Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is worthy of consideration that there have been and still are, upon the earth societies without armies. The Brahmins, who long governed nearly all the great Indian Chersonesus; the primitives, called Quakers, who governed Pennsylvania; some American tribes, some in the centre of Africa, the Samoyeds, the Laplanders, the Kamchadales, have never marched with colors flying to destroy their neighbors.

The Brahmins were the most considerable of all these pacific nations; their caste, which is so ancient, which is still existing, and compared with which all other institutions are quite recent, is a prodigy which cannot be sufficiently admired. Their religion and their policy always concurred in abstaining from the shedding of blood, even of that of the meanest animal. Where such is the régime, subjugation is easy; they have been subjugated, but have not changed.

The Pennsylvanians never had an army; they always held war in abhorrence.

Several of the American tribes did not know what an army was until the Spaniards came to exterminate them all. The people on the borders of the Icy Sea are ignorant alike of armies, of the god of armies, of battalions, and of squadrons.

Besides these populations, the priests and monks do not bear arms in any country — at least when they observe the laws of their institution.

It is only among Christians that there have been religious societies established for the purpose of fighting — as the Knights Templars, the Knights of St. John, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, the Knights Swordbearers. These religious orders were instituted in imitation of the Levites, who fought like the rest of the Jewish tribes.

Neither armies nor arms were the same in antiquity as at present. The Egyptians hardly ever had cavalry. It would have been of little use in a country intersected by canals, inundated during five months of the year, and miry during five more. The inhabitants of a great part of Asia used chariots of war.

They are mentioned in the annals of China. Confucius says that in his time each governor of a province furnished to the emperor a thousand war chariots, each drawn by four horses. The Greeks and Trojans fought in chariots drawn by two horses.

Cavalry and chariots were unknown to the Jews in a mountainous tract, where their first king, when he was elected, had nothing but she-asses. Thirty sons of Jair, princes of thirty cities, according to the text (Judges, x, 4), rode each upon an ass. Saul, afterwards king of Judah, had only she-asses; and the sons of David all fled upon mules when Absalom had slain his brother Amnon. Absalom was mounted on a mule in the battle which he fought against his father’s troops; which proves, according to the Jewish historians, either that mares were beginning to be used in Palestine, or that they were already rich enough there to buy mules from the neighboring country.

The Greeks made but little use of cavalry. It was chiefly with the Macedonian phalanx that Alexander gained the battles which laid Persia at his feet. It was the Roman infantry that subjugated the greater part of the world. At the battle of Pharsalia, Cæsar had but one thousand horsemen.

It is not known at what time the Indians and the Africans first began to march elephants at the head of their armies. We cannot read without surprise of Hannibal’s elephants crossing the Alps, which were much harder to pass then than they are now.

There have long been disputes about the disposition of the Greek and Roman armies, their arms, and their evolutions. Each one has given his plan of the battles of Zama and Pharsalia.

The commentator Calmet, a Benedictine, has printed three great volumes of his “Dictionary of the Bible,” in which, the better to explain God’s commandments, are inserted a hundred engravings, where you see plans of battles and sieges in copperplate. The God of the Jews was the God of armies, but Calmet was not His secretary; he cannot have known, but by revelation, how the armies of the Amalekites, the Moabites, the Syrians, and the Philistines were arranged on the days of general murder. These plates of carnage, designed at a venture, made his book five or six louis dearer, but made it no better.

It is a great question whether the Franks, whom the Jesuit Daniel calls French by anticipation, used bows and arrows in their armies, and whether they had helmets and cuirasses.

Supposing that they went to combat almost naked, and armed, as they are said to have been, with only a small carpenter’s ax, a sword, and a knife, we must infer that the Romans, masters of Gaul, so easily conquered by Clovis, had lost all their ancient valor, and that the Gauls were as willing to be subject to a small number of Franks as to a small number of Romans. Warlike accoutrements have since changed, as everything else changes.

In the days of knights, squires, and varlets, the armed forces of Germany, France, Italy, England, and Spain consisted almost entirely of horsemen, who, as well as their horses, were covered with steel. The infantry performed the functions rather of pioneers than of soldiers. But the English always had good archers among their foot, which contributed, in a great measure, to their gaining almost every battle.

