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.


SHEEP live very placidly in community, they are considered very easy-going, because we do not see the prodigious quantity of animals they devour. It is even to be believed that they eat them innocently and without knowing it, like Us when we eat a Sassenage cheese. The republic of the sheep is a faithful representation of the golden age.

A chicken-run is visibly the most perfect monarchic state. There is no king comparable to a cock. If he marches proudly in the midst of his people, it is not out of vanity. If the enemy approaches, he does not give orders to his subjects to go to kill themselves for him by virtue of his certain knowledge and plenary power; he goes to battle himself, ranges his chickens behind him and fights to the death. If he is the victor, he himself sings the Te Deum. In civil life there is no one so gallant, so honest, so disinterested. He has all the virtues. Has he in his royal beak a grain of corn, a grub, he gives it to the first lady among his subjects who presents herself. Solomon in his harem did not come near a poultry-yard cock.

If it be true that the bees are governed by a queen to whom all her subjects make love, that is a still more perfect government.

The ants are considered to be an excellent democracy. Democracy is above all the other States, because there everyone is equal, and each individual works for the good of all.

The republic of the beavers is still superior to that of the ants, at least if we judge by their masonry work.

The monkeys resemble strolling players rather than a civilized people; and they do not appear to be gathered together under fixed, fundamental laws, like the preceding species.

We resemble the monkeys more than any other animal by the gift of imitation, the frivolity of our ideas, and by our inconstancy which has never allowed us to have uniform and durable laws.

When nature formed our species and gave us instincts, self-esteem for our preservation, benevolence for the preservation of others, love which is common to all the species, and the inexplicable gift of combining more ideas than all the animals together; when she had thus given us our portion, she said to us: " Do as you can."

There is no good code in any country. The reason for this is evident; the laws have been made according to the times, the place and the need, etc.

When the needs have changed, the laws which have remained, have become ridiculous. Thus the law which forbade the eating of pig and the drinking of wine was very reasonable in Arabia, where pig and wine are injurious; it is absurd at Constantinople.

The law which gives the whole fee to the eldest son is very good in times of anarchy and pillage. Then the eldest son is the captain of the castle which the brigands will attack sooner or later; the younger sons will be his chief officers, the husbandmen his soldiers. All that is to be feared is that the younger son may assassinate or poison the Salian lord his elder brother, in order to become in his turn the master of the hovel; but these cases are rare, because nature has so combined our instincts and our passions that we have more horror of assassinating our elder brother than we have of being envious of his position. But this law, suitable for the owners of dungeons in Chilperic's time is detestable when there is question of sharing stocks in a city.

To the shame of mankind, one knows that the laws of games are the only ones which everywhere are just, clear, inviolable and executed. Why is the Indian who gave us the rules of the game of chess willingly obeyed all over the world, and why are the popes' decretals, for example, to-day an object of horror and scorn? the reason is that the inventor of chess combined everything with precision for the satisfaction of the players, and that the popes, in their decretals, had nothing in view but their own interest. The Indian wished to exercise men's minds equally, and give them pleasure; the popes wished to besot men's minds. Also, the essence of the game of chess has remained the same for five thousand years, it is common to all the inhabitants of the earth; and the decretals are known only at Spoletto, Orvieto, Loretto, where the shallowest lawyer secretly hates and despises them.

But I delight in thinking that there is a natural law independent of all human conventions: the fruit of my work must belong to me; I must honour my father and my mother; I have no right over my fellow's life, and my fellow has none over mine, etc. But when I think that from Chedorlaomer to Mentzel, colonel of hussars, everyone loyally kills and pillages his fellow with a licence in his pocket, I am very afflicted.

I am told that there are laws among thieves, and also laws of war. I ask what are these laws of war. I learn that they mean hanging a brave officer who has held fast in a bad post without cannon against a royal army; that they mean having a prisoner hanged, if the enemy has hanged one of yours; that they mean putting to the fire and the sword villages which have not brought their sustenance on the appointed day, according to the orders of the gracious sovereign of the district. "Good," say I, "that is the 'Spirit of the Laws.'"

It seems to me that most men have received from nature enough common sense to make laws, but that everyone is not just enough to make good laws.

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