Beaumarchais’s Understandings of Inequality

Like his predecessors of earlier generations, playwright Pierre–Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais—who became an important figure of the late Enlightenment because of the controversy surrounding his work The Marriage of Figaro [1784]—believed that a truly rational society would not tolerate arbitrary inequality.


Because you are a great lord, you think you are a great genius! . . . Nobility, wealth, rank, position . . . they all make you feel so proud! What have you done to deserve so much? You went to the trouble of being born—nothing more! As for the resta rather ordinary man!

And as for me, zounds! Lost among the obscure masses, I have had to use more knowledge and be more calculating just to survive than all the rulers of Spain have needed over the last hundred years! And you want to take me on. . . . Could anything be stranger than a fate such as mine? The son of God-knows-who, kidnapped by bandits, schooled in their ways, they now disgust me and I yearn for an honest job—but everywhere I go, I am turned away. I study chemistry, pharmacology, surgery, and all the money of a great lord could barely get me a job wielding a veterinarian's probe!

Tired of lamenting over sick animals, and wanting to do something completely different, I threw myself recklessly into the theater. Alas, I might as well have tied a stone round my neck! I'm a disaster in a play about ethics in a harem. Since it is a Spanish author, I thought I could unscrupulously make fun of Mohammed, but immediately some envoy from God-knows-where complains that some of my verses offend the Sublime Porte, Persia, a part of the Indian peninsula, all of Egypt, and the Kingdoms of Carthage, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. And there you have it, my play ruined to please some Mohammedan princes. . . . A question about the nature of wealth came up, and since it's possible to discuss things one doesn't actually possess, and not having two pennies to rub together, I wrote about the value of money and its net profit. Soon thereafter, from inside a carriage, I see a castle's drawbridge being lowered for me, and as I entered, abandoned any hope and freedom. [He rises.] How I would like to get hold of one of those seven-day wonders—so thoughtless about the evils that they cause—after a healthy misfortune had curbed his pride! I'd tell him . . . that stupidities that appear in print acquire importance only where they are restricted, that without the freedom to criticize, praise has no value, and that only small minds are apprehensive about small notes. [He sits down again.]

Tired of housing a lowly boarder, one day they throw me into the street, and, since I have to eat now that I'm not in prison anymore, I once again sharpen my quill and ask everyone how things are going. They tell me that during my economic retreat, the tax on production was eliminated in Madrid, which even covered printed works. There is total freedom to publish any article, provided that no reference is made to the authorities, religion, politics, morals, high officials, influential organizations, the opera or any other theatrical productions, or anyone who believes in anything, and subject to the approval of two or three censors! In order to profit from this very generous freedom, I announce a new periodical, which, not wanting to following in anyone's footsteps, I call the "Useless Journal." Phew! A thousand poor writers are immediately up in arms. My paper is shut down and here I am out of work once again!

I was on the point of giving up in despair when someone offered me a job. Unfortunately I was honest—they needed someone good in math, and a dancer got the job! I had no other recourse besides stealing, so I set myself up as a Faro dealer. Now, my good people, I dine on the town and so-called fashionable people politely open their doors for me—keeping three-quarters of the profits for themselves. I could well have restored my economic standing. I even began to understand that, in order to make money, know-how is more important than knowledge. But since everyone around me was crooked, and yet insisted that I be honest, it was normal that once again I went under. This time I renounced the world, and twenty fathoms of water were about to separate me from it, when a beneficent Providence called me back to my original calling. I picked up my bundle and my leather strop and, leaving illusions to the fools who can live by them, and my shame in the middle of the road as too heavy a load for someone on foot, I bounce from town to town, finally living carefree. A great lord, passing through Seville, recognizes me. I perform his wedding ceremony, and in return for my helping him get a wife, he wants to take mine! Plots and stormy interludes!

Source: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, La Folle journée ou le marriage de Figaro (Amsterdam, n.p., 1785 [1784]), act 5, scene 3.