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Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought

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Mary Efrosini Gregory

This book examines how eight eighteenth-century French theorists – Maillet, Montesquieu, La Mettrie, Buffon, Maupertuis, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire – addressed evolutionism. Each thinker laid down a building block that would eventually open the door to the mutability of species and a departure from the long-held belief that the chain of beings is fixed. This book describes how the philosophes established a triune relationship among contemporary scientific discoveries, random creationism propelled by the motive and conscious properties of matter, and the notion of the chain of being, along with its corollaries, plenitude and continuity. Also addressed is the contemporary debate over whether apes could ever be taught to speak as well as the issue of race and the family of man.

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8. Voltaire 167

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Chapter 8  Voltaire  People may tell me that porphyry is formed of bears’ bristles; I will believe them when I find that white marble is made of ostrich feathers.1 —François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, A Defence of My Uncle (1767) Voltaire did not believe that the earth is more than 6,000 years old; nor did he believe that one species can metamorphose into another. His satirical jabs at contemporary naturalists are iconic representations of the enormous extent to which investigation into man’s beginnings was polemicized in the eight- eenth century. Voltaire was a fervent deist, and so, he vigorously opposed transformism because it threatened to bring deistic cosmogony to the ground. Déisme is derived from the Latin deus, god. During the eighteenth cen- tury “deism” was defined as “System of those, who, not having any particu- lar cult, and rejecting every kind of revelation, believe only in a sovereign Being. To be suspected of deism.”2 “Deist” was defined as “He or she who recognizes a God, but who does not recognize any revealed Religion. He is a deist.”3 The Oxford English Dictionary defines “deism” as “usually, belief in the existence of a Supreme Being as the source of finite existence, with rejection of revelation and the supernatural doctrines of Christianity; ‘natural religion.’”4 Because Voltaire believed in God the Creator, he recognized the danger inherent in random creationism: it obviated the need for a Prime Mover. Furthermore, if everything in the universe is the result of...

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