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Plato’s Dream, by Voltaire

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(Plato in his academy, drawing after a painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom)

Plato dreamed alot, like many others since then. He had thought that human nature was once double, and that in punishment of his faults it was divided into male and female.

He proved that there can be only five perfect worlds, because there are only five regular bodies in mathematics. His republic was one of his great dreams. He had dreamed also that sleeping born the wake, and the wake the sleeping, and that one would surely lose his sight by looking at an eclipse elsewhere than in a basin of water. The dreams then gave a great reputation.

Here it is one of his dreams, which is not one of the least interesting. It seemed to him that the great Demiourgos, the eternal Geometer, having populated the infinite space with countless globes, wished to experience the knowledge of the genii who had witnessed his works. He gave each of them a small piece of matter to arrange, much as Phidias and Zeuxis would have given statues and pictures to their disciples, if it is permissible to compare little things to great ones.

Demogorgon had in common the piece of mud that he called the earth; and, having arranged it in the manner we see it today, he pretended to have made a masterpiece. He thought he had subjugated the envy, and awaited for praise, even from his colleagues; he was much surprised to receive from them boos.

One of them, who was a very unpleasant jester, said to him: “You have really done very well; you have separated your world in two, and you have placed a large space of water between the two hemispheres, so there is no communication from one to the other. We will freeze under your two poles, we will die of warm under your equinoctial line. You have carefully established great deserts of sand, so that the passers-by die of hunger and thirst. I am quite content with your sheep, your cows, and your hens; but, frankly, I am not too much content of your snakes and spiders. Your onions and artichokes are very good things, but I do not see what was your idea by covering the earth with so many venomous plants, unless you have had the intention of poisoning its inhabitants. It seems to me, also, that you have formed some thirty species of monkeys, many more species of dogs, and only four or five species of men: it is true that you gave to this last animal what you call reason; but, in conscience, this reason is too ridiculous, and too close to madness. It seems to me, moreover, that you do not take great account of this animal with two feet, since you have given him so many enemies and so little defense, so many diseases and so few remedies, so many passions and so little of wisdom. You do not apparently want to leave many of these animals on earth; for, not counting the dangers to which you expose them, you have so well accounted that one day the small-pox will carry off regularly the tenth part of this species, and that the sister of this small-pox will poison the source of life in the nine remaining parts; and, as if it were not yet enough, you have so arranged things that half the survivors will be busy pleading, and the other to kill themselves; they will undoubtedly have much obligation to you, and you have made there a fine masterpiece.”

Demogorgon blushed; he felt clearly that there was moral evil and physical evil in his affair; but he claimed that there was more good than evil. “It is easy to criticize,” he said, ”but do you think it is so easy to make an animal that is always reasonable; who is free, and who never abuses his liberty? Do you think that, when there are nine or ten thousand plants to be made to feed, one can so easily prevent that some of these plants have injurious qualities? Do you imagine that with a certain quantity of water, sand, mud, and fire, one can have neither sea nor desert? Try, you the laughing gentlemen, to arrange the planet of Mars; we shall see how you have managed it with your two great bands, and what a fine effect your moonless nights have made; we shall see whether there is any folly or disease in your people.”

In fact, the genii examined Mars, and they fell rudely upon the mocker. The serious genius who had kneaded Saturn was not spared; his colleagues, the makers of Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus, each had reproaches to wipe.

Large volumes and pamphlets were written; they said good words, they made songs, they ridiculed themselves, the parties became embittered; at last the eternal Demiourgos imposed silence on all of them: “You have done good and bad,” he said, “because you have much intelligence and you are imperfect; Your works will last only a few hundred million years; After which, being better educated, you will do better: It is only for me to do perfect and immortal things.”

This is what Plato taught his disciples. When he had stopped speaking, one of them said to him: “And then you woke up.

Translated by Nicolae Sfetcu

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