Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Why do we scarcely ever know the tenth part of the good we might do? It is clear, that if a nation living between the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the sea, had employed, in ameliorating and embellishing the country, a tenth part of the money it lost in the war of 1741, and one-half of the men killed to no purpose in Germany, the state would have been more flourishing. Why was not this done? Why prefer a war, which Europe considered unjust, to the happy labors of peace, which would have produced the useful and the agreeable?

Why did Louis XIV., who had so much taste for great monuments, for new foundations, for the fine arts, lose eight hundred millions of our money in seeing his cuirassiers and his household swim across the Rhine; in not taking Amsterdam; in stirring up nearly all Europe against him? What could he not have done with his eight hundred millions?

Why, when he reformed jurisprudence, did he reform it only by halves? Ought the numerous ancient customs, founded on the decretals and the canon law, to be still suffered to exist? Was it necessary that in the many causes called ecclesiastical, but which are in reality civil, appeal should be made to the bishop; from the bishop to the metropolitan; from the metropolitan to the primate; and from the primate to Rome, “ad apostolos?” — as if the apostles had of old been the judges of the Gauls “en dernier ressort.”

Why, when Louis XIV. was outrageously insulted by Pope Alexander VII. — Chigi — did he amuse himself with sending into France for a legate, to make frivolous excuses, and with having a pyramid erected at Rome, the inscriptions over which concerned none but the watchmen of Rome — a pyramid which he soon after had abolished? Had it not been better to have abolished forever the simony by which every bishop and every abbot in Gaul pays to the Italian apostolic chamber the half of his revenue?

Why did the same monarch, when still more grievously insulted by Innocent XI. — Odescalchi — who took the part of the prince of Orange against him, content himself with having four propositions maintained in his universities, and refuse the prayers of the whole magistracy, who solicited an eternal rupture with the court of Rome?

Why, in making the laws, was it forgotten to place all the provinces of the kingdom under one uniform law, leaving in existence a hundred different customs, and a hundred and forty-four different measures?

Why were the provinces of this kingdom still reputed foreign to one another, so that the merchandise of Normandy, on being conveyed by land into Brittany, pays duty, as if it came from England?

Why was not corn grown in Champagne allowed to be sold in Picardy without an express permission — as at Rome permission is obtained for three giuli to read forbidden books?

Why was France left so long under the reproach of venality? It seemed to be reserved for Louis XIV. to abolish the custom of buying the right to sit as judges over men, as you buy a country house, and making pleaders pay fees to the judge, as tickets for the play are paid for at the door.

Why institute in a kingdom the offices and dignities of king’s counsellors: Inspectors of drink, inspectors of the shambles, registrars of inventories, controllers of fines, inspectors of hogs, péréquateurs of tailles, fuel-measurers, assistant-measurers, fuelpilers, unloaders of green wood, controllers of timber, markers of timber, coal-measurers, corn-sifters, inspectors of calves, controllers of poultry, gaugers, assayers of brandy, assayers of beer, rollers of casks, unloaders of hay, floor-clearers, inspectors of ells, inspectors of wigs?

These offices, in which doubtless consist the prosperity and splendor of an empire, formed numerous communities, which had each their syndics. This was all suppressed in 1719; but it was to make room for others of a similar kind, in the course of time. Would it not be better to retrench all the pomp and luxury of greatness, than miserably to support them by means so low and shameful?

Why has a nation, often reduced to extremity and to some degree of humiliation, still supported itself in spite of all the efforts made to crush it? Because that nation is active and industrious. The people are like the bees: you take from them wax and honey, and they forthwith set to work to produce more.

Why, in half of Europe, do the girls pray to God in Latin, which they do not understand? Why, in the sixteenth century, when nearly all the popes and bishops notoriously had bastards, did they persist in prohibiting the marriage of priests; while the Greek Church has constantly ordained that curates should have wives?

