Rousseau to Voltaire, 18 August 1756, from J.A. Leigh, ed., Correspondence complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, vol. 4 (Geneva, 1967), pp. 37-50; translated by R. Spang.
Your last two poems have reached me in my solitude and even though my friends know how much I love your work I cannot think of who can have sent them to me, if it is not you yourself. I found pleasure, as well as instruction, and recognized them to be from the hand of a master…
All my complaints are . . . against your poem on the Lisbon disaster, because I expected from it more worthy evidence of the humanity that apparently inspired you to write it. You reproach Pope and Leibnitz with belittling our misfortunes by maintaining that all is well, but you so burden the list of our miseries that you further disparage our condition. Instead of the consolations that I expected, you only afflict me further. It might be said that you fear I don't feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is bad.
Do not be mistaken, Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose. This optimism that you find so cruel consoles me still in those woes that you paint as inconsolable. Pope's poem softens my pains and inclines me to patience; yours sharpens my afflictions, prompts me to grumble, and, depriving me of any shattered hope, reduces me to despair. In this strange opposition between what you prove and what I feel, resolve the confusion that excites me and tell me who has mistaken his own sentiment or reason.
"Have patience, mankind," Pope and Leibnitz tell me, "your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe. The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you. Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good. If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better."
Now what does your poem tell me? "Suffer forever, unfortunates. If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all-powerful and could have prevented all your woes. Never hope that your woes will end, for you exist for no reason, if it is not to suffer and die." I do not know what such a doctrine could offer that is more comforting than Optimism, or even Fatalism; for myself, I admit it seems even more cruel than Manicheism. If the problem of the origin of evil drives you to challenge God’s perfection, why uphold His powerfulness at the cost of His goodness? If one is an error, I prefer it to be the first.
You do not want us, Monsieur, to read your poem as denying Providence, and I shall be careful not to give it that name—even though you described as a book against humanity the text in which I tried to defend humanity from itself. [RLS: Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1755.] I know we must distinguish between an author and the conclusions some may draw from his writings [doctrine]. Self-defence requires me only to note that, in painting human misery, my intention was honourable and even praiseworthy—at least as I see it. For I showed men how they were the cause of their own unhappiness and, in consequence, how they might avoid it.
I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man’s freedom and perfection—which are also his corruption. As for our physical pains: if sensate and impassible matter is, as I think, a contradiction in terms, then pains are inevitable in any world of which man forms a part—and the question them becomes not ‘why is man not perfectly happy’ but ‘why does he exist at all?’ Moreover, I think I have shown that most of our physical pains, except for death—which is hardly painful, except for the preparations that precede it—are also our own work. Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock, and would have been seen two days later, twenty leagues away and as happy as if nothing had happened. But we have to stay and expose ourselves to further tremors, many obstinately insisted, because what we would have to leave behind is worth more than what we could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster for wanting to take—one his clothing, another his papers, a third his money? They know so well that a person has become the least part of himself, and that he is hardly worth saving if all the rest is lost.
You would have liked—and who would not have liked—the earthquake to have happened in the middle of some desert, rather than in Lisbon. Can we doubt that they also happen in deserts? But no one talks about those, because they have no ill effects for city gentlemen (the only men about whom anyone cares anything). For that matter, desert earthquakes have little effect on the animals and scattered savages who inhabit such spots—and who have no reason to fear falling roofs or tumbling buildings. What would such a privilege mean to us? Will we say that the order of the world must change to suit our whims, that nature must be subject to our laws, that in order to prevent an earthquake in a certain spot, all we have to do is build a city there?
There are often events that strike us more or less depending on how we look at them and that lose much of their horror when we examine them more closely. I learned in Zadig [RLS: story by Voltaire] and nature daily confirms my reading, that a rapid death is not always a true misfortune, and that it can sometimes be considered a relative blessing. Of the many persons crushed under Lisbon's ruins, some, no doubt, escaped greater misfortunes, and—even though such a description is gripping and suited to poetry—it is not certain that a single one of these unfortunates suffered more than if, in the normal course of events, he had awaited death after long agonies. Is there a sadder end than that of a dying man tortured with useless treatments, whose notary and heirs do not allow him respite, whom the doctors kill in his own bed at their leisure, and whom the barbarous priests artfully try to make relish death? For me, I see everywhere that the misfortunes nature imposes upon us are much less cruel than those that we please to add.
But however ingenious we are in stirring up new miseries with good institutions, we still have not so perfected ourselves as to make life a general burden and make us prefer Nothing to Being—for without this preference we have, discouragement and despair would soon carry off the greatest number and the human genus would soon cease to exist. If it is better for us to exist than not to exist then that is enough to explain our existence, even if we have no compensations awaiting us for the pains we must suffer and even if these pains are as great as you depict them. But on this subject it is difficult to find a man who is in good faith or a philosophe who calculates clearly. The first, in comparing the good and the bad, always forgets the simple pleasure of existing independent of any other sensation; the latter so prides himself on mocking death that he incites others to lie about life—a bit like those women who, with a stained dress and a pair of scissors, claim they prefer holes to spots.
