Most of the
collectors of verses or witty sayings resemble those who eat cherries
or oysters, since these start by chosing the best, and end by eating
It would be
a curious thing to find a book that pointed out all the ideas that
corrupt the human mind, human society, and human morals, that one finds
developed or presupposed in the most famous writings, and in the most
praised authors: those ideas that propagate religious superstition, bad
political principles, despotism, the vanity of rank, the popular
prejudices of every kind. One would see that almost all books are
corrupters, and that the very best do almost as much harm as good.
There is no
cessation in the writings about education, and the works on this
subject have produced a few happy ideas and a few useful methods: in a
word, they have done some partial good. But what good, on a large
scale, can such writings do, if one cannot first make the necessary
reforms in law, in religion, in public opinion? Education has no other
end than conforming the mind of the child to the public reasoning about
these three subjects, yet what instructions can one give if these three
things are in battle? And while forming the minds of children, what are
you doing other than preparing them to see even sooner the absurdity of
the opinions sanctified by the seal of sacred authority, whether public
or judicial, and thus to teach him contempt?
It is a
source of pleasure and of philosophy to analyze the ideas that
contribute to the various judgments of some man or some society. The
examination of the ideas that determine this or that public opinion is
no less interesting, and is often more so.
It is with
civilisation as it is with cooking. If one sees a table with light
dishes, healthy and well-prepared, one is happy to conclude that
cooking has become a science, but when one sees there gravies, rich
bouillons, truffled patés, one curses the cooks and their awful art: it
all depends on how art is practiced.
Man, in the
present state of society, seems to me to be more corrupted by his
reason than by his passions. His passions (I mean those which he shares
with primive man) have conserved, in the social order, that little of
nature which one still finds in it.
not, as one usually believes, a natural development, but rather a
natural decomposition and its entire reconstruction. It is a second
building, built with the ruins from the first. One rediscovers the
fragments with a mixture of pleasure and surprise. It is the same
sentiment that is evoked by a naive expression of some natural feeling
when this happens in society, and this is especially so if the person
who expressed it has some high rank, and thus is farther removed from
nature. It is charming in a king, for a king is farthest removed from
nature. It is like the remains of the ancient doric or corinthian
architecture, set in a crude and modern context.
if society were not such a fabric of pretensions, all simple and true
sentiments would not produce the great effect they do: it then would
please without astonishing, yet it astonishes and pleases. Our surprise
is a satire on society; our pleasure is a hommage to nature.
always have some need for their honor, rather like police informers,
who are paid less when they inform on the lower strata of
A man of
the people, a beggar, may let himself be despised, without giving rise
to the idea of his being a base man, when the contempt does not seem to
address anything but his exterior, but the same beggar, if he would let
his conscience be insulted, even by the first of Europe's rulers, would
become as base in his person as in his station.
It must be
admitted that it is impossible to live in society without playing a
part from time to time. What distinguishes the honest man from the
swindler is that the former does not play and pretend unless he is
forced, and tries to escape such danger, whereas the latter searches
out such opportunities.
people reason strangely when in society. For example, a man is told,
when he wants to speak up in favor of someone else: "He is your friend.
Well, I ask you! Yes, he is my friend because the good that I tell of
him is true, because he is as I ... You confuse cause and effect. Why
do you suppose that I speak well of him because he is my friend, and
why do you not much rather suppose he is my friend, because there is
good to be told about him? "
two classes of moralists and politics: those which cannot see human
nature from the side of what is odious or ridiculous, and that is the
greatest number: Lucan, Montaigne, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Swift,
Mandeville, Helvétius, etc.; those who cannot see it except from the
side of what is beautiful and perfect: Shaftesbury and some others. The
first do not know the palace without having seen the ..., the second
are enthusiasts who turn their eyes away from what offends them, even
though it exists.
Est in medio
wanted proof of the complete uselessness of all books of morals,
sermons etc., one only needs to look to the prejudices on the basis of
hereditary nobility. Is there any fault against which the philosophers,
the orators, the poets have launched more satirical tracts, that has
more exercised the wits of all sorts, that has given birth to more
sarcasms? Has this killed pretensions, or the fantasy to board an
expensive coach? Has it removed the employment of Chérin? (*)
theatre, one aims at effect, but what distinguishes the good from the
bad poet is that the first want to produce effects by reasonable means,
while for the latter all means are excellent. It is here as with honest
men and swindlers, both of whom desire to make their fortunes: the
first only use honorable means, while the latter use any means.
