Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is said that this word is derived from the Latin word plaga, and that it signifies the condemnation to the scourge of those who sold freemen for slaves. This has nothing in common with the plagiarism of authors, who sell not men either enslaved or free. They only for a little money occasionally sell themselves.

When an author sells the thoughts of another man for his own, the larceny is called plagiarism. All the makers of dictionaries, all compilers who do nothing else than repeat backwards and forwards the opinions, the errors, the impostures, and the truths already printed, we may term plagiarists, but honest plagiarists, who arrogate not the merit of invention. They pretend not even to have collected from the ancients the materials which they get together; they only copy the laborious compilers of the sixteenth century. They will sell you in quarto that which already exists in folio. Call them if you please bookmakers, not authors; range them rather among second-hand dealers than plagiarists.

The true plagiarist is he who gives the works of another for his own, who inserts in his rhapsodies long passages from a good book a little modified. The enlightened reader, seeing this patch of cloth of gold upon a blanket, soon detects the bungling purloiner.

Ramsay, who after having been a Presbyterian in his native Scotland, an Anglican in London, then a Quaker, and who finally persuaded Fénelon that he was a Catholic, and even pretended a penchant for celestial love — Ramsay, I say, compiled the “Travels of Cyrus,” because his master made his Telemachus travel. So far he only imitated; but in these travels he copies from an old English author, who introduces a young solitary dissecting his dead goat, and arriving at a knowledge of the Deity by the process, which is very much like plagiarism. On conducting Cyrus into Egypt, in describing that singular country, he employs the same expressions as Bossuet, whom he copies word for word without citing; this is plagiarism complete. One of my friends reproached him with this one day; Ramsay replied that he was not aware of it, and that it was not surprising he should think like Fénelon and write like Bossuet. This was making out the adage, “Proud as a Scotsman.”

The most singular of all plagiarism is possibly that of Father Barre, author of a large history of Germany in ten volumes. The history of Charles XII. had just been printed, and he inserted more than two hundred pages of it in his work; making a duke of Lorraine say precisely that which was said by Charles XII.

He attributes to the emperor Arnold that which happened to the Swedish monarch. He relates of the emperor Rudolph that which was said of King Stanislaus. Waldemar, king of Denmark, acts precisely like Charles at Bender, etc.

The most pleasant part of the story is, that a journalist, perceiving this extraordinary resemblance between the two works, failed not to impute the plagiarism to the author of the history of Charles XII., who had composed his work twenty years before the appearance of that of Father Barre. It is chiefly in poetry that plagiarism is allowed to pass; and certainly, of all larcenies, it is that which is least dangerous to society.

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