Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

FALSITY OF HUMAN VIRTUES.

When the Duke de la Rochefoucauld wrote his “Thoughts on Self-Love,” and discovered this great spring of human action, one M. Esprit of the Oratory, wrote a book entitled “Of the Falsity of Human Virtues.” This author says that there is no virtue but by grace; and he terminates each chapter by referring to Christian charity. So that, according to M. Esprit, neither Cato, Aristides, Marcus Aurelius, nor Epictetus were good men, who can be found only among the Christians. Among the Christians, again, there is no virtue except among the Catholics; and even among the Catholics, the Jesuits must be excepted as the enemies of the Oratory; ergo, virtue is scarcely to be found anywhere except among the enemies of the Jesuits.

This M. Esprit commences by asserting that prudence is not a virtue; and his reason is that it is often deceived. It is as if he had said that Cæsar was not a great captain because he was conquered at Dyrrachium.

If M. Esprit had been a philosopher, he would not have examined prudence as a virtue, but as a talent — as a useful and happy quality; for a great rascal may be very prudent, and I have known many such. Oh the age of pretending that “Nul n’aura de vertu que nous et nos amis!” — None are virtuous but ourself and friends!

What is virtue, my friend? It is to do good; let us then do it, and that will suffice. But we give you credit for the motive. What, then! according to you, there is no difference between the President de Thou and Ravaillac? between Cicero and that Popilius whose life he saved, and who afterwards cut off his head for money; and thou wilt pronounce Epictetus and Porphyrius rogues because they did not follow our dogmas? Such insolence is disgusting; but I will say no more, for I am getting angry.

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