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Liberty of Expression


Saving Lives by Inoculation

Literature and Wit

Imagination in Science and Art

Beauty as Relative



Giving Consolation

Improbability of History


Enthusiasm and Fanaticism 


Old Age







Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) was born in Paris, France, to a successful notary. From the age of ten until seventeen he was educated at the College Louis-le-Grand, managed by the Jesuits. There, the practice of mounting plays may have led to his later success in the French theater. He left to take up law, but soon abandoned this for literary pursuits, where his quick wit caused him several banishments from Paris, a brief exile in Holland, and eleven months in the Bastille (at age 24). On leaving the last, he added the "de Voltaire" to his name. Shortly after his release, his play Oedipe was successfully performed in Paris in November of 1718. A succession of plays made him the most famous playwright in France.


In 1725 he insulted the chevalier de Rohan, who had his thugs beat him up while he watched. Voltaire challenged Rohan to a duel but was thrown into the Bastille on the appointed day. He was released shortly afterwards after negotiating an exile to England. There he was welcomed as a distinguished French writer at the court of Queen Caroline. He learned English, and became friends with Walpole, Bolingbroke, Congreve, Pope, and others. He read extensively, absorbing the ideas of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He returned to Paris after three years as a serious philosopher and advocate of justice.


The results of his sojourn were embodied in his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), published in French as Lettres Philosophiques (1734). This has been considered as one of the most important literary works of the Eighteenth Century and the inspiration for the growth of liberal thought in continental Europe. Copies were seized and burnt by the hangman in a public square. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the author, but it could not be served as he was residing at the Chateau of Cirey in the independent duchy of Lorraine. He stayed there for the rest of the decade reading extensively and continuing a career in literature, writing poetry, plays, essays, and books. Voltaire also wrote on science, metaphysics and history. Chapters of Voltaire’s The Age of Louis XIV were seized on their publication in Paris in 1739. This work and others were major contributions to history, based on extensive research but lacking pedantry, and belie the cynical definition of history in his Philosophical Dictionary.


Voltaire was able to return to Paris and became Royal Historiographer in 1745, gaining access to a wealth of historical documents. He was elected to the French Academy the following year. The publication of his most famous stories began with Zadig in 1747, followed by Micromegas in 1752, and Candide in 1759, his masterpiece. Throughout this period he was in trouble with ecclesiastical and political authorities at frequent intervals. For his own peace of mind and protection, Voltaire bought a large property at Ferney on the shore of Lake Geneva in 1758. Located just within France, it gave Voltaire easy escape to Switzerland. There he wrote his Philosophical Dictionary, which came out in a variety of volumes, and crusaded on behalf of justice.


Voltaire was a theist, arguing strongly against atheism, recognizing that "faith consists in believing what is beyond the power of reason to believe. It is not enough for a thing be possible to be believed." But Voltaire scorned the Christianity of his day. He suggested that its basic moral principles were essentially the same as those of all religions, but that the morality actually exhibited by the church was infamous. Voltaire said that this was be expected in a religion founded in fanaticism and fostered by intrigue—maintaining by force a doctrine that was the height of absurdity, and promulgating cruel dogmas that caused persecution. He added that the miracles of Christianity were of the sort despised by philosophic minds and common to many other peoples, while its prophesies were demonstrably false. "This agglomeration that was called, and still calls itself, the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire", he wrote.


With a free-ranging intellect and a prodigious gift for expression, Voltaire suffered many injustices from political, religious and aristocratic power. After his visit to England, justice and intellectual freedom became inseparably linked in his mind. His outstanding ability as a writer made him a major force in emergence of a clearer concept of justice in the eighteenth century. In his reading he absorbed the ideas of Montesquieu and Cesare di Baccaria. His commentary on the latter’s book on penal reform was added when book was published in North America, influencing early state constitutions.


Voltaire devoted the last years of his life to the task of abolishing infamy, meaning superstition and fanaticism such as that displayed by the Inquisition. He declared "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Specifically, he fought strongly against the secrecy, superstition and cruelty that were characteristic of the justice system in his time. Most noticeably he publicized and fought the judicial torture and murder of Jean Calas, getting the judgment reversed and obtaining a royal pension for the victim’s family. He also fought unsuccessfully against the unjust conviction of Admiral Byng in England, remarking that there it was thought well to kill an admiral from time to time "to encourage the others."


In all of Voltaire’s ironic and witty remarks there is a sense of a deep concern for humanity. Because he never gives up hope for achieving change, there is an underlying optimism beneath his most fiercely critical works. Voltaire has a faith in our ability to improve the human condition. He put forward a philosophy of acceptance of man’s fate, recognizing all its limitations. He carried out to an amazing degree his own conviction of the importance of work, arguing that work dispels the evils of boredom, vice and need. "We must all cultivate our garden" remarks Candide at the end of his adventures.


The statement attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it" expresses well the value he placed on the free exchange of ideas.


Short extracts from Voltaire's letters and his Philosophical Dictionary are given below.




Liberty of Expression


1   [To a censor] As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar—slavery makes it creep.

    Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers. . . Be content with severely repressing defamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes [scandalous epigrams] are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honor to his country, among its contraband.

    You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons. You do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read, and a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will only read what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

    Men's thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool always striving after wit is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the type caster, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier—and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things—profit and pleasure. . .

    You, sir, who have at least some small opportunity of giving good advice, try and rouse us from this stupid lethargy. And, if you can, do something for literature, which has done so much for France.

Letter to a First Commissioner


2   [ To an actress] No one is better able than you to form an opinion on the profession you adorn. But is not your noble art just as much decried by bigots and equally looked down upon at Court?* Is less contempt poured on a business which requires intelligence, education, talent, than on a study and art which teach only morality, decency, and the virtues ?

