Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


What is madness? To have erroneous perceptions, and to reason correctly from them? Let the wisest man, if he would understand madness, attend to the succession of his ideas while he dreams. If he be troubled with indigestion during the night, a thousand incoherent ideas torment him; it seems as if nature punished him for having taken too much food, or for having injudiciously selected it, by supplying involuntary conceptions; for we think but little during sleep, except when annoyed by a bad digestion. Unquiet dreams are in reality a transient madness.

Madness is a malady which necessarily hinders a man from thinking and acting like other men. Not being able to manage property, the madman is withheld from it; incapable of ideas suitable to society, he is shut out from it; if he be dangerous, he is confined altogether; and if he be furious, they bind him. Sometimes he is cured by baths, by bleeding, and by regimen.

This man is not, however, deprived of ideas; he frequently possesses them like other men, and often when he sleeps. We might inquire how the spiritual and immortal soul, lodged in his brain, receives all its ideas correctly and distinctly, without the capacity of judgment. It perceives objects, as the souls of Aristotle, of Plato, of Locke, and of Newton, perceived them. It hears the same sounds, and possesses the same sense of feeling — how therefore, receiving impressions like the wisest, does the soul of the madman connect them extravagantly, and prove unable to disperse them?

If this simple and eternal substance enjoys the same properties as the souls which are lodged in the sagest brains, it ought to reason like them. Why does it not? If my madman sees a thing red, while the wise men see it blue; if when my sages hear music, my madman hears the braying of an ass; if when they attend a sermon, he imagines himself to be listening to a comedy; if when they understand yes, he understands no; then I conceive clearly that his soul ought to think contrary to theirs. But my madman having the same perceptions as they have, there is no apparent reason why his soul, having received all the necessary materials, cannot make a proper use of them. It is pure, they say, and subject to no infirmity; behold it provided with all the necessary assistance; nothing which passes in the body can change its essence; yet it is shut up in a close carriage, and conveyed to Charenton.

This reflection may lead us to suspect that the faculty of thought, bestowed by God upon man, is subject to derangement like the other senses. A madman is an invalid whose brain is diseased, while the gouty man is one who suffers in his feet and hands. People think by means of the brain, and walk on their feet, without knowing anything of the source of either this incomprehensible power of walking, or the equally incomprehensible power of thinking; besides, the gout may be in the head, instead of the feet. In short, after a thousand arguments, faith alone can convince us of the possibility of a simple and immaterial substance liable to disease.

The learned may say to the madman: “My friend, although deprived of common sense, thy soul is as pure, as spiritual, and as immortal, as our own; but our souls are happily lodged, and thine not so. The windows of its dwelling are closed; it wants air, and is stifled.”

The madman, in a lucid interval, will reply to them: “My friends, you beg the question, as usual. My windows are as wide open as your own, since I can perceive the same objects and listen to the same sounds. It necessarily follows that my soul makes a bad use of my senses; or that my soul is a vitiated sense, a depraved faculty. In a word, either my soul is itself diseased, or I have no soul.”

One of the doctors may reply: “My brother, God has possibly created foolish souls, as well as wise ones.”

The madman will answer: “If I believed what you say, I should be a still greater madman than I am. Have the kindness, you who know so much, to tell me why I am mad?”

Supposing the doctors to retain a little sense, they would say: “We know nothing about the matter.”

Neither are they more able to comprehend how a brain possesses regular ideas, and makes a due use of them. They call themselves sages, and are as weak as their patient.

If the interval of reason of the madman lasts long enough, he will say to them: “Miserable mortals, who neither know the cause of my malady, nor how to cure it! Tremble, lest ye become altogether like me, or even still worse than I am! You are not of the highest rank, like Charles VI. of France, Henry VI. of England, and the German emperor Wincenslaus, who all lost their reason in the same century. You have not nearly so much wit as Blaise Pascal, James Abadie, or Jonathan Swift, who all became insane. The last of them founded a hospital for us; shall I go there and retain places for you?”

N. B. I regret that Hippocrates should have prescribed the blood of an ass’s colt for madness; and I am still more sorry that the “Manuel des Dames” asserts that it may be cured by catching the itch. Pleasant prescriptions these, and apparently invented by those who were to take them!

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