A Philosophical Dictionary, Volume 06

A Philosophical Dictionary, Volume 06


What is called happiness is an abstract idea, composed of various ideas of pleasure; for he who has but a moment of pleasure is not a happy man, in like manner that a moment of grief constitutes not a miserable one. Pleasure is more transient than happiness, and happiness than felicity. When a person says – I am happy at this moment, he abuses the word, and only means I am pleased. When pleasure is continuous, he may then call himself happy. When this happiness lasts a little longer, it is a state of felicity. We are sometimes very far from being happy in prosperity, just as a surfeited invalid eats nothing of a great feast prepared for him.

The ancient adage, "No person should be called happy before his death," seems to turn on very false principles, if we mean by this maxim that we should not give the name of happy to a man who had been so constantly from his birth to his last hour. This continuity of agreeable moments is rendered impossible by the constitution of our organs, by that of the elements on which we depend, and by that of mankind, on whom we depend still more. Constant happiness is the philosopher's stone of the soul; it is a great deal for us not to be a long time unhappy. A person whom we might suppose to have always enjoyed a happy life, who perishes miserably, would certainly merit the appellation of happy until his death, and we might boldly pronounce that he had been the happiest of men. Socrates might have been the happiest of the Greeks, although superstitious, absurd, or iniquitous judges, or all together, juridically poisoned him at the age of seventy years, on the suspicion that he believed in only one God.

The philosophical maxim so much agitated, "Nemo ante obitum felix," therefore, appears absolutely false in every sense; and if it signifies that a happy man may die an unhappy death, it signifies nothing of consequence.

The proverb of being "Happy as a king" is still more false. Everybody knows how the vulgar deceive themselves.

It is asked, if one condition is happier than another; if man in general is happier than woman. It would be necessary to have tried all conditions, to have been man and woman like Tiresias and Iphis, to decide this question; still more would it be necessary to have lived in all conditions, with a mind equally proper to each; and we must have passed through all the possible states of man and woman to judge of it.

It is further queried, if of two men one is happier than the other. It is very clear that he who has the gout and stone, who loses his fortune, his honor, his wife and children, and who is condemned to be hanged immediately after having been mangled, is less happy in this world in everything than a young, vigorous sultan, or La Fontaine's cobbler.

But we wish to know which is the happier of two men equally healthy, equally rich, and of an equal condition. It is clear that it is their temper which decides it. The most moderate, the least anxious, and at the same time the most sensible, is the most happy; but unfortunately the most sensible is often the least moderate. It is not our condition, it is the temper of our souls which renders us happy. This disposition of our souls depends on our organs, and our organs have been arranged without our having the least part in the arrangement.

It belongs to the reader to make his reflections on the above. There are many articles on which he can say more than we ought to tell him. In matters of art, it is necessary to instruct him; in affairs of morals, he should be left to think for himself.

There are dogs whom we caress, comb, and feed with biscuits, and whom we give to pretty females: there are others which are covered with the mange, which die of hunger; others which we chase and beat, and which a young surgeon slowly dissects, after having driven four great nails into their paws. Has it depended upon these poor dogs to be happy or unhappy?

We say a happy thought, a happy feature, a happy repartee, a happy physiognomy, happy climate, etc. These thoughts, these happy traits, which strike like sudden inspirations, and which are called the happy sallies of a man of wit, strike like flashes of light across our eyes, without our seeking it. They are no more in our power than a happy physiognomy; that is to say, a sweet and noble aspect, so independent of us, and so often deceitful. The happy climate is that which nature favors: so are happy imaginations, so is happy genius, or great talent. And who can give himself genius? or who, when he has received some ray of this flame, can preserve it always brilliant?

When we speak of a happy rascal, by this word we only comprehend his success. "Felix Sulla" – the fortunate Sulla, and Alexander VI., a duke of Borgia, have happily pillaged, betrayed, poisoned, ravaged, and assassinated. But being villains, it is very likely that they were very unhappy, even when not in fear of persons resembling themselves.

It may happen to an ill-disposed person, badly educated – a Turk, for example, of whom it ought to be said, that he is permitted to doubt the Christian faith – to put a silken cord round the necks of his viziers, when they are rich; to strangle, massacre, or throw his brothers into the Black Sea, and to ravage a hundred leagues of country for his glory. It may happen, I say, that this man has no more remorse than his mufti, and is very happy – on all which the reader may duly ponder.

There were formerly happy planets, and others unhappy, or unfortunate; unhappily, they no longer exist. Some people would have deprived the public of this useful Dictionary – happily, they have not succeeded.

