Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


What was the origin of this custom? Has it existed since drinking commenced? It appears natural to drink wine for our own health, but not for the health of others.

The “propino” of the Greeks, adopted by the Romans, does not signify “I drink to your good health,” but “I drink first that you may drink afterwards”— I invite you to drink.

In their festivals they drink to celebrate a mistress, not that she might have good health. See in Martial: “Naevia sex cyathis, septem Justina bibatur.” —“Six cups for Naevia, for Justina seven.”

The English, who pique themselves upon renewing several ancient customs, drink to the honor of the ladies, which they call toasting, and it is a great subject of dispute among them whether a lady is toastworthy or not — whether she is worthy to be toasted.

They drank at Rome for the victories of Augustus, and for the return of his health. Dion Cassius relates that after the battle of Actium the senate decreed that, in their repasts, libations should be made to him in the second service. It was a strange decree. It is more probable that flattery had voluntarily introduced this meanness. Be it as it may, we read in Horace:

Hinc ad vina redit lætus, et alteris

Te mensis adhibet Deum,

Te multa prece; te prosequitur nero

Defuso pateris; et labiis tuum

Miscet numen; uti Graecia Castoris

Et magni nemore Herculis.

Longas o utinam, dux bone ferias

Praestes Hesperiae; dicimus integro

Sicci mane die, dicimus uvidi,

Quum sol oceano subest.

To thee he chants the sacred song,

 To thee the rich libation pours;

Thee placed his household gods among,

 With solemn daily prayer adores;

So Castor and great Hercules of old

Were with her gods by graceful Greece enrolled.

Gracious and good, beneath thy reign

 May Rome her happy hours employ,

And grateful hail thy just domain

 With pious hymn and festal joy.

Thus, with the rising sun we sober pray,

Thus, in our wine beneath his setting ray.

It is very likely that hence the custom arose among barbarous nations of drinking to the health of their guests, an absurd custom, since we may drink four bottles without doing them the least good.

The dictionary of Trévous tells us that we should not drink to the health of our superiors in their presence. This may be the case in France or Germany, but in England it is a received custom. The distance is not so great from one man to another at London as at Vienna.

It is of importance in England to drink to the health of a prince who pretends to the throne; it is to declare yourself his partisan. It has cost more than one Scotchman and Hibernian dear for having drank to the health of the Stuarts.

All the Whigs, after the death of King William, drank not to his health, but to his memory. A Tory named Brown, bishop of Cork in Ireland, a great enemy to William in Ireland, said, “that he would put a cork in all those bottles which were drunk to the glory of this monarch.” He did not stop at this silly pun; he wrote, in 1702, an episcopal address to show the Irish that it was an atrocious impiety to drink to the health of kings, and, above all, to their memory; that the latter, in particular, is a profanation of these words of Jesus Christ: “Drink this in remembrance of me.”

It is astonishing that this bishop was not the first who conceived such a folly. Before him, the Presbyterian Prynne had written a great book against the impious custom of drinking to the health of Christians.

Finally, there was one John Geza, vicar of the parish of St. Faith, who published “The Divine Potion to Preserve Spiritual Health, by the Cure of the Inveterate Malady of Drinking Healths; with Clear and Solid Arguments against this Criminal Custom, all for the Satisfaction of the Public, at the Request of a Worthy Member of Parliament, in the Year of Our Salvation 1648.”

Our reverend Father Garasse, our reverend Father Patouillet, and our reverend Father Nonnotte are nothing superior to these profound Englishmen. We have a long time wrestled with our neighbors for the superiority — To which is it due?

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