Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

POPULATION.

§ I.

There were very few caterpillars in my canton last year, and we killed nearly the whole of them. God has rendered them this year more numerous than the leaves. Is it not nearly thus with other animals, and above all with mankind? Famine, pestilence, death, and the two sister diseases which have visited us from Arabia and America, destroy the inhabitants of a province, and we are surprised at finding it abound with people a hundred years afterwards.

I admit that it is a sacred duty to people this world, and that all animals are stimulated by pleasure to fulfil this intention of the great Demiourgos. Why this inhabiting of the earth? and to what purpose form so many beings to devour one another, and the animal man to cut the throat of his fellow, from one end of the earth to the other? I am assured that I shall one day be in the possession of this secret, and in my character of an inquisitive man I exceedingly desire it.

It is clear that we ought to people the earth as much as we are able; even our health renders it necessary. The wise Arabians, the robbers of the desert, in the treaties which they made with travellers, always stipulated for girls. When they conquered Spain, they imposed a tribute of girls. The country of Media pays the Turks in girls. The buccaneers brought girls from Paris to the little island of which they took possession; and it is related that, at the fine spectacle with which Romulus entertained the Sabines, he stole from them three hundred girls.

I cannot conceive why the Jews, whom moreover I revere, killed everybody in Jericho, even to the girls; and why they say in the Psalms, that it will be sweet to massacre the infants at the mother’s breast, without excepting even girls. All other people, whether Tartars, Cannibals, Teutons, or Celts, have always held girls in great request.

Owing to this happy instinct, it seems that the earth may one day be covered with animals of our own kind. Father Petau makes the inhabitants of the earth seven hundred millions, two hundred and eighty years after the deluge. It is not, however, at the end of the “Arabian Nights” that he has printed this pleasant enumeration.

I reckon at present on our globe about nine hundred millions of contemporaries, and an equal number of each sex. Wallace makes them a thousand millions. Am I in error, or is he? Possibly both of us; but a tenth is a small matter; the arithmetic of historians is usually much more erroneous.

I am somewhat surprised that the arithmetician Wallace, who extends the number of people at present existing to a thousand millions, should pretend in the same page, that in the year 966, after the creation, our forefathers amounted to sixteen hundred and ten millions.

In the first place, I wish the epoch of the creation to be clearly established; and as, in our western world, we have no less than eighty theories of this event, there will be some difficulty to hit on the correct one. In the second place, the Egyptians, the Chaldæans, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese, have all different calculations; and it is still more difficult to agree with them. Thirdly, why, in the nine hundred and sixty-sixth year of the world, should there be more people than there are at present?

To explain this absurdity, we are told that matters occurred otherwise than at present; that nature, being more vigorous, was better concocted and more prolific; and, moreover, that people lived longer. Why do they not add, that the sun was warmer, and the moon more beautiful.

We are told, that in the time of Cæsar, although men had begun to greatly degenerate, the world was like an ant’s nest of bipeds; but that at present it is a desert. Montesquieu, who always exaggerates, and who sacrifices anything to an itching desire of displaying his wit, ventures to believe, and in his “Persian Letters” would have others believe, that there were thirty times as many people in the world in the days of Cæsar as at present.

Wallace acknowledges that this calculation made at random is too much; but for what reason? Because, before the days of Cæsar, the world possessed more inhabitants than during the most brilliant period of the Roman republic. He then ascends to the time of Semiramis, and if possible exaggerates more than Montesquieu.

Lastly, in conformity with the taste which is always attributed to the Holy Spirit for hyperbole, they fail not to instance the eleven hundred and sixty thousand men, who marched so fiercely under the standards of the great monarch, Josophat, or Jehosophat, king of the province of Judah. Enough, enough, Mr. Wallace; the Holy Spirit cannot deceive; but its agents and copyists have badly calculated and numbered. All your Scotland would not furnish eleven hundred thousand men to attend your sermons, and the kingdom of Judah was not a twentieth part of Scotland. See, again, what St. Jerome says of this poor Holy Land, in which he so long resided. Have you well calculated the quantity of money the great King Jehosophat must have possessed, to pay, feed, clothe, and arm eleven hundred thousand chosen men? But thus is history written.

Mr. Wallace returns from Jehosophat to Cæsar, and concludes, that since the time of this dictator of short duration, the world has visibly decreased in the number of its inhabitants. Behold, said he, the Swiss: according to the relation of Cæsar, they amounted to three hundred and sixty-eight thousand, when they so wisely quitted their country to seek their fortunes, like the Cimbri.

I wish by this example to recall those partisans into a little due consideration, who gift the ancients with such wonders in the way of generation, at the expense of the moderns. The canton of Berne alone, according to an accurate census, possesses a greater number of inhabitants than quitted the whole of Helvetia in the time of Cæsar. The human species is, therefore, doubled in Helvetia since that expedition.

I likewise believe, that Germany, France, and England are much better peopled now than at that time; and for this reason: I adduce the vast clearance of forests, the number of great towns built and increased during the last eight hundred years, and the number of arts which have originated in proportion. This I regard as a sufficient answer to the brazen declamation, repeated every day in books, in which truth is sacrificed to sallies, and which are rendered useless by their abundant wit.

“L’Ami des Hommes” says, that in the time of Cæsar fifty-two millions of men were assigned to Spain, which Strabo observes has always been badly peopled, owing to the interior being so deficient in water. Strabo is apparently right, and “L’Ami des Hommes” erroneous. But they scare us by asking what has become of the prodigious quantity of Huns, Alans, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Lombards, who spread like a torrent over Europe in the fifth century.

I distrust these multitudes, and suspect that twenty or thirty thousand ferocious animals, more or less, were sufficient to overwhelm with fright the whole Roman Empire, governed by a Pulcheria, by eunuchs, and by monks. It was enough for ten thousand barbarians to pass the Danube; for every parish rumor, or homily, to make them more numerous than the locusts in the plains of Egypt; and call them a scourge from God, in order to inspire penitence, and produce gifts of money to the convents. Fear seized all the inhabitants, and they fled in crowds. Behold precisely the fright which a wolf caused in the district of Gevanden in the year 1766.

Mandarin the robber, at the head of fifty vagabonds, put an entire town under contribution. As soon as he entered at one gate, it was said at the other, that he brought with him four thousand men and artillery. If Attila, followed by fifty thousand hungry assassins, ravaged province after province, report would call them five hundred thousand.

The millions of men who followed Xerxes, Cyrus, Tomyris, the thirty or forty-four millions of Egyptians, Thebes with her hundred gates —“Et quicquid Grecia mendax audet in historia” — resemble the five hundred thousand men of Attila, which company of pleasant travellers it would have been difficult to find on the journey.

These Huns came from Siberia, and thence I conclude that they came in very small numbers. Siberia was certainly not more fertile than in our own days. I doubt whether in the reign of Tomyris a town existed equal to Tobolsk, or that these frightful deserts can feed a great number of inhabitants.

India, China, Persia, and Asia Minor were thickly peopled; this I can credit without difficulty; and possibly they are not less so at present, notwithstanding the destructive prevalence of invasions and wars. Throughout, Nature has clothed them with pasturage; the bull freely unites with the heifer, the ram with the sheep, and man with woman.

The deserts of Barca, of Arabia, and of Oreb, of Sinai, of Jerusalem, of Gobi, etc., were never peopled, are not peopled at present, and never will be peopled; at least, until some natural revolution happens to transform these plains of sand and flint into fertile land.

The land of France is tolerably good, and it is sufficiently inhabited by consumers, since of all kinds there are more than are well supplied; since there are two hundred thousand impostors, who beg from one end of the country to the other, and sustain their despicable lives at the expense of the rich; and lastly, since France supports more than eighty thousand monks, of which not a single one assists to produce an ear of corn.

§ II.

I believe that England, Protestant Germany, and Holland are better peopled in proportion than France. The reason is evident; those countries harbor not monks who vow to God to be useless to man. In these countries, the clergy, having little else to do, occupy themselves with study and propagation. They give birth to robust children, and give them a better education than that which is bestowed on the offspring of French and Italian marquises.

Rome, on the contrary, would be a desert without cardinals, ambassadors, and travellers. It would be only an illustrious monument, like the temple of Jupiter Ammon. In the time of the first Cæsar, it was computed that this sterile territory, rendered fertile by manure and the labor of slaves, contained some millions of men. It was an exception to the general law, that population is ordinarily in proportion to fertility of soil.

Conquest rendered this barren country fertile and populous. A form of government as strange and contradictory as any which ever astonished mankind, has restored to the territory of Romulus its primitive character. The whole country is depopulated from Orvieto to Terracina. Rome, reduced to its own citizens, would be to London only as one to twelve; and in respect to money and commerce, would be to the towns of Amsterdam and London as one to a thousand.

That which Rome has lost, Europe has not only regained, but the population has almost tripled since the days of Charlemagne. I say tripled, which is much; for propagation is not in geometrical progression. All the calculations made on the idea of this pretended multiplication, amount only to absurd chimeras.

If a family of human beings or of apes multiplied in this manner, at the end of two hundred years the earth would not be able to contain them. Nature has taken care at once to preserve and restrain the various species. She resembles the fates, who spin and cut threads continually. She is occupied with birth and destruction alone.

If she has given to man more ideas and memory than to other animals; if she has rendered him capable of generalizing his ideas and combining them; if he has the advantage of the gift of speech, she has not bestowed on him that of multiplication equal to insects. There are more ants in a square league of heath, than of men in the world, counting all that have ever existed.

When a country possesses a great number of idlers, be sure that it is well peopled; since these idlers are lodged, clothed, fed, amused, and respected by those who labor. The principal object, however, is not to possess a superfluity of men, but to render such as we have as little unhappy as possible.

Let us thank nature for placing us in the temperate zone, peopled almost throughout by a more than sufficient number of inhabitants, who cultivate all the arts; and let us endeavor not to lessen this advantage by our absurdities.

§ III.

It must be confessed, that we ordinarily people and depopulate the world a little at random; and everybody acts in this manner. We are little adapted to obtain an accurate notion of things; the nearly is our only guide, and it often leads us astray.

It is still worse when we wish to calculate precisely. We go and see farces and laugh at them; but should we laugh less in our closets when we read grave authors deciding exactly how many men existed on the earth two hundred and eighty-five years after the general deluge. We find, according to Father Petau, that the family of Noah had produced one thousand two hundred and twenty-four millions seven hundred and seventeen thousand inhabitants, in three hundred years. The good priest Petau evidently knew little about getting children and rearing them, if we are to judge by this statement.

According to Cumberland, this family increased to three thousand three hundred and thirty millions, in three hundred and forty years; and according to Whiston, about three hundred years after the Deluge, they amounted only to sixty-five millions four hundred and thirty-six.

It is difficult to reconcile and to estimate these accounts, such is the extravagance when people seek to make things accord which are repugnant, and to explain what is inexplicable. This unhappy endeavor has deranged heads which in other pursuits might have made discoveries beneficial to society.

The authors of the English “Universal History” observe, it is generally agreed that the present inhabitants of the earth amount to about four thousand millions. It is to be remarked, that these gentlemen do not include in this number the natives of America, which comprehends nearly half of the globe. For my own part, if, instead of a common romance, I wished to amuse myself by reckoning up the number of brethren I have on this unhappy little planet, I would proceed as follows: I would first endeavor to estimate pretty nearly the number of inhabited square leagues this earth contains on its surface; I should then say: The surface of the globe contains twenty-seven millions of square leagues; take away two-thirds at least for seas, rivers, lakes, deserts, mountains, and all that is uninhabited; this calculation, which is very moderate, leaves us nine millions of square leagues to account for.

In France and Germany, there are said to be six hundred persons to a square league; in Spain, one hundred and fifty; in Russia, fifteen; and Tartary, ten. Take the mean number at a hundred, and you will have about nine hundred millions of brethren, including mulattoes, negroes, the brown, the copper-colored, the fair, the bearded, and the unbearded. It is not thought, indeed, that the number is so great as this; and if eunuchs continue to be made, monks to multiply, and wars to be waged on the most trifling pretexts, it is easy to perceive that we shall not very soon be able to muster the four thousand millions, with which the English authors of the “Universal History” have so liberally favored us; but, then, of what consequence is it, whether the number of men on the earth be great or small? The chief thing is to discover the means of rendering our miserable species as little unhappy as possible.

§ IV.
Of the Population of America.

The discovery of America — that field of so much avarice and so much ambition — has also become an object of philosophical curiosity. A great number of writers have endeavored to prove that America was a colony of the ancient world. Some modest mathematicians, on the contrary, have said, that the same power which has caused the grass to grow in American soil, was able to place man there; but this simple and naked system has not been attended to.

When the great Columbus suspected the existence of this new world, it was held to be impossible; and Columbus was taken for a visionary. When it was really discovered, it was then found out that it had been known long before.

It was pretended that Martin Behem, a native of Nuremberg, quitted Flanders about the year 1460, in search of this unknown world; that he made his way even to the Straits of Magellan, of which he left unknown charts. As, however, it is certain that Martin Behem did not people America, it must certainly have been one of the later grandchildren of Noah, who took this trouble. All antiquity is then ransacked for accounts of long voyages, to which they apply the discovery of this fourth quarter of the globe. They make the ships of Solomon proceed to Mexico, and it is thence that he drew the gold of Ophir, to procure which he borrowed them from King Hiram. They find out America in Plato, give the honor of it to the Carthaginians, and quote this anecdote from a book of Aristotle which he never wrote.

Hornius pretends to discover some conformity between the Hebrew language and that of the Caribs. Father Lafiteau, the Jesuit, has not failed to follow up so fine an opening. The Mexicans, when greatly afflicted, tore their garments; certain people of Asia formerly did the same, and of course they are the ancestors of the Mexicans. It might be added, that the natives of Languedoc are very fond of dancing; and that, as in their rejoicings the Hurons dance also, the Languedocians are descended from the Hurons, or the Hurons from the Languedocians.

The authors of a tremendous “Universal History” pretend that all the Americans are descended from the Tartars. They assure us that this opinion is general among the learned, but they do not say whether it is so among the learned who reflect. According to them, some descendants of Noah could find nothing better to do, than to go and settle in the delicious country of Kamchatka, in the north of Siberia. This family being destitute of occupation, resolved to visit Canada either by means of ships, or by marching pleasantly across some slip of connecting land, which has not been discovered in our own times. They then began to busy themselves in propagation, until the fine country of Canada soon becoming inadequate to the support of so numerous a population, they went to people Mexico, Peru, Chile; while certain of their great-granddaughters were in due time brought to bed of giants in the Straits of Magellan.

As ferocious animals are found in some of the warm countries of America, these authors pretend, that the Christopher Columbuses of Kamchatka took them into Canada for their amusement, and carefully confined themselves to those kinds which are no longer to be found in the ancient hemisphere.

But the Kamchatkans have not alone peopled the new world; they have been charitably assisted by the Mantchou Tartars, by the Huns, by the Chinese, and by the inhabitants of Japan. The Mantchou Tartars are incontestably the ancestors of the Peruvians, for Mango Capac was the first inca of Peru. Mango resembles Manco; Manco sounds like Mancu; Mancu approaches Mantchu, and Mantchou is very close to the latter. Nothing can be better demonstrated. As for the Huns, they built in Hungary a town called Cunadi. Now, changing Cu into Ca, we have Canadi, from which Canada manifestly derives its name.

A plant resembling the ginseng of the Chinese, grows in Canada, which the Chinese transplanted into the latter even before they were masters of the part of Tartary where it is indigenous. Moreover, the Chinese are such great navigators, they formerly sent fleets to America without maintaining the least correspondence with their colonies.

With respect to the Japanese, they are the nearest neighbors of America, which, as they are distant only about twelve hundred leagues, they have doubtless visited in their time, although latterly they have neglected repeating the voyage. Thus is history written in our own days. What shall we say to these, and many other systems which resemble them? Nothing.

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