Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Le pire des états, c’est l’état populaire.

That sway is worst, in which the people rule.

Such is the opinion which Cinna gave Augustus. But on the other hand, Maximus maintains, that

Le pire des états, c’est l’état monarchique.

That sway is worst, in which a monarch rules.

Bayle, in his “Philosophical Dictionary,” after having repeatedly advocated both sides of the question, gives, under the article on “Pericles,” a most disgusting picture of democracy, and more particularly that of Athens.

A republican, who is a stanch partisan of democracy, and one of our “proposers of questions,” sends us his refutation of Bayle and his apology for Athens. We will adduce his reasons. It is the privilege of every writer to judge the living and the dead; he who thus sits in judgment will be himself judged by others, who, in their turn, will be judged also; and thus, from age to age, all sentences are, according to circumstances, reversed or reformed.

Bayle, then, after some common-place observations, uses these words: “A man would look in vain into the history of Macedon for as much tyranny as he finds in the history of Athens.”

Perhaps Bayle was discontented with Holland when he thus wrote; and probably my republican friend, who refutes him, is contented with his little democratic city “for the present.”

It is difficult to weigh, in an exquisitely nice balance, the iniquities of the republic of Athens and of the court of Macedon. We still upbraid the Athenians with the banishment of Cimon, Aristides, Themistocles, and Alcibiades, and the sentences of death upon Phocion and Socrates; sentences similar in absurdity and cruelty to those of some of our own tribunals.

In short, what we can never pardon in the Athenians is the execution of their six victorious generals, condemned because they had not time to bury their dead after the victory, and because they were prevented from doing so by a tempest. The sentence is at once so ridiculous and barbarous, it bears such a stamp of superstition and ingratitude, that those of the Inquisition, those delivered against Urbain Grandier, against the wife of Marshal d’Ancre, against Montrin, and against innumerable sorcerers and witches, etc., are not, in fact, fooleries more atrocious.

It is in vain to say, in excuse of the Athenians, that they believed, like Homer before them, that the souls of the dead were always wandering, unless they had received the honors of sepulture or burning. A folly is no excuse for a barbarity.

A dreadful evil, indeed, for the souls of a few Greeks to ramble for a week or two on the shores of the ocean! The evil is, in consigning living men to the executioner; living men who have won a battle for you; living men, to whom you ought to be devoutly grateful.

Thus, then, are the Athenians convicted of having been at once the most silly and the most barbarous judges in the world. But we must now place in the balance the crimes of the court of Macedon; we shall see that that court far exceeds Athens in point of tyranny and atrocity.

There is ordinarily no comparison to be made between the crimes of the great, who are always ambitious, and those of the people, who never desire, and who never can desire, anything but liberty and equality. These two sentiments, “liberty and equality,” do not necessarily lead to calumny, rapine, assassination, poisoning, and devastation of the lands of neighbors; but, the towering ambition and thirst for power of the great precipitate them headlong into every species of crime in all periods and all places.

In this same Macedon, the virtue of which Bayle opposes to that of Athens, we see nothing but a tissue of tremendous crimes for a series of two hundred years.

It is Ptolemy, the uncle of Alexander the Great, who assassinates his brother Alexander to usurp the kingdom. It is Philip, his brother, who spends his life in guilt and perjury, and ends it by a stab from Pausanias.

Olympias orders Queen Cleopatra and her son to be thrown into a furnace of molten brass. She assassinates Aridæus. Antigonus assassinates Eumenes. Antigonus Gonatas, his son, poisons the governor of the citadel of Corinth, marries his widow, expels her, and takes possession of the citadel. Philip, his grandson, poisons Demetrius, and defiles the whole of Macedon with murders. Perseus kills his wife with his own hand, and poisons his brother. These perfidies and cruelties are authenticated in history.

Thus, then, for two centuries, the madness of despotism converts Macedon into a theatre for every crime; and in the same space of time you see the popular government of Athens stained only by five or six acts of judicial iniquity, five or six certainly atrocious judgments, of which the people in every instance repented, and for which they made, as far as they could, honorable expiation (amende honorable). They asked pardon of Socrates after his death, and erected to his memory the small temple called Socrateion. They asked pardon of Phocion, and raised a statue to his honor. They asked pardon of the six generals, so ridiculously condemned and so basely executed. They confined in chains the principal accuser, who, with difficulty, escaped from public vengeance. The Athenian people, therefore, appear to have had good natural dispositions, connected, as they were, with great versatility and frivolity. In what despotic state has the injustice of precipitate decrees ever been thus ingenuously acknowledged and deplored?

