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.


RARE in natural philosophy is the opposite of dense. In moral philosophy, it is the opposite of common.

This last variety of rare is what excites admiration. One never admires what is common, one enjoys it.

An eccentric thinks himself above the rest of wretched mortals when he has in his study a rare medal that is good for nothing, a rare book that nobody has the courage to read, an old engraving by Albrecht Durer, badly designed and badly printed: he triumphs if he has in his garden a stunted tree from America. This eccentric has no taste; he has only vanity. He has heard say that the beautiful is rare ; but he should know that all that is rare is not beautiful.

Beauty is rare in all nature's works, and in all works of art.

Whatever ill things have been said of women, I maintain that it is rarer to find women perfectly beautiful than passibly good.

You will meet in the country ten thousand women attached to their homes, laborious, sober, feeding, rearing, teaching their children; and you will find barely one whom you could show at the theatres of Paris, London, Naples, or in the public gardens, and who would be looked on as a beauty.

Likewise, in works of art, you have ten thousand daubs and scrawls to one masterpiece.

If everything were beautiful and good, it is clear that one would no longer admire anything; one would enjoy. But would one have pleasure in enjoying? that is a big question.

Why have the beautiful passages in " The Cid," " The Horaces," " Cinna," had such a prodigious success? Because in the profound night in which people were plunged, they suddenly saw shine a new light that they did not expect. It was because this beauty was the rarest thing in the world.

The groves of Versailles were a beauty unique in the world, as were then certain passages of Corneille. St. Peter's, Rome, is unique.

But let us suppose that all the churches of Europe were equal to St. Peter's, Rome, that all statues were Venus dei Medici, that all tragedies were as beautiful as Racine's '' Iphigenie '', all works of poetry as well written as Boileau's " Art Poetique ", all comedies as good as " Tartufe ", and thus in every sphere; would you then have as much pleasure in enjoying masterpieces become common as they made you taste when they were rare? I say boldly " No! "; and I believe that the ancient school, which so rarely was right, was right when it said: Ab assuetis non fit passio, habit does not make passion.

But, my dear reader, will it be the same with the works of nature? Will you be disgusted if all the maids are so beautiful as Helen; and you, ladies, if all the lads are like Paris? Let us suppose that all wines are excellent, will you have less desire to drink? if the partridges, pheasants, pullets are common at all times, will you have less appetite? I say boldly again " No! ", despite the axiom of the schools, " Habit does not make passion ": and the reason, you know it, is that all the pleasures which nature gives us are always recurring needs, necessary enjoyments, and that the pleasures of the arts are not necessary. It is not necessary for a man to have groves where water gushes to a height of a hundred feet from the mouth of a marble face, and on leaving these groves to go to see a fine tragedy. But the two sexes are always necessary to each other. The table and the bed are necessities. The habit of being alternately on these two thrones will never disgust you.

In Paris a few years ago people admired a rhinoceros. If there were in one province ten thousand rhinoceroses, men would run after them only to kill them. But let there be a hundred thousand beautiful women, men will always run after them to . . . honour them.

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