Durant 1926: The Encyclopedia and the Philosophic Dictionary (Voltaire)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 7 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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VII. The Encyclopedia and the Philosophic Dictionary

The popularity of so irreverent a book as Candide gives us some sense of the spirit of the age. The lordly culture of Louis XIV’s time, despite the massive bishops who spoke so eloquent a part in it, had learned to smile at dogma and tradition. The failure of the Reformation to capture France had left for Frenchmen no half-way house between infallibility and infidelity; and while the intellect of Germany and England moved leisurely in the lines of religious evolution, the mind of France leaped from the hot faith which had massacred the Huguenots to the cold hostility with which La Mettrie, Helvetius, Holbach and Diderot turned upon the religion of their fathers. Let us look for a moment at the intelleetual environment in which the later Voltaire moved and had his being. 

In the 17th century, France moved rapidly from hot faith of Christendom to cold hostility of scientific materialism.

La Mettrie (1709-61) was an army physician who had lost his post by writing a Naturtal History of the Soul, and had won exile by a work called Man a Machine. He had taken refuge at the court of Frederick, who was himself something of an advanced thinker and was resolved to have the very latest culture from Paris. La Mettrie took up the idea of mechanism where the frightened Descartes, like a boy who has burned his fingers, had dropped it; and announced boldly that all the world, not excepting man, was a machine. The soul is material, and matter is soulful; but whatever they are they act upon each other, and grow and decay with each other in a way that leaves no doubt of their essential similarity and interdependence. If the soul is pure spirit, how can enthusiasm warm the body, or fever in the body disturb the processes of the mind? All organisms have evolved out of one original germ, through the reciprocal action of organism and environment. The reason why animals have intelligence, and plants none, is that animals move about for their food, while plants take what comes to them. Man has the highest intelligence because he has the greatest wants and the widest mobility; “beings without wants are also without mind.” 

The emerging idea was that the soul is material, and matter is soulful; but whatever they are they act upon each other, and grow and decay with each other in a way that leaves no doubt of their essential similarity and interdependence. 

Though La Mettrie was exiled for these opinions, Helvetius (1715-71), who took them as the basis of his book On Man, became one of the richest men in France, and rose to position and honor. Here we have the ethic, as in La Mettrie the metaphysic, of atheism. All action is dictated by egoism, self-love; “even the hero follows the feeling which for him is associated with the greatest pleasure”; and “virtue is egoism furnished with a spy-glass.” Conscience is not the voice of God, but the fear of the police; it is the deposit left in us from the stream of prohibitions poured over the growing soul by parents and teachers and press. Morality must be founded not on theology but on sociology; the changing needs of society, and not any unchanging revelation or dogma, must determine the good. 

Here we have the ethic of atheism. All action is dictated by egoism, self-love. Conscience is not the voice of God, but the fear of the police. Morality must be founded not on theology but on sociology.

The greatest figure in this group was Denis Diderot (1713-84). His ideas were expressed in various fragments from his own pen, and in the System of Nature of Baron d’Holbach (1723-89), whose salon was the centre of Diderot’s circle. “If we go back to the beginning,” says Holbach, “we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom respects and tyranny supports them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.” Belief in God, said Diderot, is bound up with submission to autocracy; the two rise and fall together; and “men will never be free till the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” The earth will come into its own only when heaven is destroyed. Materialism may be an over-simplification of the world—all matter is probably instinct with life, and it is impossible to reduce the unity of consciousness to matter and motion; but materialism is a good weapon against the Church, and must be used till a better one is found. Meanwhile one must spread knowledge and encourage industry; industry will make for peace, and knowledge will make a new and natural morality. 

Here is the thinking that belief in God is bound up with submission to autocracy; the two rise and fall together. All matter is probably instinct with life, and it is impossible to reduce the unity of consciousness to matter and motion. Industry will make for peace, and knowledge will make a new and natural morality. 

