Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


There have been always such in Europe, and probably in all the earth, so natural is it to assemble the family, to know its interests, and to provide for its wants! The Tartars had their cour-ilté. The Germans, according to Tacitus, assembled to consult. The Saxons and people of the North had their witenagemot. The people at large formed states-general in the Greek and Roman republics.

We see none among the Egyptians, Persians, or Chinese, because we have but very imperfect fragments of their histories: we scarcely know anything of them until since the time in which their kings were absolute, or at least since the time in which they had only priests to balance their authority.

When the comitia were abolished at Rome, the Prætorian guards took their place: insolent, greedy, barbarous, and idle soldiers were the republic. Septimius Severus conquered and disbanded them.

The states-general of the Ottoman Empire are the janissaries and cavalry; in Algiers and Tunis, it is the militia. The greatest and most singular example of these states-general is the Diet of Ratisbon, which has lasted a hundred years, where the representatives of the empire, the ministers of electors, princes, counts, prelates and imperial cities, to the number of thirty-seven, continually sit.

The second states-general of Europe are those of Great Britain. They are not always assembled, like the Diet of Ratisbon; but they are become so necessary that the king convokes them every year.

The House of Commons answers precisely to the deputies of cities received in the diet of the empire; but it is much larger in number, and enjoys a superior power. It is properly the nation. Peers and bishops are in parliament only for themselves, and the House of Commons for all the country.

This parliament of England is only a perfected imitation of certain states-general of France. In 1355, under King John, the three states were assembled at Paris, to aid him against the English. They granted him a considerable sum, at five livres five sous the mark, for fear the king should change the numerary value. They regulated the tax necessary to gather in this money, and they established nine commissioners to preside at the receipt. The king promised for himself and his successors, not to make any change in the coin in future.

What is promising for himself and his heirs? Either it is promising nothing, or it is saying: Neither myself nor my heirs have the right of altering the money; we have not the power of doing ill.

With this money, which was soon raised, an army was quickly formed, which prevented not King John from being made prisoner at the battle of Poitiers.

Account should be rendered at the end of the year, of the employment of the granted sum. This is now the custom in England, with the House of Commons. The English nation has preserved all that the French nation has lost.

The states-general of Sweden have a custom still more honorable to humanity, which is not found among any other people. They admit into their assemblies two hundred peasants, who form a body separated from the three others, and who maintain the liberty of those who labor for the subsistence of man.

The states-general of Denmark took quite a contrary resolution in 1660; they deprived themselves of all their rights, in favor of the king. They gave him an absolute and unlimited power; but what is more strange is, that they have not hitherto repented it.

The states-general in France have not been assembled since 1613, and the cortes of Spain lasted a hundred years after. The latter were assembled in 1712, to confirm the renunciation of Philip V., of the crown of France. These states-general have not been convoked since that time.

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