Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


All these things, which would be useless and impertinent in a state of pure nature, are, in our corrupt and ridiculous state, of great service. Of all nations, the Chinese are those who have carried the use of ceremonies to the greatest length; they certainly serve to calm as well as to weary the mind. The Chinese porters and carters are obliged, whenever they occasion the least hindrance in the streets, to fall on their knees and ask one another’s pardon according to the prescribed formula. This prevents ill language, blows and murders. They have time to grow cool and are then willing to assist one another.

The more free a people are, the fewer ceremonies, the fewer ostentatious titles, the fewer demonstrations of annihilation in the presence of a superior, they possess. To Scipio men said “Scipio”; to Cæsar, “Cæsar”; but in after times they said to the emperors, “your majesty,” “your divinity.”

The titles of St. Peter and St. Paul were “Peter” and “Paul.” Their successors gave one another the title of “your holiness,” which is not to be found in the Acts of the Apostles, nor in the writings of the disciples.

We read in the history of Germany that the dauphin of France, afterwards Charles V., went to the Emperor Charles IV. at Metz and was presented after Cardinal de Périgord.

There has since been a time when chancellors went before cardinals; after which cardinals again took precedence of chancellors.

In France the peers preceded the princes of the blood, going in the order of their creation, until the consecration of Henry III.

The dignity of peer was, until that time, so exalted that at the ceremony of the consecration of Elizabeth, wife to Charles IX., in 1572, described by Simon Bouquet, échevin of Paris, it is said that the queen’s dames and demoiselles having handed to the dame d’honneur the bread, wine and wax, with the silver, for the offering to be presented to the queen by the said dame d’honneur, the said dame d’honneur, being a duchess, commanded the dames to go and carry the offering to the princesses themselves, etc. This dame d’honneur was the wife of the constable Montmorency.

The armchair, the chair with a back, the stool, the right hand and the left were for several ages important political matters. I believe that we owe the ancient etiquette concerning armchairs to the circumstance that our barbarians of ancestors had at most but one in a house, and even this was used only by the sick. In some provinces of Germany and England an armchair is still called a sick-chair.

Long after the times of Attila and Dagobert, when luxury found its way into our courts and the great men of the earth had two or three armchairs in their donjons, it was a noble distinction to sit upon one of these thrones; and a castellain would place among his titles how he had gone half a league from home to pay his court to a count, and how he had been received in an easy-chair.

We see in the Memoirs of Mademoiselle that that august princess passed one-fourth of her life amid the mortal agonies of disputes for the back-chair. Were you to sit in a certain apartment, in a chair, or on a stool, or not to sit at all? Here was enough to involve a whole court in intrigue. Manners are now more easy; ladies may use couches and sofas without occasioning any disturbance in society.

When Cardinal de Richelieu was treating with the English ambassadors for the marriage of Henriette of France with Charles I., the affair was on the point of being broken off on account of a demand made by the ambassadors of two or three steps more towards a door; but the cardinal removed the difficulty by taking to his bed. History has carefully handed down this precious circumstance. I believe that, if it had been proposed to Scipio to get between the sheets to receive the visit of Hannibal, he would have thought the ceremony something like a joke.

For a whole century the order of carriages and taking the wall were testimonials of greatness and the source of pretensions, disputes, and conflicts. To procure the passing of one carriage before another was looked upon as a signal victory. The ambassadors went along the streets as if they were contending for the prize in the circus; and when a Spanish minister had succeeded in making a Portuguese coachman pull up, he sent a courier to Madrid to apprise the king, his master, of this great advantage.

Our histories regale us with fifty pugilistic combats for precedence — as that of the parliament with the bishops’ clerks at the funeral of Henry IV., the chambre des comptes with the parliament in the cathedral when Louis XIII. gave France to the Virgin, the duke of Epernon with the keeper of the seals, Du Vair, in the church of St. Germain. The presidents of the enquêtes buffeted Savare, the doyen of the conseillers de grand’ chambre, to make him quit his place of honor (so much is honor the soul of monarchical governments!), and four archers were obliged to lay hold of the President Barillon, who was beating the poor doyen without mercy. We find no contests like these in the Areopagus, nor in the Roman senate.

In proportion to the barbarism of countries or the weakness of courts, we find ceremony in vogue. True power and true politeness are above vanity. We may venture to believe that the custom will at last be given up which some ambassadors still retain, of ruining themselves in order to go along the streets in procession with a few hired carriages, fresh painted and gilded, and preceded by a few footmen. This is called “making their entry”; and it is a fine joke to make your entry into a town seven or eight months before you arrive.

This important affair of punctilio, which constitutes the greatness of the modern Romans — this science of the number of steps that should be made in showing in a monsignor, in drawing or half drawing a curtain, in walking in a room to the right or to the left — this great art, which neither Fabius nor Cato could ever imagine, is beginning to sink; and the train-bearers to the cardinals complain that everything indicates a decline.

