Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Bayle has made the article “Xenophanes” a pretext for making a panegyric on the devil; as Simonides, formerly, seized the occasion of a wrestler winning the prize of boxing in the Olympic games, to form a fine ode in praise of Castor and Pollux. But, at the bottom, of what consequence to us are the reveries of Xenophanes? What do we gain by knowing that he regarded nature as an infinite being, immovable, composed of an infinite number of small corpuscles, soft little mounds, and small organic molecules? That he, moreover, thought pretty nearly as Spinoza has since thought? or rather endeavored to think, for he contradicts himself frequently — a thing very common to ancient philosophers.

If Anaximenes taught that the atmosphere was God; if Thales attributed to water the foundation of all things, because Egypt was rendered fertile by inundation; if Pherecides and Heraclitus give to fire all which Thales attributes to water — to what purpose return to these chimerical reveries?

I wish that Pythagoras had expressed, by numbers, certain relations, very insufficiently understood, by which he infers, that the world was built by the rules of arithmetic. I allow, that Ocellus Lucanus and Empedocles have arranged everything by moving antagonist forces, but what shall I gather from it? What clear notion will it convey to my feeble mind?

Come, divine Plato! with your archetypal ideas, your androgynes, and your word; establish all these fine things in poetical prose, in your new republic, in which I no more aspire to have a house, than in the Salentum of Telemachus; but in lieu of becoming one of your citizens, I will send you an order to build your town with all the subtle manner of Descartes, all his globular and diffusive matter; and they shall be brought to you by Cyrano de Bergerac.

Bayle, however, has exercised all the sagacity of his logic on these ancient fancies; but it is always by rendering them ridiculous that he instructs and entertains.

O philosophers! Physical experiments, ably conducted, arts and handicraft — these are the true philosophy. My sage is the conductor of my windmill, which dexterously catches the wind, and receives my corn, deposits it in the hopper, and grinds it equally, for the nourishment of myself and family. My sage is he who, with his shuttle, covers my walls with pictures of linen or of silk, brilliant with the finest colors; or he who puts into my pocket a chronometer of silver or of gold. My sage is the investigator of natural history. We learn more from the single experiments of the Abbé Nollet than from all the philosophical works of antiquity.

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