Voltaire: A Philosophical Dictionary


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Voltaire: A Philosophical Dictionary 1764, Excerpts
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Voltaire, (Francois-Marie Arouet), a French literary figure and enlightenment philosopher, wrote powerfully in support of religious toleration and freedom of speech. He is most famous for his novel Candide in which he made fun of Leibniz who held that this is the best of all possible worlds. He was a bitter and outspoken critic of the Catholic church - "crush the infamous thing."
AstrologyAstrology may rest on better foundations than Magic. For if no one has seen either Goblins, or Lemures, . . . or Demons, . . . the predictions of astrologers have often been seen to succeed. If of two astrologers consulted on the life of a child and on the weather, one says that the child will live to manhood, the other not; if one announces rain, and the other fine weather, it is clear that one of them will be a prophet.. . .One of the most famous mathematicians in Europe, named Stoffler, who flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and who long worked at the reform of the calendar, proposed at the Council of Constance, foretold a universal flood for the year 1524. This flood was to arrive in the month of February, and nothing is more plausible; for Saturn, Jupiter and Mars were then in conjunction in the sign of Pisces. All the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa, who heard speak of the prediction, were dismayed. Everyone expected the flood, despite the rainbow. . . .Everyone armed himself with a boat as with an ark. . . . At last the month of February arrived, and not a drop of water fell: never was month more dry, and never were the astrologers more embarrassed. Nevertheless they were not discouraged, nor neglected among us; almost all princes continued to consult them.I have not the honor of being a prince; but the celebrated Count of Boulainvilliers and an Italian, named Colonne, who had much prestige in Paris, both foretold that I should die infallibly at the age of thirty-two. I have been so malicious as to deceive them already by nearly thirty years, wherefore I humbly beg their pardon.Authority Wretched human beings, whether you wear green robes, turbans, black robes or surplices, cloaks and neckbands, never seek to use authority where there is question only of reason, or consent to be scoffed at throughout the centuries as the most impertinent of all men, and to suffer public hatred as the most unjust. A hundred times has one spoken to you of the insolent absurdity with which you condemned Galileo, and I speak to you for the hundred and first, and I hope you will keep the anniversary of it for ever; I desire that there be graved on the door of your Holy Office: "Here seven cardinals, assisted by minor brethren, had the master of thought in Italy thrown into prison at the age of seventy; made him fast on bread and water because he instructed the human race, and because they were ignorant." . . . Further on a [university] faculty, which had not great faculties, issued a decree against innate ideas, and later a decree for innate ideas, without the said faculty being informed by its beadles what an idea is. In the neighboring schools judicial proceedings were instituted against the circulation of the blood. An action was started against inoculation, and parties have been subpoenaed. At the Customs of thought twenty-one folio volumes were seized, in which it was stated treacherously and wickedly that triangles always have three angles; that a father is older than his son; that Rhea Silvia lost her virginity before giving birth to her child, and that flour is not an oak leaf. Democracy Ordinarily there is no comparison between the crimes of the great who are always ambitious, and the crimes of the people who always want, and can want only liberty and equality. These two sentiments, Liberty and Equality, do not lead direct to calumny, rapine, assassination, poisoning, the devastation of one's neighbors' lands, etc.; but ambitious might and the mania for power plunge into all these crimes whatever be the time, whatever be the place. Popular government is in itself, therefore, less iniquitous, less abominable than despotic power. The great vice of democracy is certainly not tyranny and cruelty: [But] democracy seems suitable only to a very little country, and further it must be happily situated. Small though it be, it will make many mistakes, because it will be composed of men. Discord will reign there as in a monastery; but there will be no St. Bartholomew, no Irish massacres. . . no inquisition, no condemnation to the galleys for having taken some water from the sea without paying for it, unless one supposes this republic composed of devils in a corner of hell. One questions every day whether a republican government is preferable to a king's government? The dispute ends always by agreeing that to govern men is very difficult. The Jews had God Himself for master; see what has happened to them on that account: nearly always have they been beaten and slaves, and to-day do you not find that they cut a pretty figure?EqualityIt is clear that men, enjoying the faculties connected with their nature, are equal; they are equal when they perform animal functions, and when they exercise their understanding. The King of China, the Great Mogul, the Padisha of Turkey, cannot say to the least of men: " I forbid you to digest, to go to the privy and to think." All the animals of each species are equal among themselves.  In our unhappy world it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes, the one the rich that commands, the other the poor that serves; and these two are subdivided into a thousand, and these thousand still have different gradations.All the poor are not unhappy. The majority were born in that state, and continual work stops their feeling their position too keenly; but when they feel it, then one sees wars, like that of the popular party against the senate party in Rome, like those of the peasants in Germany, England and France. All these wars finish sooner or later with the subjection of the people, because the powerful have money, and money is master of everything in a state: I say in a state; for it is not the same between nations. The nation which makes the best use of the sword will always subjugate the nation which has more gold and less courage.All men are born with a sufficiently violent liking for domination, wealth and pleasure, and with much taste for idleness; consequently, all men want their money and the wives or daughters of others, to be their master, to subject them to all their caprices, and to do nothing, or at least to do only very agreeable things. You see clearly that with these fine inclinations it is as impossible for men to be equal as it is impossible for two predicants or two professors of theology not to be jealous of each other. The human race, such as it is, cannot subsist unless there is an infinity of useful men who possess nothing at all; for it is certain that a man who is well off will not leave his own land to come to till yours; and if you have need of a pair of shoes, it is not the Secretary to the Privy Council who will make them for you. Equality, therefore, is at once the most natural thing and the most fantastic. As men go to excess in everything when they can, this inequality has been exaggerated. It has been maintained in many countries that it was not permissible for a citizen to leave the country where chance has caused him to be born; the sense of this law is visibly: " This land is so bad and so badly governed, that we forbid any individual to leave it, for fear that everyone will leave it." Do better : make all your subjects want to live in your country, and foreigners to come to it. All men have the right in the bottom of their hearts to think themselves entirely equal to other men : it does not follow from that that the cardinal's cook should order his master to prepare him his dinner; but the cook can say: " I am a man like my master; like him I was born crying; like me he will die with the same pangs and the same ceremonies. Both of us perform the same animal functions. If the Turks take possession of Rome, and if then I am cardinal and my master cook, I shall take him into my service." This discourse is reasonable and just; but while waiting for the Great Turk to take possession of Rome, the cook must do his duty, or else all human society is perverted. As regards a man who is neither a cardinal's cook, nor endowed with any other employment in the state; as regards a private person who is connected with nothing, but who is vexed at being received everywhere with an air of being patronized or scorned, who sees quite clearly that many monsignors have no more knowledge, wit or virtue than he, and who at times is bored at waiting in their antechambers, what should he decide to do? Why, to take himself off.

Translated by H.I. Woolf, New York: Knopf, 1924

Edited by Jennifer Brainard, c. Historywiz 2000-2003

 

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