Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Dion Cassius, that flatterer of Augustus and detractor from Cicero, because Cicero was the friend of liberty — that dry and diffuse writer and gazetteer of popular rumors, Dion Cassius, reports that certain senators were of opinion that in order to recompense Cæsar for all the evil which he had brought upon the commonwealth it would be right, at the age of fifty-seven, to allow him to honor with his favors all the ladies who took his fancy. Men are still found who credit this absurdity. Even the author of the “Spirit of Laws” takes it for a truth and speaks of it as of a decree which would have passed the Roman senate but for the modesty of the dictator, who suspected that he was not altogether prepared for the accession of so much good fortune. But if the Roman emperors attained not this right by a senatus-consultum, duly founded upon a plebiscitum, it is very likely that they fully enjoyed it by the courtesy of the ladies. The Marcus Aureliuses and the Julians, to be sure, exercised not this right, but all the rest extended it as widely as they were able.

It is astonishing that in Christian Europe a kind of feudal law for a long time existed, or at least it was deemed a customary usage, to regard the virginity of a female vassal as the property of the lord. The first night of the nuptials of the daughter of his villein belonged to him without dispute.

This right was established in the same manner as that of walking with a falcon on the fist, and of being saluted with incense at mass. The lords, indeed, did not enact that the wives of their villeins belonged to them; they confined themselves to the daughters, the reason of which is obvious. Girls are bashful and sometimes might exhibit reluctance. This, however, yielded at once to the majesty of the laws, when the condescending baron deemed them worthy the honor of personally enforcing their practice.

It is asserted that this curious jurisprudence commenced in Scotland, and I willingly believe that the Scotch lords had a still more absolute power over their clans than even the German and French barons over their vassals.

It is undoubted that some abbots and bishops enjoyed this privilege in their quality of temporal lords, and it is not very long since that these prelates compounded their prerogative for acknowledgments in money, to which they have just as much right as to the virginity of the girls.

But let it be well remarked that this excess of tyranny was never sanctioned by any public law. If a lord or a prelate had cited before a regular tribunal a girl affianced to one of his vassals, in claim of her quit-rent, he would doubtless have lost his cause and costs.

Let us seize this occasion to rest assured that no partially civilized people ever established formal laws against morals; I do not believe that a single instance of it can be furnished. Abuses creep in and are borne: they pass as customs and travellers mistake them for fundamental laws. It is said that in Asia greasy Mahometan saints march in procession entirely naked and that devout females crowd round them to kiss what is not worthy to be named, but I defy any one to discover a passage in the Koran which justifies this brutality.

The phallus, which the Egyptians carry in procession, may be quoted in order to confound me, as well as the idol Juggernaut, of the Indians. I reply that these ceremonies war no more against morals than circumcision at the age of eight days. In some of our towns the holy foreskin has been borne in procession, and it is preserved yet in certain sacristies without this piece of drollery causing the least disturbance in families. Still, I am convinced that no council or act of parliament ever ordained this homage to the holy foreskin.

I call a public law which deprives me of my property, which takes away my wife and gives her to another, a law against morals; and I am certain that such a law is impossible. Some travellers maintain that in Lapland husbands, out of politeness, make an offer of their wives. Out of still greater politeness, I believe them; but I nevertheless assert, that they never found this rule of good manners in the legal code of Lapland, any more than in the constitutions of Germany, in the ordinances of the king of France, or in the “Statutes at Large” of England, any positive law, adjudging the right of cuissage to the barons. Absurd and barbarous laws may be found everywhere; formal laws against morals nowhere.

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