Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Formerly, if you had one friend at Constantinople and another at Moscow, you would have been obliged to wait for their return before you could obtain any intelligence concerning them. At present, without either of you leaving your apartments, you may familiarly converse through the medium of a sheet of paper. You may even despatch to them by the post, one of Arnault’s sovereign remedies for apoplexy, which would be received much more infallibly, probably, than it would cure.

If one of your friends has occasion for a supply of money at St. Petersburg, and the other at Smyrna, the post will completely and rapidly effect your business. Your mistress is at Bordeaux, while you are with your regiment before Prague; she gives you regular accounts of the constancy of her affections; you know from her all the news of the city, except her own infidelities. In short, the post is the grand connecting link of all transactions, of all negotiations. Those who are absent, by its means become present; it is the consolation of life.

France, where this beautiful invention was revived, even in our period of barbarism, has hereby conferred the most important service on all Europe. She has also never in any instance herself marred and tainted so valuable a benefit, and never has any minister who superintended the department of the post opened the letters of any individual, except when it was absolutely necessary that he should know their contents. It is not thus, we are told, in other countries. It is asserted, that in Germany private letters, passing through the territories of five or six different governments, have been read just that number of times, and that at last the seal has been so nearly destroyed that it became necessary to substitute a new one.

Mr. Craggs, secretary of state in England, would never permit any person in his office to open private letters; he said that to do so was a breach of public faith, and that no man ought to possess himself of a secret that was not voluntarily confided to him; that it is often a greater crime to steal a man’s thoughts than his gold; and that such treachery is proportionally more disgraceful, as it may be committed without danger, and without even the possibility of conviction.

To bewilder the eagerness of curiosity and defeat the vigilance of malice, a method was at first invented of writing a part of the contents of letters in ciphers; but the part written in the ordinary hand in this case sometimes served as a key to the rest. This inconvenience led to perfecting the art of ciphers, which is called “stenography.”

Against these enigmatical productions was brought the art of deciphering; but this art was exceedingly defective and inefficient. The only advantage derived from it was exciting the belief in weak and ill-formed minds, that their letters had been deciphered, and all the pleasure it afforded consisted in giving such persons pain. According to the law of probabilities, in a well-constructed cipher there would be two, three, or even four hundred chances against one, that in each mark the decipherer would not discover the syllable of which it was the representative.

The number of chances increases in proportion to the complication of the ciphers; and deciphering is utterly impossible when the system is arranged with any ingenuity. Those who boast that they can decipher a letter, without being at all acquainted with the subject of which it treats, and without any preliminary assistance, are greater charlatans than those who boast, if any such are to be found, of understanding a language which they never learned.

With respect to those who in a free and easy way send you by post a tragedy, in good round hand, with blank leaves, on which you are requested kindly to make your observations, or who in the same way regale you with a first volume of metaphysical researches, to be speedily followed by a second, we may just whisper in their ear that a little more discretion would do no harm, and even that there are some countries where they would run some risk by thus informing the administration of the day that there are such things in the world as bad poets and bad metaphysicians.

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