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.
DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE PHILOSOPHER AND NATURE
Who are you, Nature? I live in you; for fifty years have I been seeking
you, and I have not found you yet.
The ancient Egyptians, who lived, it is said, some twelve hundred years,
made me the same reproach. They called me Isis; they put a great veil on
my head, and they said that nobody could lift it.
That is what makes me address myself to you. I have been able to measure
some of your globes, know their paths, assign the laws of motion; but I
have not been able to learn who you are.
Are you always active? are you always passive? did your elements arrange
themselves, as water deposits itself on sand, oil on water, air on oil?
have you a mind which directs all your operations, as councils are inspired
as soon as they are assembled, although their members are sometimes ignoramuses?
I pray you tell me the answer to your riddle.
I am the great everything. I know no more about it. I am not a mathematician;
and everything is arranged in my world according to mathematical laws.
Guess if you can how it is all done.
Certainly, since your great everything does not know mathematics, and since
all your laws are most profoundly geometrical, there must be an eternal
geometer who directs you, a supreme intelligence who presides over your
You are right; I am water, earth, fire, atmosphere, metal, mineral, stone,
vegetable, animal. I feel indeed that there is in me an intelligence; you
have an intelligence, you do not see it. I do not see mine either; I feel
this invisible power; -I cannot know it: why should you, who are but a
small part of me, want to know what I do not know?
We are curious. I want to know how being so crude in your mountains, in
your deserts, in your seas, you appear nevertheless so industrious in your
animals, in your vegetables?
My poor child, do you want me to tell you the truth? It is that I have
been given a name which-does not suit me; my name is "Nature", and I am
That word upsets all my ideas. What! Nature is only art?
Yes, without any doubt. Do you not know that there is an infinite art in
those seas and those mountains that you find so crude? Do you not know
that all those waters gravitate towards the centre of the earth, and mount
only by immutable laws; that those mountains which crown the earth are
the immense reservoirs of the eternal snows which produce unceasingly those
fountains, lakes and rivers without which my animal species and my vegetable
species would perish? And as for what are called my animal kingdom, my
vegetable kingdom and my mineral kingdom, you see here only three; learn
that I have millions of kingdoms. But if you consider only the formation
of an insect, of an ear of corn, of gold, of copper, everything will appear
as marvels of art.
It is true. The more I think about it, the more I see that you are only
the art of I know not what most potent and industrious great being, who
hides himself and who makes you appear. All reasoners since Thales, and
probably long before him, have played at blind man's buff with you; they
have said: " I have you! " and they had nothing. We all resemble Ixion;
he thought he was kissing Juno, and all that he possessed was a cloud.
Since I am all that is, how can a being such as you, so small a part of
myself, seize me? Be content, atoms my children, with seeing a few atoms
that Surround you, with drinking a few drops of my milk, with vegetating
for a few moments on my breast, and with dying without having known your
mother and your nurse.
My dear mother, tell me something of why you exist, of why there is anything.
I will answer you as I have answered for so many centuries all those who
have interrogated me about first principles: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THEM.
THE PHILOSOPHER :
Would not non-existence be better than this multitude of existences made
in order to be continually dissolved, this crowd of animals born and reproduced
in order to devour others and to be devoured, this crowd of sentient beings
formed for so many painful sensations, that other crowd of intelligences
which so rarely hear reason? What is the good of all that, Nature?
Oh! go and ask Him who made me.
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