Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The definition of monsters is more difficult than is generally imagined. Are we to apply the term to animals of enormous size; to a fish, or a serpent fifteen feet long, for instance? There are some, however, that are twenty or even thirty feet long, in comparison with which of course the others, instead of enormous or monstrous, would appear small.

There are monsters through defect. But, if a generally well-made and handsome man were destitute from his birth of the little toes and little fingers, would he be a monster? Teeth are more necessary to a man; I have seen a man who never had a tooth. He was in other respects pleasing in his person. Being destitute of the organs of generation, still more necessary in the system of nature, would not constitute the person thus defective a monster.

There are monsters by excess as well as by defect. But those who have six fingers, or three testicles, or two perforations instead of one, or the spine elongated in the form of a small tail, are not considered monsters.

The third kind consists of those which have members of other animals; as, for example, a lion with the wings of an ostrich, or a serpent with the wings of an eagle, like the griffin and ixion of the Jews. But all bats have wings, and flying fish have them, without being monsters.

Let us, then, reserve the name for animals whose deformities strike us with horror.

Yet the first negro, upon this idea, was a monster to white women; and the most admirable of European beauties was a monster in the eyes of negroes.

If Polyphemus and the Cyclops had really existed, people who carried an eye on each side of the root of the nose, would, in the island of Lipari, and the neighborhood of Mount Ætna, have been pronounced monsters.

I once saw, at a fair, a young woman with four nipples, or rather dugs, and what resembled the tail of a cow hanging down between them. She was decidedly a monster when she displayed her neck, but was rather an agreeable woman in appearance when she concealed it.

Centaurs and Minotaurs would have been monsters, but beautiful monsters. The well-proportioned body of a horse serving as a base or support to the upper part of a man would have been a masterpiece of nature’s workmanship on earth; just as we draw the masterpieces of heaven — those spirits which we call angels, and which we paint and sculpture in our churches — adorned sometimes with two wings, sometimes with four, and sometimes even with six.

We have already asked, with the judicious Locke, what is the boundary of distinction between the human and merely animal figure; what is the point of monstrosity at which it would be proper to take your stand against baptizing an infant, against admitting it as a member of the human species, against according to it the possession of a soul? We have seen that this boundary is as difficult to be settled as it is difficult to ascertain what a soul is; for there certainly are none who know what it is but theologians.

Why should the satyrs which St. Jerome saw, the offspring of women and baboons, have been reputed monsters? Might it not be thought, on the contrary, that their lot was in reality happier than ours? Must they not have possessed more strength and more agility? and would they not have laughed at us as an unfortunate race, to whom nature had refused both tails and clothing? A mule, the offspring of two different species; a jumart, the offspring of a bull and a mare; a tarin, the offspring, we are told, of a canary bird and hen linnet — are not monsters.

But how is it that mules, jumarts, and tarins, which are thus produced in nature, do not themselves reproduce? And how do the seminists, ovists, or animalculists, explain, upon their respective theories, the formation of these mongrel productions?

I will tell you plainly, that they do not explain it at all. The seminists never discovered how it is that the ass communicates to his mule offspring a resemblance only in the ears and crupper; the ovists neither inform us, nor understand how a mare should contain in her egg anything but an animal of her own species. And the animalculists cannot perceive how a minute embryo of an ass could introduce its ears into the matrix of a mare.

The theorist who, in a work entitled the “Philosophy of Venus,” maintained that all animals and all monsters are formed by attraction, was still less successful than those just mentioned, in accounting for phenomena so common and yet so surprising.

Alas! my good friends! you none of you know how you originate your own offspring; you are ignorant of the secrets of nature in your own species, and yet vainly attempt to develop them in the mule!

It may, however, be confidently presumed, in reference to a monster by defect, that the whole seminal matter did not reach its destined appropriation; or, perhaps, that the small spermatic worm had lost a portion of its substance; or, perhaps that the egg was crazed and injured. With respect to a monster by excess, you may imagine that some portions of the seminal matter superabounded; that of two spermatic worms united, one could only animate a single member of the animal, and that that member remains in supererogation; that two eggs have blended together, and that one of them has produced but a single member, which was joined to the body of the other.

But what would you say of so many monstrosities arising from the addition of parts of animals of a totally different species? How would you explain a crab on the neck of a girl? or the tail of a rat upon the thigh? or, above all, the four dugs and tail of a cow, which was exhibited at the fair at St. Germain? You would be reduced to the supposition that the unfortunate woman’s mother belonged to the very extraordinary family of Pasiphæ.

Let each of us boldly and honestly say, How little is it that I really know.

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