Micromegas (1752) - Voltaire

February 12 2021 · voltaire philosophy books stories

An extract from Chapter 7

Finally Micromegas said to them, “Since you know what is exterior to you so well, you must know what is interior even better. Tell me what your soul is, and how you form ideas.” The philosophers spoke all at once as before, but they were of different views. The oldest quoted Aristotle, one mentioned the name of Descartes, another Malebranche; another Leibnitz, and another Locke. An old peripatetic spoke up with confidence: “The soul is an entelechy, and a reason gives it the power to be what it is.This is what Aristotle expressly declares on page 633 of the Louvre edition: Entele’xeia' tis esi kai' lo’gos toû dy’namin e’xontos toude' ei’nai”.

“I don’t understand Greek too well,” said the giant.

“Neither do I,” said the mite-sized philosopher.

“Why then,” the Sirian retorted, “are you citing some man named Aristotle in the Greek?”

“Because,” replied the learned man, “one should always cite what one does not understand at all in the language one understands the least.”

The Cartesian took the floor and said: “The soul is a pure spirit which has been imbued with all metaphysical ideas in its mother’s womb and which, on leaving the, is obliged to go to school and to learn all over again what it already knew, and will not know again.”

“So there was no point then,” responded Micromegas, “in your soul being so clever inside your mother’s womb, if it was then going to be so ignorant when you got some hair on your chin. But what do you mean by spirit?”

“What a question,” said the reasoner. “I haven’t the slighest ideas. They say it is not matter”

“But do you at least know what matter is?”

“Certainly,” replied the man. “This stone, for example, is gray and of a given shape, it has its three dimensions, it has weight, and it is divisible.”

“All right,” said the Sirian, “This thing which seems to you to be divisible, weighable, and gray, would you mind telling me what it is? You can see some of its attributes, but what about the nature of the thing? Do you understand that?”

“No,” said the other.

“In which case you don’t know what matter is.”

So Micromegas, addressing another sage that he held on a thumb, asked what his soul was, and what it did.

“Nothing at all,” said the Malebranchist philosopher. “God does everything for me. I see everything in him, I do everything in him; it is he who does everything, and I have nothing to do with it.”

“It would be just as well not to exist,” retorted the sage of Sirius. “And you, my friend,” he said to a Leibnitzian who was there, “what is your soul?”

“It is,” answered the Leibnitzian, “the hand of a clock that tells the time while my body rings out. Or, if you like, it is my soul that rings out while my body tells the time, or my soul is the mirror of the universe, and my body is the border of the mirror. That much is clear.”

A tiny follower of Locke was standing nearby, and when it was finally his turn to speak, he said: “I do not know how I think, but I know that I have only ever thought through my senses. That there are immaterial and intelligent substances I do not doubt, but that it is impossible for God to endow matter with the power of thought is something I do strongly doubt. I revere the eternal power. It is not my place to limit it. I affirm nothing, and content myself with believing that many more things are possible than one would think.”

Micromegas smiled. He did not find this one the last wise, and the dwarf from Saturn would have embraced the follower of Locke but for their extreme disproportion. Unfortunately, a little animalcule in academic dress was present, who interrupted all the other philosopher animalcules. He said he knew the answer, and that it was all in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down and told them that everything, their persons, their worlds, their suns, their stars, had all been made uniquely for mankind.

At this speech, our two voyagers nearly fell over with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, is shared with the gods. Their shoulders and their stomachs heaved up and down, and in these convulsions the vessel that the Sirian had on his nail fell into one of the Saturnian’s trouser pockets. These two good men searched for it a long time, found it finally, and tidied it up neatly. The Sirian resumed his discussion with the little mites. He spoke to them with great kindness, although in the depths of his heart he was a little angry that the infinitely small had an almost infinitely great pride. He promised to make them a beautiful philosophical book, written very small for their usage, and said that in this book they would see the point of everything. Indeed, he gave them this book before leaving. It was taken to the academy of science in Paris, but when the secretary opened it, he saw nothing but blank pages. “Ah!” he said, “just as I thought.”


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