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.

Soul I

THIS is a vague, indeterminate term, which expresses an unknown principle of known effects that we feel in us. The word soul corresponds to the Latin anima, to the Greek (greek word), to the term of which all nations have made use to express what they did not understand any better than we do.

In the proper and literal sense of the Latin and the languages derived from Latin, it signifies that which animates. Thus people have spoken of the soul of men, of animals, sometimes of plants, to signify their principal of vegetation and life. In pronouncing this word, people have never had other than a confused idea, as when it is said in Genesis-- And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul; and the soul of animals is in the blood; and kill not my soul, etc."

Thus the soul was generally taken for the origin and the cause of life, for life itself. That is why all known nations long imagined that everything died with the body. If one can disentangle anything in the chaos of ancient histories, it seems that the Egyptians at least were the first to distinguish between the intelligence and the soul: and the Greeks learned from them to distinguish their vous, their (greek word), their (greek word). The Latins, following their example, distinguished animus and anima; and we, finally, have also had our soul and our understanding. But is that which is the principle of our life different from that which is the principle of our thoughts? is it the same being? Does that which directs us and gives us sensation and memory resemble that which is in animals the cause of digestion and the cause of their sensations and of their memory?

There is the eternal object of the disputes of mankind; I say eternal object; for not having any first notion from which we can descend in this examination, we can only rest for ever in a labyrinth of doubt and feeble conjecture.

We have not the smallest step where we may place a foot in order to reach the most superficial knowledge of what makes us live and of what makes us think. How should we have? we should have had to see life and thought enter a body. Does a father know how he has produced his son? does a mother how she conceived him? Has anyone ever been able to divine how he acts, how he wakes, how he sleeps? Does anyone know how his limbs obey his will? has anyone discovered by what art ideas are marked out in his brain and issue from it at his command? Frail automatons moved by the invisible hand which directs us on this Stage of the world, which of us has been able to detect the wire which guides us ?

We dare question whether the soul is " Spirit " or " matter " ; if it is created before us, if it issues from nonexistence at our birth, if after animating us for one day on earth, it lives after us into eternity. These questions appear sublime; what are they? questions of blind men saying to other blind men-" What is light?"

When we want to learn something roughly about a piece of metal, we put it in a crucible in the fire. But have we a crucible in which to put the soul? " The soul is spirit," says one. But what is spirit? Assuredly no one has any idea; it is a word that is so void of sense that one is obliged to say what spirit is not, not being able to say what it is. " The soul is matter," says another. But what is matter? We know merely some of its appearances and some of its properties; and not one of these properties, not one of these appearances, seems to have the slightest connection with thought.

" Thought is something distinct from matter," say you. But what proof of it have you? Is it because matter is divisible and figurable, and thought is not? But who has told you that the first principles of matter are divisible and figurable? It is very probable that they are not; entire sects of philosophers maintain that the elements of matter have neither form nor extension. With a triumphant air you cry--" Thought is neither wood, nor stone, nor sand, nor metal, therefore thought does not belong to matter." Weak, reckless reasoners! gravitation is neither wood, nor Sand, nor metal, nor stone; movement, vegetation, life are not these things either, and yet life, vegetation, movement, gravitation, are given to matter. To say that God cannot make matter think is to say the most insolently absurd thing that anyone has ever dared utter in the privileged schools of lunacy. We are not certain that God has treated matter like this; we are only certain that He can. But what matters all that has been said and all that will be said about the soul? what does it matter that it has been called entelechy, quintessence, flame, ether? that it has been thought universal, uncreated, transmigrant, etc.?

In these matters that are inaccessible to the reason, what do these romances of our uncertain imaginations matter? What does it matter that the Fathers of the first four centuries thought the soul corporeal? What does it matter that Tertullian, by a contradiction frequent in him, has decided that it is simultaneously corporeal, formed and simple? We have a thousand witnesses to ignorance, and not one that gives a glimmer of probability.

How then are we so bold as to assert what the soul is? We know certainly that we exist, that we feel, that we think. Do we want to take a step beyond? we fall into a shadowy abyss; and in this abyss we are Still so madly reckless as to dispute whether this soul, of which we have not the least idea, was made before us or with us, and whether it perishes or is immortal.

The article SOUL, and all the articles of the nature of metaphysics, must start by a sincere submission to the incontrovertible dogmas of the Church. Revelation is worth more, without doubt, than the whole of philosophy. Systems exercise the mind, but faith illumines and guides it.

Do we not often pronounce words of which we have only a very confused idea, or even of which we have none at all? Is not the word soul an instance? When the clapper or valve of a bellows is out of order, and when air which is in the bellows leaves it by some unexpected opening in this valve, so that it is no longer corn pressed against the two blades, and is not thrust violently towards the hearth which it has to light, French servants say--" The soul of the bellows has burst." They know no more about it than that; and this question in no wise disturbs their peace of mind.

