Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Every country where begging, where mendicity, is a profession, is ill governed. Beggary, as I have elsewhere said, is a vermin that clings to opulence. Yes; but let it be shaken off; let the hospitals be for sickness and age alone, and let the shops be for the young and vigorous.

The following is an extract from a sermon composed by a preacher ten years ago for the parish of St. Leu and St. Giles, which is the parish of the beggars and the convulsionaries: “Pauperes evangelicantur” —“the gospel is preached to the poor.”

“My dear brethren the beggars, what is meant by the word gospel? It signifies good news. It is, then, good news that I come to tell you; and what is it? It is that if you are idlers you will die on a dunghill. Know that there have been idle kings, so at least we are told, and they at last had not where to lay their heads. If you work, you will be as happy as other men.

“The preachers at St. Eustache and St. Roche may deliver to the rich very fine sermons in a flowery style, which procure for the auditors a light slumber with an easy digestion, and for the orator a thousand crowns; but I address those whom hunger keeps awake. Work for your bread, I say; for the Scripture says that he who does not work deserves not to eat. Our brother in adversity, Job, who was for some time in your condition, says that man is born to labor as the bird is to fly. Look at this immense city; every one is busy; the judges rise at four in the morning to administer justice to you and send you to the galleys when your idleness has caused you to thieve rather awkwardly.

“The king works; he attends his council every day; and he has made campaigns. Perhaps you will say he is none the richer. Granted; but that is not his fault. The financiers know, better than you or I do, that not one-half his revenue ever enters his coffers. He has been obliged to sell his plate in order to defend us against our enemies. We should aid him in our turn. The Friend of Man (l’Ami des Hommes) allows him only seventy-five millions per annum. Another friend all at once gives him seven hundred and forty. But of all these Job’s comforters, not one will advance him a single crown. It is necessary to invent a thousand ingenious ways of drawing this crown from our pockets, which, before it reaches his own, is diminished by at least one-half.

“Work, then, my dear brethren; act for yourselves, for I forewarn you that if you do not take care of yourselves, no one will take care of you; you will be treated as the king has been in several grave remonstrances; people will say, ‘God help you.’

“We will go into the provinces, you will answer; we shall be fed by the lords of the land, by the farmers, by the curates. Do not flatter yourselves, my dear brethren, that you shall eat at their tables; they have for the most part enough to do to feed themselves, notwithstanding the ‘Method of Rapidly Getting Rich by Agriculture,’ and fifty other works of the same kind, published every day at Paris for the use of the people in the country, with the cultivation of which the authors never had anything to do.

“I behold among you young men of some talent, who say that they will make verses, that they will write pamphlets, like Chisiac, Nonnotte, or Patouillet; that they will work for the ‘Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques,’ that they will write sheets for Fréron, funeral orations for bishops, songs for the comic opera. Any of these would at least be an occupation. When a man is writing for the ‘Année Littéraire,’ he is not robbing on the highway, he is only robbing his creditors. But do better, my dear brethren in Jesus Christ — my dear beggars, who, by passing your lives in asking charity, run the risk of the galleys; do better; enter one of the four mendicant orders; you will then be not only rich, but honored also.”

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