Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Why do we denominate slaves those whom the Romans called “servi,” and the Greeks “duloi”? Etymology is here exceedingly at fault; and Bochart has not been able to derive this word from the Hebrew.

The most ancient record that we possess in which the word “slave” is found is the will of one Ermangaut, archbishop of Narbonne, who bequeathed to Bishop Fredelon his slave Anaph —“Anaphinus Slavonium.” This Anaph was very fortunate in belonging to two bishops successively.

It is not unlikely that the Slavonians came from the distant North with other indigent and conquering hordes, to pillage from the Roman Empire what that empire had pilliged from other nations, and especially in Dalmatia and Illyria. The Italians called the misfortune of falling into their hands “shiavitu,” and “schiavi” the captives themselves.

All that we can gather from the confused history of the middle ages is that in the time of the Romans the known world was divided between freemen and slaves. When the Slavonians, Alans, Huns, Heruli, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Franks and Normans came to despoil Europe, there was little probability that the multitude of slaves would diminish. Ancient masters, in fact, saw themselves reduced to slavery, and the smaller number enslaved the greater, as negroes are enslaved in the colonies, and according to the practice in many other cases.

We read nothing in ancient authors concerning the slaves of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The book which speaks most of slaves is the “Iliad.” In the first place, Briseïs is slave to Achilles; and all the Trojan women, and more especially the princesses, fear becoming slaves to the Greeks, and spinners for their wives.

Slavery is also as ancient as war, and war as human nature. Society was so accustomed to this degradation of the species that Epictetus, who was assuredly worth more than his master, never expresses any surprise at his being a slave.

No legislator of antiquity ever attempted to abrogate slavery; on the contrary, the people most enthusiastic for liberty — the Athenians, the Lacedæmonians, the Romans, and the Carthaginians — were those who enacted the most severe laws against their serfs. The right of life and death over them was one of the principles of society. It must be confessed that, of all wars, that of Spartacus was the most just, and possibly the only one that was ever absolutely so.

Who would believe that the Jews, created as it might appear to serve all nations in turn, should also appear to possess slaves of their own? It is observed in their laws, that they may purchase their brethren for six years, and strangers forever. It was said, that the children of Esau would become bondsmen to the children of Jacob; but since, under a different dispensation, the Arabs, who call themselves descendants of Esau, have enslaved the posterity of Jacob.

The Evangelists put not a single word into the mouth of Jesus Christ which recalls mankind to the primitive liberty to which they appear to be born. There is nothing said in the New Testament on this state of degradation and suffering, to which one-half of the human race was condemned. Not a word appears in the writings of the apostles and the fathers of the Church, tending to change beasts of burden into citizens, as began to be done among ourselves in the thirteenth century. If slavery be spoken of, it is the slavery of sin.

It is difficult to comprehend how, in St. John, the Jews can say to Jesus: “We have never been slaves to any one”— they who were at that time subjected to the Romans; they who had been sold in the market after the taking of Jerusalem; they of whom ten tribes, led away as slaves by Shalmaneser, had disappeared from the face of the earth, and of whom two other tribes were held in chains by the Babylonians for seventy years; they who had been seven times reduced to slavery in their promised land, according to their own avowal; they who in all their writings speak of their bondage in that Egypt which they abhorred, but to which they ran in crowds to gain money, as soon as Alexander condescended to allow them to settle there. The reverend Dom Calmet says, that we must understand in this passage, “intrinsic servitude,” an explanation which by no means renders it more comprehensible.

Italy, the Gauls, Spain, and a part of Germany, were inhabited by strangers, by foreigners become masters, and natives reduced to serfs. When the bishop of Seville, Opas, and Count Julian called over the Mahometan Moors against the Christian kings of the Visigoths, who reigned in the Pyrenees, the Mahometans, according to their custom, proposed to the natives, either to receive circumcision, give battle, or pay tribute in money and girls. King Roderick was vanquished, and slaves were made of those who were taken captive.

