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 III


Before the strange system which supposes animals to be pure machines without any sensation, men had never thought that the beasts possessed an immaterial soul; and nobody had pushed recklessness to the point of saying that an oyster has a spiritual soul. Everyone concurred peaceably in agreeing that the beasts had received from God feeling, memory, ideas, and no pure spirit. Nobody had abused the gift of reason to the point of saying that nature had given the beasts all the organs of feeling so that they might not feel anything. Nobody had said that they cry when they are wounded, and that they fly when pursued, without experiencing pain or fear.

At that time people did not deny the omnipotence of God; He had been able to communicate to the organized matter of animals pleasure, pain, remembrance, the combination of a few ideas; He had been able to give to several of them, such as the monkey, the elephant, the hunting-dog, the talent of perfecting themselves in the arts which were taught to them; not only had He been able to endow nearly all carnivorous animals with the talent of warring better in their experienced old age than in their too trustful youth; not only, I say, had He been able to do these things, but He had done them: the universe bore witness thereto.

Pereira and Descartes maintained that the universe was mistaken, that God was a juggler, that He had given animals all the instruments of life and sensation, so that they might have neither life nor sensation, properly speaking. But I do not know what so-called philosophers, in order to answer Descartes' chimera, leaped into the opposite chimera; they gave liberally of pure spirit to the toads and the insects.

Between these two madnesses, the one refusing feeling to the organs of feeling, the other lodging a pure spirit in a bug, somebody thought of a middle path. It was instinct. And what is instinct? Oh, oh, it is a substantial form; it is a plastic form; it is I do not know what; it is instinct. I shall be of your opinion so long as you will call the majority of things, " I do not know what "; so long as your philosophy begins and ends with " I do not know what", I shall quote Prior to you in his poem on the vanity of the world.

The author of the article SOUL in the " Encyclopedia " explains himself like this:-" I picture the animals' soul as an immaterial and intelligent substance, but of what species? It must, it seems to me, be an active principle which has sensations, and which has only that. . . . If we reflect on the nature of the soul of animals, it supplies us with groundwork which might lead us to think that its spirituality will save it from annihilation."

I do not know how one pictures an immaterial substance. To picture something is to make an image of it; and up till now nobody has been able to paint the spirit. For the word " picture '', I want the author to understand '' I conceive '' ; speaking for myself, I confess I do not conceive it. I confess still less that a spiritual soul may be annihilated, because I do not conceive either creation or non-existence; because I have never been present at God's council; because I know nothing at all about the principle of things.

If I wish to prove that the soul is a real being, someone stops me by telling me that it is a faculty. If I assert that it is a faculty, and that I have the faculty of thinking, I am told that I am mistaken; that God, the eternal master of all nature, does everything in me, and directs all my actions and all my thoughts; that if I produced my thoughts, I should know the thought I will have in a minute; that I never know it; that I am only an automaton with sensations and ideas, necessarily dependent, and in the hands of the Supreme Being, infinitely more compliant to Him than clay is to the potter.

I confess my ignorance, therefore; I avow that four thousand tomes of metaphysics will not teach us what our soul is.

An orthodox philosopher said to a heterodox philosopher --" How have you been able to come to the point of imagining that the soul is mortal by nature, and eternal only by the pure wish of God ? "

" By my own experience," said the other.

" How! are you dead? "

" Yes, very often. I suffered from epilepsy in my youth, and I assure you that I was completely dead for several hours. No sensation, no remembrance even of the moment that I fell ill. The same thing happens to me now nearly every night. I never feel the precise moment that I go to sleep; my sleep is absolutely dreamless. I cannot imagine by conjecture how long I have slept. I am dead regularly six hours out of the twenty-four. That is a quarter of my life."

The orthodox then asserted that he always thought during his sleep without knowing anything about it. The heterodox answered him-" I believe through revelation that I shall always think in the other life; but I assure you I think rarely in this one."

The orthodox was not mistaken in asserting the immortality of the soul, for faith and reason demonstrate this truth; but he might be mistaken in asserting that a sleeping man always thinks.

Locke admitted frankly that he did not always think while he was asleep: another philosopher has said " Thought is characteristic of man; but it is not his essence."

Let us leave to each man the liberty and consolation of seeking himself, and of losing himself in his ideas.

It is good, however, to know, that in 1730 a philosopher suffered a severe enough persecution for having confessed, with Locke, that his understanding was not exercised at every moment of the day and night, just as he did not use his arms and his legs at all moments. Not only did court ignorance persecute him, but the malignant influence of a few so-called men of letters was let loose against him. What in England had produced merely a few philosophical disputes, produced in France the most cowardly atrocities; a Frenchman suffered by Locke.

There have always been in the mud of our literature more than one of these miscreants who have sold their pens, and intrigued against their benefactors even. This remark is rather foreign to the article SOUL; but should one miss an opportunity of dismaying those who make themselves unworthy of the name of men of letters, who prostitute the little mind and conscience they have to a vile self-interest, to a fantastic policy, who betray their friends to flatter fools, who in secret powder the hemlock which the powerful and malicious ignoramus wants to make useful citizens drink?

In short, while we worship God with all our soul, let us confess always our profound ignorance of this soul, of this faculty of feeling and thinking which we possess from His infinite goodness. Let us avow that our feeble reasonings can take nothing away from, or add anything to revelation and faith. Let us conclude in fine that we should use this intelligence, the nature of which is unknown, for perfecting the sciences which are the object of the " Encyclopedia "; just as watchmakers use springs in their watches, without knowing what a spring is.

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