Random Quote #67 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778


"Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered,
Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause
came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.
Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice.

"Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? And when he had said this he went
out, etc." (St. John xviii. 37.)

It is a sad thing for the human race that Pilate went out without
waiting for the answer; we should know what truth is. Pilate had very
little curiosity. The accused led before him, says he is king, that he
was to be king; and Pilate does not inquire how that can be. He is
supreme judge in Caesar's name, he has power of life and death; his duty
was to probe the sense of these words. He ought to say--"Tell me what
you understand by being king. How were you born to be king and to bear
witness to the truth? It is maintained that truth reaches but with
difficulty to the ear of kings. I am judge, I have always had great
trouble in finding it. While your enemies are howling against you
without, give me some information on the point; you will be doing me the
greatest service that has ever been done a judge; and I much prefer to
learn to recognize truth, than to accede to the Jews' clamorous demand
to have you hanged."

We shall not dare, to be sure, seek what the author of all truth would
have been able to reply to Pilate.

Would he have said: "Truth is an abstract word which most men use
indifferently in their books and judgments, for error and falsehood?"
This definition would have been marvellously appropriate to all makers
of systems. Similarly is the word "wisdom" taken often for folly, and
"wit" for nonsense.

Humanly speaking, let us define truth, while waiting for a better
definition, as--"a statement of the facts as they are."

I suppose that if one had given only six months to teaching Pilate the
truths of logic, he would assuredly have made this conclusive syllogism.
One must not take away the life of a man who has only preached good
morality: well, the man who has been impeached has, on the showing of
his enemies even, often preached excellent morality; therefore he should
not be punished with death.

He might have drawn this further argument.

My duty is to disperse the riotous assemblage of a seditious people who
demand a man's death, unreasonably and without legal form; well, that is
the position of the Jews in this instance; therefore I must drive them
away and break up their meeting.

We suppose that Pilate knew arithmetic; hence we will not speak of those
forms of truth.

As regards mathematical truths, I think it would have taken at least
three years before he could have learned higher geometry. The truths of
physics combined with those of geometry would have demanded more than
four years. We spend six, ordinarily, in studying theology; I ask twelve
for Pilate, seeing that he was pagan, and that six years would not have
been too much for eradicating all his old errors, and six years more for
making him fit to receive a doctor's hood.

If Pilate had had a well-balanced mind, I should have asked only two
years to teach him metaphysical truth; and as metaphysical truth is
necessarily allied to moral truth, I flatter myself that in less than
nine years he would have become a real scholar and a perfectly honest

I should then have said to Pilate:--Historical truths are merely
probabilities. If you had fought at the battle of Philippi, that is for
you a truth which you know by intuition, by perception. But for us who
dwell near the Syrian desert, it is merely a very probable thing, which
we know by hearsay. How much hearsay is necessary to form a conviction
equal to that of a man who, having seen the thing, can flatter himself
that he has a sort of certainty?

He who has heard the thing told by twelve thousand eyewitnesses, has
only twelve thousand probabilities, equal to one strong probability,
which is not equal to certainty.

If you have the thing from only one of these witnesses, you know
nothing; you should be sceptical. If the witness is dead, you should be
still more sceptical, for you cannot enlighten yourself. If from several
witnesses who are dead, you are in the same plight. If from those to
whom the witnesses have spoken, your scepticism should increase still

From generation to generation scepticism increases, and probability
diminishes; and soon probability is reduced to zero.


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