Ungenerous minds, and absurd fanatics, every day endeavor to prejudice the powerful and the ignorant against philosophers. If they were unhappily listened to, we should fall back into the barbarity from which philosophers alone have withdrawn us.


The laws of optics, which are founded upon the nature of things, have ordained that, from this small globe of earth on which we live, we shall always see the material heaven as if we were the centre of it, although we are far from being that centre; that we shall always see it as a vaulted roof, hanging over a plane, although there is no other vaulted roof than that of our atmosphere, which has no such plane; that our sun and moon will always appear one-third larger at the horizon than at their zenith, although they are nearer the spectator at the zenith than at the horizon.

Such are the laws of optics, such is the structure of your eyes, that, in the first place, the material heaven, the clouds, the moon, the sun, which is at so vast a distance from you; the planets, which in their apogee are still at a greater distance from it; all the stars placed at distances yet vastly greater, comets and meteors, everything, must appear to us in that vaulted roof as consisting of our atmosphere.

The sun appears to us, when in its zenith, smaller than when at fifteen degrees below; at thirty degrees below the zenith it will appear still larger than at fifteen; and finally, at the horizon, its size will seem larger yet; so that its dimensions in the lower heaven decrease in consequence of its elevations, in the following proportions:

Its apparent magnitudes in the vaulted roof are as its apparent elevations; and it is the same with the moon, and with a comet.

It is not habit, it is not the intervention of tracts of land, it is not the refraction of the atmosphere which produces this effect. Malebranche and Régis have disputed with each other on this subject; but Robert Smith has calculated.

Observe the two stars, which, being at a prodigious distance from each other, and at very different depths, in the immensity of space, are here considered as placed in the circle which the sun appears to traverse. You perceive them distant from each other in the great circle, but approximating to each other in every circle smaller, or within that described by the path of the sun.

It is in this manner that you see the material heaven. It is by these invariable laws of optics that you perceive the planets sometimes retrograde and sometimes stationary; there is in fact nothing of the kind. Were you stationed in the sun, we should perceive all the planets and comets moving regularly round it in those elliptical orbits which God assigns. But we are upon the planet of the earth, in a corner of the universe, where it is impossible for us to enjoy the sight of everything.

Let us not then blame the errors of our senses, like Malebranche; the steady laws of nature originating in the immutable will of the Almighty, and adapted to the structure of our organs, cannot be errors.

We can see only the appearances of things, and not things themselves. We are no more deceived when the sun, the work of the divinity – that star a million times larger than our earth – appears to us quite flat and two feet in width, than when, in a convex mirror, which is the work of our own hands, we see a man only a few inches high.

If the Chaldæan magi were the first who employed the understanding which God bestowed upon them, to measure and arrange in their respective stations the heavenly bodies, other nations more gross and unintelligent made no advance towards imitating them.

These childish and savage populations imagined the earth to be flat, supported, I know not how, by its own weight in the air; the sun, moon, and stars to move continually upon a solid vaulted roof called a firmament; and this roof to sustain waters, and have flood-gates at regular distances, through which these waters issued to moisten and fertilize the earth.


But how did the sun, the moon, and all the stars reappear after their setting? Of this they know nothing at all. The heaven touched the flat earth: and there were no means by which the sun, moon, and stars could turn under the earth, and go to rise in the east after having set in the west. It is true that these children of ignorance were right by chance in not entertaining the idea that the sun and fixed stars moved, round the earth. But they were far from conceiving that the sun was immovable, and the earth with its satellite revolving round him in space together with the other planets. Their fables were more distant from the true system of the world than darkness from light.

They thought that the sun and stars returned by certain unknown roads after having refreshed themselves for their course at some spot, not precisely ascertained, in the Mediterranean Sea. This was the amount of astronomy, even in the time of Homer, who is comparatively recent; for the Chaldæans kept their science to themselves, in order to obtain thereby, greater respect from other nations. Homer says, more than once, that the sun plunges into the ocean – and this ocean, be it observed, is nothing but the Nile – here, by the freshness of the waters, he repairs during the night the fatigue and exhaustion of the day, after which, he goes to the place of his regular rising by ways unknown to mortals. This idea is very like that of Baron Fœneste, who says, that the cause of our not seeing the sun when he goes back, is that he goes back by night.

