.

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