Day 2615, Voltaire on free will.

Daily picture, Quotes

Free Will


Ever since men have reasoned, the philosophers have obscured this matter: but
the theologians have rendered it unintelligible by absurd subtleties about grace.
Locke is perhaps the first man to find a thread in this labyrinth; for he is the first
who, without having the arrogance of trusting in setting out from a general
principle, examined human nature by analysis. For three thousand years people
have disputed whether or no the will is free. In the “Essay on the Human
Understanding,” chapter on “Power,” Locke shows first of all that the question is
absurd, and that liberty can no more belong to the will than can colour and
What is the meaning of this phrase “to be free”? it means “to be able,” or assuredly
it has no sense. For the will ”to be able ” is as ridiculous at bottom as to say that
the will is yellow or blue, round or square. To will is to wish, and to be free is to
be able. Let us note step by step the chain of what passes in us, without
obfuscating our minds by any terms of the schools or any antecedent principle.
It is proposed to you that you mount a horse, you must absolutely make a choice,
for it is quite clear that you either will go or that you will not go. There is no
middle way. It is therefore of absolute necessity that you wish yes or no. Up to
there it is demonstrated that the will is not free. You wish to mount the horse;
why? The reason, an ignoramus will say, is because I wish it. This answer is
idiotic, nothing happens or can happen without a reason, a cause; there is one
therefore for your wish. What is it? the agreeable idea of going on horseback
which presents itself in your brain, the dominant idea, the determinant idea. But,
you will say, can I not resist an idea which dominates me? No, for what would be
the cause of your resistance? None. By your will you can obey only an idea which
will dominate you more.
Now you receive all your ideas; therefore you receive your wish, you wish
therefore necessarily. The word “liberty” does not therefore belong in any way to
your will…

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