Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


They must be skeptics indeed who doubt that pain comes from panis. But to make bread we must have corn. The Gauls had corn in the time of Cæsar; but whence did they take the word blé? It is pretended that it is from bladum, a word employed in the barbarous Latin of the middle age by the Chancellor Desvignes, or De Erneis, whose eyes, it is said, were torn out by order of the Emperor Frederick II.

But the Latin words of these barbarous ages were only ancient Celtic or Teutonic words Latinized. Bladum then comes from our blead, and not our blead from bladum. The Italians call it bioda, and the countries in which the ancient Roman language is preserved, still say blia.

This knowledge is not infinitely useful; but we are curious to know where the Gauls and Teutons found corn to sow? We are told that the Tyrians brought it into Spain, the Spaniards into Gaul, and the Gauls into Germany. And where did the Tyrians get this corn? Probably from the Greeks, in exchange for their alphabet.

Who made this present to the Greeks? It was the goddess Ceres, without doubt; and having ascended to Ceres, we can scarcely go any higher. Ceres must have descended from heaven expressly to give us wheat, rye, and barley. However, as the credit of Ceres, who gave corn to the Greeks, and that of Ishet, or Isis, who gratified the Egyptians with it, are at present very much decayed, we may still be said to remain in uncertainty as to the origin of corn.

Sanchoniathon tells us that Dagon or Dagan, one of the grandsons of Thaut, had the superintendence of the corn in Phœnicia. Now his Thaut was near the time of our Jared; from which it appears that corn is very ancient, and that it is of the same antiquity as grass. Perhaps this Dagon was the first who made bread, but that is not demonstrated.

What a strange thing that we should know positively that we are obliged to Noah for wine, and that we do not know to whom we owe the invention of bread. And what is still more strange, we are still so ungrateful to Noah that, while we have more than two thousand songs in honor of Bacchus, we scarcely sing one in honor of our benefactor, Noah.

A Jew assured me that corn came without cultivation in Mesopotamia, as apples, wild pears, chestnuts, and medlars, in the west. It is as well to believe him, until we are sure of the contrary; for it is necessary that corn should grow spontaneously somewhere. It has become the ordinary and indispensable nourishment in the finest climates, and in all the north.

The great philosophers whose talents we estimate so highly, and whose systems we do not follow, have pretended, in the natural history of the dog (page 195), that men created corn; and that our ancestors, by means of sowing tares and cow-grass together, changed them into wheat. As these philosophers are not of our opinion on shells, they will permit us to differ from them on corn. We do not think that tulips could ever have been produced from jasmine. We find that the germ of corn is quite different from that of tares, and we do not believe in any transmutation. When it shall be proved to us, we will retract.

We have seen, in the article “Breadtree,” that in three-quarters of the earth bread is not eaten. It is pretended that the Ethiopians laughed at the Egyptians, who lived on bread. But since corn is our chief nourishment, it has become one of the greatest objects of commerce and politics. So much has been written on this subject, that if a laborer sowed as many pounds of wheat as we have volumes on this commodity, he might expect a more ample harvest, and become richer than those who, in their painted and gilded saloons, are ignorant of the excess of his oppression and misery.

Egypt became the best country in the world for wheat when, after several ages, which it is difficult to reckon exactly, the inhabitants found the secret of rendering a destructive river — which had always inundated the country, and was only useful to the rats, insects, reptiles, and crocodiles of Egypt — serviceable to the fecundity of the soil. Its waters, mixed with a black mud, were neither useful to quench the thirst of the inhabitants, nor for ablution. It must have required a long time and prodigious labor to subdue the river, to divide it into canals, to found towns on lands formerly movable, and to change the caverns of the rocks into vast buildings.

All this is more astonishing than the pyramids; for being accomplished, behold a people sure of the best corn in the world, without the necessity of labor! It is the inhabitant of this country who raises and fattens poultry superior to that of Caux, who is habited in the finest linen in the most temperate climate, and who has none of the real wants of other people.

Towards the year 1750, the French nation, surfeited with tragedies, comedies, operas, romances, and romantic histories — with moral reflections still more romantic, and with theological disputes on grace and on convulsionaries, began to reason upon corn. They even forgot the vine, in treating of wheat and rye. Useful things were written on agriculture, and everybody read them except the laborers. The good people imagined, as they walked out of the comic opera, that France had a prodigious quantity of corn to sell, and the cry of the nation at last obtained of the government, in 1764, the liberty of exportation.

Accordingly they exported. The result was exactly what it had been in the time of Henry IV., they sold a little too much, and a barren year succeeding, Mademoiselle Bernard was obliged, for the second time, to sell her necklace to get linen and chemises. Now the complainants passed from one extreme to the other, and complained against the exportation that they had so recently demanded, which shows how difficult it is to please all the world and his wife.

Able and well-meaning people, without interest, have written, with as much sagacity as courage, in favor of the unlimited liberty of the commerce in grain. Others, of as much mind, and with equally pure views, have written in the idea of limiting this liberty; and the Neapolitan Abbé Gagliana amused the French nation on the exportation of corn, by finding out the secret of making, even in French, dialogues as amusing as our best romances, and as instructive as our good serious books. If this work did not diminish the price of bread, it gave great pleasure to the nation, which was what it valued most. The partisans of unlimited exportation answered him smartly. The result was that the readers no longer knew where they were, and the greater part took to reading romances, expecting that the three or four following years of abundance would enable them to judge. The ladies were no longer able to distinguish wheat from rye, while honest devotees continued to believe that grain must lie and rot in the ground in order to spring up again.

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