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.


IF some literary society wishes to undertake the dictionary of contradictions, I subscribe for twenty folio volumes.

The world can exist only by contradictions: what is needed to abolish them? to assemble the states of the human race. But from the manner in which men are made, it would be a fresh contradiction if they were to agree. Assemble all the rabbits of the universe, there will not be two different opinions among them.

I know only two kinds of immutable beings on the earth, mathematicians and animals; they are led by two invariable rules, demonstration and instinct: and even the mathematicians have had some disputes, but the animals have never varied.

The contrasts, the light and shade in which public men are represented in history, are not contradictions, they are faithful portraits of human nature.

Every day people condemn and admire Alexander the murderer of Clitus, but the avenger of Greece, the conqueror of the Persians, and the founder of Alexandria;

Caesar the debauchee, who robs the public treasury of Rome to reduce his country to dependence; but whose clemency equals his valour, and whose intelligence equals his courage;

Mohammed, impostor, brigand; but the sole religious legislator who had courage, and who founded a great empire;

Cromwell the enthusiast, a rogue in his fanaticism even, judicial assassin of his king, but as profound politician as brave warrior.

A thousand contrasts frequently crowd together, and these contrasts are in nature; they are no more astonishing than a fine day followed by storm.

Men are equally mad everywhere; they have made the laws little by little, as gaps are repaired in a wall. Here eldest sons have taken all they could from younger sons, there younger sons share equally. Sometimes the Church has commanded the duel, sometimes she has anathematized it. The partisans and the enemies of Aristotle have each been excommunicated in their turn, as have those who wore long hair and those who wore short. In this world we have perfect law only to rule a species of madness called gaming. The rules of gaming are the only ones which admit neither exception, relaxation, variety nor tyranny. A man who has been a lackey, if he play at lansquenet with kings, is paid without difficulty if he win; everywhere else the law is a sword with which the stronger cut the weaker in pieces.

Nevertheless, this world exists as if everything were well ordered; the irregularity is of our nature; our political world is like our globe, a misshapen thing which always preserves itself. It would be mad to wish that the mountains, the seas, the rivers, were traced in beautiful regular forms; it would be still more mad to ask perfect wisdom of men; it would be wishing to give wings to dogs or horns to eagles.

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