The conquered preserved their wealth and their religion by paying; and it is thus that the Turks have since treated Greece, except that they imposed upon the latter a tribute of children of both sexes, the boys of which they circumcise and transform into pages and janissaries, while the girls are devoted to the harems. This tribute has since been compromised for money. The Turks have only a few slaves for the interior service of their houses, and these they purchase from the Circassians, Mingrelians, and nations of Lesser Tartary.

Between the African Mahometans and the European Christians, the custom of piracy, and of making slaves of all who could be seized on the high seas, has always existed. They are birds of prey who feed upon one another; the Algerines, natives of Morocco, and Tunisians, all live by piracy. The Knights of Malta, successors to those of Rhodes, formally swear to rob and enslave all the Mahometans whom they meet; and the galleys of the pope cruise for Algerines on the northern coasts of Africa. Those who call themselves whites and Christians proceed to purchase negroes at a good market, in order to sell them dear in America. The Pennsylvanians alone have renounced this traffic, which they account flagitious.

§ II.

I read a short time ago at Mount Krapak, where it is known that I reside, a book written at Paris, abounding in wit and paradoxes, bold views and hardihood, resembling in some respects those of Montesquieu, against whom it is written. In this book, slavery is decidedly preferred to domesticity, and above all to the free labor. This book exceedingly pities those unhappy free men who earn a subsistence where they please, by the labor for which man is born, and which is the guardian of innocence, as well as the support of life. It is incumbent on no one, says the author, either to nourish or to succor them; whereas, slaves are fed and protected by their masters like their horses. All this is true; but human beings would rather provide for themselves than depend on others; and horses bred in the forest prefer them to stables.

He justly remarks that artisans lose many days in which they are forbidden to work, which is very true; but this is not because they are free, but because ridiculous laws exist in regard to holidays.

He says most truly, that it is not Christian charity which has broken the fetters of servitude, since the same charity has riveted them for more than twelve centuries; and that Christians, and even monks, all charitable as they are, still possess slaves reduced to a frightful state of bondage, under the name of “mortaillables, mainmortables,” and serfs of the soil.

He asserts that which is very true, that Christian princes only affranchised their serfs through avarice. It was, in fact, to obtain the money laboriously amassed by these unhappy persons, that they signed their letters of manumission. They did not bestow liberty, but sold it. The emperor Henry V. began: he freed the serfs of Spires and Worms in the twelfth century. The kings of France followed his example; and nothing tends more to prove the value of liberty than the high price these gross men paid for it.

Lastly, it is for the men on whose condition the dispute turns to decide upon which state they prefer. Interrogate the lowest laborer covered with rags, fed upon black bread, and sleeping on straw, in a hut half open to the elements; ask this man, whether he will be a slave, better fed, clothed, and bedded; not only will he recoil with horror at the proposal, but regard you with horror for making the proposal. Ask a slave if he is willing to be free, and you will hear his answer. This alone ought to decide the question.

It is also to be considered that a laborer may become a farmer, and a farmer a proprietor. In France, he may even become a counsellor of the king, if he acquire riches. In England, he may become a freeholder, or a member of parliament. In Sweden, he may become a member of the national states. These possibilities are of more value than that of dying neglected in the corner of his master’s stable.

§ III.

Puffendorff says, that slavery has been established “by the free consent of the opposing parties.” I will believe Puffendorff, when he shows me the original contract.

Grotius inquires, whether a man who is taken captive in war has a right to escape; and it is to be remarked, that he speaks not of a prisoner on his parole of honor. He decides, that he has no such right; which is about as much as to say that a wounded man has no right to get cured. Nature decides against Grotius.

Attend to the following observations of the author of the “Spirit of Laws,” after painting negro slavery with the pencil of Molière:

“Mr. Perry says that the Moscovites sell themselves readily; I can guess the reason — their liberty is worth nothing.”

