Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Prejudice is an opinion without judgment. Thus, throughout the world, children are inspired with opinions before they can judge. There are universal and necessary prejudices, and these even constitute virtue. In all countries, children are taught to acknowledge a rewarding and punishing God; to respect and love their fathers and mothers; to regard theft as a crime, and interested lying as a vice, before they can tell what is a virtue or a vice. Prejudice may, therefore, be very useful, and such as judgment will ratify when we reason.

Sentiment is not simply prejudice, it is something much stronger. A mother loves not her son because she is told that she must love him; she fortunately cherishes him in spite of herself. It is not through prejudice that you run to the aid of an unknown child nearly falling down a precipice, or being devoured by a beast.

But it is through prejudice that you will respect a man dressed in certain clothes, walking gravely, and talking at the same time. Your parents have told you that you must bend to this man; you respect him before you know whether he merits your respect; you grow in age and knowledge; you perceive that this man is a quack, made up of pride, interest, and artifice; you despise that which you revered, and prejudice yields to judgment. Through prejudice, you have believed the fables with which your infancy was lulled: you are told that the Titans made war against the gods, that Venus was amorous of Adonis; at twelve years of age you take these fables for truth; at twenty, you regard them as ingenious allegories.

Let us examine, in a few words, the different kinds of prejudices, in order to arrange our ideas. We shall perhaps be like those who, in the time of the scheme of Law, perceived that they had calculated upon imaginary riches.

Prejudices of the Senses.

Is it not an amusing thing, that our eyes always deceive us, even when we see very well, and that on the contrary our ears do not? When your properly-formed ear hears: “You are beautiful; I love you,” it is very certain that the words are not: “I hate you; you are ugly;” but you see a smooth mirror — it is demonstrated that you are deceived; it is a very rough surface. You see the sun about two feet in diameter; it is demonstrated that it is a million times larger than the earth.

It seems that God has put truth into your ears, and error into your eyes; but study optics, and you will perceive that God has not deceived you, and that it was impossible for objects to appear to you otherwise than you see them in the present state of things.

Physical Prejudices.

The sun rises, the moon also, the earth is immovable; these are natural physical prejudices. But that crabs are good for the blood, because when boiled they are of the same color; that eels cure paralysis, because they frisk about; that the moon influences our diseases, because an invalid was one day observed to have an increase of fever during the wane of the moon: these ideas and a thousand others were the errors of ancient charlatans, who judged without reason, and who, being themselves deceived, deceived others.

Historical Prejudices.

The greater part of historians have believed without examining, and this confidence is a prejudice. Fabius Pictor relates, that, several ages before him, a vestal of the town of Alba, going to draw water in her pitcher, was violated, that she was delivered of Romulus and Remus, that they were nourished by a she-wolf. The Roman people believed this fable; they examined not whether at that time there were vestals in Latium; whether it was likely that the daughter of a king should go out of her convent with a pitcher, or whether it was probable that a she-wolf should suckle two children, instead of eating them: prejudice established it.

A monk writes that Clovis, being in great danger at the battle of Tolbiac, made a vow to become a Christian if he escaped; but is it natural that he should address a strange god on such an occasion? Would not the religion in which he was born have acted the most powerfully? Where is the Christian who, in a battle against the Turks, would not rather address himself to the holy Virgin Mary, than to Mahomet? He adds, that a pigeon brought the vial in his beak to anoint Clovis, and that an angel brought the oriflamme to conduct him: the prejudiced believed all the stories of this kind. Those who are acquainted with human nature well know, that the usurper Clovis, and the usurper Rollo, or Rol, became Christians to govern the Christians more securely; as the Turkish usurpers became Mussulmans to govern the Mussulmans more securely.

Religious Prejudices.

If your nurse has told you, that Ceres presides over corn, or that Vishnu and Xaca became men several times, or that Sammonocodom cut down a forest, or that Odin expects you in his hall near Jutland, or that Mahomet, or some other, made a journey to heaven; finally, if your preceptor afterwards thrusts into your brain what your nurse has engraven on it, you will possess it for life. If your judgment would rise above these prejudices, your neighbors, and above all, the ladies, exclaim “impiety!” and frighten you; your dervish, fearing to see his revenue diminished, accuses you before the cadi; and this cadi, if he can, causes you to be impaled, because he would command fools, and he believes that fools obey better than others; which state of things will last until your neighbors and the dervish and cadi begin to comprehend that folly is good for nothing, and that persecution is abominable.

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