Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


That “justice” is often extremely unjust, is not an observation merely of the present day; “summum jus, summa injuria,” is one of the most ancient proverbs in existence. There are many dreadful ways of being unjust; as, for example, that of racking the innocent Calas upon equivocal evidence, and thus incurring the guilt of shedding innocent blood by a too strong reliance on vain presumptions.

Another method of being unjust is condemning to execution a man who at most deserves only three months’ imprisonment; this species of injustice is that of tyrants, and particularly of fanatics, who always become tyrants whenever they obtain the power of doing mischief.

We cannot more completely demonstrate this truth than by the letter of a celebrated barrister, written in 1766, to the marquis of Beccaria, one of the most celebrated professors of jurisprudence, at this time, in Europe:

Letter to the Marquis of Beccaria, Professor of Public Law at Milan, on the subject of M. de Morangies, 1772.


— You are a teacher of laws in Italy, a country from which we derive all laws except those which have been transmitted to us by our own absurd and contradictory customs, the remains of that ancient barbarism, the rust of which subsists to this day in one of the most flourishing kingdoms of the earth.

Your book upon crimes and punishments opened the eyes of many of the lawyers of Europe who had been brought up in absurd and inhuman usages; and men began everywhere to blush at finding themselves still wearing their ancient dress of savages.

Your opinion was requested on the dreadful execution to which two young gentlemen, just out of their childhood, had been sentenced; one of whom, having escaped the tortures he was destined to, has become a most excellent officer in the service of the great king, while the other, who had inspired the brightest hopes, died like a sage, by a horrible death, without ostentation and without pusillanimity, surrounded by no less than five executioners. These lads were accused of indecency in action and words, a fault which three months’ imprisonment would have sufficiently punished, and which would have been infallibly corrected by time. You replied, that their judges were assassins, and that all Europe was of your opinion.

I consulted you on the cannibal sentences passed on Calas, on Sirven, and Montbailli; and you anticipated the decrees which you afterwards issued from the chief courts and officers of law in the kingdom, which justified injured innocence and re-established the honor of the nation.

I at present consult you on a cause of a very different nature. It is at once civil and criminal. It is the case of a man of quality, a major-general in the army, who maintains alone his honor and fortune against a whole family of poor and obscure citizens, and against an immense multitude consisting of the dregs of the people, whose execrations against him are echoed through the whole of France. The poor family accuses the general officer of taking from it by fraud and violence a hundred thousand crowns.

The general officer accuses these poor persons of trying to obtain from him a hundred thousand crowns by means equally criminal. They complain that they are not merely in danger of losing an immense property, which they never appeared to possess, but also of being oppressed, insulted, and beaten by the officers of justice, who compelled them to declare themselves guilty and consent to their own ruin and punishment. The general solemnly protests, that these imputations of fraud and violence are atrocious calumnies. The advocates of the two parties contradict each other on all the facts, on all the inductions, and even on all the reasonings; their memorials are called tissues of falsehoods; and each treats the adverse party as inconsistent and absurd — an invariable practice in every dispute.

When you have had the goodness, sir, to read their memorials, which I have now the honor of sending to you, you will, I trust, permit me to suggest the difficulties which I feel in this case; they are dictated by perfect impartiality. I know neither of the parties, and neither of the advocates; but having, in the course of four and twenty years, seen calumny and injustice so often triumph, I may be permitted to endeavor to penetrate the labyrinth in which these monsters unfortunately find shelter.

Presumptions against the Verron Family.

1. In the first place, there are four bills, payable to order, for a hundred thousand crowns, drawn with perfect regularity by an officer otherwise deeply involved in debt; they are payable for the benefit of a woman of the name of Verron, who called herself the widow of a banker. They are presented by her grandson, Du Jonquay, her heir, recently admitted a doctor of laws, although he is ignorant even of orthography. Is this enough? Yes, in an ordinary case it would be so; but if, in this very extraordinary case, there is an extreme probability, that the doctor of laws never did and never could carry the money which he pretends to have delivered in his grandmother’s name; if the grandmother, who maintained herself with difficulty in a garret, by the miserable occupation of pawnbroking, never could have been in the possession of the hundred thousand crowns; if, in short, the grandson and his mother have spontaneously confessed, and attested the written confession by their actual signatures, that they attempted to rob the general, and that he never received more than twelve hundred francs instead of three hundred thousand livres; — in this case, is not the cause sufficiently cleared up? Is not the public sufficiently able to judge from these preliminaries?

2. I appeal to yourself, sir, whether it is probable that the poor widow of a person unknown in society, who is said to have been a petty stock-jobber, and not a banker, could be in possession of so considerable a sum to lend, at an extreme risk, to an officer notoriously in debt? The general, in short, contends, that this jobber, the husband of the woman in question, died insolvent; that even his inventory was never paid for; that this pretended banker was originally a baker’s boy in the household of the duke of Saint-Agnan, the French ambassador in Spain; that he afterwards took up the profession of a broker at Paris; and that he was compelled by M. Héraut, lieutenant of police, to restore certain promissory notes, or bills of exchange, which he had obtained from some young man by extortion; — such the fatality impending over this wretched family from bills of exchange! Should all these statements be proved, do you conceive it at all probable that this family lent a hundred thousand crowns to an involved officer with whom they were upon no terms of friendship or acquaintance?

3. Do you consider it probable, that the jobber’s grandson, the doctor of laws, should have gone on foot no less than five leagues, have made twenty-six journeys, have mounted and descended three thousand steps, all in the space of five hours, without any stopping, to carry “secretly” twelve thousand four hundred and twenty-five louis d’or to a man, to whom, on the following day, he publicly gives twelve hundred francs? Does not such an account appear to be invented with an utter deficiency of ingenuity, and even of common sense? Do those who believe it appear to be sages? What can you think, then, of those who solemnly affirm it without believing it?

4. Is it probable, that young Du Jonquay, the doctor of laws, and his own mother, should have made and signed a declaration, upon oath, before a superior judge, that this whole account was false, that they had never carried the gold, and that they were confessed rogues, if in fact they had not been such, and if grief and remorse had not extorted this confession of their crime? And when they afterwards say, that they had made this confession before the commissary, only because they had previously been assaulted and beaten at the house of a proctor, would such an excuse be deemed by you reasonable or absurd?

Can anything be clearer than that, if this doctor of laws had really been assaulted and beaten in any other house on account of this cause, he should have demanded justice of the commissary for this violence, instead of freely signing, together with his mother, that they were both guilty of a crime which they had not committed?

Would it be admissible for them to say: We signed our condemnation because we thought that the general had bought over against us all the police officers and all the chief judges?

Can good sense listen for a moment to such arguments? Would any one have dared to suggest such even in the days of our barbarism, when we had neither laws, nor manners, nor cultivated reason?

If I may credit the very circumstantial memorials of the general, the Verrons, when put in prison upon his accusation, at first persisted in the confession of their crime. They wrote two letters to the person whom they had made the depositary of the bills extorted from the general; they were terrified at the contemplation of their guilt, which they saw might conduct them to the galleys or to the gibbet. They afterwards gain more firmness and confidence. The persons with whom they were to divide the fruit of their villainy encourage and support them; and the attractions of the vast sum in their contemplation seduce, hurry, and urge them on to persevere in the original charge. They call in to their assistance all the dark frauds and pettifogging chicanery to which they can gain access, to clear them from a crime which they had themselves actually admitted. They avail themselves with dexterity of the distresses to which the involved officer was occasionally reduced, to give a color of probability to his attempting the re-establishment of his affairs by the robbery or theft of a hundred thousand crowns. They rouse the commiseration of the populace, which at Paris is easily stimulated and frenzied. They appeal successfully for compassion to the members of the bar, who make it a point of indispensable duty to employ their eloquence in their behalf, and to support the weak against the powerful, the people against the nobility. The clearest case becomes in time the most obscure. A simple cause, which the police magistrate would have terminated in four days, goes on increasing for more than a whole year by the mire and filth introduced into it through the numberless channels of chicanery, interest, and party spirit. You will perceive that the whole of this statement is a summary of memorials or documents that appeared in this celebrated cause.

Presumptions in favor of the Verron Family.

We shall consider the defence of the grandmother, the mother, and the grandson (doctor of laws), against these strong presumptions.

1. The hundred thousand crowns (or very nearly that sum), which it is pretended the widow Verron never was possessed of, were formerly made over to her by her husband, in trust, together with the silver plate. This deposit was “secretly” brought to her six months after her husband’s death, by a man of the name of Chotard. She placed them out, and always “secretly,” with a notary called Gilet, who restored them to her, still “secretly,” in 1760. She had therefore, in fact, the hundred thousand crowns which her adversary pretends she never possessed.