As, at that time, the nations of Syria and the Greeks were somewhat acquainted with Asia and a small part of Europe, and had no notion of the countries which lie to the north of the Euxine Sea and to the south of the Nile, they laid it down as a certainty that the earth was a full third longer than it was wide; consequently the heaven, which touched the earth and embraced it, was also longer than it was wide. Hence came down to us degrees of longitude and latitude, names which we have always retained, although with far more correct ideas than those which originally suggested them.

The Book of Job, composed by an ancient Arab who possessed some knowledge of astronomy, since he speaks of the constellations, contains nevertheless the following passage: "Where wert thou, when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who hath taken the dimensions thereof? On what are its foundations fixed? Who hath laid the cornerstone thereof?"

The least informed schoolboy, at the present day, would tell him, in answer: "The earth has neither cornerstone nor foundation; and, as to its dimensions, we know them perfectly well, as from Magellan to Bougainville, various navigators have sailed round it."

The same schoolboy would put to silence the pompous declaimer Lactantius, and all those who before and since his time have decided that the earth was fixed upon the water, and that there can be no heaven under the earth; and that, consequently, it is both ridiculous and impious to suppose the existence of antipodes.

It is curious to observe with what disdain, with what contemptuous pity, Lactantius looks down upon all the philosophers, who, from about four hundred years before his time, had begun to be acquainted with the apparent revolutions of the sun and planets, with the roundness of the earth, and the liquid and yielding nature of the heaven through which the planets revolved in their orbits, etc. He inquires, "by what degrees philosophers attained such excess of folly as to conceive the earth to be a globe, and to surround that globe with heaven." These reasonings are upon a par with those he has adduced on the subject of the sibyls.

Our young scholar would address some such language as this to all these consequential doctors: "You are to learn that there are no such things as solid heavens placed one over another, as you have been told; that there are no real circles in which the stars move on a pretended firmament; that the sun is the centre of our planetary world; and that the earth and the planets move round it in space, in orbits not circular but elliptical. You must learn that there is, in fact, neither above nor below, but that the planets and the comets tend all towards the sun, their common centre, and that the sun tends towards them, according to an eternal law of gravitation."

Lactantius and his gabbling associates would be perfectly astonished, were the true system of the world thus unfolded to them.


Were a silkworm to denominate the small quantity of downy substance surrounding its ball, heaven, it would reason just as correctly as all the ancients, when they applied that term to the atmosphere; which, as M. de Fontenelle has well observed in his "Plurality of Worlds," is the down of our ball.

The vapors which rise from our seas and land, and which form the clouds, meteors, and thunder, were supposed, in the early ages of the world, to be the residence of gods. Homer always makes the gods descend in clouds of gold; and hence painters still represent them seated on a cloud. How can any one be seated on water? It was perfectly correct to place the master of the gods more at ease than the rest; he had an eagle to carry him, because the eagle soars higher than the other birds.

The ancient Greeks, observing that the lords of cities resided in citadels on the tops of mountains, supposed that the gods might also have their citadel, and placed it in Thessaly, on Mount Olympus, whose summit is sometimes hidden in clouds; so that their palace was on the same floor with their heaven.

Afterwards, the stars and planets, which appear fixed to the blue vault of our atmosphere, became the abodes of gods; seven of them had each a planet, and the rest found a lodging where they could. The general council of gods was held in a spacious hall which lay beyond the Milky Way; for it was but reasonable that the gods should have a hall in the air, as men had town-halls and courts of assembly upon earth.

When the Titans, a species of animal between gods and men, declared their just and necessary war against these same gods in order to recover a part of their patrimony, by the father's side, as they were the sons of heaven and earth; they contented themselves with piling two or three mountains upon one another, thinking that would be quite enough to make them masters of heaven, and of the castle of Olympus.

Neve foret terris securior arduus æther,
Affectasse ferunt regnum celeste gigantes;
Attaque congestos struxisse ad sidera montes.
– OVID'S Metamorph., i. 151-153.
Nor heaven itself was more secure than earth;
Against the gods the Titans levied wars,
And piled up mountains till they reached the stars.

It is, however, more than six hundred leagues from these stars to Mount Olympus, and from some stars infinitely farther.

Virgil (Eclogue v, 57) does not hesitate to say: "Sub pedibusque videt nubes et sidera Daphnis."

Daphnis, the guest of heaven, with wondering eyes,
Views in the Milky Way, the Starry skies,
And far beneath him, from the shining sphere
Beholds the morning clouds, and rolling year.

But where then could Daphnis possibly place himself?

At the opera, and in more serious productions, the gods are introduced descending in the midst of tempests, clouds, and thunder; that is, God is brought forward in the midst of the vapors of our petty globe. These notions are so suitable to our weak minds, that they appear to us grand and sublime.

