Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.


IT is clear that men, enjoying the faculties connected with their nature, are equal; they are equal when they perform animal functions, and when they exercise their understanding. The King of China, the Great Mogul, the Padisha of Turkey, cannot say to the least of men: " I forbid you to digest, to go to the privy and to think." All the animals of each species are equal among themselves. Animals by nature have over us the advantage of independence. If a bull which is wooing a heifer is driven away with blows of the horns by a stronger bull, it goes in search of another mistress in another field, and lives free. A cock, beaten by a cock, consoles itself in another poultry house. It is not so with us. A little vizier exiles a bostangi to Lemnos : the vizier Azem exiles the little vizier to Tenedos: the padisha exiles the little vizier Azem to Rhodes: the Janissaries put the padisha in prison, and elect another who will exile good Mussulmans as he chooses; people will still be very obliged to him if he limits his sacred authority to this little exercise.

If this world were what it seems it should be, if man could find everywhere in it an easy subsistence, and a climate suitable to his nature, it is clear that it would be impossible for one man to enslave another. If this globe were covered with wholesome fruits; if the air, which should contribute to our life, gave us no diseases and a premature death; if man had no need of lodging and bed other than those of the buck and the deer; then the Gengis-kans and the Tamerlans would have no servants other than their children, who would be folk honourable enough to help them in their old age.

In the natural state enjoyed by all untamed quadrupeds, birds and reptiles, man would be as happy as they; domination would then be a chimera, an absurdity of which no one would think; for why seek servants when you have no need of their service?

If it came into the head of some individual of tyrannous mind and brawny arm to enslave a neighbour less strong than he, the thing would be impossible; the oppressed would be on the Danube before the oppressor had taken his measures on the Volga.

All men would then be necessarily equal, if they were without needs; the poverty connected with our species subordinates one man to another: it is not the inequality which is the real misfortune, it is the dependence. It matters very little that So-and-so calls himself " His Highness," and So-and-so " His Holiness"; but to serve the one or the other is hard.

A big family has cultivated fruitful soil; two little families near by have thankless and rebellious fields; the two poor families have to serve the opulent family, or slaughter it: there is no difficulty in that. One of the two indigent families offers its arms to the rich family in order to have bread; the other goes to attack it and is beaten. The serving family is the origin of the servants and the workmen; the beaten family is the origin of the slaves.

In our unhappy world it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes, the one the rich that commands, the other the poor that serves; and these two are subdivided into a thousand, and these thousand still have different gradations.

When the prizes are drawn you come to us: " I am a man like you," you say. " I have two hands and two feet, as much pride as you, nay more, a mind as disordered, at least, as inconsequent, as contradictory as yours. I am a citizen of San Marino, or of Ragusa, or Vaugirard: give me my share of the land. In our known hemisphere there are about fifty thousand million arpents to cultivate, some passable, some sterile. We are only about a thousand million featherless bipeds in this continent; that makes fifty arpents apiece: be just; give me my fifty arpents."

" Go and take them in the land of the Cafres," we answer, " or the Hottentots, or the Samoyedes; come to an amicable arrangement with them; here all the shares are taken. If among us you want to eat, be clothed, lodged, warmed, work for us as your father did; serve us or amuse us, and you will be paid; otherwise you will be obliged to ask charity, which would be too degrading to your sublime nature, and would stop your being really the equal of kings, and even of country parsons, according to the pretensions of your noble pride."


All the poor are not unhappy. The majority were born in that state, and continual work stops their feeling their position too keenly; but when they feel it, then one sees wars, like that of the popular party against the senate party in Rome, like those of the peasants in Germany, England and France. All these wars finish sooner or later with the subjection of the people, because the powerful have money, and money is master of everything in a state: I say in a state; for it is not the same between nations. The nation which makes the best use of the sword will always subjugate the nation which has more gold and less courage.

All men are born with a sufficiently violent liking for domination, wealth and pleasure, and with much taste for idleness; consequently, all men want their money and the wives or daughters of others, to be their master, to subject them to all their caprices, and to do nothing, or at least to do only very agreeable things. You see clearly that with these fine inclinations it is as impossible for men to be equal as it is impossible for two predicants or two professors of theology not to be jealous of each other.

The human race, such as it is, cannot subsist unless there is an infinity of useful men who possess nothing at all; for it is certain that a man who is well off will not leave his own land to come to till yours; and if you have need of a pair of shoes, it is not the Secretary to the Privy Council who will make them for you. Equality, therefore, is at once the most natural thing and the most fantastic.

As men go to excess in everything when they can, this inequality has been exaggerated. It has been maintained in many countries that it was not permissible for a citizen to leave the country where chance has caused him to be born; the sense of this law is visibly: " This land is so bad and so badly governed, that we forbid any individual to leave it, for fear that everyone will leave it." Do better : make all your subjects want to live in your country, and foreigners to come to it.

All men have the right in the bottom of their hearts to think themselves entirely equal to other men : it does not follow from that that the cardinal's cook should order his master to prepare him his dinner; but the cook can say: " I am a man like my master; like him I was born crying; like me he will die with the same pangs and the same ceremonies. Both of us perform the same animal functions. If the Turks take possession of Rome, and if then I am cardinal and my master cook, I shall take him into my service." This discourse is reasonable and just; but while waiting for the Great Turk to take possession of Rome, the cook must do his duty, or else all human society is perverted.

As regards a man who is neither a cardinal's cook, nor endowed with any other employment in the state; as regards a private person who is connected with nothing, but who is vexed at being received everywhere with an air of being patronized or scorned, who sees quite clearly that many monsignors have no more knowledge, wit or virtue than he, and who at times is bored at waiting in their antechambers, what should he decide to do? Why, to take himself off.

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