like medicine, has many drugs, very few good remedies, and almost no
some fifty million souls in Europe, the double of that in Africa, more
than three times as much in Asia, and while admitting that America and
the Australian territories do not contain as much as half as does our
hemisphere, one may be sure that there die every day, on our globe,
more than hundred thousand human beings. A man who has not lived more
than thirty years, has escaped this fearful destruction some fourteen
I have seen men who were not
gifted with more than a simple and straightforward capacity for
reasoning, without great knowledge or much wit, and their simple reason
sufficed for taming the human vanities and follies, and gave them the
feeling of their own personal dignity, and made them value the same in
others. I have seen women of whom more or less the same was true, for
whom sincere and well-tested feeling led to the same ideas. It follows
from these two observations that those who attach great importance to
human vanity and folly belong to the lowest class of our species.
not know how to return pleasantries, and who lacks a ready wit, very
often finds himself in the necessity to be either false or pedantic - a
vexing alternative that an honest man usually escapes by good manners
and good humor.
opinion or custom begins by seeming absurd to us in our first youth,
while, as one advances in life, one finds the reason, and it seems less
absurd. Should one conclude from this that certain customs are less
ridiculous? One is sometimes led to think that they have been
established by men who had read the entire book of life, and that they
are judged by men who, in spite of their intelligence, have read
nothing but a few pages.
It seems as if according to the received ideas about social
decency, a priest or a curare ought to believe a little so as not to be
hypocrites, but not so much as to be intolerant. The lordly vicar may
smile a little at an argument against religion, the bishop may laugh
outright, and the cardinal may add some himself.
majority of the noblemen makes one think of their ancestors rather as
an Italian cicerone makes on think of Cicero.
have read, I don't know in which traveller, that certain savages in
Africa believe in the immortality of the soul. Without pretending to
know why, they believe it moves about, after death, in the brushwood
that surrounds their homesteads, and they search for it for several
days. Not having found it, they abandon this search, and think no more
about it. This is more or less as our philosophers have done, since
they have to do better things.
honest man should receive public esteem without having courted it, and,
so to speak, in spite of himself. Those who have courted the public
have shown their quality.
is a nice allegory, in the bible, that the tree of the knowledge of
good and evil produced death. Doesn't this emblem mean that, if one has
penetrated to the foundation of things, the loss of illusions leads to
the death of the soul, that is to say to a complete disinterest in all
that concerns and occupies other men?
must be a bit of everything in the world; there must be, even in the
hypocrisies of the social system, some men who oppose nature to
society, truth to opinion, reality to conformism. This is a type of
mind and character that is strong and striking, and that has more
influence than some think. There are men to whom one only needs to show
what is true, to make them run to it with unaffected and interested
surprise. They are amazed that so striking a thing (when one knows how
to present it) has escaped them until then.
is believed that the deaf are unhappy in society. Isn't this judgement
inspired by the love of self in society, that says: "Doesn't that man
there have much to suffer by not being able to hear what we say?".
has consolation for everything and remedies for everything. If ever she
has done you ill, ask her to remedy the ill she did, and she will give
are, as one cannot deny it, a few great characters in modern history,
but one cannot understand how they came to be: It seems they are out of
place, as if they are ...
best philosophy, speaking of society, is to combine the sarcasm of
amusement with the indulgence of contempt.
am no more astonished to see one man tired of glory as I am to see
another man irritated by the noises in his waiting room.
have seen, in the social world, that people continuously sacrifice the
esteem of honest people to gain renown, and sacrifice their own leisure
to find celebrity.
According to Dorilas, a strong argument for the existence of
God is the existence of man, that is, the man of excellence, in that
sense of the word which is the least ambiguous, and the most precise,
and therefore a little circumscribed, in a word, the nobility. This is
the master piece of Providence, or rather the only direct work that
came from His hands. But there are some who pretend, who are certain,
that there are persons who are perfectly like these priviliged beings.
Dorilas says: "Is that true? What! The same figure, the same external
appearance!" Well, the existence of such individuals, of such men, if
one may call them so, which others have denied, and which he, to his
grand surprise, has seen admitted by several of his peers, which is the
sole reason he does not deny their existence more formally, and about
which anyway he is very vague, and full of pardonable doubts, which he
can't help, and against which he satisfies himself by protesting his
great height, and by forgetting politeness, or by the goodness of his
disdain - how can he explain the existence of these creatures, who are
without a doubt so ill defined; what is he to make of them? How can he
square these phenomena with his theory? In which system of physics or
metaphysics, or, if it is necessary, of mythology, will he search for
the solution to this problem? He reasons, he dreams, he is of good
faith, but the problem remains, and he is shaken. He has with, he has
knowledge, he must find the clue to this enigma - and he has found it,
he grasps it, and his eyes shine with joy. Silence. You know that, in
the theology of the Persians, there is the doctrine of the two
principles, those of the good and the bad. Well then! You did not get
it? Nothing could be simpler. Genius, talent, and virtue are all
inventions of the bad principle, from Orizman, the Devil, to show
clearly and evidently that there are some miserable wretches, evident
plebeians, real commoners, or at best barely gentry.