    I have always been indignant for both you and myself that work so difficult and so useful as ours should be repaid by so much ingratitude, but now my indignation has turned to despair. I shall never reform the abuses of the world: I had better give up trying. The public is a ferocious beast: one must chain him up or flee from him. Chains I have none, but I know the secret of retirement. I have found out the blessedness of quiet—which is true happiness. Shall I leave it to be torn to pieces by the Abbe Desfontaines and to be sacrificed by the Italian buffoons [parodists of Voltaire’s plays] to the malignity of the public and the laughter of the rabble? I ought rather to persuade you to leave an ungrateful profession, that you may no more incite me to expose myself on the boards. I must add to all I have just said that I find it impossible to work well in my present state of discouragement. I require to be intoxicated with self-approval and enthusiasm—a wine I have mixed, and now no longer care to drink.

    Only you have the power to inebriate me afresh: but though you have a pious zeal to make converts, you will find plenty of more suitable subjects in Paris—younger, bolder, cleverer. . .

Letter to Mdlle. Quinault


*Voltaire described the status of the actor in France in the eighteenth century as "paid by the King and excommunicated by the Church... commanded by the King to play every evening, and by the Church forbidden to do so at all. If they do not play, they are put into prison: if they do, they are spurned into the gutter .... It must be allowed we are a most reasonable and consistent nation." In I730, the fate of Adrienne Le Couvreur, the great tragic actress, had stirred him to passionate rage and pity. She was refused Christian burial and taken outside the city at night, to be "thrown into the kennel like a dead dog," .





3   Regarding the degrees of truth according to which the accused are judged [in a capital case], we can be made accountable to justice either for deeds or words. If for deeds, they must be as certain as will be the punishment to which you will condemn the prisoner. If, for example, you have but twenty probabilities against him, these twenty probabilities cannot equal the certainty of his death. If you would have as many probabilities as are required to be sure that you shed not innocent blood, they must be the fruit of the unanimous evidences of witnesses who have no interest in deposing. From this concourse of probabilities, a strong opinion will be formed, which will serve to excuse your judgment; but as you will never have entire certainty, you cannot flatter yourself with knowing the truth perfectly. Consequently you should always lean towards mercy rather than towards rigor. If it concerns only facts, from which neither manslaughter nor mutilation have resulted, it is evident that you should neither cause the accused to be put to death nor mutilated.

    If the question is only of words, it is still more evident that you should not cause one of your fellow-creatures to be hanged for the manner in which he has used his tongue; for all the words in the world being but agitated air, at least if they have not caused murder, it is ridiculous to condemn a man to death for having agitated the air. Put all the idle words which have been uttered into one scale, and into the other the blood of a man, and the blood will weigh down. Now, if he who has been brought before you is only accused of some words which his enemies have taken in a certain sense, all that you can do is to repeat these words to him, which he will explain in the sense he intended; but to deliver an innocent man to the most cruel and ignominious punishment for words that his enemies do not comprehend, is too barbarous. You make the life of a man of no more importance than that of a lizard; and too many judges resemble you.

Truth, Philosophical Dictionary



Saving Lives by Inoculation


4   My dear angel, if the Marachale de Duras, who looks so very strong-minded, had done as did Mme. de Montaigu and the late Queen—if she had been courageous enough to give the smallpox to her children—you would not be mourning the Duchesse d'Aumont today. Thirty years ago I declared that a tenth part of the nation might thus be saved. A few people, grieved by the loss of valuable lives from smallpox in the flower of their youth, say, "Really, inoculation ought to be tried": and by the end of a fortnight they have forgotten alike those who have fallen victims to the scourge and those who yet will fall.

    Last year, the Bishop of Worcester preached in London before the Houses of Parliament in favor of inoculation, and proved that it saved, in London alone, two thousand lives a year. That was a sermon which did much more good than the stuff our preachers talk.

Letter to the Comte d'Argental



Literature and Wit


5   I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society—from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations—have never been painted in more striking colors. No one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes. To read your book makes one long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada. In the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because a war is going on in that country, and the example of the civilized nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen—close to your country, where you yourself should be.

    I agree with you that science and literature have sometimes done a great deal of harm. Tasso's enemies made his life a long series of misfortunes: Galileo's enemies kept him languishing in prison, at seventy years of age, for the crime of understanding the revolution of the earth: and, what is still more shameful, obliged him to forswear his discovery. Since your friends began the Encyclopaedia, their rivals attack them as deists, atheists—even Jansenists. . .

    Great crimes are always committed by great ignoramuses. What makes, and will always make, this world a vale of tears is the insatiable greediness and the indomitable pride of men, from Thomas Koulikan, who did not know how to read, to a custom-house officer who can just count. Letters support, refine, and comfort the soul: they are serving you, sir, at the very moment you decry them. You are like Achilles declaiming against fame, and Father Malebranche using his brilliant imagination to belittle imagination.

    If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they led to my being persecuted. Still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused—as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness . . .

Letter to Rousseau


6   I am only an old invalid, mademoiselle, and my not having answered your letter before, and now replying only in prose to your charming verses, prove that my condition is a serious one.

        You ask me for advice: your own good taste will afford you all you need. Your study of Italian should further improve that taste which was born in you, and which nobody can give you. Tasso and Ariosto will do much more for you than I can, and reading our best poets is better than all lessons. But, since you are so good as to consult me from so far away, my advice to you is—read only such books as have long been sealed with the universal approval of the public and whose reputation is established. They are few: but you will gain much more from reading those few than from all the feeble little works with which we are inundated. Good writers are only witty in the right place, they never strive after smartness. They think sensibly, and express themselves clearly. Now, people appear to write exclusively in enigmas. Everything is affected—nothing simple. Nature is ignored, and everyone tries to improve on the masterpieces of our language.

    Hold fast, mademoiselle, to everything that delights you in them. The smallest affectation is a vice. The Italians, after Tasso and Ariosto, degenerated because they were always trying to be witty: and it is the same with the French. Observe how naturally Mme. de Sevigne and other ladies write: and compare their style with the confused phrases of our minor romances—I cite writers of your own sex because I am sure you can, and will, resemble them. There are passages of Mme. Deshoulieres which are equaled by no writer of the present day. If you wish examples of male authors—look how simply and clearly Racine invariably expresses himself. Every reader of his works feels sure that he could himself say in prose what Racine has said in verse. Believe me, everything that is not equally clear, chaste, and simple is worth absolutely nothing.

    Your own reflections, mademoiselle, will tell you all this a hundred times better than I can say it. You will notice that our good writers—Fenelon, Bossuet, Racine, Despreaux—always use the right word. One gets oneself accustomed to talk well by constantly reading those who have written well: it becomes a habit to express our thoughts simply and nobly, without effort. It is not in the nature of a study: it is no trouble to read what is good, and to read that only. Our own pleasure and taste are our only masters.

    Forgive this long disquisition; you must please attribute it to my obedience to your wishes.

Letter to Mme. Deshoulieres


7   Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose. And if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many—if there is the least defect in the construction—if a conjunction is forgotten—if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one rereads and remembers, in spite of oneself. . .

Letter to M. Helvetius


8   A man who had some knowledge of the human heart, was consulted upon a tragedy which was to be represented. He answered that there was so much wit in the piece, that he doubted of its success. What! you will exclaim, is that a fault, at a time when every one is in search of wit—when each one writes to show that he has it—when the public even applaud the falsest thoughts if they are brilliant?—Yes, doubtless, they will applaud the first day, and be wearied the second.

    What is called wit is sometimes a new comparison, sometimes a subtle allusion. Here, it is the misuse of a word, which is presented in one sense, and left to be understood in another; there, a delicate relation between two ideas not very common. It is a singular metaphor; it is the discovery of something in an object which does not at first strike the observation, but which is really in it. It is the art either of bringing together two things apparently remote, or of dividing two things which seem to be united, or of opposing them to each other. It is that of expressing only one-half of what you think, and leaving the other to be guessed. In short, I could tell you of all the different ways of showing wit, if I had more; but all these gems—and I do not here include the counterfeits—are very rarely suited to a serious work—to one which is to interest the reader.

    The reason is that then the author appears, but the public desires to see only the hero, and the hero is constantly either in passion or in danger. Danger and the passions do not go in search of wit. Priam and Hecuba do not compose epigrams while their children are butchered in flaming Troy; Dido does not sigh out her soul in madrigals, while rushing to the pile on which she is about to immolate herself; Demosthenes makes no display of pretty thoughts while he is inciting the Athenians to war. If he had, he would be a rhetorician; whereas he is a statesman.

Wit, Philosophical Dictionary



Imagination in Science and Art


9   In consequence of having seen that a large stone which the hand of man could not move, might be moved by means of a staff, active imagination invented levers, and afterwards compound moving forces, which are none other than disguised levers. It is necessary to figure in the mind the machines with their various effects and processes, in order to achieve the actual production of them.

    It is not this description of imagination that is called by the vulgar the enemy of judgment. On the contrary, it can only act in union with profound judgment; it incessantly combines its pictures, corrects its errors, and raises all its edifices according to calculation and upon a plan. There is an astonishing imagination in practical mathematics; and Archimedes had at least as much imagination as Homer. It is by this power that a poet creates his personages, appropriates to them characters and manners, invents his fable, presents the exposition of it, constructs its complexity, and prepares its development; a labor, all this, requiring judgment the most profound and the most delicately discriminative.

    A very high degree of art is necessary in all these imaginative inventions, and even in romances. Those which are deficient in this quality are neglected and despised by all minds of natural good taste. An invariably sound judgment pervades all the fables of Aesop. They will never cease to be the delight of mankind. There is more imagination in the "Fairy Tales"; but these fantastic imaginations, destitute of order and good sense, can never be in high esteem; they are read childishly, and must be condemned by reason.

Imagination, Philosophical Dictionary



Beauty as Relative


10   Since we have quoted Plato on love, why should we not quote him on "the beautiful," since beauty causes love. It is curious to know how this Greek spoke of the beautiful more than two thousand years ago.

    "The man initiated into the sacred mysteries, when he sees a beautiful face accompanied by a divine form, a something more than mortal, feels a secret emotion, and I know not what respectful fear. He regards this figure as a divinity. When the influence of beauty enters into his soul by his eyes he burns; the wings of his soul are bedewed; they lose the hardness which retains their germs and liquefy themselves; these germs, swelling beneath the roots of its wings, they expand from every part of the soul (for the soul had wings formerly)," etc. I am willing to believe that nothing is finer than this discourse of the divine Plato; but it does not give us very clear ideas of the nature of the beautiful.

    Ask a toad what is beauty—the great beauty To Kalon; he will answer that it is the female with two great round eyes coming out of her little head, her large flat mouth, her yellow belly, and brown back. Ask a negro of Guinea; beauty is to him a black, oily skin, sunken eyes, and a flat nose. Ask the devil; he will tell you that the beautiful consists in a pair of horns, four claws, and a tail. Then consult the philosophers; they will answer you with jargon; they must have something conformable to the archetype of the essence of the beautiful—to the To Kalon.

    I was once attending a tragedy near a philosopher. "How beautiful that is," said he. "What do you find beautiful?" asked I. "It is," said he, "that the author has attained his object." The next day he took his medicine, which did him some good. "It has attained its object," cried I to him; "it is a beautiful medicine.'' He comprehended that it could not be said that a medicine is beautiful, and that to apply to anything the epithet beautiful it must cause admiration and pleasure. He admitted that the tragedy had inspired him with these two sentiments, and that it was the To Kalon, the beautiful.

    We made a journey to England. The same piece was played, and, although ably translated, it made all the spectators yawn. "Oh, oh!" said he, "the To Kalon is not the same with the English as with the French." He concluded after many reflections that "the beautiful" is often merely relative, as that which is decent at Japan is indecent at Rome; and that which is the fashion at Paris is not so at Pekin; and he was thereby spared the trouble of composing a long treatise on the beautiful.

The Beautiful, Philosophical Dictionary





11   If the name of happiness is meant to be applied to some pleasures which are diffused over human life, there is in fact, we must admit, happiness. If the name attaches only to one pleasure always permanent, or a continued although varied range of delicious enjoyment, then happiness belongs not to this globe of land and water. Go and seek for it elsewhere.

    If we make happiness consist in any particular situation that a man may be in, as for instance, a situation of wealth, power, or fame, we are no less mistaken. There are some scavengers who are happier than some sovereigns. Ask Cromwell whether he was more happy when he was lord protector of England than when, in his youthful days, he enjoyed himself at a tavern; he will probably tell you in answer, that the period of his usurpation was not the period most productive of pleasures. How many plain or even ugly country women are more happy than were Helen and Cleopatra.

    We must here however make one short remark; that when we say such a particular man is probably happier than some other; that a young muleteer has advantages very superior to those of Charles V, that a dressmaker has more enjoyment than a princess, we should adhere to the probability of the case. There is certainly every appearance that a muleteer, in full health, must have more pleasure than Charles the Fifth, laid up with the gout; but nevertheless it may also be, that Charles, on his crutches, revolves in his mind with such ecstasy the facts of his holding a king of France and a pope prisoners, that his lot is absolutely preferable to that of the young and vigorous muleteer. . .

    It is only therefore in the single case of actual pleasure and actual pain, and without a reference to anything else whatever, that a comparison between any two individuals can be properly made. It is unquestionable that he who enjoys the society of his mistress is happier at the moment than his scorned rival deploring over his misfortune. A man in health, supping on a fat partridge, is undoubtedly happier at the time than another under the torment of the colic; but we cannot safely carry our inferences further; we cannot estimate the existence of one man against that of another; we possess no accurate balance for weighing desires and sensations.

Good, Philosophical Dictionary


12   What is called happiness is an abstract idea composed of various ideas of pleasure; for he who has but a moment of pleasure is not a happy man, in like manner that a moment of grief constitutes not a miserable one. Pleasure is more transient than happiness, and happiness than felicity. When a person says I am happy at this moment, he abuses the word and only means I am pleased. When pleasure is continuous, he may then call himself happy. When this happiness, lasts a little longer, it is a state of felicity. We are sometimes very far from being happy in prosperity, just as a surfeited invalid eats nothing of a great feast prepared for him.

    The ancient adage, "No person should be called happy before his deaths" seems to, turn on very false principles, if we mean by this maxim that we should not give the name of happy to a man who had been so constantly from his birth to his last hour. This continuity of agreeable moments is rendered impossible by the constitution of our organs, by that of the elements on which we depend, and by that of mankind, on whom we depend still more. Constant happiness is the philosopher’s stone of the soul; it is a great deal for us not to be a long time unhappy. A person whom we might suppose to have always enjoyed a happy life, who perishes miserably, would certainly merit the appellation of happy until his death, and we might boldly pronounce that he had been the happiest of men. Socrates might have been the happiest of the Greeks, although superstitious, absurd, or iniquitous judges (or all together) juridically poisoned him at the age of seventy years on the suspicion that he believed in only one God.

Happy, Philosophical Dictionary




13     Philosophers have enquired whether humility is a virtue; but virtue or not, every one must agree that nothing is more rare. The Greeks called it "tapeinosis"or "tapeineia." It is strongly recommended in the fourth book of the Laws of Plato: he rejects the proud and would multiply the humble.

    Epictetus, in five places, preaches humility: "If you pass for a person of consequence in the opinion of some people, distrust yourself. No lifting up of your eyebrows. Be nothing in your own eyes—if you seek to please, you are lost. Give place to all men; prefer them to yourself; assist them all." We see by these maxims that never did a Capuchin go so far as Epictetus.

    Some theologians, who had the misfortune to be proud, have pretended that humility cost nothing to Epictetus, who was a slave; and that he was humble by station, as a doctor or a Jesuit may be proud by station.

    But what will they say of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who on the throne recommended humility? He places Alexander and his muleteer on the same line. He said that the vanity of pomp is only a bone thrown in the midst of dogs; that to do good, and to patiently hear himself calumniated, constitute the virtue of a king. Thus the master of the known world recommended humility; but propose humility to a musician, and see how he will laugh at Marcus Aurelius.

    Descartes, in his treaties on. the "Passions of the Soul," places humility among their number, who—if we may personify this quality—did not expect to be regarded as a passion. He also distinguishes between virtuous and vicious humility.

    But we leave to philosophers more enlightened than ourselves the care of explaining this doctrine, and will confine ourselves to saying that humility is "the modesty of the soul." . . .

Humility, Philosophical Dictionary



Giving Consolation


14   The squaring of the circle and perpetual motion are simple discoveries in comparison to the secret of bringing peace to a soul distraught by passionate grief. It is only magicians who pretend to calm storms with words. If an injured man, with a deep, gaping wound, begs his surgeon to close that wound so that only a slight scar shall remain, the surgeon replies: "That must be done by a greater physician than I am: only Time can mend what has been torn in a moment. I can amputate, cut out, destroy; Time alone can repair."

    So is it with the wounds of the soul. The would-be comforter inflames and excites them or, attempting to comfort, moves to fresh tears; but Time cures at last. If one gets well into one's head that finally nature obliterates our deepest impressions, that after a certain time we have neither the same blood in our veins nor the same fibers in the brain, and, consequently, not the same ideas—that, in a word, we are really and physically no longer the same person; if, I say, we thus reflect, we shall find great help in the thought and shall hasten our recovery.

   We must say to ourselves, "I have proved that the death of my relatives and my friends, after having half broken my heart for a while, has eventually left me perfectly calm. I have felt that, after a few years, a new soul was born in me: that the heart of twenty-five does not feel as the heart of twenty did, nor that of twenty as that of fifteen." Let us try, then, to put ourselves now as much as possible in the situation in which we shall certainly be one day: let us get the start of time in thought.

    This, of course, supposes freedom of action on our part. He who asks advice must consider himself free, for it would be absurd to ask advice if it were impossible to take it. In business we always act on the assumption that we are free: let us so act in our passions, which are our most important business. Nature never intended that our wounds should be closed in a moment—that we should pass in a second from sickness to health. But wise remedies will certainly accelerate our cure.

    I know no more powerful remedy for the sorrows of the heart than deep and serious application of the mind to other objects.

    This application changes the gloomy tenor of the spirits—sometimes even makes us insensible to bodily ills. Any one who devotes himself to music or to reading a good book, which appeals at once to the mind and to the imagination, finds speedy relief from the sufferings of an illness. He also finds that, little by little, the pangs of the heart lose their sharpness.

    He is obliged to think of something quite other than that which he is trying to forget: and one has to think often—no, constantly—of what one wishes to retain. The strongest chains are, in the long run, those of custom. It depends, I believe, on ourselves to break the links which bind us to our sorrows and to strengthen those which attach us to happier things. . .These are counsels which, like so many others, are no doubt easier to give than to follow. But we are in the presence of a disease wherein the patient must minister to himself.

Letter to a friend



15   Your letter, madam, touched me more deeply than you can imagine, and I assure you my eyes were wet when I read what had happened to yours. I had gathered, from M. de Formont's letter, that you were, so to speak, in the dusk but not in complete darkness. I thought of you as somewhat in Mme. de Staal's condition, with the inestimable advantage, which she lacks, of freedom, of having friends about you who can think and speak as they please, and of living in your own house instead of being subjected, in a princess's, to restrictions which savor of hypocrisy.

    Therefore, dear madam, I only regretted that your eyes had lost their beauty: and I was sure you were enough of a philosopher to console yourself for that: but, if you have lost your sight, I pity you very deeply. I do not suggest to you as an example M. de S. who, blind at twenty, is always lively—if not too lively. I agree with you that life is not worth much: we only endure it from an almost invincible instinct which nature has planted in us. To this instinct she has added the bottom of Pandora's box—hope.

    Only when hope is absolutely lacking, or when an unbearable depression settles down upon us, do we triumph over the natural impulse to hug the chains that bind us to life: and gather courage to leave an ill-built house which we can never hope to repair. Two people in the country where I now am have elected to do this.

    One of these two philosophers is a girl of eighteen, whose brain had been turned by the Jesuits, and who, to rid herself of them, set out for the next world. That is a thing I shall not do, or at any rate not yet, for I am in receipt of annuities from two potentates, and I should be inconsolable if by my death I enriched two crowned heads.

    If you, madam, have a pension from the King, be exceedingly careful of yourself, eat little, go to bed early, and live to be a hundred. . .

Letter to Mme. du Deffand


Improbability of History


16   History is the recital of facts as true. Fable, on the contrary, is the recital of facts represented as fiction. There is the history of human opinions, which is scarcely anything more than the history of human errors.

    The history of the arts may be made most useful of all, when to a knowledge of their invention and progress it adds a description of their mechanicals and processes.

    Natural history, improperly designated, is an essential part of natural philosophy. 

    The history of events has been divided into sacred and profane. Sacred history is a series of divine operations, by which God formerly directed and governed the Jewish nation, and in the process tries our faith. "To learn Hebrew, the sciences, and history," says La Fontaine "is to drink up the sea."

    The foundations of all history are the recital of events, made by fathers to their children, and afterwards transmitted from one generation to another. They are, at most, only probable in their truth when they do not shock common sense, and they lose a degree of probability at every successive transmission. With time the fabulous increases and the true disappears; hence it arises that the original traditions and records of all nations are absurd. Thus the Egyptians had been governed for many ages by the gods. They had next been under the government of demi-gods; and, finally, they had kings for eleven thousand three hundred and forty years. And during that period the sun had changed four times from east and west. . .

    The ridiculous miracles which abound in the ancient history of Greece are universally known.

    The Romans, although a serious and grave people, have, nevertheless, equally involved in fables the early periods of their history. That nation so recent in comparison with those of Asia, was five hundred years without historians. It is impossible, therefore, to be surprised on finding that Romulus was the son of Mars; that a she-wolf was his nurse; that he marched with a thousand men from his own village, Rome, against twenty thousand warriors belonging to the city of the Sabines; that he afterwards became a god; that the elder Tarquin cut through a stone with a razor, and that a vestal drew a ship to land with her girdle, etc.

    The first annals of modern nations are no less fabulous; things prodigious and improbable ought sometimes, undoubtedly, to be related, but only as proofs of human credulity. They constitute part of the history of human opinion and absurdities; but the field is too immense.

History, Philosophical Dictionary




17   Why do we abandon to contempt, debasement, oppression, and rapine, the great mass of those laborious and harmless men who cultivate the earth every day of the year, that we may eat of all its fruits? And why, on the contrary, do we pay respect, attention and court, to the useless and often very wicked man who lives only by their labor, and is rich only by their misery? . . .

    Why, since the fruits of the earth are so necessary for the preservation of men and animals, do we find so many years, and so many centuries, in which these fruits are absolutely wanting? Why is the earth covered with poisons in the half of Africa and of America? Why is there no tract of land where there are not more insects than men? Why does a little whitish and offensive secretion form a being which will have hard bones, desires, and thoughts? And why shall those beings be constantly persecuting one another? Why does there exist so much evil, everything being formed by a God whom all Theists agree in calling good? Why, since we are always complaining of our ills, are we constantly employed in redoubling them?        

    Why, since we are so miserable, has it been imagined that to die is an evil—when it is clear that not to have been, before our birth, was no evil? Why does it rain every day into the sea, while so many deserts demand rain, yet are constantly arid? Why and how have we dreams in our sleep, if we have no soul? and if we have one, how is it that these dreams are always so incoherent and so extravagant? Why do the heavens revolve from east to west, rather than the contrary way? Why do we exist? Why does anything exist?

Whys, Philosophical Dictionary


18   Philosopher: "lover of wisdom", or as they say, "of truth." All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one among those of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of formal truth. They might be mistaken, and undoubtedly were so, on subjects of natural philosophy; but that is comparatively of so little importance to the conduct of life, that philosophers had then no need of it. Ages were required to discover a part of the laws of nature. A single day is sufficient to enable a sage to become acquainted with the duties of man. . .

    But by what fatality, disgraceful perhaps to the nations of the West, has it happened that we are obliged to travel to the extremity of the East in order to find a sage of simple manners and character, without arrogance and without imposture, who taught men how to live happily six hundred years before our era, at a period when the whole of the North was ignorant of the use of letters, and when the Greeks had scarcely begun to distinguish themselves by wisdom?

    That sage is Confucius, who valued too highly his character as a legislator for mankind, to stoop to deceive them. What finer rule of conduct has ever been given since his time, throughout the earth?

    "Rule a state as you rule a family; a man cannot govern his family well without giving a good example. Virtue should be common to the laborer and the monarch. Be active in preventing crimes, that you may lessen the trouble of punishing them.

    "Under the good kings Yao and Xu, the Chinese were good; under the bad kings Kie and Chu, they were wicked.

    "Do to another as to yourself. Love mankind in general, but cherish those who are good. Forget injuries, but never benefits.

    "I have seen men incapable of the sciences, but never any incapable of virtue."

    Let us acknowledge that no legislator ever announced to the world more useful truths.

    A multitude of Greek philosophers taught afterwards a morality equally pure. Had they distinguished themselves only by their vain systems of natural philosophy, their names would be mentioned at the present day only in derision. If they are still respected, it is because they were just, and because they taught mankind to be so.

    It is impossible to read certain passages of Plato, and particularly the admirable exordium of the laws of Zaleucus, without experiencing an ardent love of honorable and generous actions. The Romans have their Cicero who alone is perhaps more valuable than all the philosophers of Greece. After him come men more respectable still, but whom we may almost despair of imitating; these are Epictetus in slavery, and Antoninus and Julian upon a throne.

    Where is the citizen to be found among us who would deprive himself, like Julian, Antoninus, and Marcus Aurelius, of all the refined accommodations of our delicate and luxurious modes of living? Who would, like them, sleep on the bare ground? Who would restrict himself their to their frugal habits? Who would, like them, march bareheaded and barefooted at the head of the armies, exposed sometimes to the burning sun, and at other times to the freezing blast? Who would, like them keep perfect mastery of all his passions? We have among us devotees, but where are the sages? Where are the souls just and tolerant, serene and undaunted?

    There have been some studious philosophers in France; and all of them, with the exception of Montaigne, have been persecuted. It seems to me that the highest degree of malignity our nature can exhibit is to attempt to oppress those who devote their best endeavors to correct and improve it.

Philosopher, Philosophical Dictionary


19   Sect and error are synonymous terms. You are a peripatetic and I am a Platonist; we are therefore both in the wrong; for you oppose Plato, because his chimeras repel you; and I shun Aristotle, because it appears to me that he did not know what he said. If the one or the other had demonstrated the truth, there would have been an end of sect. To declare for the opinion of one in opposition to that of another is to take part in a civil war.

    There is no sect in mathematics or experimental philosophy: a man who examines the relation between a cone and a sphere is not of the sect of Archimedes; and he who perceived that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, is not in consequence a Pythagorean.

    When we say that the blood circulates, that the air is weighty, that the rays of the sun are a bundle of seven colors that can be refracted, it does not follow that we are of the sect of Harvey, of Torricelli, or of Newton. We simply acquiesce in the truths which they demonstrate, and the whole universe will be of the same opinion. Such is the character of truth, which belongs to all time and to all men. It is only to be produced to be acknowledged, and admits of no opposition. A long dispute signifies that both parties are in error.

Sect, Philosophical Dictionary


20   A beggar of the suburbs of Madrid boldly asked for alms. A passerby said to him, "Are you not ashamed to carry on this infamous trade, when you can work"? "Sir", replied the mendicant, "I ask you for money, and not for advice"; and turned his back on him with Castilian dignity. This gentleman was a haughty beggar; his vanity was wounded by very little: he asked alms for love of himself, and would not suffer the reprimand from a still greater lover of himself.

    A missionary traveling in India, met a fakir loaded with chains, naked as an ape, lying on his stomach, and lashing himself for the sins of his countrymen, the Indians, who gave him some coins of the country. "What a renouncement of himself!" said one of the spectators. "Renouncement of myself?" said the fakir, "Learn that I only lash myself in this world to serve you the same in the next, when you will be the horses and I the rider".

    Those who said that love of ourselves is the basis of all our sentiments and actions were right; and as it has not been necessary to prove to men that they have a face, there is no occasion to prove to men that they have self-love. Self-esteem is our method of preservation; it is a means of perpetuating the species. It is a necessary thing, dear to us, a thing that gives us pleasure. And a thing to be hidden.

Self-Love, Philosophical Dictionary


21   All antiquity maintains that our understanding contains nothing which has not been received by our senses. Descartes, on the contrary, asserts in his "romances," that we have metaphysical ideas before we are acquainted with the nipple of our nurse. A faculty of theology proscribed this dogma, not because it was erroneous, but because it was new. Finally, however, it was adopted, because it had been destroyed by Locke, an English philosopher, and an Englishman must necessarily be in the wrong. In the end, after many changes in opinion, the ancient opinion which declares that the senses are the inlets to the understanding is finally proscribed. This is acting like deeply indebted governments, who sometimes issue certain bank notes they assert are valid, while at other times they cry them down. But for a long time no one will accept the notes of the said faculty of theology.

    All the faculties in the world will never prevent a philosopher from perceiving that we commence by sensation, and that our memory is nothing but a continued sensation. A man born without his five senses would be destitute of all idea, supposing it possible for him to live. Metaphysical notions are obtained only through the senses; for how is a circle or a triangle to be measured, if a circle or a triangle has been neither touched nor seen? How is an imperfect notion of infinity to be formed, without a notion of limits? And how take away limits, without having either beheld or felt them?

    Sensation includes all our faculties, says a great philosopher. What ought to be concluded from all this? You who read and think, pray conclude.

Sensation, Philosophical Dictionary


22   What is an Idea? It is an image painted upon my brain. Are all your thoughts, then, images? Certainly, for the most abstract thoughts are only the consequences of all the objects that I have perceived. I utter the word "being" in general, only because I have known particular beings; I utter the word "infinity," only because I have seen certain limits, and because I push back those limits in my mind to a greater and still greater distance, as far as I am able. I have ideas in my head only because I have images.

    And who is the painter of this picture ?

    It is not myself; I cannot draw with sufficient skill; the being that made me, makes my ideas.

    And how do you know that the ideas are not made by yourself?

    Because they frequently come to me involuntarily when I am awake, and always without my consent when I dream.

    You are persuaded, then, that your ideas belong to you only in the same manner as your hairs, which grow and become white, and fall off, without your having anything at all to do with the matter?

    Nothing can possibly be clearer; all that I can do is to frizzle, cut, and powder them; but I have nothing to do with producing them.

. . . I am completely ignorant of that which makes my heart beat, and my blood flow through my veins; I am ignorant of the principle of all my movements, and yet you seem to expect I should explain how I feel and how I think. Such an expectation is unreasonable. . .

Idea, Philosophical Dictionary


Enthusiasm and Fanaticism


23   St. Ignatius, who possessed very warm and susceptible feelings, read the lives of the fathers of the desert after being deeply read in romances. He becomes, in consequence, actuated by a double enthusiasm. He constitutes himself knight to the Virgin Mary, he performed the vigil of arms; he is eager to fight for his lady patroness; he is favored with visions; the virgin appears and recommends to him her son, and she enjoins him to give no other name to his society than that of the "Society of Jesus."

    Ignatius communicates his enthusiasm to another Spaniard of the name of Xavier. Xavier hastens away to the Indies, of the language of which he is utterly ignorant, thence to Japan, without knowing a word of Japanese. That, however, is of no consequence; the flame of his enthusiasm catches the imagination of some young Jesuits, who, at length, make themselves masters of that language. These disciples, after Xavier's death, entertain not the shadow of a doubt that he performed more miracles than ever the apostles did, and that he raised from the dead seven or eight persons at the very least. In short, so epidemic and powerful becomes the enthusiasm that they form in Japan what they denominate a Christendom. This Christendom ends in a civil war, in which a hundred thousand persons are slaughtered. The enthusiasm then is at its highest point, fanaticism; and fanaticism has become madness. . . .

    What is most rarely to be met with is the combination of reason with enthusiasm. Reason consists in constantly perceiving things as they really are. He, who, under the influence of intoxication, sees objects double is at the time deprived of reason. Enthusiasm is precisely like wine, it has the power to excite such a ferment in the blood-vessels, and such strong vibrations in the nerves, that reason is completely destroyed by it. But it may also occasion only slight agitations so as not to convulse the brain, but merely to render it more active, as is the case in grand bursts of eloquence and more especially in sublime poetry.

   Reasonable enthusiasm is the patrimony of great poets. This reasonable enthusiasm is the perfection of their art. It is this which formerly occasioned the belief that poets were inspired by the gods, a notion which was never applied to other artists.

Enthusiasm, Philosophical Dictionary


24   Fanaticism is, in reference to superstition, what delirium is to fever, or rage to anger. He who is involved in ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities, and his own imaginations for prophecies, is a novice fanatic of great hope and promise, and will probably soon advance to the highest form, and kill man for the love of God.

    Bartholomew Diaz was a fanatical monk. He had a brother at Nuremberg called John Diaz, who was an enthusiastic adherent to the doctrines of Luther, and completely convinced that the pope was Antichrist and had the sign of the beast. Bartholomew, still more ardently convinced that the pope was God upon earth, quits Rome, determined either to convert or murder his brother. He accordingly murdered him. Here is a perfect case of fanaticism. . .

    There are some cold-blooded fanatics—such as those judges who sentence men to death for no other crime than that of thinking differently from themselves. And these are so much the more guilty and deserving of the execration of mankind, as—not laboring under madness like the Clements, Chatels, Ravailtacs, and Damfens—they might be deemed capable of listening to reason.

    There is no other remedy for this epidemical malady than the type of philosophy that, extending itself from one to another, at length civilizes and softens the manners of men and prevents the access of the disease. For when the disorder has made any progress, we should without loss of time fly from the seat of it, and wait till the air has become purified from contagion. Law and religion are not completely efficient against the spiritual pestilence. Religion, indeed, so far from affording proper nutriment to the minds of patients laboring under this infectious and infernal distemper, is converted by the diseased process of their minds into poison. These malignant devotees have incessantly before their eyes the example of Ehud, who assassinated the king of Eglon; of Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes while in bed with him; of Samuel, hewing in pieces King Agag; of Jehoiada the priest, who murdered his queen at the horse-gate. They do not perceive that these instances, though respectable in antiquity, are in the present day abominable. They derive their fury from religion, just as sure as religion condemns it.

    Laws are yet more powerless against these paroxysms of rage. To oppose laws to cases of such a description would be like reading a decree of council to a man in a frenzy. The persons in question are fully convinced that the holy spirit which animates and fills them is above all laws; that their own enthusiasm is, in fact, the only law which they are bound to obey.