This philosophy of children and old women was of prodigious antiquity; it is believed, however, that the Chaldæans entertained nearly as correct ideas as ourselves on the subject of what is called heaven. They placed the sun in the midst of our planetary system, nearly at the same distance from our globe as our calculation computes it; and they supposed the earth and some planets to revolve round that star; this we learn from Aristarchus of Samos. It is nearly the system of the world since established by Copernicus: but the philosophers kept the secret to themselves, in order to obtain greater respect both from kings and people, or rather perhaps, to avoid the danger of persecution.

The language of error is so familiar to mankind that we still apply the name of heaven to our vapors, and the space between the earth and moon. We use the expression of ascending to heaven, just as we say the sun turns round, although we well know that it does not. We are, probably, the heaven of the inhabitants of the moon; and every planet places its heaven in that planet nearest to itself.

Had Homer been asked, to what heaven the soul of Sarpedon had fled, or where that of Hercules resided, Homer would have been a good deal embarrassed, and would have answered by some harmonious verses.

What assurance could there be, that the ethereal soul of Hercules would be more at its ease in the planet Venus or in Saturn, than upon our own globe? Could its mansion be in the sun? In that flaming and consuming furnace, it would appear difficult for it to endure its station. In short, what was it that the ancients meant by heaven? They knew nothing about it; they were always exclaiming, "Heaven and earth," thus placing completely different things in most absurd connection. It would be just as judicious to exclaim, and connect in the same manner, infinity and an atom. Properly speaking, there is no heaven. There are a prodigious number of globes revolving in the immensity of space, and our globe revolves like the rest.

The ancients thought that to go to heaven was to ascend; but there is no ascent from one globe to another. The heavenly bodies are sometimes above our horizon, and sometimes below it. Thus, let us suppose that Venus, after visiting Paphos, should return to her own planet, when that planet had set; the goddess would not in that case ascend, in reference to our horizon; she would descend, and the proper expression would be then, descended to heaven. But the ancients did not discriminate with such nicety; on every subject of natural philosophy, their notions were vague, uncertain and contradictory. Volumes have been composed in order to ascertain and point out what they thought upon many questions of this description. Six words would have been sufficient – "they did not think at all." We must always except a small number of sages; but they appeared at too late a period, and but rarely disclosed their thoughts; and when they did so, the charlatans in power took care to send them to heaven by the shortest way.

A writer, if I am not mistaken, of the name of Pluche, has been recently exhibiting Moses as a great natural philosopher; another had previously harmonized Moses with Descartes, and published a book, which he called, "Carlesius Mosaisans"; according to him, Moses was the real inventor of "Vortices," and the subtile matter; but we full well know, that when God made Moses a great legislator and prophet, it was no part of His scheme to make him also a professor of physics. Moses instructed the Jews in their duty, and did not teach them a single word of philosophy. Calmet, who compiled a great deal, but never reasoned at all, talks of the system of the Hebrews; but that stupid people never had any system. They had not even a school of geometry; the very name was utterly unknown to them. The whole of their science was comprised in money-changing and usury.

We find in their books ideas on the structure of heaven, confused, incoherent, and in every respect worthy of a people immersed in barbarism. Their first heaven was the air, the second the firmament in which the stars were fixed. This firmament was solid and made of glass, and supported the superior waters which issued from the vast reservoirs by flood-gates, sluices, and cataracts, at the time of the deluge.

Above the firmament or these superior waters was the third heaven, or the empyream, to which St. Paul was caught up. The firmament was a sort of demi-vault which came close down to the earth.

It is clear that, according to this opinion, there could be no antipodes. Accordingly, St. Augustine treats the idea of antipodes as an absurdity; and Lactantius, whom we have already quoted, expressly says "can there possibly be any persons so simple as to believe that there are men whose heads are lower than their feet?" etc.


St. Chrysostom exclaims, in his fourteenth homily, "Where are they who pretend that the heavens are movable, and that their form is circular?"

Lactantius, once more, says, in the third book of his "Institutions," "I could prove to you by many arguments that it is impossible heaven should surround the earth."

The author of the "Spectacle of Nature" may repeat to M. le Chevalier as often as he pleases, that Lactantius and St. Chrysostom are great philosophers. He will be told in reply that they were great saints; and that to be a great saint, it is not at all necessary to be a great astronomer. It will be believed that they are in heaven, although it will be admitted to be impossible to say precisely in what part of it.

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