Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

Of the Meaning of These Words.

Great is one of those words which are most frequently used in a moral sense, and with the least consideration and judgment. Great man, great genius, great captain, great philosopher, great poet; we mean by this language “one who has far exceeded ordinary limits.” But, as it is difficult to define those limits, the epithet “great” is often applied to those who possess only mediocrity.

This term is less vague and doubtful when applied to material than to moral subjects. We know what is meant by a great storm, a great misfortune, a great disease, great property, great misery.

The term “large” (gros) is sometimes used with respect to subjects of the latter description, that is, material ones, as equivalent to great, but never with respect to moral subjects. We say large property for great wealth, but not a large captain for a great captain, or a large minister for a great minister. Great financier means a man eminently skilful in matters of national finance; but gros financier expresses merely a man who has become wealthy in the department of finance.

The great man is more difficult to be defined than the great artist. In an art or profession, the man who has far distanced his rivals, or who has the reputation of having done so, is called great in his art, and appears, therefore, to have required merit of only one description in order to obtain this eminence; but the great man must combine different species of merit. Gonsalvo, surnamed the Great Captain, who observed that “the web of honor was coarsely woven,” was never called a great man. It is more easy to name those to whom this high distinction should be refused than those to whom it should be granted. The denomination appears to imply some great virtues. All agree that Cromwell was the most intrepid general, the most profound statesman, the man best qualified to conduct a party, a parliament, or an army, of his day; yet no writer ever gives him the title of great man; because, although he possessed great qualities, he possessed not a single great virtue.

This title seems to fall to the lot only of the small number of men who have been distinguished at once by virtues, exertions, and success. Success is essential, because the man who is always unfortunate is supposed to be so by his own fault.

Great (grand), by itself, expresses some dignity. In Spain it is a high and most distinguishing appellative (grandee) conferred by the king on those whom he wishes to honor. The grandees are covered in the presence of the king, either before speaking to him or after having spoken to him, or while taking their seats with the rest.

Charles the Fifth conferred the privileges of grandeeship on sixteen principal noblemen. That emperor himself afterwards granted the same honors to many others. His successors, each in his turn, have added to the number. The Spanish grandees have long claimed to be considered of equal rank and dignity with the electors and the princes of Italy. At the court of France they have the same honors as peers.

The title of “great” has been always given, in France, to many of the chief officers of the crown — as great seneschal, great master, great chamberlain, great equerry, great pantler, great huntsman, great falconer. These titles were given them to distinguish their pre-eminence above the persons serving in the same departments under them. The distinction is not given to the constable, nor to the chancellor, nor to the marshals, although the constable is the chief of all the household officers, the chancellor the second person in the state, and the marshal the second officer in the army. The reason obviously is, that they had no deputies, no vice-constables, vice-marshals, vice-chancellors, but officers under another denomination who executed their orders, while the great steward, great chamberlain, and great equerry, etc., had stewards, chamberlains, and equerries under them.

Great (grand) in connection with seigneur, “great lord,” has a signification more extensive and uncertain. We give this title of “grand seigneur” (seignor) to the Turkish sultan, who assumes that of pasha, to which the expression grand seignor does not correspond. The expression “un grand,” a “great man,” is used in speaking of a man of distinguished birth, invested with dignities, but it is used only by the common people. A person of birth or consequence never applies the term to any one. As the words “great lord” (grand seigneur) are commonly applied to those who unite birth, dignity, and riches, poverty seems to deprive a man of the right to it, or at least to render it inappropriate or ridiculous. Accordingly, we say a poor gentleman, but not a poor grand seigneur.

Great (grand) is different from mighty (puissant). A man may at the same time be both one and the other, but puissant implies the possession of some office of power and consequence. “Grand” indicates more show and less reality; the “puissant” commands, the “grand” possesses honors.

There is greatness (grandeur) in mind, in sentiments, in manners, and in conduct. The expression is not used in speaking of persons in the middling classes of society, but only of those who, by their rank, are bound to show nobility and elevation. It is perfectly true that a man of the most obscure birth and connections may have more greatness of mind than a monarch. But it would be inconsistent with the usual phraseology to say, “that merchant or that farmer acted greatly” (avec grandeur); unless, indeed, in very particular circumstances, and placing certain characters in striking opposition, we should, for example, make such a remark as the following: “The celebrated merchant who entertained Charles the Fifth in his own house, and lighted a fire of cinnamon wood with that prince’s bond to him for fifty thousand ducats, displayed more greatness of soul than the emperor.”

The title of “greatness” (grandeur) was formerly given to various persons possessing stations of dignity. French clergymen, when writing to bishops, still call them “your greatness.” Those titles, which are lavished by sycophancy and caught at by vanity, are now little used.

Haughtiness is often mistaken for greatness (grandeur). He who is ostentatious of greatness displays vanity. But one becomes weary and exhausted with writing about greatness. According to the lively remark of Montaigne, “we cannot obtain it, let us therefore take our revenge by abusing it.”

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