Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

COUNTRY.

According to our custom, we confine ourselves on this subject to the statement of a few queries which we cannot resolve. Has a Jew a country? If he is born at Coimbra, it is in the midst of a crowd of ignorant and absurd persons, who will dispute with him, and to whom he makes foolish answers, if he dare reply at all. He is surrounded by inquisitors, who would burn him if they knew that he declined to eat bacon, and all his wealth would belong to them. Is Coimbra his country? Can he exclaim, like the Horatii in Corneille:

Mourir pour la patrie est un si digne sort

Qu’on briguerait en foule, une si belle mort.

So high his meed who for his country dies,

Men should contend to gain the glorious prize.

He might as well exclaim, “fiddlestick!” Again! is Jerusalem his country? He has probably heard of his ancestors of old; that they had formerly inhabited a sterile and stony country, which is bordered by a horrible desert, of which little country the Turks are at present masters, but derive little or nothing from it. Jerusalem is, therefore, not his country. In short, he has no country: there is not a square foot of land on the globe which belongs to him.

The Gueber, more ancient, and a hundred times more respectable than the Jew, a slave of the Turks, the Persians, or the Great Mogul, can he regard as his country the fire-altars which he raises in secret among the mountains? The Banian, the Armenian, who pass their lives in wandering through all the east, in the capacity of money-brokers, can they exclaim, “My dear country, my dear country”— who have no other country than their purses and their account-books?

Among the nations of Europe, all those cutthroats who let out their services to hire, and sell their blood to the first king who will purchase it — have they a country? Not so much so as a bird of prey, who returns every evening to the hollow of the rock where its mother built its nest! The monks — will they venture to say that they have a country? It is in heaven, they say. All in good time; but in this world I know nothing about one.

This expression, “my country,” how sounds it from the mouth of a Greek, who, altogether ignorant of the previous existence of a Miltiades, an Agesilaus, only knows that he is the slave of a janissary, who is the slave of an aga, who is the slave of a pasha, who is the slave of a vizier, who is the slave of an individual whom we call, in Paris, the Grand Turk?

What, then, is country? — Is it not, probably, a good piece of ground, in the midst of which the owner, residing in a well-built and commodious house, may say: “This field which I cultivate, this house which I have built, is my own; I live under the protection of laws which no tyrant can infringe. When those who, like me, possess fields and houses assemble for their common interests, I have a voice in such assembly. I am a part of the whole, one of the community, a portion of the sovereignty: behold my country!” What cannot be included in this description too often amounts to little beyond studs of horses under the command of a groom, who employs the whip at his pleasure. People may have a country under a good king, but never under a bad one.

§ II.

A young pastry-cook who had been to college, and who had mustered some phrases from Cicero, gave himself airs one day about loving his country. “What dost thou mean by country?” said a neighbor to him. “Is it thy oven? Is it the village where thou wast born, which thou hast never seen, and to which thou wilt never return? Is it the street in which thy father and mother reside? Is it the town hall, where thou wilt never become so much as a clerk or an alderman? Is it the church of Notre Dame, in which thou hast not been able to obtain a place among the boys of the choir, although a very silly person, who is archbishop and duke, obtains from it an annual income of twenty-four thousand louis d’or?”

The young pastry-cook knew not how to reply; and a person of reflection, who overheard the conversation, was led to infer that a country of moderate extent may contain many millions of men who have no country at all. And thou, voluptuous Parisian, who hast never made a longer voyage than to Dieppe, to feed upon fresh sea-fish — who art acquainted only with thy splendid town-house, thy pretty villa in the country, thy box at that opera which all the world makes it a point to feel tiresome but thyself — who speakest thy own language agreeably enough, because thou art ignorant of every other; thou lovest all this, no doubt, as well as thy brilliant champagne from Rheims, and thy rents, payable every six months; and loving these, thou dwellest upon thy love for thy country.

Speaking conscientiously, can a financier cordially love his country? Where was the country of the duke of Guise, surnamed Balafré— at Nancy, at Paris, at Madrid, or at Rome? What country had your cardinals Balue, Duprat, Lorraine, and Mazarin? Where was the country of Attila situated, or that of a hundred other heroes of the same kind, who, although eternally travelling, make themselves always at home? I should be much obliged to any one who would acquaint me with the country of Abraham.

The first who observed that every land is our country in which we “do well,” was, I believe, Euripides, in his “Phædo”:

Ὤς πανταχῶς γε πατρὶς Βοσχοῦσα γῆ.

The first man, however, who left the place of his birth to seek a greater share of welfare in another, said it before him.

§ III.

A country is a composition of many families; and as a family is commonly supported on the principle of self-love, when, by an opposing interest, the same self-love extends to our town, our province, or our nation, it is called love of country. The greater a country becomes, the less we love it; for love is weakened by diffusion. It is impossible to love a family so numerous that all the members can scarcely be known.

He who is burning with ambition to be edile, tribune, prætor, consul, or dictator, exclaims that he loves his country, while he loves only himself. Every man wishes to possess the power of sleeping quietly at home, and of preventing any other man from possessing the power of sending him to sleep elsewhere. Every one would be certain of his property and his life. Thus, all forming the same wishes, the particular becomes the general interest. The welfare of the republic is spoken of, while all that is signified is love of self.

It is impossible that a state was ever formed on earth, which was not governed in the first instance as a republic: it is the natural march of human nature. On the discovery of America, all the people were found divided into republics; there were but two kingdoms in all that part of the world. Of a thousand nations, but two were found subjugated.

It was the same in the ancient world; all was republican in Europe before the little kinglings of Etruria and of Rome. There are yet republics in Africa: the Hottentots, towards the south, still live as people are said to have lived in the first ages of the world — free, equal, without masters, without subjects, without money, and almost without wants. The flesh of their sheep feeds them; they are clothed with their skins; huts of wood and clay form their habitations. They are the most dirty of all men, but they feel it not, but live and die more easily than we do. There remain eight republics in Europe without monarchs — Venice, Holland, Switzerland, Genoa, Lucca, Ragusa, Geneva, and San Marino. Poland, Sweden, and England may be regarded as republics under a king, but Poland is the only one of them which takes the name.

But which of the two is to be preferred for a country — a monarchy or a republic? The question has been agitated for four thousand years. Ask the rich, and they will tell you an aristocracy; ask the people, and they will reply a democracy; kings alone prefer royalty. Why, then, is almost all the earth governed by monarchs? Put that question to the rats who proposed to hang a bell around the cat’s neck. In truth, the genuine reason is, because men are rarely worthy of governing themselves.

It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot we must become the enemy of the rest of mankind. That good citizen, the ancient Cato, always gave it as his opinion, that Carthage must be destroyed: “Delenda est Carthago.” To be a good patriot is to wish our own country enriched by commerce, and powerful by arms; but such is the condition of mankind, that to wish the greatness of our own country is often to wish evil to our neighbors. He who could bring himself to wish that his country should always remain as it is, would be a citizen of the universe.

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