You think, like Erasmus, that few would want to be born again into the conditions in which they lived—but he who values his merchandise very highly may nonetheless drop his price greatly if he thinks to conclude a sale. In any case, Monsieur, who should I imagine you consulted on this question? The rich, perhaps, satiated with imitation pleasures but not knowing the real ones; always bored of life and always afraid of losing it. Maybe you spoke to some men of letters: of all the orders of man, the most sedentary, the most unhealthy, the most thoughtful and, in consequence, the most unhappy. Would you like to find some better made men or, at least, some who are usually more sincere and who, forming the majority (if only for that reason), should be listened to first? Ask an honest Bourgeois, who has spent an obscure and quiet life, with neither plans nor ambitions; ask a good artisan who lives comfortably on his work; even ask a peasant—not in France, where it seems they must die of misery so that others can live off them—but a peasant in the country where you are, for example, or in any free land. I dare state as a fact that there is probably not in the entire Haut Valais a single hill dweller who is discontented with his nearly automatic existence and who would not willingly choose being re-born unendingly to vegetate perpetually over the prospect of Paradise. These differences make me think that it is how we abuse life that makes it burdensome and I have a much lower opinion of he who is angry to have lived than of he of whom I can say with Cicero: Nec me vixisse poenitet, quoniam ita vixi, ut frustra me natum non existimem ["I do not regret having lived, since I have lived in such a fashion that I do not think I was born in vain."]. This does not prevent the wise man from sometimes giving up voluntarily, without a murmur or despair, when nature or fortune clearly shows him the way to Heaven. But, in the ordinary course of things, human life—no matter with how much evil it is spread—is still not a bad present. If it is not always a misfortune to die, it is only very rarely one to have lived.
Our different ways of thinking about all these things show me why your arguments prove so little to me. For I am not ignorant of the facts that human reason much more easily takes the form of opinion than of truth and that when two men disagree, what one thinks he has proven is just a sophism to the other.
When you attack, for example, the Great Chain of Beings so well described by Pope, you say that it is not true that if any atom were removed from the world, the world would no longer exist. On this point you cite Monsieur de Crousaz, and then you add: that nature is not subject to any precise measure or precise form; that no planet puts itself in a perfectly regular curve; that no known being is a precise mathematical shape; that no precise quantity is really required for any operation; that nature never acts so rigorously; and that, therefore, there is no reason to think that an atom less on the Earth would be the end of the Earth. I swear to you, Monsieur, that on all of these questions I am more struck by the force of your assertions than the strength of your argument, and that, in this case, I cede more easily to your authority than to your proof.
In the case of Monsieur de Crousaz, I have not read his work against Pope and may not be in any condition to understand it. It is certain that I will not grant him any ground that you dispute and that I have as little faith in his authority as in his proof. Far from thinking that nature is not subject to precision of quantities and shapes, I think—on the contrary—that nature alone is rigorously precise, because nature alone can exactly compare ends and means, and measure the force of resistance. As for these supposed irregularities, who can doubt that they all have their physical causes—and just because we cannot see them, is that sufficient reason to deny they exist? These apparent irregularities come, no doubt, either from some law we do not know (and which nature follows as faithfully as those we do know) or from some actor we do not perceive (and which offers either assistance or an obstacle in all operations). Otherwise, we would have to say that there are actions without principle movers and effects without causes—statements repulsive to all philosophy.
Imagine we have two balanced weights, and yet they are not equal—we add to the smaller one the quantity by which they differ. Either the two weights remain balanced, in which case there is a cause without an effect, or the equilibrium is upset—in which case we have an effect without a cause. But if the two weights were of iron, and if there were a magnet under one of them, then the precision of nature would replace the precision of appearances—the exact force would make it look less exact. There is not a shape, not a case, in the physical world to which you cannot apply an argument such as the one I have just proposed on the subject of weightiness.
You say that no known being is an exact mathematical shape. I ask you, Monsieur, if there is any possible figure that isn’t one, and if even the most bizarre curve is not as regular in the eyes of nature, as a perfect circle is to ours. I imagine, moreover, that if any body could have this regularity, it would have to be the universe itself, assuming that it is full and finite; for mathematical figures being only abstractions, they can only correspond to themselves. But all natural bodies are only relative to other bodies, and to the movements that modify them—hence this would in no way disprove the precision of nature (if, that is, we agreed on what you mean by this word, precision).
You distinguish events that have effects from those that do not: I doubt if this distinction can be solid. All events, it seems to me, must have some effect—moral, physical, or a combination of the two—but that we do not always perceive since the chain of events is even harder to follow than that of men. Since in general one should not search for effects that are greater than the events that caused them, the smallness of causes often renders examination ridiculous even though the effects are certain, and even though sometimes, too, several nearly imperceptible effects unite to produce a sizeable event. Add that an event does not fail to have happened if it acts outside the body that produced it. Hence the dust raised by a carriage can do nothing to the passing vehicle and still have an influence on the world—but since nothing is a stranger to the universe, all that happens here necessarily acts on the universe itself.
