Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

HONOR.

The author of the “Spirit of Laws” has founded his system on the idea that virtue is the principle of a republican government, and honor that of monarchism. Is there virtue then without honor, and how is a republic established in virtue?

Let us place before the reader’s eyes that which has been said in an able little book upon this subject. Pamphlets soon sink into oblivion. Truth ought not to be lost; it should be consigned to works possessing durability.

“Assuredly republics have never been formed on a theoretical principle of virtue. The public interest being opposed to the domination of an individual, the spirit of self-importance, and the ambition of every person, serve to curb ambition and the inclination to rapacity, wherever they may appear. The pride of each citizen watches over that of his neighbor, and no person would willingly be the slave of another’s caprice. Such are the feelings which establish republics, and which preserve them. It is ridiculous to imagine that there must be more virtue in a Grison than in a Spaniard.”

That honor can be the sole principle of monarchies is a no less chimerical idea, and the author shows it to be so himself, without being aware of it. “The nature of honor,” says he, in chapter vii. of book iii., “is to demand preferences and distinctions. It, therefore, naturally suits a monarchical government.”

Was it not on this same principle, that the Romans demanded the prætorship, consulship, ovation, and triumph in their republic? These were preferences and distinctions well worth the titles and preferences purchased in monarchies, and for which there is often a regular fixed price.

This remark proves, in our opinion, that the “Spirit of Laws,” although sparkling with wit, and commendable by its respect for the laws and hatred of superstition and rapine, is founded entirely upon false views.

Let us add, that it is precisely in courts that there is always least honor:

L’ingannare, il mentir, la frode, il furto,

E la rapina di pictà vestita,

Crescer coi damno e precipizio altrui,

E fare a se de l’altrui biasmo onore,

Son le virtù di quella gente infidà.

— Pastor Fido, atto v., scena i.

Ramper avec bassesse en affectant l’audace,

S’engraisser de rapine en attestant les lois,

Étouffer en secret son ami qu’on embrasse.

Voilà l’honneur qui règne à la suite des rois.

To basely crawl, yet wear a face of pride;

To rob the public, yet o’er law preside;

Salute a friend, yet sting in the embrace —

Such is the honor which in courts takes place.

Indeed, it is in courts, that men devoid of honor often attain to the highest dignities; and it is in republics that a known dishonorable citizen is seldom trusted by the people with public concerns.

The celebrated saying of the regent, duke of Orleans, is sufficient to destroy the foundation of the “Spirit of Laws”: “This is a perfect courtier — he has neither temper nor honor.”

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