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.


" PILATE therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice.

" Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? And when he had said this he went out, etc." (St. John xviii. 37).

It is a sad thing for the human race that Pilate went out without waiting for the answer; we should know what truth is. Pilate had very little curiosity. The accused led before him, says he is king, that he was to be king; and Pilate doe-s not inquire how that can be. He is supreme judge in Caesar's name, he has power of life and death; his duty was to probe the sense of these words. He ought to say--" Tell me what you understand by being king. How were you born to be king and to bear witness to the truth? It is maintained that truth reaches but with difficulty to the ear of kings. I am judge, I have always had great trouble in finding it. While your enemies are howling against you without, give me some information on the point; you will be doing me the greatest service that has ever been done a judge; and I much prefer to learn to recognize truth, than to accede to the Jews' clamorous demand to have you hanged."

We shall not dare, to be sure, seek what the author of all truth would have been able to reply to Pilate.

Would he have said : " Truth is an abstract word which most men use indifferently in their books and judgments, for error and falsehood? " This definition would have been marvellously appropriate to all makers of systems. Similarly is the word " wisdom " taken often for folly, and " wit" for nonsense.

Humanly speaking, let us define truth, while waiting for a better definition, as--" a statement of the facts as they are."

I suppose that if one had given only six months to teaching Pilate the truths of logic, he would assuredly have made this conclusive syllogism. One must not take away the life of a man who has only preached good morality: well, the man who has been impeached has, on the showing of his enemies even, often preached excellent morality; therefore he should not be punished with death.

He might have drawn this further argument.

My duty is to disperse the riotous assemblage of a seditious people who demand a man's death, unreasonably and without legal form; well, that is the position of the Jews in this instance; therefore I must drive them away and break up their meeting.

We suppose that Pilate knew arithmetic; hence we will not speak of those forms of truth.

As regards mathematical truths, I think it would have taken at least three years before he could have learned higher geometry. The truths of physics combined with those of geometry would have demanded more than four years. We spend six, ordinarily, in studying theolgy; I ask twelve for Pilate, seeing that he was pagan, and that six years would not have been too much for eradicating all his old errors, and six years more for making him fit to receive a doctor's hood.

If Pilate had had a well-balanced mind, I should have asked only two years to teach him metaphysical truth; and as metaphysical truth is necessarily allied to moral truth, I flatter myself that in less than nine years be would have become a real scholar and a perfectly honest man.

I should then have said to Pilate:--Historical truths are merely probabilities. If you had fought at the battle of Philippi, that is for you a truth which you know by' intuition, by perception. But for us who dwell near the Syrian desert, it is merely a very probable thing, which we know by hearsay. How much hearsay is necessary to form a conviction equal to that of a man who, having seen the thing, can flatter himself that he has a sort of certainty?

He who has heard the thing told by twelve thousand eye-witnesses, has only twelve thousand probabilities, equal to one strong probability, which is not equal to certainty.

If you have the thing from only one of these witnesses, you know nothing; you should be sceptical. If the witness is dead, you should be still more sceptical, for you cannot enlighten yourself. If from several witnesses who are dead, you are in the same plight. If from those to whom the witnesses have spoken, your scepticism should increase still more.

From generation to generation scepticism increases, and probability diminishes; and soon probability is reduced to zero.

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