Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  The Liberty of the Will

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

The Liberty of the Will

From “Dialogues”


Phil.A battery of cannon is playing close by your ears; are you at liberty to hear or not to hear it?

Friend.Unquestionably, I cannot but hear it.

Phil.Would you have those cannon-balls carry off your head, and your wife’s and daughter’s, who are walking with you?

Friend.What a question! In my sober senses, it is impossible that I should will any such thing. I never could.

Phil.Well—you necessarily hear the explosion of those cannon, and you necessarily are against being, with your family, cut off by a cannon-shot, as you are taking the air. You have not the power not to hear, nor the power of willing to remain there.

Friend.Nothing more evident.

Phil.Accordingly, you have come thirty paces to be out of the cannon’s way: thus you have had the power of walking that little space with me.

Friend.That also is clear.

Phil.And, if you had been paralytic, you could not have avoided being exposed to this battery. You would not have had the power of being where you are; you would necessarily not only have heard the explosion, but have received a cannon-shot; and thus you would undoubtedly have been killed.

Friend.Very true.

Phil.In what, then, consists your liberty, if not in the power which your body has made use of to do, what your volition, by an absolute necessity, required?

Friend.You put me to a stand. Liberty, then, is nothing but the power of doing what I will?

Phil.Think of it, and see whether liberty can have any other meaning.

Friend.At this rate, my greyhound is as free as I am. He has necessarily a will to run at the sight of a hare, and likewise the power of running, if not lame; so that, in nothing am I superior to my dog. This is leveling me with the beasts.

Phil.Such are the wretched sophisms of those who have tutored you. Wretched to be in the same state of liberty as your dog? And are you not like your dog in a thousand things? In hunger, thirst, waking, sleeping? And your five senses, are they not also possessed by him? Are you for smelling otherwise than through the nose? Of hearing, except through the ears? Of seeing, without eyes? Why, then, are you for having liberty in a manner different from him?

Friend.How? Am I not at liberty to will what I will?

Phil.Your meaning?

Friend.I mean what all the world means. Is it not a common saying, will is free?

Phil.A proverb is no reason. Please to explain yourself more clearly.

Friend.I mean that I have the liberty of willing as I please.

Phil.By your leave, there is no sense in that. Do you not perceive that it is ridiculous to say, I will will. You will necessarily, in consequence of the ideas occurring to you. Would you marry? Yes or no?

Friend.What, were I to say, I neither will the one nor the other?

Phil.That would be answering like him who said: Some think that Cardinal Mazarin is dead, others believe him to be still living, but I believe neither the one nor the other!

Friend.Well, I have a mind to marry.

Phil.Good. That is something of an answer. And why have you a mind to marry?

Friend.Because I am in love with a young lady who is handsome, of a sweet temper, well-bred, with a tolerable fortune, sings charmingly, and her parents are people of good credit. Besides, I flatter myself that my addresses are very acceptable, both to herself and to her family.

Phil.Why, there is a reason. You see you cannot will without a reason, and I declare you have the liberty of marrying; that is, you have the liberty of signing the contract.

Friend.How? Not will without a reason? What, then, becomes of another proverb, Sit pro ratione voluntas? My will is my reason. I will, because I will.

Phil.My dear friend, under favor, that is an absurdity. There would then be in you an effect without a cause.

Friend.What! when I am playing at even and odd, is there a reason for my choosing even, rather than odd?

Phil.Yes, to be sure.

Friend.Pray, let me hear that reason.

Phil.Because the idea of odd presented itself to your mind before the contrary notion. It would be strange, indeed, that in some cases you will because there is a cause of volition; and that, in other cases, you will without any cause. In your willing to be married, you evidently perceive the determining reason. In playing at even and odd, you do not perceive it; and yet one there must be.

Friend.But again, am I not then free?

Phil.Your will is not free, but your actions are. You are free to act, when you have the power of acting.

Friend.But all the books I have read on the liberty of indifference——

Phil.Are nonsense. There is no such thing as the liberty of indifference. The phrase is void of sense, and was coined by people who were not overloaded with it.