Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

LAW (NATURAL).

B.

What is natural law?

A.

The instinct by which we feel justice.

B.

What do you call just and unjust?

A.

That which appears so to the whole world.

B.

The world is made up of a great many heads. It is said that at Lacedæmon thieves were applauded, while at Athens they were condemned to the mines.

A.

That is all a mere abuse of words, mere logomachy and ambiguity. Theft was impossible at Sparta, where all property was common. What you call theft was the punishment of avarice.

B.

It was forbidden for a man to marry his sister at Rome. Among the Egyptians, the Athenians, and even the Jews, a man was permitted to marry his sister by the father’s side. It is not without regret that I cite the small and wretched nation of the Jews, who certainly ought never to be considered as a rule for any person, and who — setting aside religion — were never anything better than an ignorant, fanatical, and plundering horde. According to their books, however, the young Tamar, before she was violated by her brother Ammon, addressed him in these words: “I pray thee, my brother, do not so foolishly, but ask me in marriage of my father: he will not refuse thee.”

A.

All these cases amount to mere laws of convention, arbitrary usages, transient modes. What is essential remains ever the same. Point out to me any country where it would be deemed respectable or decent to plunder me of the fruits of my labor, to break a solemn promise, to tell an injurious lie, to slander, murder, or poison, to be ungrateful to a benefactor, or to beat a father or mother presenting food to you.

B.

Have you forgotten that Jean Jacques, one of the fathers of the modern Church, has said that the first person who dared to enclose and cultivate a piece of ground was an enemy of the human race; that he ought to be exterminated; and that the fruits of the earth belonged to all, and the land to none? Have we not already examined this proposition, so beautiful in itself, and so conducive to the happiness of society?

A.

Who is this Jean Jacques? It is certainly not John the Baptist, nor John the Evangelist, nor James the Greater, nor James the Less; he must inevitably be some witling of a Hun, to write such abominable impertinence, or some ill-conditioned, malicious “bufo magro,” who is never more happy than when sneering at what all the rest of the world deem most valuable and sacred. For, instead of damaging and spoiling the estate of a wise and industrious neighbor, he had only to imitate him, and induce every head of a family to follow his example, in order to form in a short time a most flourishing and happy village. The author of the passage quoted seems to me a thoroughly unsocial animal.

B.

You are of opinion, then, that by insulting and plundering the good man, for surrounding his garden and farmyard with a quick-set hedge, he has offended against natural law.

A.

Yes, most certainly; there is, I must repeat, a natural law; and it consists in neither doing ill to another, nor rejoicing at it, when from any cause whatsoever it befalls him.

B.

I conceive that man neither loves ill nor does it with any other view than to his own advantage. But so many men are urged on to obtain advantage to themselves by the injury of another; revenge is a passion of such violence; there are examples of it so terrible and fatal; and ambition, more terrible and fatal still, has so drenched the world with blood; that when I survey the frightful picture, I am tempted to confess, that a man is a being truly diabolical. I may certainly possess, deeply rooted in my heart, the notion of what is just and unjust; but an Attila, whom St. Leon extols and pays his court to; a Phocas, whom St. Gregory flatters with the most abject meanness; Alexander VI., polluted by so many incests, murders, and poisonings, and with whom the feeble Louis XII., commonly called “the Good,” enters into the most strict and base alliance; a Cromwell, whose protection Cardinal Mazarin eagerly solicits, and to gratify whom he expels from France the heirs of Charles I., cousins-german of Louis XIV. — these, and a thousand similar examples, easily to be found in the records of history, totally disturb and derange my ideas, and I no longer know what I am doing or where I am.

A.

Well; but should the knowledge that storms are coming prevent our enjoying the beautiful sunshine and gentle and fragrant gales of the present day? Did the earthquake that destroyed half the city of Lisbon prevent your making a very pleasant journey from Madrid? If Attila was a bandit, and Cardinal Mazarin a knave, are there not some princes and ministers respectable and amiable men? Has it not been remarked, that in the war of 1701, the Council of Louis XIV. consisted of some of the most virtuous of mankind — the duke of Beauvilliers, the Marquis de Torcy, Marshal Villars, and finally Chamillard, who was not indeed considered a very able but still an honorable man? Does not the idea of just and unjust still exist? It is in fact on this that all laws are founded. The Greeks call laws “the daughters of heaven,” which means simply, the daughters of nature. Have you no laws in your country?

B.

Yes; some good, and others bad.

A.

Where could you have taken the idea of them, but from the notions of natural law which every well-constructed mind has within itself? They must have been derived from these or nothing.

B.

You are right; there is a natural law, but it is still more natural to many people to forget or neglect it.

A.

It is natural also to be one-eyed, humpbacked, lame, deformed, and sickly; but we prefer persons well made and healthy.

B.

Why are there so many one-eyed and deformed minds?

A.

Hush! Consult, however, the article on “Omnipotence.”

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