Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The sovereign is called a tyrant who knows no laws but his caprice; who takes the property of his subjects, and afterwards enlists them to go and take that of his neighbors. We have none of these tyrants in Europe. We distinguish the tyranny of one and that of many. The tyranny of several is that of a body which would invade the rights of other bodies, and which would exercise despotism by favor of laws which it corrupts. Neither are there any tyrannies of this kind in Europe.

Under what tyranny should you like best to live? Under none; but if I must choose, I should less detest the tyranny of a single one, than that of many. A despot has always some good moments; an assemblage of despots, never. If a tyrant does me an injustice, I can disarm him through his mistress, his confessor, or his page; but a company of tyrants is inaccessible to all seductions. When they are not unjust, they are harsh, and they never dispense favors. If I have but one despot, I am at liberty to set myself against a wall when I see him pass, to prostrate myself, or to strike my forehead against the ground, according to the custom of the country; but if there is a company of a hundred tyrants, I am liable to repeat this ceremony a hundred times a day, which is very tiresome to those who have not supple joints. If I have a farm in the neighborhood of one of our lords, I am crushed; if I complain against a relative of the relatives of any one of our lords, I am ruined. How must I act? I fear that in this world we are reduced to being either the anvil or the hammer; happy at least is he who escapes this alternative.

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