These are the ideas which Diderot and d’Alembert labored to disseminate through the great Encyclopedie which they issued, volume by volume, from 1752 to 1772. The Church had the first volumes suppressed; and as the opposition increased, Diderot’s comrades abandoned him; but he worked on angrily, invigorated by his rage. “I know nothing so indecent,” he said, “as these vague declamations of the theologians against reason. To hear them one would suppose that men could not enter into the bosom of Christianity except as a herd of cattle enters a stable.” It was, as Paine put it, the age of reason; these men never doubted that the intellect was the ultimate human test of all truth and all good. Let reason be freed, they said, and it would in a few generations build Utopia. Diderot did not suspect that the erotic and neurotic Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whom he had just introduced to Paris, was carrying in his head, or in his heart, the seeds of a revolution against this enthronement of reason; a revolution which, armed with the impressive obscurities of Immanuel Kant, would soon capture every citadel of philosophy. 

It was the age of reason; these men never doubted that the intellect was the ultimate human test of all truth and all good.

Naturally enough, Voltaire, who was interested in everything, and had a hand in every fight, was caught up for a time in the circle of the Encyclopedists; they were glad to call him their leader; and he was not averse to their incense, though some of their ideas needed a little pruning. They asked him to write articles for their great undertaking, and he responded with a facility and fertility which delighted them. When he had finished this work he set about making an encyclopedia of his own, which he called a Philosophic Dictionary; with unprecedented audacity he took subject after subject as the alphabet suggested them, and poured out under each heading part of his inexhaustible resources of knowledge and wisdom. Imagine a man writing on everything, and producing a classic none the less; the most readable and sparkling of Voltaire’s works aside from his romances; every article a model of brevity, clarity, and wit. “Some men can be prolix in one small volume; Voltaire is terse through a hundred.” Here at last Voltaire proves that he is a philosopher. 

Voltaire was caught up for a time in the circle of the Encyclopedists. When he had finished this work he set about making an encyclopedia of his own, which he called a Philosophic Dictionary.

He begins, like Bacon, Descartes and Locke and all the moderns, with doubt and a (supposedly) clean slate. “I have taken as my patron saint St. Thomas of Didymus, who always insisted on an examination with his own hands.” He thanks Bayle for having taught him the art of doubt. He rejects all systems, and suspects that “every chief of a sect in philosophy has been a little of a quack.” “The further I go, the more I am confirmed in the idea that systems of metaphysics are for philosophers what novels are for women.” It is only charlatans who are certain. We know nothing of first principles. It is truly extravagant to define God, angels, and minds, and to know precisely why God formed the world, when we do not know why we move our arms at will. Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” “I do not know how I was made, and how I was born. I did not know at all, during a quarter of my life, the causes of what I saw, or heard, or felt. … I have seen that which is called matter, both as the star Sirius, and as the smallest atom which can be perceived with the microscope; and I do not know what this matter is.”

Voltaire begins, like Bacon, Descartes and Locke and all the moderns, with doubt and a (supposedly) clean slate. “Doubt is not a very agreeable state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” “I have seen that which is called matter… and I do not know what this matter is.”

He tells a story of “The Good Brahmin,” who says, “I wish I had never been born!” 

“Why so?” said I. 

“Because,” he replied, “I have been studying these forty years, and I find that it has been so much time lost. … I believe that I am composed of matter, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I am even ignorant whether my understanding is a simple faculty like that of walking or digesting, or if I think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands. … I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said.”

The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good Brahmin had so tormented himself. She believed in the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu, and provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women. Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom. I thus addressed: 

“Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?” 

”You are right,” he replied. “I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my oId neighbor; and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire.” 

This reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than anything that had passed.

Even if Philosophy should end in the total doubt of Montaigne’s “Que sais-je?” [What do I know?] It is man’s greatest adventure, and his noblest. Let us learn to be content with modest advances in knowledge, rather than be forever weaving new systems out of our mendacious imagination. 

The above paragraph needs to read repeatedly until fully understood.

We must not say, Let us begin by inventing principles whereby we may be able to explain everything; rather we must say, Let us make an exact analysis of the matter, and then we shall try to see, with much diffidence, if it fits in with any principle. … The Chancellor Bacon had shown the road which science might follow. … But then Descartes appeared and did just the contrary of what he should have done: instead of studying nature, he wished to divine her. … This best of mathematicians made onIy romances in philosophy. … It is given us to calculate, to weigh, to measure, to observe; this is natural philosophy; almost all the rest is chimera.

I love Voltaire.

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