Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

In a country where all the inhabitants went bare-footed, could luxury be imputed to the first man who made a pair of shoes for himself? Or rather, was he not a man of sense and industry?

Is it not just the same with him who procured the first shirt? With respect to the man who had it washed and ironed, I consider him as an absolute genius, abundant in resources, and qualified to govern a state. Those however who were not used to wear clean shirts, considered him as a rich, effeminate coxcomb who was likely to corrupt the nation.

“Beware of luxury,” said Cato to the Romans; “you have conquered the province of Phasis, but never eat any pheasants. You have subjugated the country in which cotton grows; still however continue to sleep on the bare ground. You have plundered the gold, and silver, and jewels of innumerable nations, but never become such fools as to use them. After taking everything, remain destitute of everything. Highway robbers should be virtuous and free.”

Lucullus replied, “You should rather wish, my good friend, that Crassus, and Pompey, and Cæsar, and myself should spend all that we have taken in luxury. Great robbers must fight about the division of the spoil; but Rome will inevitably be enslaved, and it will be enslaved by one or other of us much more speedily, and much more securely, if we place that value upon money that you do, than if we spend it in superfluities and pleasures. Wish that Pompey and Cæsar may so far impoverish themselves as not to have money enough to pay the armies.”

Not long since a Norwegian was upbraiding a Dutchman with luxury. “Where now,” says he, “are the happy times when a merchant, quitting Amsterdam for the great Indies, left a quarter of smoked beef in his kitchen and found it untouched on his return? Where are your wooden spoons and iron forks? Is it not shameful for a sensible Dutchman to sleep in a bed of damask?”

“Go to Batavia,” replied the Amsterdammer; “gain, as I have done, ten tons of gold; and then see if you have not some inclination to be well clothed, well fed, and well lodged.”

Since this conversation, twenty volumes have been written about luxury, and these books have neither increased nor diminished it.

§ II.

Luxury has been declaimed against for the space of two thousand years, both in verse and prose; and yet it has been always liked.

What has not been said of the Romans? When, in the earlier periods of their history, these banditti ravaged and carried off their neighbor’s harvests; when, in order to augment their own wretched village, they destroyed the poor villages of the Volsci and Samnites, they were, we are told, men disinterested and virtuous. They could not as yet, be it remembered, carry away gold, and silver; and jewels, because the towns which they sacked and plundered had none; nor did their woods and swamps produce partridges or pheasants; yet people, forsooth, extol their temperance!

When, by a succession of violences, they had pillaged and robbed every country from the recesses of the Adriatic to the Euphrates, and had sense enough to enjoy the fruit of their rapine; when they cultivated the arts, and tasted all the pleasures of life, and communicated them also to the nations which they conquered; then, we are told, they ceased to be wise and good.

All such declamations tend just to prove this — that a robber ought not to eat the dinner he has taken, nor wear the habit he has stolen, nor ornament his finger with the ring he has plundered from another. All this, it is said, should be thrown into the river, in order to live like good people; but how much better would it be to say, never rob — it is your duty not to rob? Condemn the brigands when they plunder; but do not treat them as fools or madmen for enjoying their plunder. After a number of English sailors have obtained their prize money for the capture of Pondicherry, or Havana, can they be blamed for purchasing a little pleasure in London, in return for the labor and pain they have suffered in the uncongenial climes of Asia or America?

The declaimers we have mentioned would wish men to bury the riches that might be accumulated by the fortune of war, or by agriculture, commerce, and industry in general. They cite Lacedæmon; why do they not also cite the republic of San Marino? What benefit did Sparta do to Greece? Had she ever a Demosthenes, a Sophocles, an Apelles, or a Phidias? The luxury of Athens formed great men of every description. Sparta had certainly some great captains, but even these in a smaller number than other cities. But allowing that a small republic like Lacedæmon may maintain its poverty, men uniformly die, whether they are in want of everything, or enjoying the various means of rendering life agreeable. The savage of Canada subsists and attains old age, as well as the English citizen who has fifty thousand guineas a year. But who will ever compare the country of the Iroquois to England?

Let the republic of Ragusa and the canton of Zug enact sumptuary laws; they are right in so doing. The poor must not expend beyond their means; but I have somewhere read, that if partially injurious, luxury benefits a great nation upon the whole.

Sachez surtout que le luxe enrichit

Un grand état, s’il en perd un petit.

If by luxury you mean excess, we know that excess is universally pernicious, in abstinence as well as gluttony, in parsimony or profusion. I know not how it has happened, that in my own village, where the soil is poor and meagre, the imposts heavy, and the prohibition against a man’s exporting the corn he has himself sown and reaped, intolerable, there is hardly a single cultivator who is not well clothed, and who has not an ample supply of warmth and food. Should this cultivator go to plough in his best clothes and with his hair dressed and powdered, there would in that case exist the greatest and most absurd luxury; but were a wealthy citizen of Paris or London to appear at the play in the dress of this peasant, he would exhibit the grossest and most ridiculous parsimony.

Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines,

Quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.

— Horace, i. sat. i. v. 106.

Some certain mean in all things may be found,

To mark our virtues, and our vices, bound.

— Francis.

On the invention of scissors, which are certainly not of the very highest antiquity, what was not said of those who pared their nails and cut off some of their hair that was hanging down over their noses? They were undoubtedly considered as prodigals and coxcombs, who bought at an extravagant price an instrument just calculated to spoil the work of the Creator. What an enormous sin to pare the horn which God Himself made to grow at our fingers’ ends! It was absolutely an insult to the Divine Being Himself. When shirts and socks were invented, it was far worse. It is well known with what wrath and indignation the old counsellors, who had never worn socks, exclaimed against the young magistrates who encouraged so dreadful and fatal a luxury.

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