Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Tears are the silent language of grief. But why? What relation is there between a melancholy idea and this limpid and briny liquid filtered through a little gland into the external corner of the eye which moistens the conjunctiva and little lachrymal points, whence it descends into the nose and mouth by the reservoir called the lachrymal duct, and by its conduits? Why in women and children, whose organs are of a delicate texture, are tears more easily excited by grief than in men, whose formation is firmer?

Has nature intended to excite compassion in us at the sight of these tears, which soften us and lead us to help those who shed them? The female savage is as strongly determined to assist her child who cries, as a lady of the court would be, and perhaps more so, because she has fewer distractions and passions.

Everything in the animal body has, no doubt, its object. The eyes, particularly, have mathematical relations so evident, so demonstrable, so admirable with the rays of light; this mechanism is so divine, that I should be tempted to take for the delirium of a high fever, the audacity of denying the final causes of the structure of our eyes. The use of tears appears not to have so determined and striking an object; but it is probable that nature caused them to flow in order to excite us to pity.

There are women who are accused of weeping when they choose. I am not at all surprised at their talent. A lively, sensible, and tender imagination can fix upon some object, on some melancholy recollection, and represent it in such lively colors as to draw tears; which happens to several performers, and particularly to actresses on the stage.

Women who imitate them in the interior of their houses, join to this talent the little fraud of appearing to weep for their husbands, while they really weep for their lovers. Their tears are true, but the object of them is false.

It is impossible to affect tears without a subject, in the same manner as we can affect to laugh. We must be sensibly touched to force the lachrymal gland to compress itself, and to spread its liquor on the orbit of the eye; but the will alone is required to laugh.

We demand why the same man, who has seen with a dry eye the most atrocious events, and even committed crimes with sang-froid, will weep at the theatre at the representation of similar events and crimes? It is, that he sees them not with the same eyes; he sees them with those of the author and the actor. He is no longer the same man; he was barbarous, he was agitated with furious passions, when he saw an innocent woman killed, when he stained himself with the blood of his friend; he became a man again at the representation of it. His soul was filled with a stormy tumult; it is now tranquil and void, and nature re-entering it, he sheds virtuous tears. Such is the true merit, the great good of theatrical representation, which can never be effected by the cold declamation of an orator paid to tire an audience for an hour.

The capitoul David, who, without emotion, saw and caused the innocent Calas to die on the wheel, would have shed tears at seeing his own crime in a well-written and well-acted tragedy. Pope has elegantly said this in the prologue to Addison’s Cato:

Tyrants no more their savage nature kept,

And foes to virtue wondered how they wept.

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