The gardener utters the phrase " the soul of the plants," and cultivates them very well without knowing what he means by this term.

The violin-maker poses, draws forward or back the " soul of a violin " beneath the bridge in the belly of the instrument; a puny piece of wood more or less gives the violin or takes away from it a harmonious soul.

We have many industries in which the workmen give the qualification of " soul " to their machines. Never does one hear them dispute about this word. Such is not the case with philosophers.

For us the word " soul " signifies generally that which animates. Our ancestors the Celts gave to their soul the name of seel, from which the English soul, and the German seel; and probably the ancient Teutons and the ancient Britons had no quarrels in their universities over this expression.

The Greeks distinguished three sorts of soul--(greek), which signified the sensitive soul, the soul of the senses; and that is why Love, child of Aphrodite, had so much passion for Psyche, and why Psyche loved him so tenderly : (greek), the breath which gives life and movement to the whole machine, and which we have translated by spiritus, spirit; vague word to which have been given a thousand different meanings: and finally (greek), the intelligence.

We possessed therefore three souls, without having the least notion of any of them. St. Thomas Aquinas (Summation of St. Thomas. Lyons edition, 1738) admits these three souls as a peripatetic, and distinguishes each of these three souls in three parts. (greek) was in the breast, (greek) was distributed throughout the body, and (greek) was in the head. There has been no other philosophy in our schools up to our day, and woe betide any man who took one of these souls for the other.

In this chaos of ideas there was, nevertheless, a foundation. Men had noticed that in their passions of love, hate, anger, fear, their internal organs were stimulated to movement. The liver and the heart were the seat of the passions. If one thought deeply, one felt a strife in the organs of the head; therefore the intellectual soul was in the head. Without respiration no vegetation, no life; therefore the vegetative soul was in the breast which receives the breath of air.

When men saw in dreams their dead relatives or friends, they had to seek what had appeared to them. It was not the body which had been consumed on a funeral pyre, or swallowed up in the sea and eaten by the fishes. It was, however, something, so they maintained; for they had seen it; the dead man had spoken; the dreamer had questioned him. Was it (greek), was it (greek), was it (greek), with whom one had conversed in the dream? One imagined a phantom, an airy figure: it was (greek), it was (greek), a ghost from the shades, a little soul of air and fire, very unrestricted, which wandered I know not where.

Eventually, when one wanted to sift the matter, it became a constant that this soul was corporeal; and the whole of antiquity never had any other idea. At last came Plato who so subtilized this soul that it was doubtful if he did not separate it entirely from matter; but that was a problem that was never solved until faith came to enlighten us.

In vain do the materialists quote some of the fathers of the Church who did not express themselves with precision. St. Irenaeus says (Liv. v. chaps. vi and vii) that the soul is only the breath of life, that it is incorporeal only by comparison with the mortal body, and that it preserves the form of man so that it may be recognized.

In vain does Tertullian express himself like this--" The corporeality of the soul shines bright in the Gospel." (Corporalitas animae in ipso Evangelio relucescit, DE ANIMA. cap. vii.). For if the soul did not have a body, the image of the soul would not have the image of the body.

In vain does he record the vision of a holy woman who had seen a very shining soul, of the colour of air.

In vain does Tatien say expressly (Oratio ad Graecos, c. xxiii.) --" The soul of man is composed of many parts."

In vain is St. Hilarius quoted as saying in later times (St. Hilarius on St. Matthew)-" There is nothing created which is not corporeal, either in heaven, or on earth, or among the visible, or among the invisible: everything is formed of elements; and souls, whether they inhabit a body, or issue from it, have always a corporeal substance."

In vain does St. Ambrose, in the sixth century say (On Abraham, liv. ii., ch. viii.)--" We recognize nothing but the material, except the venerable Trinity alone."

The body of the entire Church has decided that the soul is immaterial. These saints fell into an error at that time universal; they were men; but they were not mistaken over immortality, because that is clearly announced in the Gospels.

We have so evident a need of the decision of the infallible Church on these points of philosophy, that we have not indeed by ourselves any sufficient notion of what is called " pure spirit," and of what is named " matter." Pure spirit is an expression which gives us no idea; and we know matter only by a few phenomena. We know it so little that we call it " substance "; well, the word substance means " that which is under '' ; but what is under will be eternally hidden from us. What is under is the Creator's secret; and this secret of the Creator is everywhere. We do not know either how we receive life, or how we give it, or how we grow, or how we digest, or how we sleep, or how we think, or how we feel.

The great difficulty is to understand how a being, whoever he be, has thoughts.

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