Reference > Quotations > S.A. Bent, comp. > Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men
S.A. Bent, comp.  Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men.  1887.
        [François Marie Arouet, who assumed the name of Voltaire; born near Sceaux, Nov. 20, 1694; educated in Paris; confined for a year in the Bastille, 1717, where he wrote the “Henriade” and “Œdipus;” visited England, 1726; wrote “The Life of Charles XII.,” 1730; elected to the Academy, 1746; lived at the court of Frederick the Great, 1750–53; established himself at Ferney, near Geneva, 1755; visited Paris, 1778, where he died May 30.]
The kingdom of heaven must have fallen into regency.
          Voltaire was put into the Bastille for libelling the regent and his family. The Duc de Brancas, having obtained his release, October, 1718, took him to the palace to thank the prince. Being obliged to wait a long time, Voltaire amused himself by looking out of the window; and seeing rain, snow, and hail falling together, turned to the duke with the remark, “In such weather as this, sir, would not one say that the kingdom of heaven had also fallen into regency?” (Monsieur, en voyant un pareil temps, ne dirait-on pas que le ciel est aussi tombé en régence?) The regent told him to be careful, and he would take care of him; to which the poet coolly replied, “I should find it very good if his Majesty should be pleased henceforth to charge himself with my board, but I beg your Royal Highness not to trouble yourself further with my lodging.”
Here is a letter which will never reach its address.
          In 1722 Voltaire was sent on a diplomatic mission to Holland, and met in Brussels the French poet Jean Baptiste Rousseau, who handed him an ode or poem on “Immortality.” The weak production drew from Voltaire the comment, “Voilà une lettre qui n’arrivera jamais à son adresse.” A gentleman who had written a tragedy told Sheridan that Cumberland had offered to write a prologue to it; “and perhaps,” he added, “Mr. Sheridan would not object to supply an epilogue.” “Trust me, my dear sir,” he replied, “it will never come to that.”
  Years after their meeting at Brussels, Voltaire said of Rousseau, “He despises me because I sometimes neglect to rhyme, and I despise him because he knows nothing except to rhyme.”
  Voltaire made more than one visit to Holland, where he brought out his “Henriade,” and mixed in polite society. Nevertheless, he joined the canals, ducks, and rabble of that country in one farewell, the alliterative form of which cannot be preserved in English: “Adieu, canaux, canards, canaille!”
I begin my name, the Chevalier de Rohan ends his.
          At a dinner at the Duc de Sully’s, in December, 1725, Voltaire contradicted the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, who asked who that young man was who talked with so much assurance (si haut): “I am the first of my name,” replied the poet, “you are the last of yours;” or, as also given, “I do not trail after me a great name, but I do honor to the name I bear.” The guests applauded the poet, and the chevalier left the table. The next day Voltaire was called to a carriage in front of the Duc de Sully’s house, and as he stepped into it was beaten by four of the chevalier’s lackeys; which caused the Bishop of Blois to say, “How unfortunate we should be if poets had no shoulders!” (Nous serions bien malheureux si les poêtes n’avaient point d’épaules.) When Voltaire appealed to the regent for justice, the latter dryly remarked, “It has been done you” (On vous l’a faite). The poet then attempted to vindicate himself by challenging the chevalier, and was shut up in the Bastille. During his captivity of fifteen days, he asked the lieutenant of police what was done with people who forged lettres de cachet; he replied that they were hanged. “That is right,” said Voltaire, “in anticipation of the time when those who sign genuine ones shall be served in the same way.”
Sir, had you been but a gentleman, I should not have visited you.
          To Congreve, who replied to Voltaire’s salutation as a dramatist of wit and imagination, “I am not an author, sir: I am a gentleman.” Congreve, at the time of Voltaire’s visit to England, was an old man, retired with pensions, and disposed to speak contemptuously of his literary achievements.
  Other sayings of Voltaire’s date from this visit to England. Thus he said of their parliamentary elections, “The English go mad once every seven years.” He compared the people to their own beer, “froth on top, dregs at the bottom, the middle excellent.” “The hangman,” he said, “should write their history, for he has usually settled their disputes.” He wrote in a letter: “If there were but one religion in England, its despotism would be formidable; if there were only two, they would throttle each other: but there are thirty, and they live happily and peaceably.” The Marquis Caraccioli, Neapolitan ambassador in the last century, said, “There are in England sixty different religious sects, and only one gravy (melted butter)” (Il y a en Angleterre soixante sectes religieuses différentes, et une seule sauce). This resembles Talleyrand’s remark that he found in the United States thirty-two religions and but one course at dinner (plat). The marquis also said of England, “The only fruit that ripen there are apples, for they are roasted.” But this was more pointedly expressed by a Frenchman, the Comte de Lauraguais, who said, on his return from a first trip to England, that he found there “no ripe fruit but baked potatoes, and nothing polished (poli) but steel.”
