Voltaire’s Understanding of Inequality

This passage from François–Marie Arouet, pen–named Voltaire, who was perhaps the best–known writer of the eighteenth century, illustrates the spirit of investigation of the Enlightenment. The philosophes wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. From a well–to–do middle–class background, Voltaire condemned arbitrary inequality and the social conditions that spawned it.


Does a dog need another dog, or a horse, another horse? No animal depends on any other of its species. Man, however, has received that divine inspiration that we call Reason. And what has it wrought? Slavery almost everywhere we turn.

If this world were as good as it seems it could be, if everywhere man could find a livelihood that was easy and assured a climate suitable to his nature, it is clear that it would be impossible for one man to enslave another. If this globe were covered with wholesome fruit, if the air, which normally should contribute to our lives, did not carry disease or death, if man needed no other lodging and bed than those the buck and his roe require, then the Genghis-Khans and Tamerlanes would have no servants other than their own children decent enough to help them in their old age.

If some individual of tyrannous mind and brawny arm had the idea of enslaving his neighbor who is weaker than he, it would be impossible. The oppressed would be one hundred leagues away before the oppressor had taken his first steps.

If all men then were without needs, they would thus be necessarily equal. It is the poverty that is a part of our species that subordinates one man to another. It is not inequality, it is dependence that is the real misfortune. It matters very little that this man calls himself "His Highness," or that man "His Holiness." What is hard is to serve them.

In our unhappy world it is impossible for men living in society not to be divided into two classes:

The rich who command, and the poor who serve. These two classes are then subdivided into a thousand, and these thousand have even more subtle differences.

All the poor are not unhappy. The majority are born in that condition, and continual work keeps them from feeling their fate too keenly. However, when they do feel it, the result is wars, such as that in Rome where the People's party was pitted against the Senate party, or such as those of the peasants in Germany, England, and France. All these wars shall finish sooner or later with the subjugation of the people because the powerful have money; for in a state, money is master of all. I say in a state, for it is not the same between nations. The nation that makes the best use of the sword will always subjugate the nation that has more gold and less courage.

All men are born with a rather violent penchant for domination, wealth, and pleasure, and with a strong taste for idleness. Consequently, all men covet the money, wives, or daughters of other men, want to be their master, subjecting them to all their caprices and doing nothing, or at least only doing enjoyable things. It is easy to see that with these honorable tendencies it is as impossible for men to be equal as it is impossible for two preachers or two professors of theology not to be jealous of one another.

The human race, such as it is, cannot subsist unless there is an endless number of useful men who possess nothing at all. For it is certain that a man who is well off will not leave his own land to come and plow yours, and if you have need of a pair of shoes, it is not the Appellate Judge who will make them for you. Equality is therefore both the most natural of things, as well as the most unreal.

As men go to extremes in everything when they can, this inequality has been exaggerated. It has been claimed in many countries that it was not permissible for a citizen to leave the country where fate has placed him. The idea behind this law is obvious: "This land is so bad and so badly governed that we forbid anyone to leave for fear that everyone will leave." Do better: make all your subjects want to live in your country, and make foreigners want to come.

Deep in their hearts, all men have the right to think themselves entirely equal to other men, but it does not follow from this that the cardinal's cook can order his master to prepare him dinner. But the cook can say: "I am a man like my master, born in tears, as was he. When he dies, it will be with the same fear and the same rituals as I. Both of us perform the same natural functions. If the world was turned upside down, and I became cardinal and my master became the cook, I would take him into my service." This discourse is reasonable and just, but while waiting for the world to turn over, the cook must do his duty or else all human society becomes corrupted.

Source: François-Marie Arouet, Dictionnaire philosophique (London [Nancy], 1765), 157–60.