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.


A BIG library has this in it of good, that it dismays those who look at it. Two hundred thousand volumes discourage a man tempted to print; but unfortunately he at once says to himself: "People do not read all those books, and they may read mine." He compares himself to a drop of water who complains of being lost in the ocean and ignored: a genius had pity on it; he caused it to be swallowed by an oyster; it became the most beautiful pearl in the Orient, and was the chief ornament in the throne of the Great Mogul. Those who are only compilers, imitators, commentators, splitters of phrases, usurious critics, in short, those on whom a genius has no pity, will always remain drops of water.

Our man works in his garret, therefore, in the hope of becoming a pearl.

It is true that in this immense collection of books there are about a hundred and ninety-nine thousand which will never be read, from cover to cover at least; but one may need to consult some of them once in a lifetime. It is a great advantage for whoever wishes to learn to find at his hand in the king's palace the volume and page he seeks, without being kept waiting a moment. It is one of the most noble institutions. No expense is more magnificent and more useful.

The public library of the King of France is the finest in the whole world, less on account of the number and rarity of the volumes than of the ease and courtesy with which the librarians lend them to all scholars. This library is incontestably the most precious monument there is in France.

This astounding multitude of books should not scare. We have already remarked that Paris contains about seven hundred thousand men, that one cannot live with them all, and that one chooses three or four friends. Thus must one no more complain of the multitude of books than of the multitude of citizens.

A man who wishes to learn a little about his existence, and who has no time to waste, is quite embarrassed. He wishes to read simultaneously Hobbes, Spinosa, Bayle who wrote against them, Leibnitz who disputed with Bayle, Clarke who disputed with Leibnitz, Malebranche who differed from them all, Locke who passed as having confounded Malebranche, Stillingfleet who thought he had vanquished Locke, Cudworth who thinks himself above them because he is understood by no one. One would die of old age before having thumbed the hundredth part of the metaphysical romances.

One is very content to have the most ancient books, as one inquires into the most ancient medals. It is that which makes the honour of a library. The oldest books in the world are the " Kings " of the Chinese, the "Shastabad ,, of the Brahmins, of which Mr. Holwell has brought to our knowledge admirable passages, what remains of the ancient Zarathustra, the fragments of Sanchoniathon which Eusebius has preserved for us and which bears the characteristics of the most remote antiquity. I do not speak of the " Pentateuch " which is above all one could say of it.

We still have the prayer of the real Orpheus, which the hierophant recited in the old Greek mysteries. " Walk in the path of justice, worship the sole master of the universe. He is one; He is sole by Himself. All beings owe Him their existence; He acts in them and by them. He sees everything, and never has been seen by mortal eyes."

St. Clement of Alexandria, the most learned of the fathers of the Church, or rather the only scholar in profane antiquity, gives him almost always the name of Orpheus of Thrace, of Orpheus the Theologian, to distinguish him from those who wrote later under his name.

We have no longer anything either of Museus or of Linus. A few passages from these predecessors of Homer would well be an adornment to a library.

Augustus had formed the library called the Palatine. The statue of Apollo presided over it. The emperor embellished it with busts of the best authors. One saw in Rome twenty-nine great public libraries. There are now more than four thousand important libraries in Europe. Choose which suits you, and try not to be bored.

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