Who would believe that armies nowadays do but make experiments in natural philosophy? A soldier would be much astonished if some learned man were to say to him:

“My friend, you are a better machinist than Archimedes. Five parts of saltpetre, one of sulphur, and one of carbo ligneus have been separately prepared. Your saltpetre dissolved, well filtered, well evaporated, well crystallized, well turned, well dried, has been incorporated with the yellow purified sulphur. These two ingredients, mixed with powdered charcoal, have, by means of a little vinegar, or solution of sal-ammoniac, or urine, formed large balls, which balls have been reduced in pulverem pyrium by a mill. The effect of this mixture is a dilatation, which is nearly as four thousand to unity; and the lead in your barrel exhibits another effect, which is the product of its bulk multiplied by its velocity.

“The first who discovered a part of this mathematical secret was a Benedictine named Roger Bacon. The invention was perfected, in Germany, in the fourteenth century, by another Benedictine named Schwartz. So that you owe to two monks the art of being an excellent murderer, when you aim well, and your powder is good.

“Du Cange has in vain pretended that, in 1338, the registers of the Chambre des Comptes, at Paris, mention a bill paid for gunpowder. Do not believe it. It was artillery which is there spoken of — a name attached to ancient as well as to modern warlike machines.

“Gunpowder entirely superseded the Greek fire, of which the Moors still made use. In fine, you are the depositary of an art, which not only imitates the thunder, but is also much more terrible.”

There is, however, nothing but truth in this speech. Two monks have, in reality, changed the face of the earth.

Before cannon were known, the northern nations had subjugated nearly the whole hemisphere, and could come again, like famishing wolves, to seize upon the lands as their ancestors had done.

In all armies, the victory, and consequently the fate of kingdoms, was decided by bodily strength and agility — a sort of sanguinary fury — a desperate struggle, man to man. Intrepid men took towns by scaling their walls. During the decline of the Roman Empire there was hardly more discipline in the armies of the North than among carnivorous beasts rushing on their prey.

Now a single frontier fortress would suffice to stop the armies of Genghis or Attila. It is not long since a victorious army of Russians were unavailably consumed before Cüstrin, which is nothing more than a little fortress in a marsh.

In battle, the weakest in body may, with well-directed artillery, prevail against the stoutest. At the battle of Fontenoy a few cannon were sufficient to compel the retreat of the whole English column, though it had been master of the field.

The combatants no longer close. The soldier has no longer that ardor, that impetuosity, which is redoubled in the heat of action, when the fight is hand to hand. Strength, skill, and even the temper of the weapons, are useless. Rarely is a charge with the bayonet made in the course of a war, though the bayonet is the most terrible of weapons.

In a plain, frequently surrounded by redoubts furnished with heavy artillery, two armies advance in silence, each division taking with it flying artillery. The first lines fire at one another and after one another: they are victims presented in turn to the bullets. Squadrons at the wings are often exposed to a cannonading while waiting for the general’s orders. They who first tire of this manœuvre, which gives no scope for the display of impetuous bravery, disperse and quit the field; and are rallied, if possible, a few miles off. The victorious enemies besiege a town, which sometimes costs them more men, money, and time than they would have lost by several battles. The progress made is rarely rapid; and at the end of five or six years, both sides, being equally exhausted, are compelled to make peace.

Thus, at all events, the invention of artillery and the new mode of warfare have established among the respective powers an equality which secures mankind from devastations like those of former times, and thereby renders war less fatal in its consequences, though it is still prodigiously so.

The Greeks in all ages, the Romans in the time of Sulla, and the other nations of the west and south, had no standing army; every citizen was a soldier, and enrolled himself in time of war. It is, at this day, precisely the same in Switzerland. Go through the whole country, and you will not find a battalion, except at the time of the reviews. If it goes to war, you all at once see eighty thousand men in arms.

Those who usurped the supreme power after Sulla always had a permanent force, paid with the money of the citizens, to keep the citizens in subjection, much more than to subjugate other nations. The bishop of Rome himself keeps a small army in his pay. Who, in the time of the apostles, would have said that the servant of the servants of God should have regiments, and have them in Rome?

Nothing is so much feared in England as a great standing army. The janissaries have raised the sultans to greatness, but they have also strangled them. The sultans would have avoided the rope, if instead of these large bodies of troops, they had established small ones.

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