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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Luxury
By Voltaire (1694–1778)
 
From the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’

IN the country of the barefoot, could luxury be imputed to the first man who made himself a pair of shoes? Was he not rather a model of sense and industry? So of the man who contrived the first shirt.  1
  As to the man who had it washed and ironed, I set him down as an absolute genius, abundant in resources, and qualified to govern a State. Naturally, however, a society unused to clean shirts looked upon him as an effeminate coxcomb, who was likely to corrupt the simplicity of the nation….  2
  The other day a Norwegian was berating a Dutchman for luxury. “Where now,” said he, “are the happy times when an Amsterdam merchant, setting out for the Indies, left a quarter of smoked beef in his kitchen, and found it untouched on his return? Where are your wooden spoons and iron forks? Is it not shameful for a sensible Dutchman to sleep in a bed of damask?”  3
  “Go to Batavia,” replied the Amsterdammer; “bring home, as I have done, ten tons of gold: and then see if you too do not prefer to be well clothed, well fed, and well lodged.”  4
  Since this conversation, twenty volumes have been written about luxury, which has neither increased nor diminished.  5
  For the space of two thousand years, both in verse and prose, this pleasant vice has been attacked—and cherished. Recall the Romans. When early in their history these banditti pillaged their neighbors’ harvests, when to profit their own wretched villages they burned the poor hamlets of the Volsci and Samnites, they were, we are told, disinterested and virtuous men. Naturally they did not carry away gold, silver, and jewels, because the towns which they sacked and plundered had none; nor did their woods and swamps produce partridges or pheasants: yet posterity, forsooth, extols their temperance! When they had systematically robbed every country from the Adriatic to the Euphrates, and had developed sense enough to enjoy the fruits of their rapine; when they cultivated the arts and tasted all the pleasures of life, and communicated them to the conquered nations,—then, we are told, they ceased to be wise and good!  6
  The moral seems to be that a robber ought not to eat the dinner he has taken, nor wear the habit he has stolen, nor ornament his fingers with plundered rings: all these, it is said, should be thrown into the river, that the thief may live like the honest man. But what morality ought to say is, Never rob, it is your duty not to rob. Condemn the brigands when they plunder; but do not treat them as fools or madmen for enjoying their plunder. If English sailors win prize money for the capture of Pondicherry or Havana, can they be blamed for pleasuring in London in compensation for the hardships they have undergone in Asia or America? Certain censors admonish men to bury, as it were, the riches that come from war, or agriculture, or commerce and industry in general. They cite Lacedæmonia: why not cite the republic of San Marino? What benefits did Sparta afford Greece? Did she produce a Demosthenes, a Sophocles, an Apelles, or a Phidias? The luxury of Athens formed great men. Sparta certainly produced great captains, though fewer even of these than did other cities. But granting that a small republic like Lacedæmonia may maintain its poverty, men uniformly die, whether in poverty or comfort. The savage of Canada subsists and attains old age, not less than the English landlord with fifty thousand guineas a year. But who would ever compare the country of the Iroquois to England?  7
  Let the republic of Ragusa and the canton of Zug enact sumptuary laws: they are quite right. The poor must not exceed their means; but I have somewhere read that, with some harm, luxury on the whole does great good.  8
  If by luxury you mean excess, let us at once admit that excess is pernicious,—in abstinence as well as in gluttony, in parsimony as in profusion. In my own village, where the soil is meagre, the imposts heavy, and the prohibition against a man’s exporting the corn he has himself sown and reaped, intolerable, there is hardly a cultivator who is not well clothed, and who has not sufficient warmth and food. Should this cultivator plow in his best clothes, and with his hair dressed and powdered, he would display the most absurd luxury; but were a rich citizen of Paris or London to appear at the play in the dress of this peasant, he would exhibit the grossest, the most ridiculous parsimony.
  “Some certain mean in all things may be found,
To mark our virtues’ and our vices’ bound.”
  9
  On the invention of scissors, what was not said of those who pared their nails, and cut off the hair that was hanging down over their eyes? They were doubtless regarded as prodigals and coxcombs, buying an extravagant instrument fit only to spoil the work of the Creator. What a sin to pare the horn which God himself made to grow at our finger-ends! It was an insult to Divinity! With shirts and socks it was far worse. With what wrath and indignation did the old counselors, who had never worn socks, exclaim against the young magistrates who encouraged so fatal a luxury!  10
 
 
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