many distinguished military men, how many generals have died, without
having transmitted their names to posterity - in which they have been
less fortunate than Bucephalos, and even the Spanish mastiff Bérécillo,
who devoured the indians of Santo Domingo, and had the pay of three
desires the bad to be lazy and the fools to be silent.
best explanation why dishonest men, and sometimes even stupid ones,
almost always succeed better in finding their way in society than
honest men or intelligent men, is that dishonest men and stupid men
have less trouble to adapt to the habits and the tone of the world,
that generally consists of nothing but dishonesty and foolishness,
whereas honest men and men of sense, who cannot enter as rapidly into
commerce with society, loose precious time to make their fortunes. The
former are merchants who, knowing the language of the country, barter
and deal immediately, whereas the latter are obliged to learn the
language of the dealers and the customers, before they can expose their
wares and start trading. Often indeed they disdain to learn the
language, and therefore must return without making a single deal.
is a kind of prudence that is superior to what one ordinarily means by
that term: the one is the prudence of the eagle, the other that of the
mole. The former consists in boldly living according to one's
character, while courageously accepting whatever disadvantages and
inconveniences this may produce.
be able to forgive reason for the ills it has done to the majority of
men, one must consider what man would be without his reason. It was a
are well-educated idiocies, just as there are well-dressed idiots.
If Adam had been told, on the morning after the death of
Abel, that in a few centuries there would be places where some seven or
eight hundredthousand men would be thrown and bundled together in an
area of some four square leagues, would he have believed that these
masses would ever be able to live together? Wouldn't he have had an
even more awful idea about the crimes and monstrosities to be expected
in such circumstances? One needs this sort of idea to console oneself
about the abuses that accompany such amazing collections of men.
Pretensions are a source of much misery, and the time of
happiness in life starts on the moment one finishes with them. Is a
woman still pretty when her beauty fades? It is her pretensions that
made here ridiculous or unhappy, and ten years later, older and uglier,
she is calm and tranquil. Consider a man who is in the age where one
must succeed or fail with women, and who exposes himself to trouble and
even insults, and when he has become a nothing and lost his
uncertainties, he is tranquil. The harm arises from not having fixed
and settled ideas, and it is better to be less but to be it
unquestionably. The position of dukes and peers, well consolidated, is
much better than that of foreign princes who must struggle continuously
to acquire preeminence. If Chapelain had done as he was adviced to do
by Boileau, by the well-known phrase "Why does he not write prose?", he
would have saved himself many torments, and might have made himself a
name for himself other than being a laughingstock.
you ashamed to have wanted to say more than you can?" said Seneca to
one of his sons, who could not find the opening of a speech he had
started. One could say the same to those who adopt principles that are
too demanding for their characters: "Aren't you ashamed to have wanted
to be more of a philosopher than you can be?"
majority of men live in the world with so little reason, and think so
rarely, that they do not know the world that is always before their
eyes. "They do not know it", said M. de B. wittily, "for the same
reason as cockchafers don't know natural history".
When one sees Bacon, in the beginning of the 16th century,
point out to the human mind what is the way to reconstruct the edifice
of science, on almost ceases to admire the great men who followed him,
such as Boyle, Locke etc. He has mapped out the territories they must
clear or conquer. He is Ceasar, master of the world after the victory
of Pharsalia, who awards kingdoms and provinces to his supporters or
our reason makes us as unhappy as our passions, and one may say of a
man who in such a state, that he is like an ill man who got poisoned by
one looses the illusions and passions of one's youth, one often has
regrets, but sometimes one hates the spell that has deceived one. Thus
Armida burned and destroyed the castle where she was enchanted.
Medical doctors have no better understanding than ordinary
men of illness and what happens in the human body. Both are blind, but
the medical doctors know the way to and in the hospital much better,
and profit more from it.
ask how you can make a fortune. Consider what happens in the pit of a
theater, on a crowded day, how some stay behind, some at the front fall
behind, and some from the back are carried forward. This image is so
apt that the word that expresses it has passed into ordinary language:
To make one's fortune is to get ahead. "My son, my nephew, got
ahead", the vulgar say, and speak of "To advance oneself, to push
ahead, to arrive", which are the received terms that manage to avoid
naming the accompanying ideas of force, of violence, and of grossness,
but even so suggest the main idea.
physical world seems like the work of a powerful and good being, who
has been obliged to abandon the execution of a part of his plan to a
malicious being. But the social world seems like the product of the
antics of a devil turned mad.
who do give nothing but their word as a guarantee for a statement that
should be proved resemble the man who said "I have the honor of
assuring you that the earth turns around the sun."
great things, men show themselves as they believe they should appear;
in small things, they show themselves as they are.
is a philosopher? It is a man who opposes nature to the law, reason to
usage, his conscience to opinion, and his judgement to error.
A fool who has a moment of wit astonishes and shocks, just
like coach horses at a gallop.
be no one's tool, to be the man after one's own heart, one's
own principles, one's own sentimens - that is the rarest thing I've
of wanting to cure men of certain faults that are intolerable to
society, it would be better to help those who suffered from these
quarters of all foolishness is nothing but stupidity.
is the queen of the world, because foolishness is the queen of fools.
should know how to commit the foolishness that belong to one's
without merit gets regards without respect.
great and the small may always fondly say of each other, as did the the
coachman to the whores in "Javelle's Mill" : "Your kind and our
can't form manage without each other".
Someone said that Providence is the Christian name of chance:
some devout person might say that chance is a familiar name of
are few men who permit themselves a vigorous and intrepid use of their
reason, and who dare to apply it to all things to the extent of their
ability. The time has come where reason must be also applied to all
moral and political things, and to society; to kings, to
ministers, to the great, to the philosophers; to the principles of
science and art, etc.: Without this, one remains in the mediocrity.
There are men who have the need to be the first, to lift themselves
above others, whatever the price may be. Everything else is indifferent
to them, if only they are dealt with in the treatises of charlatans; or
are seen in a theatre, on a throne, or on a scaffold - everything is
good to them that draws attention to them.
become small as they gather into groups: they are the devils of Milton,
obliged to turn themselves into pygmies, so as to enter the pandemonium.
People destroy their real character in order to attain the regard and
attention of the world, and throw themselves into obscurity to escape
the danger of being portrayed.
physical pains and the calamities of human nature have made society
necessary. Society has added evils to nature. The inconveniences of
society have led to the necessity of government, which again have added
to the evils of society. Such is the history of mankind.
Ambition comes easier to little souls than to great ones, just as fire
catches more easily in straw or thatched cottages than to palaces.
man lives often with himself, and is in need of virtue; that man lives
with others, and is in need of honor.
fable of Tantalus has been almost only applied to avarice, but it
applies at least as well to ambition, love for glory and almost all
when giving birth at the same time to reason and to the passions, seems
to have wanted to help man by the second gift to alleviate the ills she
did by giving him the first, and by not letting him live more than a
few years after having lost his passions, and seems to take pity on him
by delivering him quickly from a life in with no other resource
passions exaggerate, as they are passions because they exaggerate.
philosopher who desires to extinguish his passions resembles the
alchemist who wanted to extinguish his fire.
of the gifts of nature is that force of reason that elevates you beyond
your own passions and your weaknesses, and that makes you govern your
real qualities, your talents and your virtues.
there men who are so stupid, too much enslaved by custom or fear to
make a testament - who are, in a word, such imbeciles, that they leave
their possessions to those who will rejoice at their death rather than
to those who will grieve about it?
wished illusions on both the wise and the foolish, so as not to make
the former too unhappy because of their wisdom.
considers the manners with which the ill are treated in hospitals, one
would say that human beings have thought of these sad asylumns, not to
take care of the ill, but because of the suffering caused to the
happily healthy who were troubled during their festivities by those
time, those who love nature have been accused of being romantics.
tragedies have the great moral shortcoming of giving to much importance
to life and to death.
lost of all one's days are those on which one did not laugh.
foolishness stems only from stupidity.
falsifies one's mind, one's conscience, one's reason, just as one ruins
principles of the secret and the strongbox are the same.
The mind is
often related to the heart as the library of a castle is related to the
person of its master.
poets, the orators, and even some philosophers tell us about the love
for glory, is what we were told in college to encourage us to win
prizes. What is said to children to make them prefer the praise of
their maids over their taste for some small pie, is what is repeated to
men to make the prefer the praises of their contemporaries or of
posterity to their self-interest.
wants to become a philosopher, one should not be discouraged by the
first few unpleasant discoveries one makes when trying to understand
men. It is necessary, if one is to know them, to overcome the
repugnance they cause, just as an anatomist must overcome nature, its
organs and his own distaste, in order to become a master in his art.
understanding the evils of nature, one learns contempt for death; by
understanding human society, one learns contempt for life.
It is with
the value of men as it is with that of diamants, which, if they have a
certain measure of size, purity and perfection, have a fixed price and
mark, but which, if they fall below that measure, remain without price,
and find no buyers.