Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Cicero frequently speaks of universal charity, charitas humani generis; but it does not appear that the policy or the beneficence of the Romans ever induced them to establish charitable institutions, in which the indigent and the sick might be relieved at the expense of the public. There was a receptacle for strangers at the port of Ostia, called Xenodokium, St. Jerome renders this justice to the Romans. Almshouses seem to have been unknown in ancient Rome. A more noble usage prevailed — that of supplying the people with corn. There were in Rome three hundred and twenty-seven public granaries. This constant liberality precluded any need of almshouses. They were strangers to necessity.

Neither was there any occasion among the Romans for founding charities. None exposed their own children. Those of slaves were taken care of by their masters. Childbirth was not deemed disgraceful to the daughters of citizens. The poorest families, maintained by the republic and afterwards by the emperors, saw the subsistence of their children secured.

The expression, “charitable establishment,” maison de charité, implies a state of indigence among modern nations which the form of our governments has not been able to preclude.

The word “hospital,” which recalls that of hospitality, reminds us of a virtue in high estimation among the Greeks, now no longer existing; but it also expresses a virtue far superior. There is a mighty difference between lodging, maintaining, and providing in sickness for all afflicted applicants whatever, and entertaining in your own house two or three travellers by whom you might claim a right to be entertained in return. Hospitality, after all, was but an exchange. Hospitals are monuments of beneficence.

It is true that the Greeks were acquainted with charitable institutions under the name of Xenodokia, for strangers, Nosocomeia, for the sick, and Ptokia, for the indigent. In Diogenes Laertius, concerning Bion, we find this passage: “He suffered much from the indigence of those who were charged with the care of the sick.”

Hospitality among friends was called Idioxenia, and among strangers Proxenia. Hence, the person who received and entertained strangers in his house, in the name of the whole city, was called Proxenos. But this institution appears to have been exceedingly rare. At the present day there is scarcely a city in Europe without its hospitals. The Turks have them even for beasts, which seems to be carrying charity rather too far, it would be better to forget the beasts and think more about men.

This prodigious multitude of charitable establishments clearly proves a truth deserving of all our attention — that man is not so depraved as he is stated to be, and that, notwithstanding all his absurd opinions, notwithstanding all the horrors of war which transform him into a ferocious beast, we have reason to consider him as a creature naturally well disposed and kind, and who, like other animals, becomes vicious only in proportion as he is stung by provocation.

The misfortune is that he is provoked too often.

Modern Rome has almost as many charitable institutions as ancient Rome had triumphal arches and other monuments of conquest. The most considerable of them all is a bank which lends money at two per cent. upon pledge, and sells the property if the borrower does not redeem it by an appointed time. This establishment is called the Archiospedale, or chief hospital. It is said always to contain within its walls nearly two thousand sick, which would be about the fiftieth part of the population of Rome for this one house alone, without including the children brought up, and the pilgrims lodged there. Where are the computations which do not require abatement?

Has it not been actually published at Rome that the hospital of the Trinity had lodged and maintained for three days four hundred and forty thousand five hundred male and twenty-five thousand female pilgrims at the jubilee in 1600? Has not Misson himself told us that the hospital of the Annunciation at Naples possesses a rental of two millions in our money? (About four hundred thousand dollars.)

However, to return, perhaps a charitable establishment for pilgrims who are generally mere vagabonds, is rather an encouragement to idleness than an act of humanity. It is, however, a decisive evidence of humanity that Rome contains fifty charitable establishments including all descriptions. These beneficent institutions are quite as useful and respectable as the riches of some monasteries and chapels are useless and ridiculous.

To dispense food, clothing, medicine, and aid of every kind, to our brethren, is truly meritorious, but what need can a saint have of gold and diamonds? What benefit results to mankind from “our Lady of Loretto” possessing more gorgeous treasures than the Turkish sultan? Loretto is a house of vanity, and not of charity. London, reckoning its charity schools, has as many beneficent establishments as Rome.

The most beautiful monument of beneficence ever erected is the Hôtel des Invalides, founded by Louis XIV.

