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.


IT is said of Marcus Brutus that, before killing himself, he uttered these words : '' 0 virtue ! I thought you were something; but you are only an empty phantom ! "

You were right, Brutus, if you considered virtue as being head of a faction and assassin of your benefactor; but if you had considered virtue as consisting only of doing good to those dependent on you, you would not have called it a phantom, and you would not have killed yourself in despair.

I am very virtuous says this excrement of theology, for I have the four cardinal virtues, and the three divine. An honest man asks him--" What is the cardinal virtue? " The other answers--" Strength, prudence, temperance and justice."


If you are just, you have said everything; your strength, your prudence, your temperance, are useful qualities. If you have them, so much the better for you; but if you are just, so much the better for the others. But it is not enough to be just, you must do good; that is what is really cardinal. And your divine virtues, which are they?


Faith, hope, charity.


Is it a virtue to believe? either what you believe seems true to you, and in this case there is no merit in believing; or it seems false to you, and then it is impossible for you to believe.

Hope cannot be a virtue any more than fear; one fears and one hopes, according as one receives a promise or a threat. As for charity, is it not what the Greeks and the Romans understood by humanity, love of one's neighbour? this love is nothing if it be not active; doing good, therefore, is the sole true virtue.


One would be a fool! Really, I am to give myself a deal of torment in order to serve mankind, and I shall get no return! all work deserves payment. I do not mean to do the least honest action, unless I am certain of paradise.


Ah, master! that is to say that, if you did not hope for paradise, and if you did not fear hell, you would never do any good action. Believe me, master, there are two things worthy of being loved for themselves, God and virtue.


I see, sir, you are a disciple of Fenelon.


Yes, master.


I shall denounce you to the judge of the ecclesiastical court at Meaux.


Go along, denounce!


What is virtue? Beneficence towards the fellow-creature. Can I call virtue things other than those which do me good? I am needy, you are generous. I am in danger, you help me. I am deceived, you tell me the truth. I am neglected, you console me. I am ignorant, you teach me. Without difficulty I shall call you virtuous. But what will become of the cardinal and divine virtues? Some of them will remain in the schools.

What does it matter to me that you are temperate? you observe a precept of health; you will have better health, and I am happy to hear it. You have faith and hope, and I am happy still; they will procure you eternal life. Your divine virtues are celestial gifts; your cardinal virtues are excellent qualities which serve to guide you : but they are not virtues as regards your fellow-creature. The prudent man does good to himself, the virtuous man does good to mankind. St. Paul was right to tell you that charity prevails over faith and hope.

But shall only those that are useful to one's fellow-creature be admitted as virtues? How can I admit any others? We live in society; really, therefore, the only things that are good for us are those that are good for society. A recluse will be sober, pious; he will be clad in hair-cloth; he will be a saint: but I shall not call him virtuous until he has done some act of virtue by which other men have profited. So long as he is alone, he is doing neither good nor evil; for us he is nothing. If St. Bruno brought peace to families, if he succoured want, he was virtuous; if he fasted, prayed in solitude, he was a saint. Virtue among men is an interchange of kindness; he who has no part in this interchange should not be counted. If this saint were in the world, he would doubtless do good; but so long as he is not in the world, the world will be right in refusing him the title of virtuous; he will be good for himself and not for us.

But, you say to me, if a recluse is a glutton, a drunkard, given to secret debauches with himself, he is vicious; he is virtuous, therefore, if he has the Opposite qualities. That is what I cannot agree : he is a very disagreeable fellow if he has the faults you mention; but he is not vicious, wicked, punishable as regards society to whom these infamies do no harm. It is to be presumed that were he to return to society he would do harm there, that he would be very vicious; and it is even more probable that he would be a wicked man, than it is sure that the other temperate and chaste recluse would be a virtuous man, for in society faults increase, and good qualities diminish.

A much stronger objection is made; Nero, Pope Alexander VI., and other monsters of this species, have bestowed kindnesses; I answer hardily that on that day they were virtuous.

A few theologians say that the divine emperor Antonine was not virtuous; that he was a stubborn Stoic who, not content with commanding men, wished further to be esteemed by them; that he attributed to himself the good he did to the human race; that all his life he was just, laborious, beneficent through vanity, and that lie only deceived men through his virtues. " My God ! " I exclaim. " Give us often rogues like him ! "

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