Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


In reading history, and seeing its course continually interrupted with innumerable calamities heaped upon this globe, which some call the best of all possible worlds, I have been particularly struck with the great quantity of considerable men in the State, in the Church, and in society, who have suffered death like robbers on the highway. Setting aside assassinations and poisonings, I speak only of massacres in a juridical form, performed with loyalty and ceremony; I commence with kings and queens; England alone furnishes an ample list; but for chancellors, knights, and esquires, volumes are required. Of all who have thus perished by justice, I do not believe that there are four in all Europe who would have undergone their sentence if their suits had lasted some time longer, or if the adverse parties had died of apoplexy during the preparation.

If fistula had gangrened the rectum of Cardinal Richelieu some months longer, the virtuous de Thou, Cinq-Mars, and so many others would have been at liberty. If Barneveldt had had as many Arminians for his judges as Gomerists, he would have died in his bed; if the constable de Luynes had not demanded the confiscation of the property of the lady of the Marshal d’Ancre, she would not have been burned as a witch. If a really criminal man, an assassin, a public thief, a poisoner, a parricide, be arrested, and his crime be proved, it is certain that in all times and whoever the judges, he will be condemned. But it is not the same with statesmen; only give them other judges, or wait until time has changed interests, cooled passions, and introduced other sentiments, and their lives will be in safety.

Suppose Queen Elizabeth had died of an indigestion on the eve of the execution of Mary Stuart, then Mary Stuart would have been seated on the throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, instead of dying by the hand of an executioner in a chamber hung with black. If Cromwell had only fallen sick, care would have been taken how Charles I.’s head was cut off. These two assassinations — disguised, I know not how, in the garb of the laws — scarcely entered into the list of ordinary injustice. Figure to yourself some highwaymen who, having bound and robbed two passengers, amuse themselves with naming in the troop an attorney-general, a president, an advocate and counsellors, and who, having signed a sentence, cause the two victims to be hanged in ceremony; it was thus that the Queen of Scotland and her grandson were judged.

But of common judgments, pronounced by competent judges against princes or men in place, is there a single one which would have been either executed, or even passed, if another time had been chosen? Is there a single one of the condemned, immolated under Cardinal Richelieu, who would not have been in favor if their suits had been prolonged until the regency of Anne of Austria? The Prince of Condé was arrested under Francis II., he was condemned to death by commissaries; Francis II. died, and the Prince of Condé again became powerful.

These instances are innumerable; we should above all consider the spirit of the times. Vanini was burned on a vague suspicion of atheism. At present, if any one was foolish and pedantic enough to write such books as Vanini, they would not be read, and that is all which could happen to them. A Spaniard passed through Geneva in the middle of the sixteenth century; the Picard, John Calvin, learned that this Spaniard was lodged at an inn; he remembered that this Spaniard had disputed with him on a subject which neither of them understood. Behold! my theologian, John Calvin, arrested the passenger, contrary to all laws, human or divine, contrary to the right possessed by people among all nations; immured him in a dungeon, and burned him at a slow fire with green faggots, that the pain might last the longer. Certainly this infernal manœuvre would never enter the head of any one in the present day; and if the fool Servetus had lived in good times, he would have had nothing to fear; what is called justice is therefore as arbitrary as fashion. There are times of horrors and follies among men, as there are times of pestilence, and this contagion has made the tour of the world.

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