Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The policy of man consists, at first, in endeavoring to arrive at a state equal to that of animals, whom nature has furnished with food, clothing, and shelter. To attain this state is a matter of no little time and difficulty. How to procure for himself subsistence and accommodation, and protect himself from evil, comprises the whole object and business of man.

This evil exists everywhere; the four elements of nature conspire to form it. The barrenness of one-quarter part of the world, the numberless diseases to which we are subject, the multitude of strong and hostile animals by which we are surrounded, oblige us to be constantly on the alert in body and in mind, to guard against the various forms of evil.

No man, by his own individual care and exertion, can secure himself from evil; he requires assistance. Society therefore is as ancient as the world. This society consists sometimes of too many, and sometimes of too few. The vicissitudes of the world have often destroyed whole races of men and other animals, in many countries, and have multiplied them in others.

To enable a species to multiply, a tolerable climate and soil are necessary; and even with these advantages, men may be under the necessity of going unclothed, of suffering hunger, of being destitute of everything, and of perishing in misery.

Men are not like beavers, or bees, or silk-worms; they have no sure and infallible instinct which procures for them necessaries. Among a hundred men, there is scarcely one that possesses genius; and among women, scarcely one among five hundred.

It is only by means of genius that those arts are invented, which eventually furnish something of that accommodation which is the great object of all policy.

To attempt these arts with success, the assistance of others is requisite; hands to aid you, and minds sufficiently acute and unprejudiced to comprehend you, and sufficiently docile to obey you. Before, however, all this can be discovered and brought together, thousands of years roll on in ignorance and barbarism; thousands of efforts for improvement terminate only in abortion. At length, the outlines of an art are formed, but thousands of ages are still requisite to carry it to perfection.

Foreign Policy.

When any one nation has become acquainted with metallurgy, it will certainly beat its neighbors and make slaves of them. You possess arrows and sabres, and were born in a climate that has rendered you robust. We are weak, and have only clubs and stones. You kill us, or if you permit us to live, it is that we may till your fields and build your houses. We sing some rustic ditty to dissipate your spleen or animate your languor, if we have any voice; or we blow on some pipes, in order to obtain from you clothing and bread. If our wives and daughters are handsome, you appropriate them without scruple to yourselves. The young gentleman, your son, not only takes advantage of the established policy, but adds new discoveries to this growing art. His servants proceed, by his orders, to emasculate my unfortunate boys, whom he then honors with the guardianship of his wives and mistresses. Such has been policy, the great art of making mankind contribute to individual advantage and enjoyment; and such is still policy throughout the largest portion of Asia.

Some nations, or rather hordes, having thus by superior strength and skill brought into subjection others, begin afterwards to fight with one another for the division of the spoil. Each petty nation maintains and pays soldiers. To encourage, and at the same time to control these soldiers, each possesses its gods, its oracles, and prophecies; each maintains and pays its soothsayers and slaughtering priests. These soothsayers or augurs begin with prophesying in favor of the heads of the nation; they afterwards prophesy for themselves and obtain a share in the government. The most powerful and shrewd prevail at last over the others, after ages of carnage which excite our horror, and of impostures which excite our laughter. Such is the regular course and completion of policy.

While these scenes of ravage and fraud are carried on in one portion of the globe, other nations, or rather clans, retire to mountain caverns, or districts surrounded by inaccessible swamps, marshes, or some verdant and solitary spot in the midst of vast deserts of burning sand, or some peninsular and consequently easily protected territory, to secure themselves against the tyrants of the continent. At length all become armed with nearly the same description of weapons; and blood flows from one extremity of the world to the other.

Men, however, cannot forever go on killing one another; and peace is consequently made, till either party thinks itself sufficiently strong to recommence the war. Those who can write draw up these treaties of peace; and the chiefs of every nation, with a view more successfully to impose upon their enemies, invoke the gods to attest with what sincerity they bind themselves to the observance of these compacts. Oaths of the most solemn character are invented and employed, and one party engages in the name of the great Somonocodom, and the other in that of Jupiter the Avenger, to live forever in peace and amity; while in the same names of Somonocodom and Jupiter, they take the first opportunity of cutting one another’s throats.

In times of the greatest civilization and refinement, the lion of Æsop made a treaty with three animals, who were his neighbors. The object was to divide the common spoil into four equal parts. The lion, for certain incontestable and satisfactory reasons which he did not then deem it necessary to detail, but which he would be always ready to give in due time and place, first takes three parts out of the four for himself, and then threatens instant strangulation to whoever shall dare to touch the fourth. This is the true sublime of policy.

Internal Policy.

The object here is to accumulate for our own country the greatest quantity of power, honor, and enjoyment possible. To attain these in any extraordinary degree, much money is indispensable. In a democracy it is very difficult to accomplish this object. Every citizen is your rival; a democracy can never subsist but in a small territory. You may have wealth almost equal to your wishes through your own mercantile dealings, or transmitted in patrimony from your industrious and opulent grandfather; your fortune will excite jealousy and envy, but will purchase little real co-operation and service. If an affluent family ever bears sway in a democracy, it is not for a long time.

In an aristocracy, honors, pleasures, power, and money, are more easily obtainable. Great discretion, however, is necessary. If abuse is flagrant, revolution will be the consequence. Thus in a democracy all the citizens are equal. This species of government is at present rare, and appears to but little advantage, although it is in itself natural and wise. In aristocracy, inequality or superiority makes itself sensibly felt; but the less arrogant its demeanor, the more secure and successful will be its course.

Monarchy remains to be mentioned. In this, all mankind are made for one individual: he accumulates all honors with which he chooses to decorate himself, tastes all pleasures to which he feels an inclination, and exercises a power absolutely without control; provided, let it be remembered, that he has plenty of money. If he is deficient in that, he will be unsuccessful at home as well as abroad, and will soon be left destitute of power, pleasures, honors, and perhaps even of life.

While this personage has money, not only is he successful and happy himself, but his relations and principal servants are flourishing in full enjoyment also; and an immense multitude of hirelings labor for them the whole year round, in the vain hope that they shall themselves, some time or other, enjoy in their cottages the leisure and comfort which their sultans and pashas enjoy in their harems. Observe, however, what will probably happen.

A jolly, full-fed farmer was formerly in possession of a vast estate, consisting of fields, meadows, vineyards, orchards, and forests. A hundred laborers worked for him, while he dined with his family, drank his wine, and went to sleep. His principal domestics, who plundered him, dined next, and ate up nearly everything. Then came the laborers, for whom there was left only a very meagre and insufficient meal. They at first murmured, then openly complained, speedily lost all patience, and at last ate up the dinner prepared for their master, and turned him out of his house. The master said they were a set of scoundrels, a pack of undutiful and rebellious children who assaulted and abused their own father. The laborers replied that they had only obeyed the sacred law of nature, which he had violated. The dispute was finally referred to a soothsayer in the neighborhood, who was thought to be actually inspired. The holy man takes the farm into his own hands, and nearly famishes both the laborers and the master; till at length their feelings counteract their superstition, and the saint is in the end expelled in his turn. This is domestic policy.

There have been more examples than one of this description; and some consequences of this species of policy still subsist in all their strength. We may hope that in the course of ten or twelve thousand ages, when mankind become more enlightened, the great proprietors of estates, grown also more wise, will on the one hand treat their laborers rather better, and on the other take care not to be duped by soothsayers.

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