Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


I certify that I have many times killed serpents by moistening in a slight degree, with my spittle, a stick or a stone, and giving them a slight blow on the middle of the body, scarcely sufficient to produce a small contusion. January 19, 1757. Figuier, Surgeon.”

The above surgeon having given me this certificate, two witnesses, who had seen him kill serpents in this manner, attested what they had beheld. Notwithstanding, I wished to behold the thing myself; for I confess that, in various parts of these queries, I have taken St. Thomas of Didymus for my patron saint, who always insisted on an examination with his own hands.

For eighteen hundred years this opinion has been perpetuated among the people, and it might possibly be even eighteen thousand years old, if Genesis had not supplied us with the precise date of our enmity to this reptile. It may be asserted that if Eve had spit on the serpent when he took his place at her ear, a world of evil would have been spared human nature.

Lucretius, in his fourth book, alludes to this manner of killing serpents as very well known:

Est utique ut serpens hominis contacta salivis.

Disperit, ac sese mandendo conficit ipsa.

— Lib., iv, v. 642-643.

Spit on a serpent, and his vigor flies,

He straight devours himself, and quickly dies.

There is some slight contradiction in painting him at once deprived of vigor and self-devouring, but my surgeon Figuier asserts not that the serpents which he killed were self-devouring. Genesis says wisely that we kill them with our heels, and not with spittle.

We are in the midst of winter on January 19, which is the time when serpents visit us. I cannot find any at Mount Krapak; but I exhort all philosophers to spit upon every serpent they meet with in the spring. It is good to know the extent of the power of the saliva of man.

It is certain that Jesus Christ employed his spittle to cure a man who was deaf and dumb. He took him aside, placed His fingers on his ears, and looking up to heaven, sighed and said to him: “Ephphatha” —“be opened”— when the deaf and dumb person immediately began to speak.

It may therefore be true that God has allowed the saliva of man to kill serpents; but He may have also permitted my surgeon to assail them with heavy blows from a stick or a stone, in such a way that they would die whether he spat upon them or not.

I beg of all philosophers to examine the thing with attention. For example, should they meet Fréron in the street, let them spit in his face, and if he die, the fact will be confirmed, in spite of all the reasoning of the incredulous.

I take this opportunity also to beg of philosophers not to cut off the heads of any more snails; for I affirm that the head has returned to snails which I have decapitated very effectively. But it is not enough that I know it by experience, others must be equally satisfied in order that the fact be rendered probable; for although I have twice succeeded, I have failed thirty times. Success depends upon the age of the snail, the time in which the head is cut off, the situation of the incision, and the manner in which it is kept until the head grows again.

If it is important to know that death may be inflicted by spitting, it is still more important to know that heads may be renewed. Man is of more consequence than a snail, and I doubt not that in due time, when the arts are brought to perfection, some means will be found to give a sound head to a man who has none at all.

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