Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

VIRTUE.

§ I.

It is said of Marcus Brutus, that before killing himself, he pronounced these words: “Oh, Virtue! I believed that thou wert something, but thou art only a vile phantom!”

Thou wast right, Brutus, if thou madest virtue consist in being the chief of a party, and the assassin of thy benefactor, of thy father, Julius Cæsar. Hadst thou made virtue to consist only in doing good to those who depended on thee, thou wouldst not have called it a phantom, or have killed thyself in despair.

I am very virtuous, says a miserable excrement of theology. I possess the four cardinal virtues, and the three theological ones. An honest man asks him: What are the cardinal virtues? The other answers: They are fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice.

honest man.

If thou art just, thou hast said all. Thy fortitude, prudence, and temperance are useful qualities: if thou possessest them, so much the better for thee; but if thou art just, so much the better for others. It is not sufficient to be just, thou shouldst be beneficent; this is being truly cardinal. And thy theological virtues, what are they?

theologian.

Faith, hope, and charity.

honest man.

Is there virtue in believing? If that which thou believest seems to thee to be true, there is no merit in believing it; if it seems to thee to be false, it is impossible for thee to believe it.

Hope should no more be a virtue than fear; we fear and we hope, according to what is promised or threatened us. As to charity, is it not that which the Greeks and Romans understood by humanity — love of your neighbor? This love is nothing, if it does not act; beneficence is therefore the only true virtue.

theologian.

What a fool! Yes, truly, I shall trouble myself to serve men, if I get nothing in return! Every trouble merits payment. I pretend to do no good action, except to insure myself paradise.

Quis enim virtutem amplectitur, ipsam

Præmia si tollas?

— Juvenal, sat. x.

For, if the gain you take away,

To virtue who will homage pay!

honest man.

Ah, good sir, that is to say, that if you did not hope for paradise, or fear hell, you would never do a good action. You quote me lines from Juvenal, to prove to me that you have only your interest in view. Racine could at least show you, that even in this world we might find our recompense, while waiting for a better:

Quel plaisir de penser, et de dire en vous-même,

Partout en ce moment on me bénit, on m’aime!

On ne voit point le peuple à mon nom s’alarmer;

Le ciel dans tous leurs pleurs ne m’entend point nommer,

Leur sombre inimitie ne fuit point mon visage;

Je vois voler partout les cœurs à mon passage.

Tels étaient vos plaisirs.

— Racine, Britannicus, act iv, sc. ii.

How great his pleasure who can justly say,

All at this moment either bless or love me;

The people at my name betray no fear,

Nor in their plaints does heaven e’er hear of me!

Their enmity ne’er makes them fly my presence,

But every heart springs out at my approach!

Such were your pleasures!

Believe me, doctor, there are two things which deserve to be loved for themselves — God and Virtue.

theologian.

Ah, sir! you are a Fénelonist.

honest man.

Yes, doctor.

theologian.

I will inform against you at the tribunal of Meaux.

honest man.

Go, and inform!

§ II.

What is virtue? Beneficence towards your neighbor. Can I call virtue anything but that which does good! I am indigent, thou art liberal. I am in danger, thou succorest me. I am deceived, thou tellest me the truth. I am neglected, thou consolest me. I am ignorant, thou teachest me. I can easily call thee virtuous, but what will become of the cardinal and theological virtues? Some will remain in the schools.

What signifies it to me whether thou art temperate? It is a precept of health which thou observest; thou art the better for it; I congratulate thee on it. Thou hast faith and hope; I congratulate thee still more; they will procure thee eternal life. Thy theological virtues are celestial gifts; thy cardinal ones are excellent qualities, which serve to guide thee; but they are not virtues in relation to thy neighbor. The prudent man does himself good; the virtuous one does it to other men. St. Paul was right in telling thee, that charity ranks above faith and hope.

But how! wilt thou admit of no other virtues than those which are useful to thy neighbor? How can I admit any others? We live in society; there is therefore nothing truly good for us but that which does good to society. An hermit will be sober, pious, and dressed in sackcloth: very well; he will be holy; but I will not call him virtuous until he shall have done some act of virtue by which men may have profited. While he is alone, he is neither beneficent nor the contrary; he is nobody to us. If St. Bruno had made peace in families, if he had assisted the indigent, he had been virtuous; having fasted and prayed in solitude, he is only a saint. Virtue between men is a commerce of good actions: he who has no part in this commerce, must not be reckoned. If this saint were in the world, he would doubtless do good, but while he is not in the world, we have no reason to give him the name of virtuous: he will be good for himself, and not for us.

But, say you, if an hermit is gluttonous, drunken, given up to a secret debauch with himself, he is vicious; he is therefore virtuous, if he has the contrary qualities. I cannot agree to this: he is a very vile man, if he has the faults of which you speak; but he is not vicious, wicked, or punishable by society, to which his infamies do no harm. It may be presumed, that if he re-enters society, he will do evil to it; he then will be very vicious; and it is even more probable that he will be a wicked man, than it is certain that the other temperate and chaste hermit will be a good man; for in society faults augment, and good qualities diminish.

A much stronger objection is made to me: Nero, Pope Alexander VI., and other monsters of the kind, have performed good actions. I reply boldly, that they were virtuous at the time. Some theologians say, that the divine Emperor Antoninus was not virtuous; that he was an infatuated Stoic, who, not content with commanding men, would further be esteemed by them; that he gave himself credit for the good which he did to mankind; that he was all his life just, laborious, beneficent, through vanity; and that he only deceived men by his virtues. To which I exclaim: My God! often send us such knaves!

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