Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


There are so many kinds of love, that in order to define it, we scarcely know which to direct our attention to. Some boldly apply the name of “love” to a caprice of a few days, a connection without attachment, passion without affection, the affectations of cicisbeism, a cold usage, a romantic fancy, a taste speedily followed by a distaste. They apply the name to a thousand chimeras.

Should any philosophers be inclined profoundly to investigate a subject in itself so little philosophical, they may recur to the banquet of Plato, in which Socrates, the decent and honorable lover of Alcibiades and Agathon, converses with them on the metaphysics of love.

Lucretius speaks of it more as a natural philosopher; and Virgil follows the example of Lucretius. “Amor omnibus idem.”

It is the embroidery of imagination on the stuff of nature. If you wish to form an idea of love, look at the sparrows in your garden; behold your doves; contemplate the bull when introduced to the heifer; look at that powerful and spirited horse which two of your grooms are conducting to the mare that quietly awaits him, and is evidently pleased at his approach; observe the flashing of his eyes, notice the strength and loudness of his neighings, the boundings, the curvetings, the ears erect, the mouth opening with convulsive gaspings, the distended nostrils, the breath of fire, the raised and waving mane, and the impetuous movement with which he rushes towards the object which nature has destined for him; do not, however, be jealous of his happiness; but reflect on the advantages of the human species; they afford ample compensation in love for all those which nature has conferred on mere animals — strength, beauty, lightness, and rapidity.

There are some classes, however, even of animals totally unacquainted with sexual association. Fishes are destitute of this enjoyment. The female deposits her millions of eggs on the slime of the waters, and the male that meets them passes over them and communicates the vital principle, never consorting with, or perhaps even perceiving the female to whom they belong.

The greater part of those animals which copulate are sensible of the enjoyment only by a single sense; and when appetite is satisfied, the whole is over. No animal, besides man, is acquainted with embraces; his whole frame is susceptible; his lips particularly experience a delight which never wearies, and which is exclusively the portion of his species; finally, he can surrender himself at all seasons to the endearments of love, while mere animals possess only limited periods. If you reflect on these high pre-eminences, you will readily join in the earl of Rochester’s remark, that love would impel a whole nation of atheists to worship the divinity.

As men have been endowed with the talent of perfecting whatever nature has bestowed upon them, they have accordingly perfected the gift of love. Cleanliness, personal attention, and regard to health render the frame more sensitive, and consequently increase its capacity of gratification. All the other amiable and valuable sentiments enter afterwards into that of love, like the metals which amalgamate with gold; friendship and esteem readily fly to its support; and talents both of body and of mind are new and strengthening bonds.

Nam facit ipsa suis interdum femina factis,

Morigerisque modis, et mundo corpore cultu

Ut facile insuescat secum vir degere vitam.

— Lucretius, iv, 1275.

Self-love, above all, draws closer all these various ties. Men pride themselves in the choice they have made; and the numberless illusions that crowd around constitute the ornament of the work, of which the foundation is so firmly laid by nature.

Such are the advantages possessed by man above the various tribes of animals. But, if he enjoys delights of which they are ignorant, howe many vexations and disgusts, on the other hand, is he exposed to, from which they are free! The most dreadful of these is occasioned by nature’s having poisoned the pleasures of love and sources of life over three-quarters of the world by a terrible disease, to which man alone is subject; nor is it with this pestilence as with various other maladies, which are the natural consequences of excess. It was not introduced into the world by debauchery. The Phrynes and Laises, the Floras and Messalinas, were never attacked by it. It originated in islands where mankind dwelt together in innocence, and has thence been spread throughout the Old World.

If nature could in any instance be accused of despising her own work, thwarting her own plan, and counteracting her own views, it would be in this detestable scourge which has polluted the earth with horror and shame. And can this, then, be the best of all possible worlds? What! if Cæsar and Antony and Octavius never had this disease, was it not possible to prevent Francis the First from dying of it? No, it is said; things were so ordered all for the best; I am disposed to believe it; but it is unfortunate for those to whom Rabelais has dedicated his book.

Erotic philosophers have frequently discussed the question, whether Héloïse could truly love Abelard after he became a monk and mutilated? One of these states much wronged the other.

Be comforted, however, Abelard, you were really beloved; imagination comes in aid of the heart. Men feel a pleasure in remaining at table, although they can no longer eat. Is it love? is it simply recollection? is it friendship? It is a something compounded of all these. It is a confused feeling, resembling the fantastic passions which the dead retained in the Elysian Fields. The heroes who while living had shone in the chariot races, guided imaginary chariots after death. Héloïse lived with you on illusions and supplements. She sometimes caressed you, and with so much the more pleasure as, after vowing at Paraclet that she would love you no more, her caresses were become more precious to her in proportion as they had become more culpable. A woman can never form a passion for a eunuch, but she may retain her passion for her lover after his becoming one, if he still remains amiable.

The case is different with respect to a lover grown old in the service; the external appearance is no longer the same; wrinkles affright, grizzly eyebrows repel, decaying teeth disgust, infirmities drive away; all that can be done or expected is to have the virtue of being a patient and kind nurse, and bearing with the man that was once beloved, all which amounts to — burying the dead.

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