Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


What is called happiness is an abstract idea, composed of various ideas of pleasure; for he who has but a moment of pleasure is not a happy man, in like manner that a moment of grief constitutes not a miserable one. Pleasure is more transient than happiness, and happiness than felicity. When a person says — I am happy at this moment, he abuses the word, and only means I am pleased. When pleasure is continuous, he may then call himself happy. When this happiness lasts a little longer, it is a state of felicity. We are sometimes very far from being happy in prosperity, just as a surfeited invalid eats nothing of a great feast prepared for him.

The ancient adage, “No person should be called happy before his death,” seems to turn on very false principles, if we mean by this maxim that we should not give the name of happy to a man who had been so constantly from his birth to his last hour. This continuity of agreeable moments is rendered impossible by the constitution of our organs, by that of the elements on which we depend, and by that of mankind, on whom we depend still more. Constant happiness is the philosopher’s stone of the soul; it is a great deal for us not to be a long time unhappy. A person whom we might suppose to have always enjoyed a happy life, who perishes miserably, would certainly merit the appellation of happy until his death, and we might boldly pronounce that he had been the happiest of men. Socrates might have been the happiest of the Greeks, although superstitious, absurd, or iniquitous judges, or all together, juridically poisoned him at the age of seventy years, on the suspicion that he believed in only one God.

The philosophical maxim so much agitated, “Nemo ante obitum felix,” therefore, appears absolutely false in every sense; and if it signifies that a happy man may die an unhappy death, it signifies nothing of consequence.

The proverb of being “Happy as a king” is still more false. Everybody knows how the vulgar deceive themselves.

It is asked, if one condition is happier than another; if man in general is happier than woman. It would be necessary to have tried all conditions, to have been man and woman like Tiresias and Iphis, to decide this question; still more would it be necessary to have lived in all conditions, with a mind equally proper to each; and we must have passed through all the possible states of man and woman to judge of it.

It is further queried, if of two men one is happier than the other. It is very clear that he who has the gout and stone, who loses his fortune, his honor, his wife and children, and who is condemned to be hanged immediately after having been mangled, is less happy in this world in everything than a young, vigorous sultan, or La Fontaine’s cobbler.

But we wish to know which is the happier of two men equally healthy, equally rich, and of an equal condition. It is clear that it is their temper which decides it. The most moderate, the least anxious, and at the same time the most sensible, is the most happy; but unfortunately the most sensible is often the least moderate. It is not our condition, it is the temper of our souls which renders us happy. This disposition of our souls depends on our organs, and our organs have been arranged without our having the least part in the arrangement.

It belongs to the reader to make his reflections on the above. There are many articles on which he can say more than we ought to tell him. In matters of art, it is necessary to instruct him; in affairs of morals, he should be left to think for himself.

There are dogs whom we caress, comb, and feed with biscuits, and whom we give to pretty females: there are others which are covered with the mange, which die of hunger; others which we chase and beat, and which a young surgeon slowly dissects, after having driven four great nails into their paws. Has it depended upon these poor dogs to be happy or unhappy?

We say a happy thought, a happy feature, a happy repartee, a happy physiognomy, happy climate, etc. These thoughts, these happy traits, which strike like sudden inspirations, and which are called the happy sallies of a man of wit, strike like flashes of light across our eyes, without our seeking it. They are no more in our power than a happy physiognomy; that is to say, a sweet and noble aspect, so independent of us, and so often deceitful. The happy climate is that which nature favors: so are happy imaginations, so is happy genius, or great talent. And who can give himself genius? or who, when he has received some ray of this flame, can preserve it always brilliant?

When we speak of a happy rascal, by this word we only comprehend his success. “Felix Sulla”— the fortunate Sulla, and Alexander VI., a duke of Borgia, have happily pillaged, betrayed, poisoned, ravaged, and assassinated. But being villains, it is very likely that they were very unhappy, even when not in fear of persons resembling themselves.

It may happen to an ill-disposed person, badly educated — a Turk, for example, of whom it ought to be said, that he is permitted to doubt the Christian faith — to put a silken cord round the necks of his viziers, when they are rich; to strangle, massacre, or throw his brothers into the Black Sea, and to ravage a hundred leagues of country for his glory. It may happen, I say, that this man has no more remorse than his mufti, and is very happy — on all which the reader may duly ponder.

There were formerly happy planets, and others unhappy, or unfortunate; unhappily, they no longer exist. Some people would have deprived the public of this useful Dictionary — happily, they have not succeeded.

Ungenerous minds, and absurd fanatics, every day endeavor to prejudice the powerful and the ignorant against philosophers. If they were unhappily listened to, we should fall back into the barbarity from which philosophers alone have withdrawn us.

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