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"Of Miracles" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's Philosophic Criticism: "Of Miracles." 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
A Conversation with a Chinese
Dialogues: The Chinese Catechism
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The Good Brahmin
Grecian Metamorphoses and Mysteries of the Egyptians
Jeannot and Colin

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

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Philosophic Criticism: "Of Miracles" by Voltaire



Let us never lose sight of the nature of man: it loves nothing but what is extraordinary, and this is so true, that as soon as the beautiful and sublime become familiar, they are no longer beautiful and sublime. We require uncommon things of every kind; and, in this pursuit, we break down the fences of possibility. Ancient history resembles the history of the cabbage, which was larger than a house, and of the pot, bigger than a church, in which it was to be boiled.

What idea have we affixed to the word miracle, which at first signified something admirable? We have said, that what nature cannot produce is contrary to all its laws. So the Englishman, who promised the people of London to get whole into a bottle, promised a miracle. And legend-makers would not formerly have been wanting to affirm the accomplishment of this prodigy, if it had produced anything to the convent.

We believe, without difficulty, the real miracles operated in our holy religion, and amongst the Jews, whose religion paved the way for ours. We speak in this place only of other nations, and we reason only according to the rules of good sense, ever subordinate to revelation.

Whoever is wanting in the light of faith, cannot consider a miracle as anything else than a contradiction to the eternal laws of nature. It does not appear possible to him that God should disturb his own work: he knows that everything in nature is concatenated by indissoluble chains. He knows that God being immutable, his laws are the same, and that no one wheel of the whole machine can be stopped without nature's self being disordered.

If Jupiter while visiting Alcmena makes a night of twenty-four hours, when it should consist of only twelve, the earth must necessarily be stopped in its course, and remain motionless twelve whole hours. But as the usual phenomena appeared the succeeding night, the moon and the other planets must consequently have been stopped in their course. This would have been a very great revolution in the celestial orbs, in favor of a woman of Thebes in Boeotia.

A dead man comes to life after being breathless for some days. All the imperceptible particles of his body, which were exhaled in the air, and which had been carried away by the wind, must have returned exactly to their former station, and the worms, birds, or other animals, which were nourished with the substance of this corpse, must each of them restore what he had taken from it. The worms, fattened with the entrails of this man, must have been eaten by swallows, these swallows by magpies, these magpies by falcons, and these falcons by vultures. Each one must restore precisely what belonged to the deceased, without which it could not be the same person. And all this is nothing, unless the soul returns to its former mansion.

If the Eternal Being, who has foreseen all things, arranged all things, who governs all things by immutable laws, acts contrary to his own design by subverting those laws, this can be supposed to take place only for the benefit of all nature. But it appears contradictory to suppose a single case, wherein the creator and master of all things could change the order of the universe for the benefit of the world; for he either foresaw the supposed necessity there would be before the change, or else he did not see it. If he did foresee, the necessary regulations were made in the beginning; if he did not foresee, he is no longer God.

It is averred that to please a nation, a city, or a family, the Supreme Being made Pelops, Hippolites, Heres, and some other famous personages rise from the dead; but it does not seem probable that the common master of the universe should forget the care of that universe, in favor of this Hippolites, or this Pelops.

The more incredible miracles are (according to our weak intellects) the more readily they have met with belief. Every people had so many prodigies, that they became very common things; nor did they think it prudent to deny those of their neighbors. The Greeks said to the Egyptians and Asiatic nations, "The gods spoke to you sometimes, they speak to us every day; if they have fought twenty times for you, they have put themselves forty times at the head of our armies. If you have metamorphoses, we have a hundred times more than you. If your animals speak, ours have made very elegant orations." There are no people, even down to the Romans, among whom beasts have not had the power of speech, to foretell future events. Titus Livius relates that an ox cried out in the public market-place when full of people, "Rome take care of thyself." Pliny in his eighth book says, that a dog spoke, when Tarquin was driven from the throne. If Suetonius is to be credited, a crow cries out in the Capitol, when Domitian was going to be assassinated, Estai panta Kalos, very well done, all is well. In the same manner one of Achilles's horses, named Xante, foretold to his master that he should fall before Troy. Before Achilles's horse, Phrixus's ram had spoken, as well as the cows upon Mount Olympus. So that instead of refuting fables, they were improved upon. This was like the council whose client had a bond forged upon him; he did not amuse himself with pleadings; he immediately produced a forged receipt.

It is true we do not meet with many resurrections amongst the Romans; they confined themselves chiefly to miraculous cures. The Greeks, more attached to the metempsychosis, had many resurrections. They had this secret from the people of the East, from whom all sciences and superstitions are derived.

Of all the miraculous cures, the best attested, and most authentic, are those of the blind man, whom the emperor Vespasian restored to sight, and the paralytic who by this monarch's aid recovered the use of his limbs. It is in Alexandria that this double miracle operates, before innumerable spectators, before Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. It is upon his tribunal, that Vespasian operates these prodigies. He does not endeavor to gain esteem by imposture, which is unnecessary to a monarch who is firmly seated on his throne: but the two patients prostrated themselves at his feet, and conjure him to cure them; he blushes at their entreaties, ridicules them, saying that such cures are not in the power of mortals. They insist upon it: Serapis has appeared to them; Serapis has told them they shall be cured by Vespasian. He at length lets himself be prevailed upon; he touches them without being flattered with success. The Divinity, favoring his modesty and virtue, communicates to Vespasian his power; that instant the blind man sees, and the lame one walks. Alexandria, Egypt, all the empire, applaud Vespasian, favored by Heaven. The miracle is preserved in the archives of the empire, and in all the contemporary histories. This miracle has nevertheless in course of time been disbelieved by every one, because no one is interested in supporting its credit.

If we believe I know not what sort of a writer of our barbarous ages, named Helgaut, King Robert, son to Hugh Capet, also cured a blind man. This miraculous gift was probably given to Robert, to requite the charity wherewith he burnt his wife's confessor, and the canons of Orleans, who were accused of not believing the infallibilty and absolute power of the pope, and consequently of being Manicheans; or if this was not the recompense of this good action, it was to indemnify him, for the excommunication which he suffered, for his attention to the queen, his wife.

Philosophers have made miracles in the same manner as emperors and kings. We are acquainted with those of Apollonius Tyannus. He was a Pythagorian philosopher, temperate, chaste, and just, who is not reproached by history with any equivocal action, nor any of those weaknesses with which Socrates is stigmatized. He traveled amongst the Magi and the Brahmans; and was the more honored everywhere, on account of his modesty, always giving wise counsel, and seldom disputing. The constant prayer, which he preferred to the gods, was admirable: "Immortal gods, grant unto us what you think is needful, and which we are not unworthy of." He was no enthusiast; but his disciples were enthusiasts; they attributed miracles to him, which were collected by Philostrates. The Tyarnaens placed him amongst the demi-gods, and the Roman emperors approved of his apotheosis. But in time, the apotheosis of Apollonius met the same fate as that which was decreed to the Roman emperors. The chapel of Apollonius was equally deserted as that which had been erected by the Athenians to Socrates.

The kings of England from the time of St. Edward, to the time of William III. daily performed a great miracle, which was to cure the evil, which physicians could not remove. But William III. would perform no miracles, and his successors have followed his example in abstaining from them. If England should ever undergo any great revolution whereby that nation will be sunk again in ignorance, the English will then have miracles performed every day.

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