2. She died in extreme old age, while the cause was going on, protesting, after receiving the sacrament, that these hundred thousand crowns were carried in gold to the general officer by her grandson, in twenty-six journeys on foot, on Sept. 23, 1771.

3. It is not at all probable, that an officer accustomed to borrowing, and broken down in circumstances, should have given bills payable to order for the sum of three hundred thousand livres, to a person unknown to him, unless he had actually received that sum.

4. There are witnesses who saw counted out and ranged in order the bags filled with this gold, and who saw the doctor of laws carry it to the general on foot, under his great coat, in twenty-six journeys, occupying the space of five hours. And he made these twenty-six astonishing journeys merely to satisfy the general, who had particularly requested secrecy.

5. The doctor of laws adds: “Our grandmother and ourselves lived, it is true, in a garret, and we lent a little money upon pledges; but we lived so merely upon a principle of judicious economy; the object was to buy for me the office of a counsellor of parliament, at a time when the magistracy was purchasable. It is true that my three sisters gain their subsistence by needle-work and embroidery; the reason of which was, that my grandmother kept all her property for me. It is true that I have kept company only with procuresses, coachmen, and lackeys: I acknowledge that I speak and that I write in their style; but I might not on that account be less worthy of becoming a magistrate, by making, after all, a good use of my time.”

6. All worthy persons have commiserated our misfortune. M. Aubourg, a farmer-general, as respectable as any in Paris, has generously taken our side, and his voice has obtained for us that of the public.

This defence appears in some part of it plausible. Their adversary refutes it in the following manner:

Arguments of the Major-General against those of the Verron Family.

1. The story of the deposit must be considered by every man of sense as equally false and ridiculous with that of the six-and-twenty journeys on foot. If the poor jobber, the husband of the old woman, had intended to give at his death so much money to his wife, he might have done it in a direct way from hand to hand, without the intervention of a third person.

If he had been possessed of the pretended silver plate, one-half of it must have belonged to the wife, as equal owner of their united goods. She would not have remained quiet for the space of six months, in a paltry lodging of two hundred francs a year, without reclaiming her plate, and exerting her utmost efforts to obtain her right. Chotard also, the alleged friend of her husband and herself, would not have suffered her to remain for six long months in a state of such great indigence and anxiety.

There was, in reality, a person of the name of Chotard; but he was a man ruined by debts and debauchery; a fraudulent bankrupt who embezzled forty thousand crowns from the tax office of the farmers-general in which he held a situation, and who is not likely to have given up a hundred thousand crowns to the grandmother of the doctor in laws.

The widow Verron pretends, that she employed her money at interest, always it appears in secrecy, with a notary of the name of Gilet, but no trace of this fact can be found in the office of that notary.

She declares, that this notary returned her the money, still secretly, in the year 1760: he was at that time dead.

If all these facts be true, it must be admitted that the cause of Du Jonquay and the Verrons, built on a foundation of such ridiculous lies, must inevitably fall to the ground.

2. The will of widow Verron, made half an hour before her death, with death and the name of God on her lips, is, to all appearance, in itself a respectable and even pious document. But if it be really in the number of those pious things which are every day observed to be merely instrumental to crime — if this lender upon pledges, while recommending her soul to God, manifestly lied to God, what importance or weight can the document bring with it? Is it not rather the strongest proof of imposture and villainy?

The old woman had always been made to state, while the suit was carried on in her name, that she possessed only this sum of one hundred thousand crowns which it was intended to rob her of; that she never had more than that sum; and yet, behold! in her will she mentions five hundred thousand livres of her property! Here are two hundred thousand francs more than any one expected, and here is the widow Verron convicted out of her own mouth. Thus, in this singular cause, does the at once atrocious and ridiculous imposture of the family break out on every side, during the woman’s life, and even when she is within the grasp of death.

3. It is probable, and it is even in evidence, that the general would not trust his bills for a hundred thousand crowns to a doctor of whom he knew little or nothing, without having an acknowledgment from him. He did, however, commit this inadvertence, which is the fault of an unsuspecting and noble heart; he was led astray by the youth, by the candor, by the apparent generosity of a man not more than twenty-seven years of age, who was on the point of being raised to the magistracy, who actually, upon an urgent occasion, lent him twelve hundred francs, and who promised in the course of a few days to obtain for him, from an opulent company, the sum of a hundred thousand crowns. Here is the knot and difficulty of the cause. We must strictly examine whether it be probable, that a man, who is admitted to have received nearly a hundred thousand crowns in gold, should on the very morning after, come in great haste, as for a most indispensable occasion, to the man who the evening before had advanced him twelve thousand four hundred and twenty-five louis d’or.

There is not the slightest probability of his doing so. It is still less probable, as we have already observed, that a man of distinction, a general officer, and the father of a family, in return for the invaluable and almost unprecedented kindness of lending him a hundred thousand crowns, should, instead of the sincerest gratitude to his benefactor, absolutely endeavor to get him hanged; and this on the part of a man who had nothing more to do than to await quietly the distant expirations of the periods of payment; who was under no temptation, in order to gain time, to commit such a profligate and atrocious villainy, and who had never in fact committed any villainy at all. Surely it is more natural to think that the man, whose grandfather was a pettifogging, paltry jobber, and whose grandmother was a wretched lender of small sums upon the pledges of absolute misery, should have availed himself of the blind confidence of an unsuspecting soldier, to extort from him a hundred thousand crowns, and that he promised to divide this sum with the depraved and abominable accomplices of his baseness.

4. There are witnesses who depose in favor of Du Jonquay and widow Verron. Let us consider who those witnesses are, and what they depose.

In the first place, there is a woman of the name of Tourtera, a broker, who supported the widow in her peddling, insignificant concern of pawnbroking, and who has been five times in the hospital in consequence of the scandalous impurities of her life; which can be proved with the utmost ease.

There is a coachman called Gilbert, who, sometimes firm, at other times trembling in his wickedness, declared to a lady of the name of Petit, in the presence of six persons, that he had been suborned by Du Jonquay. He subsequently inquired of many other persons, whether he should yet be in time to retract, and reiterated expressions of this nature before witnesses.

Setting aside, however, what has been stated of Gilbert’s disposition to retract, it is very possible that he might be deceived, and may not be chargeable with falsehood and perjury. It is possible, that he might see money at the pawnbroker’s, and that he might be told, and might believe, that three hundred thousand livres were there. Nothing is more dangerous in many persons than a quick and heated imagination, which actually makes men think that they have seen what it was absolutely impossible for them to see.

Then comes a man of the name of Aubriot, a godson of the procuress Tourtera, and completely under her guidance. He deposes, that he saw, in one of the streets of Paris, on Sept. 23, 1771, Doctor Du Jonquay in his great coat, carrying bags.

Surely there is here no conclusive proof that the doctor on that day made twenty-six journeys on foot, and travelled over five leagues of ground, to deliver “secretly” twelve thousand four hundred and twenty-five louis d’or, even admitting all that this testimony states to be true. It appears clear, that Du Jonquay went this journey to the general, and that he spoke to him; and it appears probable, that he deceived him; but it is not clear that Aubriot saw him go and return thirteen times in one morning. It is still less clear, that this witness could at that time see so many circumstances occurring in the street, as he was actually laboring under a disorder which there is no necessity to name, and on that very day underwent for it the severe operation of medicine, with his legs tottering, his head swelled, and his tongue hanging half out of his mouth. This was not precisely the moment for running into the street to see sights. Would his friend Du Jonquay have said to him: Come and risk your life, to see me traverse a distance of five leagues loaded with gold: I am going to deliver the whole fortune of my family, secretly, to a man overwhelmed with debts; I wish to have, privately, as a witness, a person of your character? This is not exceedingly probable. The surgeon who applied the medicine to the witness Aubriot on this occasion, states that he was by no means in a situation to go out; and the son of the surgeon, in his interrogatory, refers the case to the academy of surgery.

But even admitting that a man of a particularly robust constitution could have gone out and taken some turns in the street in this disgraceful and dreadful situation, what could it have signified to the point in question? Did he see Du Jonquay make twenty-six journeys between his garret and the general’s hotel? Did he see twelve thousand four hundred and twenty-five louis d’or carried by him? Was any individual whatever a witness to this prodigy well worthy the “Thousand and One Nights”? Most certainly not; no person whatever. What is the amount, then, of all his evidence on the subject?

5. That the daughter of Mrs. Verron, in her garret, may have sometimes borrowed small sums on pledges; that Mrs. Verron may have lent them, in order to obtain and save a profit, to make her grandson a counsellor of parliament, has nothing at all to do with the substance of the case in question. In defiance of all this, it will ever be evident, that this magistrate by anticipation did not traverse the five leagues to carry to the general the hundred thousand crowns, and that the general never received them.