Captain John Perry, an Englishman, who wrote an account of the state of Russia in 1714, says nothing of that which the “Spirit of Laws” makes him say. Perry contains a few lines only on the subject of Russian bondage, which are as follows: “The czar has ordered that, throughout his states, in future, no one is to be called ‘golup’ or slave; but only ‘raab,’ which signifies subject. However, the people derive no real advantage from this order, being still in reality slaves.”

The author of the “Spirit of Laws” adds, that according to Captain Dampier, “everybody sells himself in the kingdom of Achem.” This would be a singular species of commerce, and I have seen nothing in the “Voyage” of Dampier which conveys such a notion. It is a pity that a man so replete with wit should hazard so many crudities, and so frequently quote incorrectly.

§ IV.
Serfs of the Body, Serfs of the Glebe, Mainmort, etc.

It is commonly asserted that there are no more slaves in France; that it is the kingdom of the Franks, and that slave and Frank are contradictory terms; that people are so free there that many financiers die worth more than thirty millions of francs, acquired at the expense of the descendants of the ancient Franks. Happy French nation to be thus free! But how, in the meantime, is so much freedom compatible with so many species of servitude, as for instance, that of the mainmort?

Many a fine lady at Paris, who sparkles in her box at the opera, is ignorant that she descends from a family of Burgundy, the Bourbonnais, Franche-Comté, Marche, or Auvergne, which family is still enslaved, mortaillable and mainmortable.

Of these slaves, some are obliged to work three days a week for the lord, and others two. If they die without children, their wealth belongs to the lord; if they leave children, the lord takes only the finest cattle and, according to more than one custom, the most valuable movables. According to other customs, if the son of a mainmortable slave visits not the house of his father within a year and a day from his death, he loses all his father’s property, yet still remains a slave; that is to say, whatever wealth he may acquire by his industry, becomes at his death the property of the lord.

What follows is still better: An honest Parisian pays a visit to his parents in Burgundy and in Franche-Comté, resides a year and a day in a mainmortable house, and returning to Paris finds that his property, wherever situated, belongs to the lord, in case he dies without issue.

It is very properly asked how the province of Burgundy obtained the nickname of “free,” while distinguished by such a species of servitude? It is without doubt upon the principle that the Greeks called the furies Eumenides, “good hearts.”

But the most curious and most consolatory circumstance attendant on this jurisprudence is that the lords of half these mainmortable territories are monks.

If by chance a prince of the blood, a minister of state, or a chancellor cast his eyes upon this article, it will be well for him to recollect, that the king of France, in his ordinance of May 18, 1731, declares to the nation, “that the monks and endowments possess more than half of the property of Franche-Comté.”

The marquis d’Argenson, in “Le Droit Public Ecclesiastique,” says, that in Artois, out of eighteen ploughs, the monks possess thirteen. The monks themselves are called mainmortables, and yet possess slaves. Let us refer these monkish possessions to the chapter of contradictions.

When we have made some modest remonstrances upon this strange tyranny on the part of people who have vowed to God to be poor and humble, they will then reply to us: We have enjoyed this right for six hundred years; why then despoil us of it? We may humbly rejoin, that for these thirty or forty thousand years, the weasels have been in the habit of sucking the blood of our pullets; yet we assume to ourselves the right of destroying them when we can catch them.

N. B. It is a mortal sin for a Chartreux to eat half an ounce of mutton, but he may with a safe conscience devour the entire substance of a family. I have seen the Chartreux in my neighborhood inherit a hundred thousand crowns from one of their mainmortable slaves, who had made a fortune by commerce at Frankfort. But all the truth must be told; it is no less true, that his family enjoys the right of soliciting alms at the gate of the convent.

Let us suppose that the monks have still fifty or sixty thousand slaves in the kingdom of France. Time has not been found hitherto to reform this Christian jurisprudence; but something is beginning to be thought about it. It is only to wait a few hundred years, until the debts of the state be paid.

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