Is Trajan pleased?
          On the return of Louis XV. from the battle of Fontenoy, November, 1745, Voltaire produced an opera called “The Temple of Glory,” in which the king was represented as Trajan giving peace to the world, and receiving the crown denied to conquerors but reserved to the heroic friends of humanity. The piece was successful; and, as Louis passed out, Voltaire asked the Duc de Richelieu, in a tone loud enough to be heard by the king, “Is Trajan pleased?” (Trajan, est-il content?) Less flattered by the comparison than offended by the familiarity of a poet he had never liked, the French Trajan turned his back upon Voltaire without a word. It was perhaps because the Duc de Richelieu did not suggest a reply. At a time, says Fournier, when wit was every thing and good sense nothing, when a clever mot expiated a foolish action, any thing could be allowed in a king of France, except silence. Wit was one of the necessary articles of his trade, and Louis XV. lost a part of his popularity in not taking pains to be provided with it. At one time, according to Chamfort, the plan of a full court which the king was to hold was presented to him. Every thing was arranged between Louis, Mme. de Pompadour, and the ministers. The replies which the king was to make were dictated to him; and the entire proceeding was explained in a written programme, where can be read, “Here the king will look stern; here his Majesty’s brow will become smooth again; here the king will make such and such a gesture,” etc. The programme is still in existence.—Œuvres Choisies, p. 46.
  The king’s only answer to an application of Voltaire to visit Frederick the Great was, “My kingdom will then contain one fool less.”
I think I advised you to go on living, if only to enrage those who pay you annuities.
          In a letter to Mme. du Deffand, 1754. He also said of himself in April of that year, “As soon as I feel the symptoms of an indigestion, I say to myself, ‘Three or four princes will gain by my death.’”
  In the year 1755, when he settled at Geneva, he bought a bear; and, having heard that a priest had written a book justifying the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, he wrote: “Send me that abominable book, and I will put it into my bear’s cage.”
Perhaps we were both mistaken.
          During his stay at “Les Délices,” in Geneva, Voltaire was visited by the Italian Casanova, who said, in answer to his host’s praise of Haller, that the Bernese savant did not return the compliment by speaking well of Voltaire. “Perhaps we were both mistaken,” was the simple reply (Peut-être nous nous trompons tous les deux).
  Theano, the priestess of Delphi, told Timæonides, who had often reviled her, that, notwithstanding his unkindness, she always spoke well of him, but had the luck still to find that her panegyric had the same fate with his satire,—to be equally discredited.—STERNE: Koran. Prior derived an epigram from this:—
        “You always speak ill of me,
I always speak well of thee;
But, spite of all our noise and pother,
The world believes not one nor t’other.”
Écrasez l’infâme!
          At the time of his settlement at Ferney, Voltaire began to use the expression which has become famous, “Écrasez le fantôme, écrasez le colosse,” and finally, “écrasez l’infâme.” Thus to d’Alembert he wrote, “Courage: continue, you and your colleagues, [of “The Encyclopædia”] to overthrow the hideous phantom, enemy of philosophy and persecutor of philosophers.”—PARTON: Life, II. 284; and again, “To overthrow the colossus, only five or six philosophers who understand one another are necessary;” then he explained his meaning: “The object is not to hinder our lackeys from going to mass or sermon: it is to rescue fathers of families from the tyranny of impostors, and to inspire the spirit of tolerance.” He then adopted “Écrasez l’infâme” as his motto, writing it first to d’Alembert, June 23, 1760: “I end all my letters with ‘Crush the infamous thing,’ just as Cato always said, ‘Such is my opinion, and Carthage must be destroyed.’” Then he defines it more clearly: “I want you to crush the infamous thing, that is the main point. It is necessary to reduce it to the state in which it is in England; and you can succeed in this if you will.” “By the infâme,” he wrote to d’Alembert, “you will understand that I mean superstition: as for religion, I love and respect it as you do” (vous pensez bien, que je ne parle que de la superstition: car pour la religion, je l’aime et la respecte comme vous). A quotation from a letter of d’Alembert to Voltaire, May 4, 1762, shows that infâme was understood by them to be of the feminine gender, agreeing with chose understood: “Écrasez l’infâme, me répétez-vous sans cesse. Ah, mon Dieu, laissez-LA se précipiter ELLE-même, ELLE y court plus vite que vous ne pensez.”
Deo erexit Voltaire.