6. A person named Aubourg comes forward, not merely as a witness, but as a protector and benefactor of oppressed innocence. The advocates of the Verron family extol this man as a citizen of rare and intrepid virtue. He became feelingly alive to the misfortunes of Doctor Du Jonquay, his mother, and grandmother, although he had no acquaintance with them; and offered them his credit and his purse, without any other object than that of assisting persecuted merit.

Upon examination it is found, that this hero of disinterested benevolence is a contemptible wretch who began the world as a lackey, was then successively an upholsterer, a broker, and a bankrupt, and is now, like Mrs. Verron and Tourtera, by profession a pawnbroker. He flies to the assistance of persons of his own profession. The woman Tourtera, in the first place, gave him twenty-five louis d’or, to interest his probity and kindness in assisting a desolate family. The generous Aubourg had the greatness of soul to make an agreement with the old grandmother, almost when she was dying, by which she gives him fifteen thousand crowns, on condition of his undertaking to defray the expenses of the cause. He even takes the precaution to have this bargain noticed and confirmed in the will, dictated, or pretended to be dictated, by this old widow of the jobber on her death-bed. This respectable and venerable man then hopes one day to divide with some of the witnesses the spoils that are to be obtained from the general. It is the magnanimous heart of Aubourg that has formed this disinterested scheme; it is he who has conducted the cause which he seems to have taken up as a patrimony. He believed the bills payable to order would infallibly be paid. He is in fact a receiver who participates in the plunder effected by robbers, and who appropriates the better part to himself.

Such are the replies of the general: I neither subtract from them nor add to them — I simply state them. I have thus explained to you, sir, the whole substance of the cause, and stated all the strongest arguments on both sides.

I request your opinion of the sentence which ought to be pronounced, if matters should remain in the same state, if the truth cannot be irrevocably obtained from one or other of the parties, and made to appear perfectly without a cloud.

The reasons of the general officer are thus far convincing. Natural equity is on his side. This natural equity, which God has established in the hearts of all men, is the basis of all law. Ought we to destroy this foundation of all justice, by sentencing a man to pay a hundred thousand crowns which he does not appear to owe?

He drew bills for a hundred thousand crowns, in the vain hope that he should receive the money; he negotiated with a young man whom he did not know, just as he would have done with the banker of the king or of the empress-queen. Should his bills have more validity than his reasons? A man certainly cannot owe what he has not received. Bills, policies, bonds, always imply that the corresponding sums have been delivered and had; but if there is evidence that no money has been had and delivered, there can be no obligation to return or pay any. If there is writing against writing, document against document, the last dated cancels the former ones. But in the present case the last writing is that of Du Jonquay and his mother, and it states that the opposite party in the cause never received from them a hundred thousand crowns, and that they are cheats and impostors.

What! because they have disavowed the truth of their confession, which they state to have been made in consequence of their having received a blow or an assault, shall another man’s property be adjudged to them?

I will suppose for a moment (what is by no means probable), that the judges, bound down by forms, will sentence the general to pay what in fact he does not owe; — will they not in this case destroy his reputation as well as his fortune? Will not all who have sided against him in this most singular adventure, charge him with calumniously accusing his adversaries of a crime of which he is himself guilty? He will lose his honor, in their estimation, in losing his property. He will never be acquitted but in the judgments of those who examine profoundly. The number of these is always small. Where are the men to be found who have leisure, attention, capacity, impartiality, to consider anxiously every aspect and bearing of a cause in which they are not themselves interested? They judge in the same way as our ancient parliament judged of books — that is, without reading them.

You, sir, are fully acquainted with this, and know that men generally judge of everything by prejudice, hearsay, and chance. No one reflects that the cause of a citizen ought to interest the whole body of citizens, and that we may ourselves have to endure in despair the same fate which we perceive, with eyes and feelings of indifference, falling heavily upon him. We write and comment every day upon the judgments passed by the senate of Rome and the areopagus of Athens; but we think not for a moment of what passes before our own tribunals.

You, sir, who comprehend all Europe in your researches and decisions, will, I sincerely hope, deign to communicate to me a portion of your light. It is possible, certainly, that the formalities and chicanery connected with law proceedings, and with which I am little conversant, may occasion to the general the loss of the cause in court; but it appears to me that he must gain it at the tribunal of an enlightened public, that awful and accurate judge who pronounces after deep investigation, and who is the final disposer of character.

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