Voltaire (1694-1778)
The Philosophical Dictionary

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text at the web site of the Hanover Historical Texts Project.

Natural Law

B : What is natural law?

A: The instinct which makes us feel justice.

B: What do you call just and unjust?

A: What appears such to the entire universe.

B: The universe is composed of many heads. It is said that in Lacedaemon were applauded thefts for which people in Athens were condemned to the mines.

A: Abuse of words, logomachy, equivocation; theft could not be committed at Sparta, when everything was common property. What you call "theft" was the punishment for avarice.

B: It was forbidden to marry one's sister in Rome. It was allowed among the Egyptians, the Athenians and even among the Jews, to marry one's sister on the father's side. It is but with regret that I cite that wretched little Jewish people, who should assuredly not serve as a rule for anyone, and who (putting religion aside) was never anything but a race of ignorant and fanatic brigands. But still, according to their books, the young Thamar, before being ravished by her brother Amnon, says to him :--" Nay, my brother, do not thou this folly, but speak unto the king; for he will not withhold me from thee." (2 Samuel xiii. 12, 13.)

A : Conventional law all that, arbitrary customs, fashions that pass: the essential remains always. Show me a country where it was honourable to rob me of the fruit of my toil, to break one's promise, to lie in order to hurt, to calumniate, to assassinate, to poison, to be ungrateful towards a benefactor, to beat one's father and one's mother when they offer you food.

B : Have you forgotten that Jean-Jacques, one of the fathers of the modern Church, has said that "the first man who dared enclose and cultivate a piece of land " was the enemy "of the human race," that he should have been exterminated, and that " the fruits of the earth are for all, and that the land belongs to none "? Have we not already examined together this lovely proposition which is so useful to society (Discourse on Inequality, second part)?

A : Who is this Jean-Jacques? he is certainly not either John the Baptist, nor John the Evangelist, nor James the Greater, nor James the Less; it must be some Hunnish wit who wrote that abominable impertinence or some poor joker bufo magro who wanted to laugh at what the entire world regards as most serious. For instead of going to spoil the land of a wise and industrious neighbour, he had only to imitate him; and every father of a family having followed this example, behold soon a very pretty village formed. The author of this passage seems to me a very unsociable animal.

B: You think then that by outraging and robbing the good man who has surrounded his garden and chicken-run with a live hedge, he has been wanting in respect towards the duties of natural law?

A: Yes, yes, once again, there is a natural law, and it does not consist either in doing harm to others, or in rejoicing thereat.

B: I imagine that man likes and does harm only for his own advantage. But so many people are led to look for their own interest in the misfortune of others, vengeance is so violent a passion, there are such disastrous examples of it ambition, still more fatal, has inundated the world with so much blood, that when I retrace for myself the horrible picture, I am tempted to avow that man is a very devil. In vain have I in my heart the notion of justice and injustice; an Attila courted by St. Leo, a Phocas flattered by St. Gregory with the most cowardly baseness, an Alexander VI. sullied with so many incests, so many murders, so many poisonings, with whom the weak Louis XII., who is called " the good," makes the most infamous and intimate alliance; a Cromwell whose protection Cardinal Mazarin seeks, and for whom he drives out of France the heirs of Charles I., Louis XIV.'s first cousins, etc., etc.; a hundred like examples set my ideas in disorder, and I know no longer where I am.

A: Well, do storms stop our enjoyment of to-day's beautiful sun? Did the earthquake which destroyed half the city of Lisbon stop your making the voyage to Madrid very comfortably? If Attila was a brigand and Cardinal Mazarin a rogue, are there not princes and ministers who are honest people? Has it not been remarked that in the war of 1701, Louis XIV.'s council was composed of the most virtuous men? The Duc de Beauvilliers, the Marquis de Torci, the Marechal de Villars, Chamillart lastly who passed for being incapable, but never for dishonest. Does not the idea of justice subsist always? It is upon that idea that all laws are founded. The Greeks called them " daughters of heaven," which only means daughters of nature. Have you no laws in your country?

B: Yes, some good, some bad.

A: Where, if it was not in the notions of natural law, did you get the idea that every man has within himself when his mind is properly made? You must have obtained it there, or nowhere.

B : You are right, there is a natural law; but it is still more natural to many people to forget it.

A: It is natural also to be one-eyed, hump-backed, lame, deformed, unhealthy; but one prefers people who are well made and healthy.

B : Why are there so many one-eyed and deformed minds?

A : Peace! But go to the article on "Power."


A YOUNG journeyman pastrycook who had been to college, and who still knew a few of Cicero's phrases, boasted one day of loving his fatherland. "What do you mean by your fatherland?" a neighbour asked him. "Is it your oven? is it the village where you were born and which you have never seen since? is it the street where dwelled your father and mother who have been ruined and have reduced you to baking little pies for a living? is it the town-hall where you will never be police superintendent's clerk? is it the church of Our Lady where you have not been able to become a choir-boy, while an absurd man is archbishop and duke with an income of twenty thousand golden louis?"

The journeyman pastrycook did not know what to answer. A thinker who was listening to this conversation, concluded that in a fatherland of some extent there were often many thousand men who had no fatherland.

You, pleasure loving Parisian, who have never made any, great journey save that to Dieppe to eat fresh fish; who know nothing but your varnished town house, your pretty country house, and your box at that Opera where the rest of Europe persists in feeling bored; who speak your own language agreeably enough because you know no other, you love all that, and you love further the girls you keep, the champagne which comes to you from Rheims, the dividends which the Hotel-de-Ville pays you every six months, and you say you love your fatherland !

In all conscience, does a financier cordially love his fatherland?

The officer and the soldier who will pillage their winter quarters, if one lets them, have they a very warm love for the peasants they ruin?

Where was the fatherland of the scarred Duc de Guise, was it in Nancy, Paris, Madrid, Rome?

What fatherland have you, Cardinals de La Balue, Duprat, Lorraine, Mazarin?

Where was the fatherland of Attila and of a hundred heroes of this type?

I would like someone to tell me which was Abraham's fatherland.

The first man to write that the fatherland is wherever one feels comfortable was, I believe, Euripides in his "Phaeton." But the first man who left his birthplace to seek his comfort elsewhere had said it before him.

Where then is the fatherland? Is it not a good field, whose owner, lodged in a well-kept house, can say: "This field that I till, this house that I have built, are mine; I live there protected by laws which no tyrant can infringe. When those who, like me, possess fields and houses, meet in their common interest, I have my voice in the assembly; I am a part of everything, a part of the community, a part of the dominion; there is my fatherland."?

Well now, is it better for your fatherland to be a monarchy or a republic? For four thousand years has this question been debated. Ask the rich for an answer, they all prefer aristocracy; question the people, they want democracy: only kings prefer royalty. How then is it that nearly the whole world is governed by monarchs? Ask the rats who proposed to hang a bell round the cat's neck. But in truth, the real reason is, as has been said, that men are very rarely worthy of governing themselves.

It is sad that often in order to be a good patriot one is the enemy of the rest of mankind. To be a good patriot is to wish that one's city may be enriched by trade, and be powerful by arms. It is clear that one country cannot gain without another loses, and that it cannot conquer without making misery. Such then is the human state that to wish for one's country's greatness is to wish harm to one's neighbours. He who should wish that his fatherland might never be greater, smaller, richer, poorer, would be the citizen of the world.


ORDINARILY there is no comparison between the crimes of the great who are always ambitious, and the crimes of the people who always want, and can want only liberty and equality. These two sentiments, Liberty and Equality, do not lead direct to calumny, rapine, assassination, poisoning, the devastation of one's neighbours' lands, etc.; but ambitious might and the mania for power plunge into all these crimes whatever be the time, whatever be the place.

Popular government is in itself, therefore, less iniquitous, less abominable than despotic power.

The great vice of democracy is certainly not tyranny and cruelty: there have been mountain-dwelling republicans, savage, ferocious; but it is not the republican spirit that made them so, it is nature.

The real vice of a civilized republic is in the Turkish fable of the dragon with many heads and the dragon with many tails. The many heads hurt each other, and the many tails obey a single head which wants to devour everything.

Democracy seems suitable only to a very little country, and further it must be happily situated. Small though it be, it will make many mistakes, because it will be composed of men. Discord will reign there as in a monastery; but there will be no St. Bartholomew, no Irish massacres, no Sicilian vespers, no inquisition, no condemnation to the galleys for having taken some water from the sea without paying for it, unless one supposes this republic composed of devils in a corner of hell.

One questions every day whether a republican government is preferable to a king's government? The dispute ends always by agreeing that to govern men is very difficult. The Jews had God Himself for master; see what has happened to them on that account: nearly always have they been beaten and slaves, and to-day do you not find that they cut a pretty figure?


Banishment for a period or for life, punishment to which one condemns delinquents, or those one wishes to appear as such.

Not long ago one banished outside the sphere of jurisdiction a petty thief, a petty forger, a man guilty of an act of violence. The result was that he became a big robber, a forger on a big scale, and murderer within the sphere of another jurisdiction. It is as if we threw into our neighbours' fields the stones which incommode us in our own.

Those who have written on the rights of men, have been much tormented to know for certain if a man who has been banished from his fatherland still belongs to his fatherland. It is nearly the same thing as asking if a gambler who has been driven away from the gaming-table is still one of the gamblers.

If to every man it is permitted by natural right to choose his fatherland, he who has lost the right of citizen can, with all the more reason, choose for himself a new fatherland; but can he bear arms against his former fellow-citizens? There are a thousand examples of it. How many French protestants naturalized in Holland, England and Germany have served against France, and against armies containing their own kindred and their own brothers! The Greeks who were in the King of Persia's armies made war on the Greeks their former compatriots. One has seen the Swiss in the Dutch service fire on the Swiss in the French service. It is still worse than to fight against those who have banished you; for, after all, it seems less dishonest to draw the sword for vengeance than to draw it for money.

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