. . .If I gather all these questions together under their common principle, it seems to me that they all relate to that of the existence of God. If God exists, He is perfect; if He is perfect, He is wise, powerful, and just; if He is wise and powerful, all is well; if He is just and powerful, my soul is immortal; if my soul is immortal, thirty years of life are nothing to me and are perhaps necessary to maintain the universe. If you grant me the first, then never can the rest be shaken; if you deny it, what is the good of arguing about the consequences?
Neither of us is in the second case. Far from the least of what I can read in the collection of your works, the greater number of them give me the grandest, the most sweet, the most comforting idea of the Divinity, and I would far prefer a Christian of your sort than one of those from the Sorbonne.
As for myself, I will freely admit that neither the Pros nor the Cons seem to me demonstrated by the light of reason on this important question: for if the Deist founds his feelings on probabilities, the less precise atheist seems to me only to base his on contrary probabilities. What is more, the objections on each side are impossible to resolve, since they concern things about which men have no true idea. I admit all that, and yet I believe in God as strongly as I have every believed any truth, for believing and not believing are the things in this world that depend the least on me. The state of doubt is too violent for my soul and if my reason floats, my faith cannot stay suspended for so long, and so makes a choice without it. Finally, a thousand preferences attract me to the more comforting side and join the weight of hope to the balance of reason.
…But I am indignant like you that each one’s faith is not perfectly free, and that man dares try to control the interior of a conscience in which he will never penetrate—as if it were up to us to believe or not believe in matters where the demonstration has not happened. The kings of this world, do they therefore have some jurisdiction in the next, and are they right to torment their subjects down below in order to make them go to Paradise? No, all human government is limited by its nature to civil duties and no matter what the sophist Hobbes may have said, when a man serves the state well, he owes no one an account of how he serves God.
… There is, I admit, a type of profession of faith that the laws could impose; but outside the principles of morality and natural law, it must be purely negative, for there are religions that attack the very foundation of society and we must begin by attacking those religions in order to guarantee the peace of the state. Of these dogmas to be prohibited, intolerance is, without question, the most odious, but it must be found out at its roots, for the most blood-thirsty fanatics change their language according to their fortunes and when they are not the strongest, they only preach patience and gentleness. Hence, by principle, I call intolerant any man who imagines that you cannot be a good man without believing what he believes and who unpityingly damns anyone who does not think as he does. In truth, the faithful are rarely in a mood to leave them in peace on this Earth, and a saint who believed he lived among the damned would already be voluntarily doing the Devil’s work. And if there were intolerant unbelievers who would force the people to believe nothing, I would banish them just as harshly as those who would force them to believe whatever they liked.
I would like it, then, if each state had a moral code, or a sort of civil profession of faith that both contained positively the social maxims that all would be expected to admit, and negatively the fanatical maxims that all would be held to reject not as impious, but as seditious. Hence any religion that could fit with the code would be admitted, all religions that did not would be forbidden, and all would be free to have none other than the code itself. That work, crafted with care, would be, it seems to me, the most useful book ever written, and might be the only one men need. There, Monsieur, is a subject worth of you: I passionately hope that you will undertake it, and even ornament it with your poetry, such that anyone could learn it easily—he would have in his heart from childhood all those sentiments of sweetness and humanity that sparkle in your writings and that are always absent from the devout. I beg you to consider this project, which must at least be pleasing to your soul. You have given us in your "Poem on Natural Religion" a catechism for man—give us now, in the work I propose, a catechism for the citizen. It is something to think about for a long time, perhaps to reserve for your last work—in order to complete, by a benefice to the human genus, the most brilliant career that any man of letters has ever followed.
I cannot prevent myself, Monsieur, from noting a strange contrast between you and me as regards the subject of this letter. Satiated with glory and disabused of vanity, you live free in the midst of affluence. Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophise on the nature of the soul and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin as doctor and friend. You however find only evil on earth. And I, an obscure, poor and lonely man, tormented with an incurable illness—I contemplate with pleasure in my seclusion and find that all is well. What is the source of this apparent contradiction? You explained it yourself: you enjoy, but I hope—and hope beautifies everything.
It is almost as difficult for me to leave this letter, as it will be for you to finish it. Forgive me, great man, for my zealousness—it may be indiscrete, but it would not overflow so much, if I did not esteem you so highly. God willing that I have not offended he of my contemporaries whose talents I most honour and whose writings speak most to my heart—but it is a matter for Providence, from which I await all. After having so long drunk consolation and courage from your teachings, it is hard that that you take all that away from me and leave only a vague and uncertain hope—more a palliative for the present than amends for the future. No, I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another. All these metaphysical subtleties may embitter my pains, but none can cause me to doubt a time of immortality for the soul and a beneficent providence. I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp—and of all the cases I will have supported, it will be the only where my own interest will not be forgotten.
I am, with respect, Monsieur,