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.


ONE gives the name of tyrant to the sovereign who knows no laws but those of his caprice, who takes his subjects' property, and who afterwards enrols them to go to take the property of his neighbours. There are none of these tyrants in Europe.

One distinguishes between the tyranny of one man and that of many. The tyranny of many would be that of a body which invaded the rights of other bodies, and which exercised despotism in favour of the laws corrupted by it. Nor are there any tyrants of this sort in Europe.

Under which tyranny would you like to live? Under neither; but if I had to choose, I should detest the tyranny of one man less than that of many. A despot always has his good moments; an assembly of despots never. If a tyrant does me an injustice, I can disarm him through his mistress, his confessor or his page; but a company of grave tyrants is inaccessible to all seductions. When it is not unjust, it is at the least hard, and never does it bestow favours.

If I have only one despot, I am quit of him by drawing myself up against a wall when I see him pass, or by bowing low, or by striking the ground with my forehead, according to the custom of the country; but if there is a company of a hundred despots, I am exposed to repeating this ceremony a hundred times a day, which in the long run is very annoying if one's hocks are not supple. If I have a farm in the neighbourhood of one of our lords, I am crushed; if I plead against a relation of the relations of one of our lords, I am ruined. What is to be done? I fear that in this world one is reduced to being either hammer or anvil; lucky the man who escapes these alternatives!

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Return to Hanover College Department of History
Please send comments to: