Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In quality of a doubter, I have a long time filled my vocation. I have doubted when they would persuade me, that the glossopetres which I have seen formed in my fields, were originally the tongues of sea-dogs, that the lime used in my barn was composed of shells only, that corals were the production of the excrement of certain little fishes, that the sea by its currents has formed Mount Cenis and Mount Taurus, and that Niobe was formerly changed into marble.

It is not that I love not the extraordinary, the marvellous, as well as any traveller or man of system; but to believe firmly, I would see with my own eyes, touch with my own hands, and that several times. Even that is not enough; I would still be aided by the eyes and hands of others.

Two of my companions, who, like myself, form questions on the “Encyclopædia,” have for some time amused themselves with me in studying the nature of several of the little films which grow in ditches by the side of water lentils. These light herbs, which we call polypi of soft water, have several roots, from which circumstance we have given them the name of polypi. These little parasite plants were merely plants, until the commencement of the age in which we live. Leuenhoeck raises them to the rank of animals. We know not if they have gained much by it.

We think that, to be considered as an animal, it is necessary to be endowed with sensation. They therefore commence by showing us, that these soft water polypi have feeling, in order that we should present them with our right of citizenship.

We have not dared to grant it the dignity of sensation, though it appeared to have the greatest pretensions to it. Why should we give it to a species of small rush? Is it because it appears to bud? This property is common to all trees growing by the water-side; to willows, poplars, aspens, etc. It is so light, that it changes place at the least motion of the drop of water which bears it; thence it has been concluded that it walked. In like manner, we may suppose that the little, floating, marshy islands of St. Omer are animals, for they often change their place.

It is said its roots are its feet, its stalk its body, its branches are its arms; the pipe which composes its stalk is pierced at the top — it is its mouth. In this pipe there is a light white pith, of which some almost imperceptible animalcules are very greedy; they enter the hollow of this little pipe by making it bend, and eat this light paste; — it is the polypus who captures these animals with his snout, though it has not the least appearance of head, mouth, or stomach.

We have examined this sport of nature with all the attention of which we are capable. It appeared to us that the production called polypus resembled an animal much less than a carrot or asparagus. In vain we have opposed to our eyes all the reasonings which we formerly read; the evidence of our eyes has overthrown them. It is a pity to lose an illusion. We know how pleasant it would be to have an animal which could reproduce itself by offshoots, and which, having all the appearances of a plant, could join the animal to the vegetable kingdom.

It would be much more natural to give the rank of an animal to the newly-discovered plant of Anglo-America, to which the pleasant name of Venus’ fly-trap has been given. It is a kind of prickly sensitive-plant, the leaves of which fold of themselves; the flies are taken in these leaves and perish there more certainly than in the web of a spider. If any of our physicians would call this plant an animal, he would have partisans.

But if you would have something more extraordinary, more worthy of the observation of philosophers, observe the snail, which lives one and two whole months after its head is cut off, and which afterwards has a second head, containing all the organs possessed by the first. This truth, to which all children can be witnesses, is more worthy than the illusion of polypi of soft water. What becomes of its sensorium, its magazine of ideas, and soul, when its head is cut off? How do all these return? A soul which is renewed is a very curious phenomenon; not that it is more strange than a soul begotten, a soul which sleeps and awakes, or a condemned soul.

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