Of all the books of the Occident which have come down to us, the most
ancient is Homer; it is there that one finds the customs of profane
antiquity, of the gross heroes, of the gross gods, made in the image of
men; but it is there that among the reveries and inconsequences, one
finds too the seeds of philosophy, and above all the idea of the destiny
which is master of the gods, as the gods are masters of the world.
When the magnanimous Hector wishes absolutely to fight the magnanimous
Achilles, and with this object starts fleeing with all his might, and
three times makes the circuit of the city before fighting, in order to
have more vigour; when Homer compares fleet-of-foot Achilles, who
pursues him, to a man who sleeps; when Madame Dacier goes into ecstasies
of admiration over the art and mighty sense of this passage, then
Jupiter wants to save great Hector who has made so many sacrifices to
him, and he consults the fates; he weighs the destinies of Hector and
Achilles in the balance (Iliad, liv. xxii.): he finds that the Trojan
must absolutely be killed by the Greek; he cannot oppose it; and from
this moment, Apollo, Hector's guardian genius, is forced to abandon him.
It is not that Homer is not often prodigal, and particularly in this
place, of quite contrary ideas, following the privilege of antiquity;
but he is the first in whom one finds the notion of destiny. This
notion, therefore, was very much in vogue in his time.
The Pharisees, among the little Jewish people, did not adopt destiny
until several centuries later; for these Pharisees themselves, who were
the first literates among the Jews, were very new fangled. In
Alexandria they mixed a part of the dogmas of the Stoics with the old
Jewish ideas. St. Jerome claims even that their sect is not much
anterior to the Christian era.
The philosophers never had need either of Homer or the Pharisees to
persuade themselves that everything happens through immutable laws, that
everything is arranged, that everything is a necessary effect. This is
how they argued.
Either the world exists by its own nature, by its physical laws, or a
supreme being has formed it according to his supreme laws: in both
cases, these laws are immutable; in both cases everything is necessary;
heavy bodies tend towards the centre of the earth, without being able to
tend to pause in the air. Pear-trees can never bear pineapples. A
spaniel's instinct cannot be an ostrich's instinct; everything is
arranged, in gear, limited.
Man can have only a certain number of teeth, hair and ideas; there comes
a time when he necessarily loses his teeth, hair and ideas.
It would be a contradiction that what was yesterday was not, that what
is to-day is not; it is also a contradiction that what must be cannot
If you could disturb the destiny of a fly, there would be no reason that
could stop your making the destiny of all the other flies, of all the
other animals, of all men, of all nature; you would find yourself in the
end more powerful than God.
Imbeciles say: "My doctor has extricated my aunt from a mortal malady;
he has made my aunt live ten years longer than she ought to have lived."
Others who affect knowledge, say: "The prudent man makes his own
But often the prudent, far from making their destinies, succumb to them;
it is destiny which makes them prudent.
Profound students of politics affirm that, if Cromwell, Ludlow, Ireton
and a dozen other parliamentarians had been assassinated a week before
Charles I.'s head was cut off, this king might have lived longer and
died in his bed; they are right; they can add further that if the whole
of England had been swallowed up in the sea, this monarch would not
have perished on a scaffold near Whitehall; but things were arranged so
that Charles had to have his neck severed.
Cardinal d'Ossat was doubtless more prudent than a madman in Bedlam; but
is it not clear that the organs of d'Ossat the sage were made otherwise
than those of the scatter-brain? just as a fox's organs are different
from a stork's and a lark's.
Your doctor saved your aunt; but assuredly he did not in that contradict
nature's order; he followed it. It is clear that your aunt could not
stop herself being born in such and such town, that she could not stop
herself having a certain malady at a particular time, that the doctor
could not be elsewhere than in the town where he was, that your aunt had
to call him, that he had to prescribe for her the drugs which cured her,
or which one thinks cured her, when nature was the only doctor.
A peasant thinks that it has hailed on his field by chance; but the
philosopher knows that there is no chance, and that it was impossible,
in the constitution of this world, for it not to hail on that day in
There are persons who, frightened by this truth, admit half of it as
debtors who offer half to their creditors, and ask respite for the rest.
"There are," they say, "some events which are necessary, and others
which are not." It would be very comic that one part of the world was
arranged, and that the other were not; that a part of what happens had
to happen, and that another part of what happens did not have to happen.
If one looks closely at it, one sees that the doctrine contrary to that
of destiny is absurd; but there are many people destined to reason
badly, others not to reason at all, others to persecute those who
Some say to you: "Do not believe in fatalism; for then everything
appearing inevitable, you will work at nothing, you will wallow in
indifference, you will love neither riches, nor honours, nor glory; you
will not want to acquire anything, you will believe yourself without
merit as without power; no talent will be cultivated, everything will
perish through apathy."
Be not afraid, gentlemen, we shall ever have passions and prejudices,
since it is our destiny to be subjected to prejudices and passions: we
shall know that it no more depends on us to have much merit and great
talent, than to have a good head of hair and beautiful hands: we shall
be convinced that we must not be vain about anything, and yet we shall
always have vanity.
I necessarily have the passion for writing this, and you have the
passion for condemning me; both of us are equally fools, equally the
toys of destiny. Your nature is to do harm, mine is to love truth, and
to make it public in spite of you.
The owl, which feeds on mice in its ruins, said to the nightingale:
"Finish singing under your beautiful shady trees, come into my hole,
that I may eat you"; and the nightingale answered: "I was born to sing
here, and to laugh at you."
You ask me what will become of liberty? I do not understand you. I do
not know what this liberty is of which you speak; so long have you been
disputing about its nature, that assuredly you are not acquainted with
it. If you wish, or rather, if you are able to examine peaceably with me
what it is, pass to the letter L.