“I have spent nearly forty years of my pilgrimage in two or three corners of this world seeking the philosopher’s stone that is called Truth.” With those interesting words, Voltaire, the 18th-century writer, skeptic, and iconoclast begins an interesting essay about ancient philosophers. It is actually the submission to The Philosophical Dictionary, a project of tremendous importance to the Enlightenment, and it is entitled “Precis of Ancient Philosophy.” Alongside Denis Diderot’s and Jean d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, published starting in 1751, France was churning out some incredible works of Enlightenment nonfiction. Considering this was during the reign of King Louis the whatever and Pope whomever, the use of the pen was actually dangerous business. We should all take our hats off to these men of great courage and vision. And be happy Switzerland existed.
Wikipedia enlightens us thusly: “The Dictionnaire philosophique (Philosophical Dictionary) is an encyclopedic dictionary published by Voltaire in 1764. The alphabetically arranged articles often criticize the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions. The first edition, released in June 1764,…was 344 pages and consisted of 73 articles. Later versions were expanded into two volumes consisting of 120 articles. The first editions were published anonymously in Geneva by Gabriel Grasset.”
There is quite a bit of wisdom in this reaching and searching work, though he comes across as a bit pedantic and cocky, as you can see from the rest of the first paragraph:
“I have consulted all the adepts of antiquity, Epicurus and Augustine, Plato and Malebranche and I have remained in my poverty. Maybe in all these philosophers’ crucibles there are one or two ounces of gold; but all the rest is residue, dull mud, from which nothing can be born.”
Wow. Ok. The man was smart and productive, but come on. Socrates? Aristotle? Aquinas? Sophocles?
“It seems to me that the Greeks our masters wrote much more to show their intelligence than that they used their intelligence in order to learn. I do not see a single author of antiquity who had a coherent system, a clear, methodical system progressing from consequence to consequence. When I wanted to compare and combine the systems of Plato, of the preceptor of Alexander, of Pythagoras and of the Orientals, here, more or less, is what I was able to gather.”
Okay, I like that previous paragraph more. It’s incisive; he throws down the gauntlet. Let’s keep giving him rope and see if he ties up all prior centuries of thought, or hangs himself (and note this section I set off is very long and drawn out; read judiciously or even skip it):
“Chance is a word empty of sense; nothing can exist without a cause. The world is arranged according to mathematical laws; it is therefore arranged by an intelligence. It is not an intelligent being such as I am, who directed the formation of this world, for I cannot form a mite; therefore this world is the work of a prodigiously superior intelligence.
Does this being, who possesses intelligence and power in so high a degree, exist necessarily? It must be so, for either the being received existence from another, or from its own nature. If the being received existence from another, which is very difficult to imagine, I must have recourse to this other, and this other will be the prime author. To whichever side I turn I have to admit a prime author, potent and intelligent, who is such necessarily by his own nature.
Did this prime author produce things out of nothing? that is not imaginable; to create out of nothing is to change nothing into something. I must not admit such a production unless I find invincible reasons which force me to admit what my intelligence can never comprehend.
All that exists appears to exist necessarily, since it exists. For if today there is a reason for the existence of things, there was one yesterday, there was one in all time; and this cause must always have had its effect, without which it would have been during eternity a useless cause.
But how shall things have always existed, being visibly under the hand of the prime author? This power therefore must always have acted; in the same way, nearly, that there is no sun without light, so there is no movement without a being that passes from one point of space to another point.
There is therefore a potent and intelligent being who has always acted; and if this being had never acted, of what use would his existence have been to him? All things are therefore eternal emanations of this prime author.
But how imagine that stone and mud are emanations of the eternal Being, potent and intelligent? Of two things one, either the matter of this stone and this mud exist necessarily by themselves, or they exist necessarily through this prime author; there is no middle course. Thus, therefore, there are only two choices to make, admit either matter eternal by itself, or matter issuing eternally from the potent, intelligent, eternal Being.
But, either subsisting by its own nature, or emanated from the producing Being, it exists from all eternity, because it exists, and there is no reason why it should not have existed before. If matter is eternally necessary, it is therefore impossible, it is therefore contradictory that it does not exist; but what man can affirm that it is impossible, that it is contradictory that this pebble and this fly have not existence? One is, nevertheless, forced to suppress this difficulty which astonishes the imagination more than it contradicts the principles of reasoning.
