Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Avarities, amor habendi — desire of having, avidity, covetousness. Properly speaking, avarice is the desire of accumulating, whether in grain, movables, money, or curiosities. There were avaricious men long before coin was invented.

We do not call a man avaricious who has four and twenty coach horses, yet will not lend one to his friend: or who, having two thousand bottles of Burgundy in his cellar, will not send you half a dozen, when he knows you to be in want of them. If he show you a hundred thousand crowns’ worth of diamonds you do not think of asking him to present you with one worth twenty livres; you consider him as a man of great magnificence, but not at all avaricious.

He who in finance, in army contracts, and great undertakings gained two millions each year, and who, when possessed of forty-three millions, besides his houses at Paris and his movables, expended fifty thousand crowns per annum for his table, and sometimes lent money to noblemen at five per cent. interest, did not pass, in the minds of the people, for an avaricious man. He had, however, all his life burned with the thirst of gain; the demon of covetousness was perpetually tormenting him; he continued to accumulate to the last day of his life. This passion, which was constantly gratified, has never been called avarice. He did not expend a tenth part of his income, yet he had the reputation of a generous man, too fond of splendor.

A father of a family who, with an income of twenty thousand livres, expends only five or six, and accumulates his savings to portion his children, has the reputation among his neighbors of being avaricious, mean, stingy, a niggard, a miser, a gripfarthing; and every abusive epithet that can be thought of is bestowed upon him.

Nevertheless this good citizen is much more to be honored than the Crœsus I have just mentioned; he expends three times as much in proportion. But the cause of the great difference between their reputations is this:

Men hate the individual whom they call avaricious only because there is nothing to be gained by him. The physician, the apothecary, the wine-merchant, the draper, the grocer, the saddler, and a few girls gain a good deal by our Crœsus, who is truly avaricious. But with our close and economical citizen there is nothing to be done. Therefore he is loaded with maledictions.

As for those among the avaricious who deprive themselves of the necessaries of life, we leave them to Plautus and Molière.

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