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Concatenation of Events

The present is delivered, it is said, of the future. Events are linked to each other by an invincible fatality: it is Destiny which, in Homer, is above even Jupiter. This master of gods and men declares roundly that he cannot stop his son Sarpedon dying in his appointed time. Sarpedon was born at the moment when he had to be born, and could not be born at another moment; he could not die otherwise than before Troy; he could not be buried elsewhere than in Lycia; had at the appointed time to produce vegetables which had to be changed into the substance of a few Lycians; his heirs had to establish a new order in his states; this new order had to exert an influence over the neighbouring kingdoms; from it resulted a new arrangement of war and peace with the neighbours of the neighbours of Lycia: thus, step by step, the destiny of the whole world has been dependent on Sarpedon's death, which depended on Helen being carried off; and this carrying off was necessarily linked to Hecuba's marriage, which by tracing back to other events was linked to the origin of things.

If only one of these facts had been arranged differently, another universe would have resulted: but it was not possible for the present universe not to exist; therefore it was not possible for Jupiter to save his son's life, for all that he was Jupiter.

This system of necessity and fatality has been invented in our time by Leibnitz, according to what people say, under the name of self-sufficient reason; it is, however, very ancient: that there is no effect without a cause and that often the smallest cause produces the greatest effects, does not date from to-day.

Lord Bolingbroke avows that the little quarrels of Madame Marlborough and Madame Masham gave birth to his chance of making Queen Anne's private treaty with Louis XIV.; this treaty led to the Peace of Utrecht; this Peace of Utrecht established Philip V. on the throne of Spain. Philip V. took Naples and Sicily from the house of Austria; the Spanish prince who is to-day King of Naples clearly owes his kingdom to my lady Masham: and he would not have had it, he would not perhaps even have been born, if the Duchess of Marlborough had been more complaisant towards the Queen of England. His existence at Naples depended on one foolishness more or less at the court of London.

Examine the position of all the peoples of the universe; they are established like this on a sequence of facts which appear to be connected with nothing and which are connected with everything. Everything is cog, pulley, cord, spring, in this vast machine.

It is likewise in the physical sphere. A wind which blows from the depths of Africa and the austral seas, brings a portion of the African atmosphere, which falls in rain in the valleys of the Alps; these rains fertilize our lands; our north wind in its turn sends our vapours among the negroes; we do good to Guinea, and Guinea does good to us. The chain stretches from one end of the universe to the other.

But it seems to me that a strange abuse is made of the truth of this principle. From it some people conclude that there is not a sole minute atom whose movement has not exerted its influence in the present arrangement of the world; that there is not a single minute accident, among either men or animals, which is not an essential link in the great chain of fate.

Let us understand each other: every effect clearly has its cause, going back from cause to cause in the abyss of eternity; but every cause has not its effect going forward to the end of the centuries. All events are produced by each other, I admit; if the past is delivered of the present, the present is delivered of the future; everything has father, but everything has not always children. Here it is precisely as with a genealogical tree; each house goes back, as we say, to Adam; but in the family there are many persons who have died without leaving issue.

There is a genealogical tree of the events of this world. It is incontestable that the inhabitants of Gaul and Spain are descended from Gomer, and the Russians from Magog, his younger brother: one finds this genealogy in so many fat books! On this basis one cannot deny that the Great Turk, who is also descended from Magog, was not bound to be well beaten in 1769 by Catherine II., Empress of Russia. This adventure is clearly connected with other great adventures. But that Magog spat to right or left, near Mount Caucasus, and that he made two circles in a well or three, that he slept on the left side or on the right; I do not see that that has had much influence on present affairs.

One must think that everything is not complete in nature, as Newton has demonstrated, and that every movement is not communicated step by step until it makes a circuit of the world, as he has demonstrated still further. Throw into water a body of like density, you calculate easily that after a short time the movement of this body, and the movement it has communicated to the water, are destroyed; the movement disappears and is effaced; therefore the movement that Magog might produce by spitting in a well cannot influence what is passing to-day in Moldavia and Wallachia; therefore present events are not the children of all past events: they have their direct lines; but a thousand little collateral lines do not serve them at all. Once more, every being has a father, but every being has not children.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire