Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Since the fall of Carthage, no people had been powerful in commerce and arms at the same time, until Venice set the example. The Portuguese having passed the Cape of Good Hope, were, for some time, great lords on the coast of India, and even formidable in Europe. The United Provinces have only been warriors in spite of themselves, and it was not as united between themselves, but as united with England that they assisted to hold the balance of Europe at the commencement of the eighteenth century.

Carthage, Venice, and Amsterdam have been powerful; but they have acted like those people among us, who, having amassed money by trade, buy lordly estates. Neither Carthage, Venice, Holland, nor any people, have commenced by being warriors, and even conquerors, to finish by being merchants. The English only answer this description; they had fought a long time before they knew how to reckon. They did not know, when they gained the battles of Agincourt, Crécy, and Poitiers, that they were able to deal largely in corn, and make broadcloth, which would be of much more value to them than such victories. The knowledge of these arts alone has augmented, enriched, and strengthened the nation. It is only because the English have become merchants that London exceeds Paris in extent and number of citizens; that they can spread two hundred ships of war over the seas, and keep royal allies in pay.

When Louis XIV. made Italy tremble, and his armies, already masters of Savoy and Piedmont, were ready to take Turin, Prince Eugene was obliged to march to the skirts of Germany, to the succor of the duke of Savoy. Having no money, without which he could neither take nor defend towns, he had recourse to the English merchants. In half an hour they advanced him the sum of five millions of livres, with which he delivered Turin, beat the French, and wrote this little billet to those who had lent it him: “Gentlemen, I have received your money, and I flatter myself that I have employed it to your satisfaction.” All this excites just pride in an English merchant, and makes him venture to compare himself, and not without reason, to a Roman citizen. Thus the younger sons of a peer of the realm disdain not to be merchants. Lord Townsend, minister of state, had a brother who was contented with being a merchant in the city. At the time that Lord Orford governed England, his younger brother was a factor at Aleppo, whence he would not return, and where he died. This custom — which, however, begins to decline — appeared monstrous to the petty German princes. They could not conceive how the son of a peer of England was only a rich and powerful trader, while in Germany they are all princes. We have seen nearly thirty highnesses of the same name, having nothing for their fortunes but old armories and aristocratical hauteur. In France, anybody may be a marquis that likes; and whoever arrives at Paris from a remote province, with money to spend, and a name ending in ac or ille, may say: “A man like me!” “A man of my quality!” and sovereignly despise a merchant; while the merchant so often hears his profession spoken of with disdain that he is weak enough to blush at it. Which is the more useful to a state — a well-powdered lord, who knows precisely at what hour the king rises and retires, and who gives himself airs of greatness, while playing the part of a slave in the antechamber of a minister; or a merchant who enriches his country, sends orders from his office to Surat and Aleppo, and contributes to the happiness of the world?

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25