          The parish church of Ferney being small and old, Voltaire resolved to build a new one in a less inconvenient place. As he claimed that there was no church dedicated to God, although many to the saints, he inscribed over the door, “Deo solo” (To God alone), which he afterwards changed to “Deo erexit Voltaire” (Voltaire erected it to God). He caused a tall, ungainly crucifix in the churchyard to be removed; the curé of a neighboring village asserting that Voltaire said of it, “Take away that gibbet” (potence), while Voltaire claimed to have used the word “post” (poteau). The crucifix, redecorated, was set up inside the church. As two travellers once stood with Voltaire, looking at the golden letters of the inscription; “That is a fine word (erexit),” said one of them, “between two great names, but is it the proper term?” Voltaire, having explained its significance, showed them his tomb built out from the wall of the church. “The wicked will say,” he added, “that I am neither inside nor outside.”—PARTON: Life, II. 351. In this church Voltaire communed on Easter, 1768, and addressed the congregation.
I have been for fourteen years the innkeeper of Europe.
          Said by Voltaire in reference to the hospitality he exercised at Ferney, where he was visited by travellers from all parts of Europe, and where, as has already been said (v. Villars), he prayed “to be delivered from his friends.” To one guest, the Abbé Coyer, who announced his intention of staying six weeks, Voltaire proposed the conundrum, “Why are you like Don Quixote?” the answer to which was, “He took the inns for châteaux, you take the châteaux for inns” (Il prenait les auberges pour des châteaux, et vous prenez les châteux pour des auberges). The abbé took the hint, and departed the next day. When another worshipper compared him to the great candle which lights the universe; “Mme. Denis,” exclaimed the host, “go quick and get a pair of snuffers!”
  Voltaire was once urged to take his turn with some guests in telling stories of robbers. So he began, “Ladies, once upon a time there was a farmer-general. By my faith, I have forgotten the rest.” His story was considered the best; the character of the farmers-general, or officers who farmed the French revenues previous to 1789, being appreciated.
  He said to Dr. Charles Burney, who visited him in 1770, “When critics are silent, it does not so much prove the age to be correct as dull.”
  Being asked how old he thought the world to be, he replied, “I know not: the world is an old coquette, who conceals her age.”
  “We are here,” he said to Dr. Sherlock, in 1776, “for liberty and property.”
Make wigs, always wigs, nothing but wigs.
          About the year 1760, a wig-maker named André wrote a five-act tragedy entitled “The Earthquake of Lisbon.” He sent it to Voltaire, whom he addressed as his “dear confrère,” asking him to cast his eye over it. Amused at this singular assumption of confraternity, Voltaire returned a letter of four pages containing these words repeated one hundred times: “Master André, make wigs, always wigs, nothing but wigs” (faites des perruques, toujours des perruques, rien que des perruques). The wig-maker maintained that Voltaire was growing old, for he began to repeat himself.
  Voltaire once said of a miserable cart-horse, “His ancestors must have eaten of the forbidden grain.” To a soi-disant philosopher who advanced the theory that animals have a notion of right and wrong, Malebranche replied, “It must be because they have eaten of the forbidden hay” (C’est qu’apparement ils ont mangé du foin défendu).
  Being asked the difference between the good and the beautiful, Voltaire said, “The good has need of proof, the beautiful speaks for itself” (Le bon a besoin de preuves, le beau n’en demande point).
  He once remarked of some authors who were too fond of epithets, “Why will they not understand that the adjective is the greatest enemy of the substantive, even when it agrees with it in gender, number, and case?” “Taste,” he said, “is not to be hastily acquired.”
  While the negative side of the question of the existence of God was being hotly maintained at his table, Voltaire ordered the servants out of the room. He explained it by saying, “I do not wish my valet to cut my throat to-morrow morning.”
Tyrants never sleep!
          When his servant observed that it was too late to awake Lekain, who had played the part of Polyphonte, the usurper, in “Mérope,” and whose part Voltaire wished to change at once by the addition of new lines.
When the populace takes to reasoning, all is lost.
          Letter to his friend Damilaville, April 1, 1766 (Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu).
  Entering Paris on one occasion secretly, he was asked at the barrier if he had any thing contraband with him: “Nothing but myself,” he replied (Il n’y a que moi ici de contrabande).
  “I would rather entertain myself,” he once said, “with lively dead folk, than with the dead alive.”
  He called soldiers, “Alexanders at five sous a day.”
I have no sceptre, but I have a pen.
          In a letter to d’Alembert. As edition after edition of his works appeared, he said, “I am the same as dead, they are selling my effects” (Je me regarde comme mort, on vend mes meubles); and again, “I have too much baggage to take to posterity” (On ne va point à la posterité avec un si gros bagage).
  He wrote to Damilaville, April 5, 1765, of the opposition of the government to “The Encyclopædia:” “Twenty volumes folio will never cause a revolution: it is the little portable volumes of thirty sous that are to be feared. If the gospel had cost twelve hundred sesterces, the Christian religion would never have been established.”