In fact, as soon as you have imagined that everything has emanated from the supreme and intelligent Being, that nothing has emanated from the Being without reason, that this Being existing always, must always have acted, that consequently all things must have eternally issued from the womb of His existence, you should no more refuse to believe in the matter of which this pebble and this fly, an eternal production, are formed, than you refuse to imagine light as an eternal emanation from the omnipotent Being.
Since I am a being with extension and thought, my extension and my thought are therefore necessary productions of this Being. It is evident to me that I cannot give myself either extension or thought. I have therefore received both from this necessary Being. Can He give me what He has not? I have intelligence and I am in space; therefore He is intelligent, and He is in space.
To say that this eternal Being, this omnipotent God, has from all time necessarily filled the universe with His productions, is not to deprive Him of His liberty; on the contrary, for liberty is only the power of acting. God has always acted to the full; therefore God has always made use of the fullness of His liberty.
The liberty that is called liberty of indifference is a phrase without idea, an absurdity; for it would be determination without reason; it would be an effect without a cause. Therefore, God cannot have this so-called liberty which is a contradiction in terms. He has therefore always acted through this same necessity which makes His existence.
It is therefore impossible for the world to be without God, it is impossible for God to be without the world. This world is filled with beings who succeed each other, therefore God has always produced beings who succeed each other.”
This guy loves to write! He then arrives, at long last, at his main point: “These preliminary assertions are the basis of the ancient Oriental philosophy and of that of the Greeks.” Ok, so he is saying that the ancients were staunch believers. Voltaire, on the other hand, is decidedly deistic – or at least, anti-dogmatic, anti-clerical, and free-thinking. He was basically looking back and seeing that these so-called great philosophers – veritable inventors of philosophy – were starry-eyed theists, about which he grants little respect. By “Oriental” I think he is referring to Confucius and Buddha and the like.
“One must except Democritus and Epicurus, whose corpuscular philosophy combated these dogmas. But let us remark that the Epicureans relied on an entirely erroneous natural philosophy, and that the metaphysical system of all the other philosophers holds good with all the systems of natural philosophy. The whole of nature, excepting the vacuum, contradicts Epicurus; and no phenomenon contradicts the philosophy which I have just explained. Well, is not a philosophy which is in accord with all that passes in nature, and which contents the most careful minds, superior to all other non-revealed systems?”
He saves the most interesting part for last:
“After this ancient philosophy, which I have reconciled as far as has been possible for me, what is left to us? a chaos of doubts and chimeras. I do not think that there has ever been a philosopher with a system who did not at the end of his life avow that he had wasted his time. It must be admitted that the inventors of the mechanical arts have been much more useful to mankind than the inventors of syllogisms: the man who invented the shuttle surpasses with a vengeance the man who imagined innate ideas.”
I suppose a shuttle is a carriage or some such thing. At any rate, he is accusing almost all ancient philosophers of being abstruse and obtuse and virtually useless. The ego! In fact, Aristotle has been called, simply, The Philosopher, because he is so wide-ranging and penetrating in his analyses of nature, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and so on. He’s not perfect, but I would not impugn ancient philosphy with the sweep of my quill as Voltaire did, though, I do defend his right to say such things 🙂
Well, there you have it: a look at Voltaire’s view of ancient philosophy. Here are a few additional tidbits before I bid you adieu:
“Spinoza and Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire, different as their philosophies were, all shared this passionate faith in reason; they all felt the common bond of fighting for a new, truly enlightened, free and human world.”
“In general, the wise in all ages have always said the same things, and the fools, who at all times form the immense majority, have in their way too acted alike, and done the opposite; and so it will continue. For, as Voltaire says, we shall leave the world as foolish and wicked as we found it.”
“With all due admiration for the lucidity of his writings and his unmatched erudition in a wide range of fields, few have inquired what was behind the mocking mask of this ‘infidel,’ whose pen thrusts made many a crowned head of his era tremble. A grin and an air of mockery often serve to cover the sensitive nerve and pain-racked heart, and the condition of man in the eighteenth century must have been torture to one with a social conscience and compassion, such as Voltaire.” ~ Ida Postman
“If the new-minted citizen turns critic of his adopted country – attacking policies and politicians with impunity – he enjoys this privileged pastime because of the likes of Voltaire, who also had to skip across frontiers to escape persecution and keep dissenting.”
“Interesting that Nietzsche, along with Voltaire, are the only philosophers who had a sense of humor.”
“Voltaire thought the existence of the world was proof of a creator, but of no more.”
Here is the rest of the book online in its entirety.
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