Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Nothing can be clearer than that men, enjoying the faculties of their common nature, are in a state of equality; they are equal when they perform their animal functions, and exercise their understandings. The king of China, the great mogul, or the Turkish pasha cannot say to the lowest of his species, “I forbid you to digest your food, to discharge your fæces, or to think.” All animals of every species are on an equality with one another, and animals have by nature beyond ourselves the advantages of independence. If a bull, while paying his attentions to a heifer, is driven away by the horns of another bull stronger than himself, he goes to seek a new mistress in another meadow, and lives in freedom. A cock, after being defeated, finds consolation in another hen-roost. It is not so with us. A petty vizier banishes a bostangi to Lemnos; the vizier Azem banishes the petty vizier to Tenedos; the pasha banishes the vizier Azem to Rhodes; the janissaries imprison the pasha and elect another who will banish the worthy Mussulmans just when and where he pleases, while they will feel inexpressibly obliged to him for so gentle a display of his authority.

If the earth were in fact what it might be supposed it should be — if men found upon it everywhere an easy and certain subsistence, and a climate congenial to their nature, it would be evidently impossible for one man to subjugate another. Let the globe be covered with wholesome fruits; let the air on which we depend for life convey to us no diseases and premature death; let man require no other lodging than the deer or roebuck, in that case the Genghis Khans and Tamerlanes will have no other attendants than their own children, who will be very worthy persons, and assist them affectionately in their old age.

In that state of nature enjoyed by all undomesticated quadrupeds, and by birds and reptiles, men would be just as happy as they are. Domination would be a mere chimera — an absurdity which no one would think of, for why should servants be sought for when no service is required?

If it should enter the mind of any individual of a tyrannical disposition and nervous arm to subjugate his less powerful neighbor, his success would be impossible; the oppressed would be on the Danube before the oppressor had completed his preparations on the Volga.

All men, then, would necessarily have been equal had they been without wants; it is the misery attached to our species which places one man in subjection to another; inequality is not the real grievance, but dependence. It is of little consequence for one man to be called his highness and another his holiness, but it is hard for me to be the servant of another.

A numerous family has cultivated a good soil, two small neighboring families live on lands unproductive and barren. It will therefore be necessary for the two poor families to serve the rich one, or to destroy it. This is easily accomplished. One of the two indigent families goes and offers its services to the rich one in exchange for bread, the other makes an attack upon it and is conquered. The serving family is the origin of domestics and laborers, the one conquered is the origin of slaves.

It is impossible in our melancholy world to prevent men living in society from being divided into two classes, one of the rich who command, the other of the poor who obey, and these two are subdivided into various others, which have also their respective shades of difference.

You come and say, after the lots are drawn, I am a man as well as you; I have two hands and two feet; as much pride as yourself, or more; a mind as irregular, inconsequent, and contradictory as your own. I am a citizen of San Marino, or Ragusa, or Vaugirard; give me my portion of land. In our known hemisphere are about fifty thousand millions of acres of cultivable land, good and bad. The number of our two-footed, featherless race within these bounds is a thousand millions; that is just fifty acres for each: do me justice; give me my fifty acres.

The reply is: go and take them among the Kaffirs, the Hottentots, and the Samoyeds; arrange the matter amicably with them; here all the shares are filled up. If you wish to have food, clothing, lodging, and warmth among us, work for us as your father did — serve us or amuse us, and you shall be paid; if not, you will be obliged to turn beggar, which would be highly degrading to your sublime nature, and certainly preclude that actual equality with kings, or even village curates, to which you so nobly pretend.

All the poor are not unhappy. The greater number are born in that state, and constant labor prevents them from too sensibly feeling their situation; but when they do strongly feel it, then follow wars such as those of the popular party against the senate at Rome, and those of the peasantry in Germany, England, and France. All these wars ended sooner or later in the subjection of the people, because the great have money, and money in a state commands everything; I say in a state, for the case is different between nation and nation. That nation which makes the best use of iron will always subjugate another that has more gold but less courage.

Every man is born with an eager inclination for power, wealth, and pleasure, and also with a great taste for indolence. Every man, consequently, would wish to possess the fortunes and the wives or daughters of others, to be their master, to retain them in subjection to his caprices, and to do nothing, or at least nothing but what is perfectly agreeable. You clearly perceive that with such amiable dispositions, it is as impossible for men to be equal as for two preachers or divinity professors not to be jealous of each other.

The human race, constituted as it is, cannot exist unless there be an infinite number of useful individuals possessed of no property at all, for most certainly a man in easy circumstances will not leave his own land to come and cultivate yours; and if you want a pair of shoes you will not get a lawyer to make them for you. Equality, then, is at the same time the most natural and the most chimerical thing possible.

As men carry everything to excess if they have it in their power to do so, this inequality has been pushed too far; it has been maintained in many countries that no citizen has a right to quit that in which he was born. The meaning of such a law must evidently be: “This country is so wretched and ill-governed we prohibit every man from quitting it, under an apprehension that otherwise all would leave it.” Do better; excite in all your subjects a desire to stay with you, and in foreigners a desire to come and settle among you.

Every man has a right to entertain a private opinion of his own equality to other men, but it follows not that a cardinal’s cook should take it upon him to order his master to prepare his dinner. The cook, however, may say: “I am a man as well as my master; I was born like him in tears, and shall like him die in anguish, attended by the same common ceremonies. We both perform the same animal functions. If the Turks get possession of Rome, and I then become a cardinal and my master a cook, I will take him into my service.” This language is perfectly reasonable and just, but, while waiting for the Grand Turk to get possession of Rome, the cook is bound to do his duty, or all human society is subverted.

With respect to a man who is neither a cardinal’s cook nor invested with any office whatever in the state — with respect to an individual who has no connections, and is disgusted at being everywhere received with an air of protection or contempt, who sees quite clearly that many men of quality and title have not more knowledge, wit, or virtue than himself, and is wearied by being occasionally in their antechambers — what ought such a man to do? He ought to stay away.

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