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.


THE Gauls had corn in Caesar's time: one is curious to know where they and the Teutons found it to sow. People answer you that the Tyrians had brought it in to Spain, the Spaniards into Gaul, the Gauls into Germany. And where did the Tyrians get this corn? Among the Greeks probably, from whom they received it in exchange for their alphabet.

Who had made this present to the Greeks? It was formerly Ceres without a doubt; and when one has gone back to Ceres one can hardly go farther. Ceres must have come down on purpose from the sky to give us wheat, rye, barley, etc.

But as the credit of Ceres who gave the corn to the Greeks, and that of Isheth or Isis who bestowed it on the Egyptians, is very much fallen in these days, we remain in uncertainty as to the origin of corn.

Sanchoniathon affirms that Dagon or Dagan, one of the grandsons of Thaut, had the control of corn in Phoenicia. Well, his Thaut is of about the same time as our Jared. From this it results that corn is very old, and that it is of the same antiquity as grass. Perhaps this Dagon was the first man to make bread, but that is not demonstrated.

Strange thing! we know positively that it is to Noah that we are under an obligation for wine, and we do not know to whom we owe bread. And, still more strange thing, we are so ungrateful to Noah, that we have more than two thousand songs in honour of Bacchus, and we chant barely one in honour of Noah our benefactor.

A Jew has assured me that corn came by itself in Mesopotamia, like the apples, wild pears, chestnuts, medlars in the West. I want to believe it until I am sure of the contrary; for corn must certainly grow somewhere. It has become the ordinary and indispensable food in the good climates, and throughout the North.

Some great philosophers whose talents we esteem and whose systems we do not follow (Buffon) have claimed on page 195 of the "Natural History of the Dog," that mankind has made corn; that our fathers by virtue of sowing lolium and gramina changed them into wheat. As these philosophers are not of our opinion about shells, they will permit us not to be of theirs about corn. We do not believe that one has ever made tulips grow from jasmin. We find that the germ of corn is quite different from that of lolium, and we do not believe in any transmutation. When somebody shows it to us we will retract.

Corn assuredly is not the food of the greater part of the world. Maize, tapioca, feed the whole of America. We have entire provinces where the peasants eat nothing but chestnut bread, more nourishing and of better flavour than that of rye and barley which so many people eat, and which is much better than the ration bread which is given to the soldier. The whole of southern Africa does not know of bread. The immense archipelago of the Indies, Siam, Laos, Pegu, Cochin China, Tonkin, a part of China, Japan, the coast of Malabar and Coromandel, the banks of the Ganges furnish a rice, the cultivation of which is much easier than that of wheat, and which causes it to be neglected. Corn is absolutely unknown for the space of fifteen hundred leagues on the coasts of the Glacial Sea. This food, to which we are accustomed, is among us so precious that the fear of seeing a dearth of it alone causes riots among the most subjugated peoples. The corn trade is everywhere one of the great objects of government; it is a part of our being, and yet this essential commodity is sometimes squandered ridiculously. The powder merchants use the best flour for covering the heads of our young men and women. But over three-quarters of the earth bread is not eaten at all. People maintain that the Ethiopians mocked at the Egyptians who lived on bread. But since it is our chief food, corn has become one of the great objects of trade and politics. So much has been written on this subject, that if a husbandman sowed as much corn as the weight of the volumes we have about this commodity, he might hope for the amplest harvest, and become richer than those who in their gilded and lacquered drawing-rooms ignore his exceeding labour and wretchedness.

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