Why, in all antiquity, was there no theological dispute, nor any people distinguished by a sectarian appellation? The Egyptians were not called Isiacs or Osiriacs. The people of Syria were not named Cybelians. The Cretans had a particular devotion for Jupiter, but were not called Jupiterians. The ancient Latins were much attached to Saturn, but there was not a village in all Latium called Saturnian. The disciples of the God of Truth, on the contrary, taking the title of their master himself, and calling themselves, like him, “anointed,” declared, as soon as they were able, eternal war against all nations that were not “anointed,” and made war upon one another for upwards of fourteen hundred years, taking the names of Arians, Manichæans, Donatists, Hussites, Papists, Lutherans, Calvinists, etc. Even the Jansenists and Molinists have experienced no mortification so acute as that of not having it in their power to cut one another’s throats in pitched battle. Whence is this?

Why does a bookseller publicly sell the “Course of Atheism,” by the great Lucretius, printed for the dauphin, only son of Louis XIV., by order and under the direction of the wise duke of Montausier, and of the eloquent Bossuet, bishop of Meaux, and of the learned Huet, bishop of Avranches? There you find those sublime impieties, those admirable lines against Providence and the immortality of the soul, which pass from mouth to mouth, through all after-ages:

Ex nihilo, nihil; in nihilum nil posse reverti.

From nothing, nought; to nothing nought returns.

Tangere enim ac tangi nisi corpus nulla protest res.

Matter alone can touch and govern matter.

Nec bene pro meretis capitur, nec tangitur ira (Deus).

Nothing can flatter God, or cause his anger.

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

How great the evil by religion caused!

Desipire est mortale eterno jungere et una

Consentire putare, et fungi mutua posse.

’Tis weak in mortals to attempt to join

To transient being that which lasts forever.

Nil igitur mors est, ad nos neque pertinet hilum.

When death is, we are not; the body dies, and with it all.

Mortalem tamen esse animam fatere necesse est.

There is no future; mortal is the soul.

Hinc Acherusia fit stultorum denique vita.

Hence ancient fools are superstition’s prey.

And a hundred other lines which charm all nations — the immortal productions of a mind which believed itself to be mortal. Not only are these Latin verses sold in the Rue St. Jacques and on the Quai des Augustins, but you fearlessly purchase the translations made into all the patois derived from the Latin tongue — translations decorated with learned notes, which elucidate the doctrine of materialism, collect all the proofs against the Divinity, and would annihilate it, if it could be destroyed. You find this book, bound in morocco, in the fine library of a great and devout prince, of a cardinal, of a chancellor, of an archbishop, of a round-capped president: but the first eighteen books of de Thou were condemned as soon as they appeared. A poor Gallic philosopher ventures to publish, in his own name, that if men had been born without fingers, they would never have been able to work tapestry; and immediately another Gaul, who for his money has obtained a robe of office, requires that the book and the author be burned.

Why are scenic exhibitions anathematized by certain persons who call themselves of the first order in the state, seeing that such exhibitions are necessary to all the orders of the state, and that the laws of the state uphold them with equal splendor and regularity?

Why do we abandon to contempt, debasement, oppression, and rapine, the great mass of those laborious and harmless men who cultivate the earth every day of the year, that we may eat of all its fruits? And why, on the contrary, do we pay respect, attention, and court, to the useless and often very wicked man who lives only by their labor, and is rich only by their misery?

Why, during so many ages, among so many men who sow the corn with which we are fed, has there been no one to discover that ridiculous error which teaches that the grain must rot in order to germinate, and die to spring up again — an error which has led to many impertinent assertions, to many false comparisons, and to many ridiculous opinions?

Why, since the fruits of the earth are so necessary for the preservation of men and animals, do we find so many years, and so many centuries, in which these fruits are absolutely wanting? why is the earth covered with poisons in the half of Africa and of America? why is there no tract of land where there are not more insects than men? why does a little whitish and offensive secretion form a being which will have hard bones, desires, and thoughts? and why shall those beings be constantly persecuting one another? why does there exist so much evil, everything being formed by a God whom all Theists agree in calling good? why, since we are always complaining of our ills, are we constantly employed in redoubling them? why, since we are so miserable, has it been imagined that to die is an evil — when it is clear that not to have been, before our birth, was no evil? why does it rain every day into the sea, while so many deserts demand rain, yet are constantly arid? why and how have we dreams in our sleep, if we have no soul? and if we have one, how is it that these dreams are always so incoherent and so extravagant? why do the heavens revolve from east to west, rather than the contrary way? why do we exist? why does anything exist?

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