Home  »  library  »  prose  »  The Ignorant Philosopher

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Ignorant Philosopher

By Voltaire (1694–1778)

From the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’

WHO art thou? Whence art thou? What is thy business here? What will become of thee?—These are questions which confront us all, but which not a man of us can answer. I ask the plants what power occasions their growth; and how the same soil produces fruits so different. Insensible and mute, these leave me to my ignorance. I interrogate that crowd of animals endowed with motion, able to communicate, who enjoy my very sensations; who possess some ideas, some memory, all the passions. They know even less than I what they are, why they are, what they shall be. I am a weak animal: I come into the world without knowledge, strength, or instinct. I cannot even crawl to my mother’s breast, as can other animals. I acquire a few ideas, as I acquire a little strength, when my organs begin to develop. This strength increases to a certain degree, and then daily decreases. So the power of conceiving ideas increases to a certain degree, and then insensibly disappears. What is the nature of that crescent force? I know not; and those who have spent their lives in search of this unsearchable cause know no more than I. What is that other power which creates images in my brain? which preserves them in my memory? Those who spend their lives in seeking for this knowledge have sought it in vain. We are as ignorant of first principles as we were in our cradles. Have I learned anything from the books of the past two thousand years? Sometimes a desire arises in us to understand in what manner we think. I have interrogated my reason, imploring it to explain. The question confounds it. I have tried to discover if the same springs of action which enable me to digest or to walk are those whereby I develop ideas. I cannot conceive how or wherefore these ideas flee, when hunger makes my body languish, and how they spring up again when I have eaten. I have observed so great a difference in my thinking when I am well fed or ill fed, that I have believed there was a substance in me which reasoned, and another substance which digested. But on endeavoring to prove to myself that we are two, I have been sure that I am only one; and the contradiction confuses me.

I have asked some of my fellow-creatures who with great industry cultivate the earth, our common source of life, if they felt themselves to be double beings; if they had discovered in their philosophy that they possessed an immortal substance that was yet formed of nothing, existed without extent, acted on their nerves without touching them, and actually preceded their creation. They thought I was laughing at them, and went about their business with not so much as a reply. Seeing then that an immense number of men had not the least idea of the difficulties that distressed me, nor perplexed themselves with what was said in the schools,—of Being in the abstract, of matter and spirit, etc.,—observing too that they often diverted themselves with my eagerness to learn, I suspected it to be unnecessary that we should know these things. I concluded that nature gives to every being what is proper for him; and I came to think that those things which we could not obtain were not designed for us. Notwithstanding this depressing conclusion, however, I cannot suppress the desire of being instructed; and my disappointed curiosity is ever insatiable….

We must renounce common-sense, or else concede that we know nothing save by experience; and certainly if it be by experience alone—by a series of trials and through long reflection—that we acquire some feeble and slight ideas of body, of space, of time, of infinity, even of God, it is not likely that the author of our nature placed these ideas in the brain of every fœtus, in order that only a small number of men should afterwards make use of them….

Having no ideas, then, save by experience, it is not possible that we should ever know what matter is. We touch and we see the properties of that substance. But even the word substance, that which is beneath, hints to us that this thing beneath will be unknown to us forever. Whatever we discover of its appearance, this substance, this foundation, will ever elude us. For the same reason we shall never of ourselves know what spirit is. The word originally signified breath, and by its use we express vaguely and grossly that which inspires thinking. But if, even by a miracle,—which is not to be expected,—we should achieve some slight idea of the substance of this spirit, we should be no further advanced; and we could never imagine how this substance received sentiments and thoughts. We know that we possess a modicum of intelligence; but how do we acquire it? It is a secret of Nature which she has not divulged to any mortal….

I find at this time, in this period,—which is the dawn of reason,—that some of the hydra heads of fanaticism are again springing up. Their poison however is apparently less mortal, their jaws less voracious, than of yore. Less blood is spilled for the sake of dogma than was long wasted on account of plenary indulgences sold at market. But fanaticism still lives. Every man who searches for truth incurs the danger of persecution. Are we then to remain idle in mental darkness? Or must we light a flambeau at which envy and calumny may rekindle their torches? For my own part, I would no more conceal truth in the face of these monsters than I would go without food for fear of being poisoned.