Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

False Minds

WE have blind men, one-eyed men, squint-eyed men, men with long sight, short sight, clear sight, dim sight, weak sight. All that is a faithful enough image of our understanding; but we are barely acquainted with false sight. There are hardly men who always take a cock for a horse, or a chamber-pot for a house. Why do we often come across minds otherwise just enough, which are absolutely false on important things? Why does this same Siamese who will never let himself be cheated when there is question of counting him three rupees, firmly believe in the metamorphoses of Sammonocodom? By what strange singularity do sensible men resemble Don Quixote who thought he saw giants where other men saw only windmills? Still, Don Quixote was more excusable than the Siamese who believes that Sammonocodom came several times on earth, and than the Turk who is persuaded that Mahomet put half the moon in his sleeve; for Don Quixote, struck with the idea that he must fight giants, can figure to himself that a giant must have a body as big as a mill; but from what supposition can a sensible man set off to persuade himself that the half of the moon has gone into a sleeve, and that a Sammonocodom has come down from heaven to play at shuttlecock, cut down a forest, and perform feats of legerdemain?

The greatest geniuses can have false judgment about a principle they have accepted without examination. Newton had very false judgment when he commentated the Apocalypse.

All that certain tryants of the souls desire is that the men they teach shall have false judgment. A fakir rears a child who gives much promise; he spends five or six years in driving into his head that the god Fo appeared to men as a white elephant, and he persuades the child that he will be whipped after his death for five hundred thousand years if he does not believe these metamorphoses. He adds that at the end of the world the enemy of the god Fo will come to fight against this divinity.

The child studies and becomes a prodigy; he argues on his master's lessons; he finds that Fo has only been able to change himself into a white elephant, because that is the most beautiful of animals. "The kings of Siam and Pegu," he says, "have made war for a white elephant; certainly if Fo had not been hidden in that elephant, these kings would not have been so senseless as to fight simply for the possession of an animal.

"The enemy of Fo will come to defy him at the end of the world; certainly this enemy will be a rhinoceros, for the rhinoceros fights the elephant." It is thus that in mature age the fakir's learned pupil reasons, and he becomes one of the lights of India; the more subtle his mind, the more false is it, and he forms later minds as false as his.

One shows all these fanatics a little geometry, and they learn it easily enough; but strange to relate, their minds are not straightened for that; they perceive the truths of geometry; but they do not learn to weigh probabilities; they have got into a habit; they will reason crookedly all their lives, and I am sorry for them.

There are unfortunately many ways of having a false mind:

1. By not examining if the principle is true, even when one deduces accurate consequences therefrom; and this way is common.

2. By drawing false consequences from a principle recognized as true. For example, a servant is asked if his master is in his room, by persons he suspects of wanting his life: if he were foolish enough to tell them the truth on the pretext that one must not lie, it is clear he would be drawing an absurd consequence from a very true principle.

A judge who would condemn a man who has killed his assassin, because homicide is forbidden, would be as iniquitous as he was poor reasoner.

Similar cases are subdivided in a thousand different gradations. The good mind, the just mind, is that which distinguishes them; whence comes that one has seen so many iniquitous judgments, not because the judges' hearts were bad, but because they were not sufficiently enlightened.

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Return to Hanover College Department of History
Please send comments to: