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"The Study of Nature" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's "The Study of Nature." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

Visit these other works by Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)
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Ancient Faith and Fable
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The Black and the White
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Dialogues: The Gardener's Catechism
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Dialogues: Liberty
The Good Brahmin
Grecian Metamorphoses and Mysteries of the Egyptians
Jeannot and Colin

Memnon, the Philosopher
Of Bacchus
Of Idolatry
Of Miracles
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Of the Greek Sibyls
Of Zaleucus
Plato's Dream
The Travels of Scarmentado
The Two Comforters
The World As It Goes

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"The Study of Nature" by Voltaire





There can be no doubt that everything in the world is governed by fatality. My own life is a convincing proof of this doctrine. An English lord, with whom I was a great favorite, had promised me that I should have the first living that fell to his gift. An old incumbent of eighty happened to die, and I immediately traveled post to London to remind the earl of his promise. I was honored with an immediate interview, and was received with the greatest kindness. I informed his lordship of the death of the rector, and of the hope I cherished relative to the disposal of the vacant living. He replied that I really looked very ill. I answered that, thanks to God, my greatest affliction was poverty. I am sorry for you, said his lordship, and he politely dismissed me with a letter of introduction to a Mr. Sidrac, who dwelt in the vicinity of Guildhall. I ran as fast as I could to this gentleman's house, not doubting but that he would immediately install me in the wished-for living. I delivered the earl's letter, and Mr. Sidrac, who had the honor to be my lord's surgeon, asked me to sit down; and, producing a case of surgical instruments, began to assure me that he would perform an operation which he trusted would very soon relieve me.

You must know, that his lordship had understood that I was suffering from some dreadful complaint, and that he generously intended to have me cured at his own expense. The earl had the misfortune to be as deaf as a post, a fact with which I, alas! had not been previously acquainted.

During the time which I lost in defending myself against the attacks of Mr. Sidrac, who insisted positively upon curing me, whether I would or no, one out of the fifty candidates who were all on the lookout, came to town, flew to my lord, begged the vacant living and obtained it.

I was deeply in love with an interesting girl, a Miss Fidler, who had promised to marry me upon condition of my being made rector. My fortunate rival not only got the living, but also my mistress into the bargain!

My patron, upon being told of his mistake, promised to make me ample amends, but alas! he died two days afterwards.

Mr. Sidrac demonstrated to me that, according to his organic structure, my good patron could not have lived one hour longer. He also clearly proved that the earl's deafness proceeded entirely from the extreme dryness of the drums of his ears, and kindly offered, by an application of spirits of wine, to harden both of my ears to such a degree that I should, in one month only, become as deaf as any peer of the realm.

I discovered Mr. Sidrac to be a man of profound knowledge. He inspired me with a taste for the study of nature, and I could not but be sensible of the valuable acquisition I had made in acquiring the friendship of a man who was capable of relieving me, should I need his services. Following his advice, I applied myself closely to the study of nature, to console myself for the loss of the rectory and of my enchanting Miss Fidler.



After making many profound observations upon nature (having employed in the research, my five senses, my spectacles, and a very large telescope) I said one day to Mr. Sidrac, "Unless I am much deceived, philosophy laughs at us. I cannot discover any trace of what the world calls nature; on the contrary, everything seems to me to be the result of art. By art the planets are made to revolve around the sun, while the sun revolves on its own axis. I am convinced that some genius has arranged things in such a manner, that the square of the revolutions of the planets is always in proportion to the cubic root from their distance to their centre, and one had need be a magician to find out how this is accomplished. The tides of the sea are the result of art no less profound and no less difficult to explain.

"All animals, vegetables and minerals are arranged with due regard to weight and measure, number and motion. All is performed by springs, levers, pullies, hydraulic machines, and chemical combinations, from the insignificant flea to the being called man, from the grass of the field to the far-spreading oak, from a grain of sand to a cloud in the firmament of heaven. Assuredly, everything is governed by art, and the word nature is but a chimera."

"What you say," answered Mr. Sidrac, "has been said many years ago, and so much the better, for the probability is greater that your remark is true. I am always astonished when I reflect that a grain of wheat cast into the earth will produce in a short time above a handful of the same corn. Stop, said I, foolishly, you forget that wheat must die before it can spring up again, at least so they say at college. My friend Sidrac, laughing heartily at this interruption, replied: That assertion went down very well a few years ago, when it was first published by an apostle called Paul; but in our more enlightened age, the meanest laborer knows that the thing is altogether too ridiculous even for argument."

"My dear friend," said I, "excuse the absurdity of my remark, I have hitherto been a theologian, and one cannot divest one's self in a moment of every silly opinion."



