Friday, 9 December 2011

Voltaire gets extra fingers

Another example of the misquotation that's rife on the web due to unmoderated quotation websites brainlessly copying each other's content.

All men are born with a nose and ten fingers, but no one was born with a knowledge of God.
- allegedly by Voltaire

I just answered an enquiry by "Alec", who was looking for the above quotation, which as you can see (Google "All men are born with a nose and ten fingers") is on any number of quotation sites; but, which rings a misquotation alarm bell, not in any books.

I got there by approaching the search with the assumptions that a) it might not be Voltaire and b) it might be misquoted. It turned out to be b), and no wonder Alec - no fault of his own - couldn't find it: the widespread misquotation has altered the number of fingers.

It actually comes from Voltaire's 1734 pamphlet Traité de métaphysique (Treatise on metaphysics), from the second section S'il y a un Dieu (If there is a God).

Est-il possible que la connaissance d’un Dieu, notre créateur, notre conservateur, notre tout, soit moins nécessaire à l’homme qu’un nez et cinq doigts? Tous les hommes naissent avec un nez et cinq doigts, et aucun ne naît avec la connaissance de Dieu: que cela soit déplorable ou non, telle est certainement la condition humaine.
- Traité de métaphysique,

In translation:

Is it possible that the knowledge of a God, our creator, our preserver, our all, is less necessary to man than a nose and five fingers? All men are born with a nose and five fingers, but no one is born with a knowledge of God. Whether that is deplorable or not, such is certainly the condition of humanity.
- The works of Voltaire : a contemporary version with notes (Volume 38), pp15-19

I can see why the garbling happened: "ten fingers" makes more sense than "five fingers" (with an implied "on each hand"). Nevertheless, it ain't what Voltaire wrote, however many websites may quote to the contrary.

Like a lot of epigrams, it's ripped completely out of context. The section S'il y a un Dieu is an agnostic summary of the arguments for and against the existence of God, and the quotation appears in the part where Voltaire is discussing how we're born without a knowledge of God, speculating that it's not important enough to be as fundamental and inbuilt as having a nose and five fingers on each hand.

- Ray

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