Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We shall teach men nothing, when we tell them that everything we do is done from interest. What! it will be said, is it from motives of interest that the wretched fakir remains stark naked under the burning sun, loaded with chains, dying with hunger, half devoured by vermin, and devouring them in his turn? Yes, most undoubtedly it is; as we have stated elsewhere, he depends upon ascending to the eighteenth heaven, and looks with an eye of pity on the man who will be admitted only into the ninth.

The interest of the Malabar widow, who burns herself with the corpse of her husband, is to recover him in another world, and be there more happy even than the fakir. For, together with their metempsychosis, the Indians have another world; they resemble ourselves; their system admits of contradictions.

Were you ever acquainted with any king or republic that made either war or peace, that issued decrees, or entered into conventions, from any other motive than that of interest?

With respect to the interest of money, consult, in the great “Encyclopædia,” the article of M. d’Alembert, on “Calculation,” and that of M. Boucher d’Argis, on “Jurisprudence.” We will venture to add a few reflections.

1. Are gold and silver merchandise? Yes; the author of the “Spirit of Laws” does not think so when he says: “Money, which is the price of commodities, is hired and not bought.”

It is both lent and bought. I buy gold with silver, and silver with gold; and their price fluctuates in all commercial countries from day to day.

The law of Holland requires bills of exchange to be paid in the silver coin of the country, and not in gold, if the creditor demands it. Then I buy silver money, and I pay for it in gold, or in cloth, corn, or diamonds.

I am in want of money, corn, or diamonds, for the space of a year; the corn, money, or diamond merchant says — I could, for this year, sell my money, corn, or diamonds to advantage. Let us estimate at four, five, or six per cent., according to the usage of the country, what I should lose by letting you have it. You shall, for instance, return me at the end of the year, twenty-one carats of diamonds for the twenty which I now lend you; twenty-one sacks of corn for the twenty; twenty-one thousand crowns for twenty thousand crowns. Such is interest. It is established among all nations by the law of nature. The maximum or highest rate of interest depends, in every country, on its own particular law. In Rome money is lent on pledges at two and a half per cent., according to law, and the pledges are sold, if the money be not paid at the appointed time. I do not lend upon pledges, and I require only the interest customary in Holland. If I were in China, I should ask of you the customary interest at Macao and Canton.

2. While the parties were proceeding with this bargain at Amsterdam, it happened that there arrived from St. Magliore, a Jansenist (and the fact is perfectly true, he was called the Abbé des Issarts); this Jansenist says to the Dutch merchant, “Take care what you are about; you are absolutely incurring damnation; money must not produce money, ‘nummus nummum non parit.’ No one is allowed to receive interest for his money but when he is willing to sink the principal. The way to be saved is to make a contract with the gentleman; and for twenty thousand crowns which you are never to have returned to you, you and your heirs will receive a thousand crowns per annum to all eternity.”

“You jest,” replies the Dutchman; “you are in this very case proposing to me a usury that is absolutely of the nature of an infinite series. I should (that is, myself and heirs would) in that case receive back my capital at the end of twenty years, the double of it in forty, the four-fold of it in eighty; this you see would be just an infinite series. I cannot, besides, lend for more than twelve months, and I am contented with a thousand crowns as a remuneration.”

The Abbé des Issarts.

— I am grieved for your Dutch soul; God forbade the Jews to lend at interest, and you are well aware that a citizen of Amsterdam should punctually obey the laws of commerce given in a wilderness to runaway vagrants who had no commerce.

The Dutchman.

— That is clear; all the world ought to be Jews; but it seems to me, that the law permitted the Hebrew horde to gain as much by usury as they could from foreigners, and that, in consequence of this permission, they managed their affairs in the sequel remarkably well. Besides, the prohibition against one Jew’s taking interest from another must necessarily have become obsolete, since our Lord Jesus, when preaching at Jerusalem, expressly said that interest was in his time one hundred per cent.; for in the parable of the talents he says, that the servant who had received five talents gained five others in Jerusalem by them; that he who had two gained two by them; and that the third who had only one, and did not turn that to any account, was shut up in a dungeon by his master, for not laying it out with the money-changers. But these money-changers were Jews; it was therefore between Jews that usury was practised at Jerusalem; therefore this parable, drawn from the circumstances and manners of the times, decidedly indicates that usury or interest was at the rate of a hundred per cent. Read the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew; he was conversant with the subject; he had been a commissioner of taxes in Galilee. Let me finish my argument with this gentleman; and do not make me lose both my money and my time.

The Abbé des Issarts.

— All that you say is very good and very fine; but the Sorbonne has decided that lending money on interest is a mortal sin.

The Dutchman.

— You must be laughing at me, my good friend, when you cite the Sorbonne as an authority to a merchant of Amsterdam. There is not a single individual among those wrangling railers themselves who does not obtain, whenever he can, five or six per cent. for his money by purchasing revenue bills, India bonds, assignments, and Canada bills. The clergy of France, as a corporate body, borrow at interest. In many of the provinces of France, it is the custom to stipulate for interest with the principal. Besides, the university of Oxford and that of Salamanca have decided against the Sorbonne. I acquired this information in the course of my travels; and thus we have authority against authority. Once more, I must beg you to interrupt me no longer.

The Abbé des Issarts.

— The wicked, sir, are never at a loss for reasons. You are, I repeat, absolutely destroying yourself, for the Abbé de St. Cyran, who has not performed any miracles, and the Abbé Paris, who performed some in St. Médard. . . . .

3. Before the abbé had finished his speech, the merchant drove him out of his counting-house; and after having legally lent his money, to the last penny, went to represent the conversation between himself and the abbé, to the magistrates, who forbade the Jansenists from propagating a doctrine so pernicious to commerce.

“Gentlemen,” said the chief bailiff, “give us of efficacious grace as much as you please, of predestination as much as you please, and of communion as little as you please; on these points you are masters; but take care not to meddle with the laws of commerce.”

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