Some time after this conversation between the disconsolate person, whom we shall call Goodman, and the clever anatomist, Mr. Sidrac, the latter, one fine morning, observed his friend in St. James's Park, standing in an attitude of deep thought. "What is the matter?" said the surgeon. "Is there anything amiss?"

"No," replied Goodman, "but I am left without a patron in the world since the death of my friend, who had the misfortune to be so deaf. Now supposing there be only ten thousand clergymen in England, and granting these ten thousand have each two patrons, the odds against my obtaining a bishopric are twenty thousand to one; a reflection quite sufficient to give any man the blue-devils. I remember, it was once proposed to me, to go out as cabin-boy to the East Indies. I was told that I should make my fortune. But as I did not think I should make a good admiral, whenever I should arrive at the distinction, I declined; and so, after turning my attention to every profession under the sun, I am fixed for life as a poor clergyman, good for nothing."

"Then be a clergyman no longer!" cried Sidrac, "and turn philosopher: what is your income?"

"Only thirty guineas a year," replied Goodman; although at the death of my mother, it will be increased to fifty."

"Well, my dear Goodman," continued Sidrac, "that sum is quite sufficient to support you in comfort. Thirty guineas are six hundred and thirty shillings, almost two shillings a day. With this fixed income, a man need do nothing to increase it, but is at perfect liberty to say all he thinks of the East India Company, the House of Commons, the king and all the royal family, of man generally and individually, and lastly, of God and his attributes; and the liberty we enjoy of expressing our thoughts upon these most interesting topics, is certainly very agreeable and amusing.

"Come and dine at my table every day. That will save you some little money. We will afterwards amuse ourselves with conversation, and your thinking faculty will have the pleasure of communicating with mine by means of speech, which is certainly a very wonderful thing, though its advantages are not duly appreciated by the greater part of mankind."



GOODMAN. -- But my dear Sidrac, why do you always say my thinking faculty and not my soul? If you used the latter term I should understand you much better.

SIDRAC. -- And for my part, I freely confess, I should not understand myself. I feel, I know, that God has endowed me with the faculties of thinking and speaking, but I can neither feel nor know that God has given me a thing called a soul.

GOODMAN. -- Truly upon reflection, I perceive that I know as little about the matter as you do, though I own that I have, all my life, been bold enough to believe that I knew. I have often remarked that the eastern nations apply to the soul the same word they use to express life. After their example, the Latins understood the word anima to signify the life of the animal. The Greeks called the breath the soul. The Romans translated the word breath by spiritus, and thence it is that the word spirit or soul is found in every modern nation. As it happens that no one has ever seen this spirit or breath, our imagination has converted it into a being, which it is impossible to see or touch. The learned tell us, that the soul inhabits the body without having any place in it, that it has the power of setting our different organs in motion without being able to reach and touch them, indeed, what has not been said upon the subject? The great Locke knew into what a chaos these absurdities had plunged the human understanding. In writing the only reasonable book upon metaphysics that has yet appeared in the world, he did not compose a single chapter on the soul; and if by chance he now and then makes use of the word, he only introduces it to stand for intellect or mind.

In fact, every human being, in spite of Bishop Berkeley, is sensible that he has a mind, and that this mind or intellect is capable of receiving ideas; but no one can feel that there is another being -- a soul, -- within him, which gives him motion, feeling and thought. It is, in fact, ridiculous to use words we do not understand, and to admit the existence of beings of whom we cannot have the slightest knowledge.

SIDRAC. -- We are then agreed upon a subject which, for so many centuries, has been a matter of dispute.

GOODMAN. -- And I must observe that I am surprised we should have agreed upon it so soon.

SIDRAC. Oh! that is not so astonishing. We really wish to know what is truth. If we were among the Academies, we should argue like the characters in Rabelais. If we had lived in those ages of darkness, the clouds of which so long enveloped Great Britain, one of us would very likely have burned the other. We are so fortunate as to be born in an age comparatively reasonable; we easily discover what appears to us to be truth, and we are not afraid to proclaim it.

GOODMAN. -- You are right, but I fear, that, after all, the truth we have discovered is not worth much. In mathematics, indeed, we have done wonders; from the most simple causes we have produced effects that would have astonished Apollonius or Archimedes: but what have we proved in metaphysics? Absolutely nothing but our own ignorance.