A French colonel, being at Brussels a year after the taking of that place by Marshal de Saxe, and having nothing to do, resolved to go to the town assembly. “It is held at a princess’,” said one to him. “Be it so,” answered the other, “what matters it to me?” “But only princes go there; are you a prince?” “Pshaw!” said the colonel, “they are a very good sort of princes; I had a dozen of them in my anteroom last year, when we had taken the town, and they were very polite.”

In turning over the leaves of “Horace” I observe this line in an epistle to Mæcenas, “Te, dulcis amice revisam.” —“I will come and see you, my good friend.” This Mæcenas was the second person in the Roman Empire; that is, a man of greater power and influence than the greatest monarch of modern Europe.

Looking into the works of Corneille, I observed that in a letter to the great Scuderi, governor of Notre Dame de la Garde, etc., he uses this expression in reference to Cardinal Richelieu: “Monsieur the cardinal, your master and mine.” It is, perhaps, the first time that such language has been applied to a minister, since there have been ministers, kings and flatterers in the world. The same Peter Corneille, the author of “Cinna,” humbly dedicates that work to the Sieur de Montauron, the king’s treasurer, whom in direct terms he compares to Augustus. I regret that he did not give Montauron the title of monseigneur or my lord.

An anecdote is related of an old officer, but little conversant with the precedents and formulas of vanity, who wrote to the Marquis Louvois as plain monsieur, but receiving no answer, next addressed him under the title of monseigneur, still, however, without effect, the unlucky monsieur continuing to rankle in the minister’s heart. He finally directed his letter “to my God, my God Louvois”; commencing it by the words, “my God, my Creator.” Does not all this sufficiently prove that the Romans were magnanimous and modest, and that we are frivolous and vain?

“How d’ye do, my dear friend?” said a duke and peer to a gentleman. “At your service, my dear friend,” replied he; and from that instant his “dear friend” became his implacable enemy. A grandee of Portugal was once conversing with a Spanish hidalgo and addressing him every moment in the terms, “your excellency.” The Castilian as frequently replied, “your courtesy” (vuestra merced), a title bestowed on those who have none by right. The irritated Portuguese in return retorted “your courtesy” on the Spaniard, who then called the Portuguese “your excellency.” The Portuguese, at length wearied out, demanded, “How is it that you always call me your courtesy, when I call you your excellency, and your excellency when I call you your courtesy?” “The reason is,” says the Castilian with a bow, “that all titles are equal to me, provided that there is nothing equal between you and me.”

The vanity of titles was not introduced into our northern climes of Europe till the Romans had become acquainted with Asiatic magnificence. The greater part of the sovereigns of Asia were, and still are, cousins german of the sun and the moon; their subjects dare not make any pretension to such high affinity; and many a provincial governor, who styles himself “nutmeg of consolation” and “rose of delight” would be empaled alive if he were to claim the slightest relationship to the sun and moon.

Constantine was, I think, the first Roman emperor who overwhelmed Christian humility in a page of pompous titles. It is true that before his time the emperors bore the title of god, but the term implied nothing similar to what we understand by it. Divus Augustus, Divus Trajanus, meant St. Augustus, St. Trajan. It was thought only conformable to the dignity of the Roman Empire that the soul of its chief should, after his death, ascend to heaven; and it frequently even happened that the title of saint, of god, was granted to the emperor by a sort of anticipated inheritance. Nearly for the same reason the first patriarchs of the Christian church were all called “your holiness.” They were thus named to remind them of what in fact they ought to be.

Men sometimes take upon themselves very humble titles, provided they can obtain from others very honorable ones. Many an abbé who calls himself brother exacts from his monks the title of monseigneur. The pope styles himself “servant of the servants of God.” An honest priest of Holstein once addressed a letter “to Pius IV., servant of the servants of God.” He afterwards went to Rome to urge his suit, and the inquisition put him in prison to teach him how to address letters.

Formerly the emperor alone had the title of majesty. Other sovereigns were called your highness, your serenity, your grace. Louis XI. was the first in France who was generally called majesty, a title certainly not less suitable to the dignity of a powerful hereditary kingdom than to an elective principality. But long after him the term highness was applied to kings of France; and some letters to Henry III. are still extant in which he is addressed by that title. The states of Orleans objected to Queen Catherine de Medici being called majesty. But this last denomination gradually prevailed. The name is indifferent; it is the power alone that is not so.

The German chancery, ever unchangeable in its stately formalities, has pretended down to our own times that no kings have a right to a higher title than serenity. At the celebrated treaty of Westphalia, in which France and Sweden dictated the law to the holy Roman Empire, the emperor’s plenipotentiaries continually presented Latin memorials, in which “his most sacred imperial majesty” negotiated with the “most serene kings of France and Sweden”; while, on the other hand, the French and Swedes fail not to declare that their “sacred majesties of France and Sweden” had many subjects of complaint against the “most serene emperor.” Since that period, however, the great sovereigns have, in regard to rank, been considered as equals, and he alone who beats his neighbor is adjudged to have the pre-eminence.

