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.

States, Governments

THE ins and outs of all governments have been closely examined recently. Tell me then, you who have travelled, in what state, under what sort of government you would choose to be born. I imagine that a great land-owning lord in France would not be vexed to be born in Germany; he would be soverign instead of subject. A peer of France would be very glad to have the privileges of the English peerage; he would be legislator. The lawyer and the financier would be better off in France than elsewhere.

But what country would a wise, free man, a man with a moderate fortune, and without prejudices, choose?

A member of the government of Pondicherry, a learned man enough, returned to Europe by land with a Brahmin better educated than the ordinary Brahmin. "What do you think of the government of the Great Mogul? " asked the councillor.

"I think it abominable," answered the Brahmin. " How can you expect a state to be happily governed by the Tartars? Our rajahs, our omrahs, our nabobs, are very content, but the citizens are hardly so; and millions of citizens are something."

Reasoning, the councillor and the Brahmin traversed the whole of Upper Asia. " I make the observation," said the Brahmin, "that there is not one republic in all this vast part of the world.''

"Formerly there was the republic of Tyre," said the councillor, '' but it did not last long ; there was still another one in the direction of Arabia Petrea, in a little corner called Palestine, if one can honour with the name of republic a horde of thieves and usurers sometimes governed by judges, sometimes by a species of kings, sometimes by grand-pontiffs, become slave seven or eight times, and finally driven out of the country which it had usurped.''

" I imagine," said the Brahmin, " that one ought to find very few republics on the earth. Men are rarely worthy of governing themselves. This happiness should belong only to little peoples who hide themselves in islands, or among the mountains, like rabbits who shun carnivorous beasts; but in the long run they are discovered and devoured."

When the two travellers reached Asia Minor, the councillor said to the Brahmin : " Would you believe that a republic was formed in a corner of Italy, which lasted more than five hundred years, and which owned Asia Minor, Asia, Africa, Greece, Gaul, Spain and the whole of Italy? "

" She soon became a monarchy, then? " said the Brahmin.

" You have guessed right," said the other. " But this monarchy fell, and every day we compose beautiful dissertations in order to find the cause of its decadence and downfall."

" You take a deal of trouble," said the Indian. " This empire fell because it existed. Everything has to fall. I hope as much will happen to the Grand Mogul's empire."

" By the way," said the European, " do you consider that there should be more honour in a despotic state, and more virtue in a republic? "

The Indian, having had explained to him what we mean by honour, answered that honour was more necessary in a republic, and that one had more need of virtue in a monarchical state. "For," said he, '' a man who claims to be elected by the people, will not be if he is dishonoured; whereas at the court he could easily obtain a place, in accordance with a great prince's maxim, that in order to succeed a courtier should have neither honour nor character. As regards virtue, one must be prodigiously virtuous to dare to say the truth. The virtuous man is much more at his ease in a republic; he has no one to flatter."

" Do you think,'' said the man from Europe, " that laws and religions are made for climates, just as one has to have furs in Moscow, and gauzy stuffs in Delhi? "

" Without a doubt," answered the Brahmin. " All the laws which concern material things are calculated for the meridian one lives in. A German needs only one wife, and a Persian three or four.

" The rites of religion are of the same nature. How, if I were Christian, should I say mass in my province where there is neither bread nor wine? As regards dogmas, that is another matter; the climate has nothing to do with them. Did not your religion begin in Asia, whence it was driven out? does it not exist near the Baltic Sea, where it was unknown? "

" In what state under what domination, would you like best to live?" asked the councillor.

"Anywhere but where I do live," answered his companion. " And I have met many Siamese, Tonkinese, Persians and Turks who said as much."

" But, once again," persisted the European, " what state would you choose? "

The Brahmin answered: " The state where only the laws are obeyed."

" That is an old answer," said the councillor.

" It is none the worse for that," said the Brahmin.

" Where is that country? " asked the councillor.

" We must look for it," answered the Brahmin.

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