Fanaticsm, Philosophical Dictionary


25   At the opera, and in more serious productions, the gods are introduced descending in the midst of tempests, clouds, and thunder; that is, God is brought forward in the midst of the vapors of our petty globe. These notions are so suitable to our weak minds, that they appear to us grand and sublime.

    This philosophy of children and old women was of prodigious antiquity; it is believed, however, that the Chaldeans [of Babylonia] entertained nearly as correct ideas as ourselves on the subject of what is called heaven. They placed the sun in the midst of our planetary system, nearly at the same distance from our globe as our calculation computes it; and they supposed the earth and some planets to revolve round that star. This we learn from Aristarchus of Samos. It is nearly the system of the world since established by Copernicus. But the philosophers kept the secret to themselves, in order to obtain greater respect both from kings and people, or rather perhaps, to avoid the danger of persecution.

    The language of error is so familiar to mankind that we still apply the name of heaven to our vapors, and the space between the earth and moon. We use the expression of ascending to heaven, just as we say the sun goes round, although—we well know that it does not. We are, probably, the heaven of the inhabitants of the moon; and every planet places its heaven in that planet nearest to itself. . .

Heaven, Philosophical Dictionary





26   The most determined of flatterers will easily agree, that war always brings pestilence and famine in its train, from the little that he may have seen in the hospitals of the armies of Germany, or the few villages he may have passed through in which some great exploit of war has been performed. . .

    What becomes of—and what signifies to me—humanity, beneficence, modesty, temperance, mildness, wisdom, and piety, while half a pound of lead, sent from the distance of a hundred steps, pierces my body, and I die at twenty years of age, in inexpressible torments in the midst of five or six thousand dying men, while my eyes, which open for the last time, see the town in which I was born destroyed by fire and sword, and the last sounds which reach my ears are the cries of women and children expiring under the ruins, all for the pretended interests of a man whom I know not? . . .

    This is what Montesquieu says; "Between societies, the right of natural defense sometimes induces the necessity of attacking, when one people sees that a longer peace puts another in a situation to destroy it, and that attack at the given moment is the only way of preventing this destruction."

    How can attack in peace be the only means of preventing this destruction? You must be sure that this neighbor will destroy you, if he become powerful. To be sure of it, he must already have made preparations for your overthrow. In this ease, it is he who commences the war; it is not you: your supposition is false and contradictory.

    If ever war is evidently unjust, it is that which you propose: it is going to kill your neighbor who does not attack you, lest he should ever be in a state to do so. To hazard the ruin of your country in the hope of ruining without reason that of another is assuredly neither honest nor useful; for we are never sure of' success, as you well know.

    If your neighbor becomes too powerful during peace, what prevents you from rendering yourself equally powerful? If he has made alliances, make them on your side. If, having fewer monks, he has more soldiers and manufacturers, imitate him in this wise economy. If he employs his sailors better, employ yours in the same manner: all that is very just. But to expose your people to the most horrible misery, in the so often false idea of overturning your dear brother, the most serene neighboring prince! It is not for the honorary president of a pacific society to give you such advice.

War, Philosophical Dictionary



Old Age


27   Yes, sir, it is true that I have been very ill. But that is the common lot of old age, especially when one has always had a feeble constitution. And these little warnings are the stroke of the clock to tell us that soon we shall have passed beyond time. Animals have a great advantage over human beings: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be. They die without having any notion of death: they have no theologians to instruct them on the Four Ends of animals. Their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies. It costs them nothing to be buried. No one goes to law over their wills.

    But in one respect we are greatly their superior—they only know the ties of habit, and we know friendship. Even spaniels, which have the reputation of being the most faithful friends in the world, do not approach us.

    You, sir, make me enjoy this consolation to its fullest extent.

Letter to the Comte de Schomberg


28   Who in the world, madam, can have told you that I am going to be married? I am a nice person to be married! For six months I have hardly been outside my room, and I am in pain ten hours out of every twelve. If any doctor knows a nice-looking girl, who is quick and clever at medical appliances, at fattening chickens and reading aloud, I confess I might be tempted. But my warmest and sincerest desire is to spend the evening of the stormy day called life with you. I have seen you in your brilliant morning, and it would be a great comfort to me if I could help to comfort you, and to converse with you freely in the brief moments that remain to us.

Letter to Mme. du Deffand


29   I was very pleasantly surprised, sir, to find a letter signed Diderot awaiting me when I had recrossed from one bank of Styx to the other. . . Nature has granted me leave to stay on a little longer in this world—that is to say, to poise for just a moment between two eternities (as if there could possibly be two of them).

    I shall therefore go on vegetating for a while at the foot of the Alps by the river of time, which sweeps away everything at last. My intellectual powers fade like a dream, but I shall always regret having lived without seeing you.

    You send me the Fables, written by one of your friends. If he is young, I answer for it he will go far: if he is not, it may be said of him that he writes with wit what he has originated with talent: so much has been said of La Motte. Who would think there could be any higher praise? But there is that accorded to La Fontaine: he wrote perfectly spontaneously. In all the arts there is a something exceedingly difficult to come by. All the philosophers of the world, melted down together, would not have succeeded in portraying the Armide of Quinault, nor the Les Animaux Malades de la Peste which La Fontaine wrote without knowing what he did, almost unconsciously. Let us confess that in works of genius everything is the result of instinct.

Letter to M. Diderot





Voltaire in His Letters, translated by S. G. Tallentyre. John Murray, London, 1919.

A Philosophical Dictionary by Marie Francois Arrouet de Voltaire, translated by E.R. Dumont, 1901

On-line text for Candide and Treatise on Tolerance: Voltaire Foundation

On-line text of The Philosophical Dictionary: Hanover College

Additional information on Voltaire (poems, letters, Ferney): Voltaire Society.


Authors born between 1665 and 1700 CE

Harvey ] Grotius ] Descartes ] Gracian ] Locke ] Newton ] Sor Juana ] [ Voltaire ]


Introduction and selection of  extracts Copyright © Rex Pay 2003