Front Page Titles (by Subject) LOCKE. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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LOCKE. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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There surely never was a more solid and more methodical understanding, nor a more acute and accurate logician, than Locke, though he was far from being an excellent mathematician. He never could bring himself to undergo the drudgery of calculation, nor the dryness of mathematical truths, which offer no sensible image to the understanding: and no one has more fully evinced than he has, that a man, without the smallest assistance from geometry, might still possess the most geometrical intellect possible. The great philosophers before his time had made no difficulties in determining the essence or substance of the human soul; but as they were wholly ignorant of the matter, it was but reasonable they should all be of different opinions.
In Greece, which was at one time the cradle of arts and of errors, where the greatness and folly of the human mind were pushed to so great a height, they reasoned on the soul exactly as we do. The divine Anaxagoras, who had altars erected to him for teaching men that the sun was bigger than the Peloponnessus, that snow was black, that the sky was of stone, affirmed that the soul was an aerial spirit, though immortal. Diogenes, a different person from him, who became a cynic from a counterfeiter of money, asserted that the soul was a portion of the substance of God; a notion which had at least something striking. Epicurus maintains the soul is composed of parts, in the same manner as matter. Aristotle, whose works have been interpreted a thousand different ways, because they were in fact absolutely unintelligible, was of opinion, if we may trust some of his disciples, that the understandings of all mankind were but one and the same substance. The divine Plato, master of the divine Aristotle, and the divine Socrates, master of the divine Plato, said that the soul was at the same time corporeal and eternal. The dæmon of Socrates had, no doubt, let him into the secret of this matter. There are actually some who pretend that a fellow who boasted of having a familiar was most assuredly either knave or fool; possibly they who say so may be rather too squeamish.
As for our fathers of the Church, several of them, in the first ages were of opinion that the human soul, as well as the angels, and God himself, were all corporeal. The world is every day improving. St. Bernard, as Father Mabillon is forced to own, taught, with respect to the soul, that after death it did not behold God in heaven, but was obliged to rest satisfied with conversing with the humanity of Jesus Christ. Possibly they took it for once on his bare word; though the adventure of the crusade has somewhat lessened the credit of his oracles. Whole drones of schoolmen came after him: there was the irrefragable doctor,1 the subtile doctor,2 the angelic doctor,3 the seraphic doctor,4 the cherubimical doctor, all of whom made no scruple of saying they were perfectly clear as to the soul’s substance, but who have, for all that, spoken of it exactly as if they neither understood one syllable of what they spoke of, and desired that nobody else should. Our Descartes, born to discover the mistakes of antiquity, only that he might substitute his own in their place, and borne down by the stream of system, which hoodwinks the greatest men, imagined he had demonstrated that the soul was the same thing with thought, in the same manner as matter is the same with extension. He firmly maintained that the soul always thinks, and that, at its arrival in the body, it is provided with a whole magazine of metaphysical notions, as of God, space, infinity, and fully supplied with all sorts of abstract ideas, which it unhappily loses the moment it comes forth from its mother’s womb. Father Malebranche, of the oratory, in his sublime illusions, admits of no such thing as innate ideas, though he had no doubt of our seeing everything in God; and that God Himself, if it is lawful to speak in this manner, was the very essence of our soul.
After so many speculative gentlemen had formed this romance of the soul, one truly wise man appeared, who has, in the most modest manner imaginable, given us its real history. Mr. Locke has laid open to man the anatomy of his own soul, just as some learned anatomist would have done that of the body. He avails himself throughout of the help of metaphysical lights; and although he is sometimes bold enough to speak in a positive manner, he is on other occasions not afraid to discover doubts. Instead of determining at once what we were entirely ignorant about, he examines, step by step, the objects of human knowledge; he takes a child from the moment of its birth; he accompanies him through all the stages of the human understanding; he views what he possesses in common with the brutes, and in what he is superior to them. Above all, he is solicitous to examine the internal evidence of consciousness. “I leave,” says he, “those who are possessed of more knowledge than I am to determine whether our souls exist before or after the organization of the body; but cannot help acknowledging that the soul that has fallen to my share is one of those coarse material kinds of souls which cannot always think; and I am even so unhappy as not to be able to conceive how it should be more indispensably necessary that the soul should always think, than it should be that the body should always be in motion.”
For my own part, I am proud of the honor of being every whit as stupid on this point as Mr. Locke. Nobody shall ever persuade me that I always think; and I don’t find myself in the least more disposed than he to think that, a few weeks after I was conceived, my soul was very learned, and acquainted with a thousand things that I forgot the moment I came into the world, and that I possessed to very little good purpose in the uterus, so many valuable secrets in philosophy, all of which abandoned me the instant they could have been of any advantage, and which I have never since been able to recover.
Locke, after demolishing the notion of innate ideas; after having renounced the vain opinion that the mind always thinks; having fully established this point, that the origin of all our ideas is from the senses;1 having examined our simple and compound ideas; having accompanied the mind in all its operations; having shown the imperfection of all the languages spoken by men, and what a gross abuse of terms we are every moment guilty of; Locke, I say, at length proceeds to consider the extent, or rather the nothingness, of human knowledge. This is the chapter in which he has the boldness to advance, though in a modest manner, that “we shall never be able to determine, whether a being, purely material, is capable of thought or not.” This sagacious proposition has passed with more than one divine as a scandalous assertion, that the soul is material and mortal. Some English devotees as usual gave the alarm. The superstitious are in society what poltroons are in an army; they infect the rest with their own panics. They cried out that Mr. Locke wanted to turn all religion topsy–turvy: there was, however, not the smallest relation to religion in the affair, the question was purely philosophical, and altogether independent of faith and revelation. They had only to examine, without rancor, whether it were a contradiction to say, that “matter is incapable of thought,” and, “God is able to endow matter with thought.” But it is too frequent with theologians to begin with pronouncing that God is offended, whenever we are not of their side of the question, or happen not to think as they do: the case is pretty much like that of the bad poets, who took it into their heads to imagine Boileau spoke high treason, when he was only laughing at the silliness of their wretched compositions. Doctor Stillingfleet has acquired the character of a moderate divine, only because he has refrained from abuse in his controversy with Mr. Locke. He ventured to enter the lists with him, but was vanquished, because he reasoned too much like a doctor; while Locke, like a true philosopher, fully acquainted with the strength and weakness of human understanding, fought with arms of whose temper he was perfectly well assured.
[2 ]Duns Scotus.
[3 ]St. Thomas.
[1 ]This is expressly the doctrine of Aristotle. The soul has no knowledge but that which it acquires through the canal of the senses.