Philip II. was the first majesty in Spain, for the serenity of Charles V. was converted into majesty only on account of the empire. The children of Philip II. were the first highnesses; and afterwards they were royal highnesses. The duke of Orleans, brother of Louis XIII., did not take up the title of royal highness till 1631; then the prince of Condé claimed that the most serene highness, which the Dukes de Vendôme did not venture to assume. The duke of Savoy, at that time royal highness, afterwards substituted majesty. The grand duke of Florence did the same, excepting as to majesty; and finally the czar, who was known in Europe only as the grand duke, declared himself emperor, and was recognized as such.

Formerly there were only two marquises in Germany, two in France and two in Italy. The marquis of Brandenburg has become a king, and a great king. But at present our Italian and French marquises are of a somewhat different species.

If an Italian citizen has the honor of giving a dinner to the legate of his province, and the legate, when drinking, says to him, “Monsieur le marquis, to your good health,” he suddenly becomes a marquis, he and his heirs after him, forever. If the inhabitant of any province of France, whose whole estate consists of a quarter part of a little decayed castle-ward, goes to Paris, makes something of a fortune, or carries the air of having made one, he is styled in the deeds and legal instruments in which he is concerned “high and mighty seigneur, marquis and count,” and his son will be denominated by his notary “very high and very mighty seigneur,” and as this frivolous ambition is in no way injurious to government or civil society, it is permitted to take its course. Some French lords boast of employing German barons in their stables; some German lords say they have French marquises in their kitchens; it is not a long time since a foreigner at Naples made his coachman a duke. Custom in these cases has more power than royal authority. If you are but little known at Paris, you may there be a count or a marquis as long as you please; if you are connected with the law of finance, though the king should confer on you a real marquisate, you will not, therefore, be monsieur le marquis. The celebrated Samuel Bernard was, in truth, more a count than five hundred such as we often see not possessing four acres of land. The king had converted his estate of Coubert into a fine county; yet if on any occasion he had ordered himself to be announced as Count Bernard, etc., he would have excited bursts of laughter. In England it is different; if the king confers the title of earl or baron on a merchant, all classes address him with the designation suitable to it without the slightest hesitation. By persons of the highest birth, by the king himself, he is called my lord. It is the same in Italy; there is a register kept there of monsignori. The pope himself addresses them under that title; his physician is monsignor, and no one objects.

In France the title of monseigneur or my lord is a very serious business. Before the time of Cardinal Richelieu a bishop was only “a most reverend father in God.”

Before the year 1635 bishops did not only not assume the title of monseigneur themselves, but they did not even give it to cardinals. These two customs were introduced by a bishop of Chartres, who, in full canonicals of lawn and purple, went to call Cardinal Richelieu monseigneur, on which occasion Louis XIII. observed that “Chartrain would not mind saluting the cardinal au derrière.

It is only since that period that bishops have mutually applied to each other the title of monseigneur.

The public made no objection to this application of it; but, as it was a new title, not conferred on bishops by kings, they continued to be called sieurs in edicts, declarations, ordinances and all official documents; and when the council wrote to a bishop they gave him no higher title than monsieur.

The dukes and peers have encountered more difficulty in acquiring possession of the title of monseigneur. The grande noblesse, and what is called the grand robe, decidedly refuse them that distinction. The highest gratification of human pride consists in a man’s receiving titles of honor from those who conceive themselves his equals; but to attain this is exceedingly difficult; pride always finds pride to contend with.

When the dukes insisted on receiving the title of monseigneur from the class of gentlemen, the presidents of the parliaments required the same from advocates and proctors. A certain president actually refused to be bled because his surgeon asked: “In which arm will you be bled, monsieur?” An old counsellor treated this matter somewhat more gayly. A pleader was saying to him, “Monseigneur, monsieur, your secretary” . . . . He stopped him short: “You have uttered three blunders,” says he, “in as many words. I am not monseigneur; my secretary is not monsieur; he is my clerk.”

To put an end to this grand conflict of vanity it will eventually be found necessary to give the title of monseigneur to every individual in the nation; as women, who were formerly content with mademoiselle, are now to be called madame. In Spain, when a mendicant meets a brother beggar, he thus accosts him: “Has your courtesy taken chocolate?” This politeness of language elevates the mind and keeps up the dignity of the species. Cæsar and Pompey were called in the senate Cæsar and Pompey. But these men knew nothing of life. They ended their letters with vale — adieu. We, who possess more exalted notions, were sixty years ago “affectionate servants”; then “very humble and very obedient”; and now we “have the honor to be” so. I really grieve for posterity, which will find it extremely difficult to add to these very beautiful formulas. The Duke d’Épernon, the first of Gascons in pride, though far from being the first of statesmen, wrote on his deathbed to Cardinal Richelieu and ended his letter with: “Your very humble and very obedient.” Recollecting, however, that the cardinal had used only the phrase “very affectionate,” he despatched an express to bring back the letter (for it had been actually sent off), began it anew, signed “very affectionate,” and died in the bed of honor.

We have made many of these observations elsewhere. It is well, however, to repeat them, were it only to correct some pompous peacocks, who would strut away their lives in contemptibly displaying their plumes and their pride.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01