Bayle, then, is for this once in the wrong. My republican has reason on his side. Popular government, therefore, is in itself iniquitious, and less abominable than monarchical despotism.

The great vice of democracy is certainly not tyranny and cruelty. There have been republicans in mountainous regions wild and ferocious; but they were made so, not by the spirit of republicanism, but by nature. The North American savages were entirely republican; but they were republics of bears.

The radical vice of a civilized republic is expressed by the Turkish fable of the dragon with many heads, and the dragon with many tails. The multitude of heads become injurious, and the multitude of tails obey one single head, which wants to devour all.

Democracy seems to suit only a very small country; and even that fortunately situated. Small as it may be, it will commit many faults, because it will be composed of men. Discord will prevail in it, as in a convent of monks; but there will be no St. Bartholomews there, no Irish massacre, no Sicilian vespers, no Inquisition, no condemnation to the galleys for having taken water from the ocean without paying for it; at least, unless it be a republic of devils, established in some corner of hell.

After having taken the side of my Swiss friend against the dexterous fencing-master, Bayle, I will add: That the Athenians were warriors like the Swiss, and as polite as the Parisians were under Louis XIV.; that they excelled in every art requiring genius or execution, like the Florentine in time of the Medici; that they were the masters of the Romans in the sciences and in eloquence, even in the days of Cicero; that this same people, insignificant in number, who scarcely possessed anything of territory, and who, at the present day, consist only of a band of ignorant slaves, a hundred times less numerous than the Jews, and deprived of all but their name, yet bear away the palm from Roman power, by their ancient reputation, which triumphs at once over time and degradation.

Europe has seen a republic, ten times smaller than Athens, attract its attention for the space of one hundred and fifty years, and its name placed by the side of that of Rome, even while she still commanded kings; while she condemned one Henry, a sovereign of France, and absolved and scourged another Henry, the first man of his age; even while Venice retained her ancient splendor, and the republic of the seven United Provinces was astonishing Europe and the Indies, by its successful establishment and extensive commerce.

This almost imperceptible ant-hill could not be crushed by the royal demon of the South, and the monarch of two worlds, nor by the intrigues of the Vatican, which put in motion one-half of Europe. It resisted by words and by arms; and with the help of a Picard who wrote, and a small number of Swiss who fought for it, it became at length established and triumphant, and was enabled to say, “Rome and I.” She kept all minds divided between the rich pontiffs who succeeded to the Scipios — Romanos rerum dominos — and the poor inhabitants of a corner of the world long unknown in a country of poverty and goîtres.

The main point was, to decide how Europe should think on the subject of certain questions which no one understood. It was the conflict of the human mind. The Calvins, the Bezas, and Turetins, were the Demostheneses, Platos, and Aristotles, of the day.

The absurdity of the greater part of the controversial questions which bound down the attention of Europe, having at length been acknowledged, this small republic turned our consideration to what appears of solid consequence — the acquisition of wealth. The system of law, more chimerical and less baleful than that of the supralapsarians and the sublapsarians, occupied with arithmetical calculations those who could no longer gain celebrity as partisans of the doctrine of crucified divinity. They became rich, but were no longer famous.

It is thought at present there is no republic, except in Europe. I am mistaken if I have not somewhere made the remark myself; it must, however, have been a great inadvertence. The Spaniards found in America the republic of Tlascala perfectly well established. Every part of that continent which has not been subjugated is still republican. In the whole of that vast territory, when it was first discovered, there existed no more than two kingdoms; and this may well be considered as a proof that republican government is the most natural. Men must have obtained considerable refinement, and have tried many experiments, before they submit to the government of a single individual.

In Africa, the Hottentots, the Kaffirs, and many communities of negroes, are democracies. It is pretended that the countries in which the greater part of the negroes are sold are governed by kings. Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers are republics of soldiers and pirates. There are similar ones in India. The Mahrattas, and many other Indian hordes, have no kings: they elect chiefs when they go on their expeditions of plunder.

Such are also many of the hordes of Tartars. Even the Turkish Empire has long been a republic of janissaries, who have frequently strangled their sultan, when their sultan did not decimate them. We are every day asked, whether a republican or a kingly government is to be preferred? The dispute always ends in agreeing that the government of men is exceedingly difficult. The Jews had God himself for their master; yet observe the events of their history. They have almost always been trampled upon and enslaved; and, nationally, what a wretched figure do they make at present!

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