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.


You despise them, books, you whose whole life is plunged in the vanities of ambition and in the search for pleasure or in idleness; but think that the whole of the known universe, with the exception of the savage races is governed by books alone. The whole of Africa right to Ethiopia and Nigritia obeys the book of the Alcoran, after having staggered under the book of the Gospel. China is ruled by the moral book of Confucius; a greater part of India by the book of the Veidam. Persia was governed for centuries by the books of one of the Zarathustras.

If you have a law-suit, your goods, your honour, your life even depends on the interpretation of a book which you never read.

Robert the Devil, the Four Sons of Aymon, the Imaginings of Mr. Oufle, are books also; but it is with books as with men; the very small number play a great part, the rest are mingled in the crowd.

Who leads the human race in civilized countries? those who know how to read and write. You do not know either Hippocrates, Boerhaave or Sydenham; but you put your body in the hands of those who have read them. You abandon your soul to those who are paid to read the Bible, although there are not fifty among them who have read it in its entirety with care.

To such an extent do books govern the world, that those who command to-day in the city of the Scipios and the Catos have desired that the books of their law should be only for them; it is their sceptre; they have made it a crime of lese-majeste for their subjects to look there without express permission. In other countries it has been forbidden to think in writing without letters patent.

There are nations among whom thought is regarded purely as an object of commerce. The operations of the human mind are valued there only at two sous the sheet.

In another country, the liberty of explaining oneself by books is one of the most inviolable prerogatives. Print all that you like under pain of boring or of being punished if you abuse too considerably your natural right.

Before the admirable invention of printing, books were rarer and more expensive than precious stones. Almost no books among the barbarian nations until Charlemagne, and from him to the French king Charles V., surnamed "the wise"; and from this Charles right to Francois Ier, there is an extreme dearth.

The Arabs alone had books from the eighth century of our era to the thirteenth.

China was filled with them when we did not know how to read or write.

Copyists were much employed in the Roman Empire from the time of the Scipios up to the inundation of the barbarians.

The Greeks occupied themselves much in transcribing towards the time of Amyntas, Philip and Alexander; they continued this craft especially in Alexandria.

This craft is somewhat ungrateful. The merchants always paid the authors and the copyists very badly. It took two years of assiduous labour for a copyist to transcribe the Bible well on vellum. What time and what trouble for copying correctly in Greek and Latin the works of Origen, of Clement of Alexandria, and of all those other authors called "fathers."

The poems of Homer were long so little known that Pisistratus was the first who put them in order, and who had them transcribed in Athens, about five hundred years before the era of which we are making use.

To-day there are not perhaps a dozen copies of the Veidam and the Zend-Avesta in the whole of the East.

You would not have found a single book in the whole of Russia in 1700, with the exception of Missals and a few Bibles in the homes of aged men drunk on brandy.

To-day people complain of a surfeit: but it is not for readers to complain; the remedy is easy; nothing forces them to read. It is not any the more for authors to complain. Those who make the crowd must not cry that they are being crushed. Despite the enormous quantity of books, how few people read! and if one read profitably, one would see the deplorable follies to which the common people offer themselves as prey every day.

What multiplies books, despite the law of not multiplying beings unnecessarily, is that with books one makes others; it is with several volumes already printed that a new history of France or Spain is fabricated, without adding anything new. All dictionaries are made with dictionaries; almost all new geography books are repetitions of geography books. The Summation of St. Thomas has produced two thousand fat volumes of theology; and the same family of little worms that have gnawed the mother, gnaw likewise the children.

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