Of all hospitals, that in which the greatest number of indigent sick are daily received is the Hôtel Dieu of Paris. It frequently contains four or five thousand inmates at a time. It is at once the receptacle of all the dreadful ills to which mankind are subject and the temple of true virtue, which consists in relieving them.

It is impossible to avoid frequently drawing a contrast between a fête at Versailles or an opera at Paris, in which all the pleasures and all the splendors of life are combined with the most exquisite art, and a Hôtel Dieu, where all that is painful, all that is loathsome, and even death itself are accumulated in one mass of horror. Such is the composition of great cities! By an admirable policy pleasures and luxury are rendered subservient to misery and pain. The theatres of Paris pay on an average the yearly sum of a hundred thousand crowns to the hospital. It often happens in these charitable institutions that the inconveniences counterbalance the advantages. One proof of the abuses attached to them is that patients dread the very idea of being removed to them.

The Hôtel Dieu, for example, was formerly well situated, in the middle of the city, near the bishop’s palace. The situation now is very bad, for the city has become overgrown; four or five patients are crowded into every bed, the victim of scurvy communicates it to his neighbor and in return receives from him smallpox, and a pestilential atmosphere spreads incurable disease and death, not only through the building destined to restore men to healthful life but through a great part of the city which surrounds it.

M. de Chamousset, one of the most valuable and active of citizens, has computed, from accurate authorities, that in the Hôtel Dieu, a fourth part of the patients die, an eighth in the hospital of Charity, a ninth in the London hospitals, and a thirtieth in those of Versailles. In the great and celebrated hospital of Lyons, which has long been one of the best conducted in Europe, the average mortality has been found to be only one-fifteenth. It has been often proposed to divide the Hôtel Dieu of Paris into smaller establishments better situated, more airy, and salubrious, but money has been wanting to carry the plan into execution.

Curtae nescio quid semper abest rei.

Money is always to be found when men are to be sent to the frontiers to be destroyed, but when the object is to preserve them it is no longer so. Yet the Hôtel Dieu of Paris has a revenue amounting to more than a million (forty thousand pounds), and every day increasing, and the Parisians have rivalled each other in their endowments of it.

We cannot help remarking in this place that Germain Brice, in his “Description of Paris,” speaking of some legacies bequeathed by the first president, Bellievre, to the hall of the Hôtel Dieu, named St. Charles, says: “Every one ought to read the beautiful inscription, engraved in letters of gold on a grand marble tablet, and composed by Oliver Patru, one of the choicest spirits of his time, some of whose pleadings are extant and in very high esteem.

“Whoever thou art that enterest this sacred place thou wilt almost everywhere behold traces of the charity of the great Pomponne. The gold and silver tapestry and the exquisite furniture which formerly adorned his apartments are now, by a happy metamorphosis, made to minister to the necessities of the sick. That divine man, who was the ornament and delight of his age, even in his conflict with death, considered how he might relieve the afflicted. The blood of Bellievre was manifested in every action of his life. The glory of his embassies is full well known,” etc.

The useful Chamousset did better than Germain Brice, or than Oliver Patru, “one of the choicest spirits of his time.” He offered to undertake at his own expense, backed by a responsible company, the following contract:

The administrators of the Hôtel Dieu estimated the cost of every patient, whether killed or cured, at fifty livres. M. Chamousset and the company offered to undertake the business, on receiving fifty livres on recovery only. The deaths were to be thrown out of the account, of which the expenses were to be borne by himself.

The proposal was so very advantageous that it was not accepted. It was feared that he would not be able to accomplish it. Every abuse attempted to be reformed is the patrimony of those who have more influence than the reformers.

A circumstance no less singular is that the Hôtel Dieu alone has the privilege of selling meat in Lent, for its own advantage and it loses money thereby. M. Chamousset proposed to enter into a contract by which the establishment would gain; his offer was rejected and the butcher, who was thought to have suggested it to him, was dismissed.

Ainsi chez les humains, par un abus fatal,

Le bien le plus parfait est la source du mal.

Thus serious ill, if tainted by abuse,

The noblest works of man will oft produce.

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