Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

STATES— GOVERNMENTS.

Which is the best? I have not hitherto known any person who has not governed some state. I speak not of messieurs the ministers, who really govern; some two or three years, others six months, and others six weeks; I speak of all other men, who, at supper or in their closet, unfold their systems of government, and reform armies, the Church, the gown, and finances.

The Abbé de Bourzeis began to govern France towards the year 1645, under the name of Cardinal Richelieu, and made the “Political Testament,” in which he would enlist the nobility into the cavalry for three years, make chambers of accounts and parliaments pay the poll-tax, and deprive the king of the produce of the excise. He asserts, above all, that to enter a country with fifty thousand men, it is essential to economy that a hundred thousand should be raised. He affirms that “Provence alone has more fine seaports than Spain and Italy together.”

The Abbé de Bourzeis had not travelled. As to the rest, his work abounds with anachronisms and errors; and as he makes Cardinal Richelieu sign in a manner in which he never signed, so he makes him speak as he had never spoken. Moreover, he fills a whole chapter with saying that reason should guide a state, and in endeavoring to prove this discovery. This work of obscurities, this bastard of the Abbé de Bourzeis, has long passed for the legitimate offspring of the Cardinal Richelieu; and all academicians, in their speeches of reception, fail not to praise extravagantly this political masterpiece.

The Sieur Gatien de Courtilz, seeing the success of the “Testament Politique” of Richelieu, published at The Hague the “Testament de Colbert,” with a fine letter of M. Colbert to the king. It is clear that if this minister made such a testament, it must have been suppressed; yet this book has been quoted by several authors.

Another ignoramus, of whose name we are ignorant, failed not to produce the “Testament de Louis,” still worse, if possible, than that of Colbert. An abbé of Chevremont also made Charles, duke of Lorraine, form a testament. We have had the political testaments of Cardinal Alberoni, Marshal Belle-Isle, and finally that of Mandrin.

M. de Boisguillebert, author of the “Détail de la France,” published in 1695, produced the impracticable project of the royal tithe, under the name of the marshal de Vauban.

A madman, named La Jonchere, wanting bread, wrote, in 1720, a “Project of Finance,” in four volumes; and some fools have quoted this production as a work of La Jonchere, the treasurer-general, imagining that a treasurer could not write a bad book on finance.

But it must be confessed that very wise men, perhaps very worthy to govern, have written on the administration of states in France, Spain, and England. Their books have done much good; not that they have corrected ministers who were in place when these books appeared, for a minister does not and cannot correct himself. He has attained his growth, and more instruction, more counsel, he has not time to listen to. The current of affairs carries him away; but good books form young people, destined for their places; and princes and statesmen of a succeeding generation are instructed.

The strength and weakness of all governments has been narrowly examined in latter times. Tell me, then, you who have travelled, who have read and have seen, in what state, under what sort of government, would you be born? I conceive that a great landed lord in France would have no objection to be born in Germany: he would be a sovereign instead of a subject. A peer of France would be very glad to have the privileges of the English peerage: he would be a legislator. The gownsman and financier would find himself better off in France than elsewhere. But what country would a wise freeman choose — a man of small fortune, without prejudices?

A rather learned member of the council of Pondicherry came into Europe, by land, with a brahmin, more learned than the generality of them. “How do you find the government of the Great Mogul?” said the counsellor. “Abominable,” answered the brahmin; “how can you expect a state to be happily governed by Tartars? Our rajahs, our omras, and our nabobs are very contented, but the citizens are by no means so; and millions of citizens are something.”

The counsellor and the brahmin traversed all Upper Asia, reasoning on their way. “I reflect,” said the brahmin, “that there is not a republic in all this vast part of the world.” “There was formerly that of Tyre,” said the counsellor, “but it lasted not long; there was another towards Arabia Petræa, in a little nook called Palestine — if we can honor with the name of republic a horde of thieves and usurers, sometimes governed by judges, sometimes by a sort of kings, sometimes by high priests; who became slaves seven or eight times, and were finally driven from the country which they had usurped.”

“I fancy,” said the brahmin, “that we should find very few republics on earth. Men are seldom worthy to govern themselves. This happiness should only belong to little people, who conceal themselves in islands, or between mountains, like rabbits who steal away from carnivorous animals, but at length are discovered and devoured.”

When the travellers arrived in Asia Minor, the counsellor said to the brahmin, “Would you believe that there was a republic formed in a corner of Italy, which lasted more than five hundred years, and which possessed this Asia Minor, Asia, Africa, Greece, the Gauls, Spain, and the whole of Italy?” “It was therefore soon turned into a monarchy?” said the brahmin. “You have guessed it,” said the other; “but this monarchy has fallen, and every day we make fine dissertations to discover the causes of its decay and fall.” “You take much useless pains,” said the Indian: “this empire has fallen because it existed. All must fall. I hope that the same will happen to the empire of the Great Mogul.” “Apropos,” said the European, “do you believe that more honor is required in a despotic state, and more virtue in a republic?” The term “honor” being first explained to the Indian, he replied, that honor was more necessary in a republic, and that there is more need of virtue in a monarchical state. “For,” said he, “a man who pretends to be elected by the people, will not be so, if he is dishonored; while at court he can easily obtain a place, according to the maxim of a great prince, that to succeed, a courtier should have neither honor nor a will of his own. With respect to virtue, it is prodigiously required in a court, in order to dare to tell the truth. The virtuous man is much more at his ease in a republic, having nobody to flatter.”

“Do you believe,” said the European, “that laws and religions can be formed for climates, the same as furs are required at Moscow, and gauze stuffs at Delhi?” “Yes, doubtless,” said the brahmin; “all laws which concern physics are calculated for the meridian which we inhabit; a German requires only one wife, and a Persian must have two or three.

“Rites of religion are of the same nature. If I were a Christian, how would you have me say mass in my province, where there is neither bread nor wine? With regard to dogmas, it is another thing; climate has nothing to do with them. Did not your religion commence in Asia, from whence it was driven? does it not exist towards the Baltic Sea, where it was unknown?”

“In what state, under what dominion, would you like to live?” said the counsellor. “Under any but my own,” said his companion, “and I have found many Siamese, Tonquinese, Persians, and Turks who have said the same.” “But, once more,” said the European, “what state would you choose?” The brahmin answered, “That in which the laws alone are obeyed.” “That is an odd answer,” said the counsellor. “It is not the worse for that,” said the brahmin. “Where is this country?” said the counsellor. The brahmin: “We must seek it.”

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