Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Though there are few articles of jurisprudence in these honest alphabetical reflections, we must, however, say a word or two on torture, otherwise called “the question”; which is a strange manner of questioning men. They were not, however, the simply curious who invented it; there is every appearance, that this part of our legislation owes its first origin to a highwayman. Most of these gentlemen are still in the habit of screwing thumbs, burning feet, and questioning, by various torments, those who refuse to tell them where they have put their money.

Conquerors having succeeded these thieves, found the invention very useful to their interests; they made use of it when they suspected that there were bad designs against them: as, for example, that of seeking freedom was a crime of high treason, human and divine. The accomplices must be known; and to accomplish it, those who were suspected were made to suffer a thousand deaths, because, according to the jurisprudence of these primitive heroes, whoever was suspected of merely having a disrespectful opinion of them, was worthy of death. As soon as they have thus merited death, it signifies little whether they had frightful torments for several days, and even weeks previously — a practice which savors, I know not how, of the Divinity. Providence sometimes puts us to the torture by employing the stone, gravel, gout, scrofula, leprosy, smallpox; by tearing the entrails, by convulsions of the nerves, and other executors of the vengeance of Providence.

Now, as the first despots were, in the eyes of their courtiers, images of the Divinity, they imitated it as much as they could. What is very singular is, that the question, or torture, is never spoken of in the Jewish books. It is a great pity that so mild, honest, and compassionate a nation knew not this method of discovering the truth. In my opinion, the reason is, that they had no need of it. God always made it known to them as to His cherished people. Sometimes they played at dice to discover the truth, and the suspected culprit always had double sixes. Sometimes they went to the high priest, who immediately consulted God by the urim and thummim. Sometimes they addressed themselves to the seer and prophet; and you may believe that the seer and prophet discovered the most hidden things, as well as the urim and thummim of the high priest. The people of God were not reduced, like ourselves, to interrogating and conjecturing; and therefore torture could not be in use among them, which was the only thing wanting to complete the manners of that holy people. The Romans inflicted torture on slaves alone, but slaves were not considered as men. Neither is there any appearance that a counsellor of the criminal court regards as one of his fellow-creatures, a man who is brought to him wan, pale, distorted, with sunken eyes, long and dirty beard, covered with vermin with which he has been tormented in a dungeon. He gives himself the pleasure of applying to him the major and minor torture, in the presence of a surgeon, who counts his pulse until he is in danger of death, after which they recommence; and as the comedy of the “Plaideurs” pleasantly says, “that serves to pass away an hour or two.”

The grave magistrate, who for money has bought the right of making these experiments on his neighbor, relates to his wife, at dinner, that which has passed in the morning. The first time, madam shudders at it; the second, she takes some pleasure in it, because, after all, women are curious; and afterwards, the first thing she says when he enters is: “My dear, have you tortured anybody to-day?” The French, who are considered, I know not why, a very humane people, are astonished that the English, who have had the inhumanity to take all Canada from us, have renounced the pleasure of putting the question.

When the Chevalier de Barre, the grandson of a lieutenant-general of the army, a young man of much sense and great expectations, but possessing all the giddiness of unbridled youth, was convicted of having sung impious songs, and even of having dared to pass before a procession of Capuchins without taking his hat off, the judges of Abbeville, men comparable to Roman senators, ordered not only that his tongue should be torn out, that his hands should be torn off, and his body burned at a slow fire, but they further applied the torture, to know precisely how many songs he had sung, and how many processions he had seen with his hat on his head.

It was not in the thirteenth or fourteenth century that this affair happened; it was in the eighteenth. Foreign nations judge of France by its spectacles, romances, and pretty verses; by opera girls who have very sweet manners, by opera dancers who possess grace; by Mademoiselle Clairon, who declaims delightfully. They know not that, under all, there is not a more cruel nation than the French. The Russians were considered barbarians in 1700; this is only the year 1769; yet an empress has just given to this great state laws which would do honor to Minos, Numa, or Solon, if they had had intelligence enough to invent them. The most remarkable is universal tolerance; the second is the abolition of torture. Justice and humanity have guided her pen; she has reformed all. Woe to a nation which, being more civilized, is still led by ancient atrocious customs! “Why should we change our jurisprudence?” say we. “Europe is indebted to us for cooks, tailors, and wig-makers; therefore, our laws are good.”

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