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 IV


On the testimony of our acquired knowledge, we have dared question whether the soul is created before us, whether it comes from non-existence into our body? at what age it came to settle between a bladder and the intestines caecum and rectum? if it brought ideas with it or received them there, and what are these ideas? if after animating us for a few moments, its essence is to live after us into eternity without the intervention of God Himself? if being spirit, and God being spirit, they are both of like nature? These questions seem sublime; what are they? questions about light by men born blind.

What have all the philosophers, ancient and modern, taught us? a child is wiser than they are; he does not think about things of which he can form no conception.

You will say that it is sad for our insatiable curiosity, for our inexhaustible thirst for happiness, to be thus ignorant of ourselves! I agree, and there are still sadder things; but I shall answer you:

Sors tua mortalis, non est mortale quod optas.

-Ovid, Met. II. 56

"You have a man's fate, and a god's desires."

Once again, it seems that the nature of every principle of things is the Creator's secret. How does the air carry sound? how are animals formed? how do some of our limbs constantly obey our wills? what hand puts ideas in our memory, keeps them there as in a register, and pulls them out sometimes when we want them and sometimes in spite of ourselves? Our nature, the nature of the universe, the nature of the least plant, everything for us is sunk in a shadowy pit.

Man is an acting, feeling, thinking being: that is all we know of him: it is not given to us to know what makes us feel and think, or what makes us act, or what makes us exist. The acting faculty is as incomprehensible for us as the thinking faculty. The difficulty is less to conceive how a body of mud has feelings and ideas, than to conceive how a being, whatever it be, has ideas and feelings.

Here on one side the soul of Archimedes, on the other the soul of an idiot; are they of the same nature? If their essence is to think, they think always, and independently of the body which cannot act without them. If they think by their own nature, can the species of a soul which cannot do a sum in arithmetic be the same as that which measured the heavens? If it is the organs of the body which made Archimedes think, why is it that my idiot, who has a stronger constitution than Archimedes, who is more vigorous, digests better and performs all his functions better, does not think at all? It is, you say, because his brain is not so good. But you are making a supposition; you do not know at all. No difference has ever been found between healthy brains that have been dissected. It is even very probable that a fool's cerebellum will be in better condition that Archimedes', which has worked prodigiously, and which might be worn out and shrivelled.

Let us conclude therefore what we have already concluded, that we are ignoramuses about all first principles. As regards ignoramuses who pride themselves on their knowledge, they are far inferior to monkeys.

Now dispute, choleric arguers: present your petitions against each other; proffer your insults, pronounce your sentences, you who do not know one word about the matter.

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