SIDRAC. -- And do you call that nothing? You grant the supreme Being has given you the faculties of feeling and thinking, he has in the same manner given your feet the faculty of walking, your hands their wonderful dexterity, your stomach the capability of digesting food, and your heart the power of throwing arterial blood into all parts of your body. Everything we enjoy is derived from God, and yet we are totally ignorant of the means by which he governs and conducts the universe. For my own part, as Shakespeare says, I thank him for having taught me that, of the principles of things, I know absolutely nothing. It has always been a question, in what manner the soul acted upon the body. Before attempting to answer this question, I must be convinced that I have a soul. Either God has given us this wonderful spark of intellect, or he has gifted us with some principle that answers equally well. In either case, we are still the creatures of his divine will and goodness, and that is all I know about the matter.

GOODMAN. -- But if you do not know, tell me at least what you are inclined to think upon the subject. You have opened skulls, and dissected the human fetus. Have you ever, in these dissections, discovered any appearance of a soul?

SIDRAC. -- Not the least, and I have not been able to understand how an immortal and spiritual essence could dwell for months together in a membrane. It appears to me difficult to conceive that this pretended soul existed before the foundation of the body; for in what could it have been employed during the many ages previous to its mysterious union with flesh? Again! how can we imagine a spiritual principle waiting patiently in idleness during a whole eternity, in order to animate a mass of matter for a space of time, which, compared with eternity, is less than a moment?

It is worse still, when I am told that God forms immortal souls out of nothing, and then cruelly dooms them to an eternity of flames and torments. What? burn a spirit, in which there can be nothing capable of burning; how can he burn the sound of a voice, or the wind that blows? though both the sound and wind were material during the short time of their existence; but a pure spirit -- a thought -- a doubt -- I am lost in the labyrinth; on whichever side I turn, I find nothing but obscurity and absurdity, impossibility and contradiction. But I am quite at ease when I say to myself God is master of all. He who can cause each star to hold its particular course through the broad expanse of the firmament, can easily give to us sentiments and ideas, without the aid of this atom, called the soul. It is certain that God has endowed all animals, in a greater or lesser degree, with thought, memory, and judgment; he has given them life; it is demonstrated that they have feeling, since they possess all the organs of feeling; if then they have all this without a soul, why is it improbable that we have none? and why do mankind flatter themselves that they alone are gifted with a spiritual and immortal principle?

GOODMAN. -- Perhaps this idea arises from their inordinate vanity. I am persuaded that if the peacock could speak, he would boast of his soul, and would affirm that it inhabited his magnificent tail. I am very much inclined to believe with you, that God has created us thinking creatures, with the faculties of eating, drinking, feeling, etc., without telling us one word about the matter. We are as ignorant as the peacock I just mentioned, and he who said that we live and die without knowing how, why, or wherefore, spoke nothing but the truth.

SIDRAC. -- A celebrated author, whose name I forget, calls us nothing more than the puppets of Providence, and this seems to me to be a very good definition. An infinity of movements are necessary to our existence, but we did not ourselves invent and produce motion. There is a Being who has created light, caused it to move from the sun to our eyes in about seven minutes. It is only by means of motion that my five senses are put in action, and it is only by means of my senses that I have ideas, hence it follows that my ideas are derived from the great author of motion, and when he informs me how he communicates these ideas to me, I will most sincerely thank him.

GOODMAN. -- And so will I. As it is I constantly thank him for having permitted me, as Epictetus says, to contemplate for a period of some years this beautiful and glorious world. It is true that he could have made me happier by putting me in possession of Miss Fidler and a good rectory; but still, such as I am, I consider myself as under a great obligation to God's parental kindness and care.

SIDRAC. -- You say that it is in the power of God to give you a good living, and to make you still happier than you are at present. There are many persons who would not scruple flatly to contradict this proposition of yours. Do you forget that you yourself sometimes complain of fatality? A man, and particularly a priest, ought never to contradict one day an assertion he has perhaps made the day before. All is but a succession of links, and God is wiser than to break the eternal chain of events, even for the sake of my dear friend Goodman.

GOODMAN. -- I did not foresee this argument when I was speaking of fatality; but to come at once to the point, if it be so, God is as much a slave as myself.

SIDRAC. -- He is the slave of his will, of his wisdom, and of the laws which he has himself instituted; and it is impossible that he can infringe upon any of them; because it is impossible that he can become either weak or inconsistent.

GOODMAN. -- But, my friend, what you say would tend to make us irreligious, for, if God cannot change any of the affairs of the world, what is the use of teasing him with prayers, or of singing hymns to his praise?

SIDRAC. -- Well! who bids you worship or pray to God? We praise a man because we think him vain; we entreat of him when we think him weak and likely to change his purpose on account of our petitions. Let us do our duty to God, by being just and true to each other. In that consists our real prayers, and our most heartfelt praises.

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