  When Fontenelle said to him, “Your style is too forcible, too lofty, too brilliant, for tragedy;” Voltaire replied, “Then I must study your pastorals again” (Je vais donc relire vos pastorales).
  Voltaire gave this advice to Helvetius, then a young man: “Do you wish an infallible rule for verse? Here it is: See if your thought, as you have written it in verse, is beautiful in prose also.”
  He called La Harpe “an oven which is always hot, but never bakes” (C’est un four qui toujours chauffe, et où rien ne cuit).
  Of the author of a book called “The Soul of Beasts,” Voltaire said, “He is an excellent member of society, but not sufficiently acquainted with the history of his species.”
  He asked a gentleman who addressed a toad as Fréron, a littérateur whom Voltaire hated, “What has that poor animal done, that you should abuse it in such a fashion?”
It is necessary to economize in order to be liberal.
          Thus Cicero (“Paradoxa”) said, “Frugality is a great revenue” (Magna est vectigal parsimonia). The motto of Epicurus was, “Abstain in order to enjoy.”
Ideas are like beards: children and women never have them.
          “Women seem to be incapable of ideas,” said Goethe: “they appear to me quite like Frenchmen. They certainly take from men more than they give.” To Riemer, who quotes Falk, “Frenchmen are the women of Europe.”—Mittheilungen über Goethe, II. 707.
  Being asked for a definition of metaphysics, Voltaire said, “It is when he who listens understands nothing, and he who speaks understands as little” (Quand celui qui écoute n’entend rien, et celui qui parle n’entend plus, c’est métaphysique). Fontenelle said of the same subject, “During the first year that Mademoiselle and I occupied our time with metaphysics, we understood each other, and everybody understood us; the second year, we alone understood each other; the third year, neither of us understood the other.” “Metaphysics,” said Robert Hall, “yield no fruit.”
The more happy I am, the more I pity kings.
          Written in English to Lord Keith, Oct. 4, 1759. At another time he said, “The thing in the world which it is perceived that one can most easily do without is an emperor.”
  He wrote to Theriot that with himself “great men ranked first, heroes last: I call great men all those who have excelled in the useful or the agreeable.” It was to Theriot that he said, “I envy the beasts two things,—their ignorance of evil to come, and their ignorance of what is said of them.”
If I had a hundred bodies, I should weary them all.
          He wrote to Helvetius: “The body of an athlete and the soul of a sage,—these are what we require to be happy.”
        “Mens sana in corpore sano.”
JUVENAL: Satires, X. 357.    
We bow, but do not speak (Nous nous saluons, mais nous ne parlons pas).
          To one of his friends, who noticed that he saluted the passing Host, and asked him if he had become reconciled to the Church.
Life is thick sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy but to pass quickly through them.
          Again, he called the world “a war; he who lives at others’ cost, conquers” (Le monde est une guerre; celui qui vit aux dépens des autres est victorieux). His maxim was, “Jest with life: for that only is it good;” as Gay wrote for his own epitaph,—
        “Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, but now I know it.”
Voltaire wrote to his friends the Argentals, “While awaiting the tragedy, enjoy the farce: nothing is so healthy as constant amusement” (En attendant la tragédie, voilà la farce: il faut toujours s’amuser; rien n’est si sain). “The great and only important thing,” he wrote to Mme. de Bernières, “is to live happily” (La grande affaire, et la seule chose, c’est de vivre heureux).
Regimen is better than physic.
          Cromwell said in his last illness, “Nature can do more than physicians.” Voltaire once remarked to a medical man, “You have undertaken to convey drugs of which you know but little into a body of which you know less,—to cure a disease of which you know nothing.”
The head of gold.
          When Turgot visited him in Paris, Voltaire remarked to the company, “When I look upon M. Turgot, I think I see the statue of Nebuchadnezzar.” “With the feet of clay,” suggested the statesman, who had the gout in his feet. “And the head of gold! the head of gold!” added Voltaire.
God and liberty.
          When Franklin called upon him, Voltaire began to converse in English, as was his custom with English visitors. The spectators drawing near, Mme. Denis, the poet’s niece, asked that the conversation might be carried on in French; to which Voltaire replied, “I am proud to speak the language of a Franklin.” The latter then presented his grandson, and asked the old man’s benediction upon him. Voltaire, raising his hands above the youth’s head, uttered but three words, “Dieu et liberté!”
  Mme. Vestris, of the company of the Théâtre Français, incurred his displeasure at the rehearsals of his tragedy of “Irene,” by speaking her part too rapidly. He said to her, “Remember that I have not written verses of six feet for you to gulp down three of them” (Souvenez-vous que je ne vous ai pas fait des vers de six pieds pour en manger trois).
  To Mme. de Cossé, who called with other fashionable people, Voltaire introduced Mme. de Villette (Belle-et-Bonne), and the duchess congratulated him on having found her a husband: “I congratulate myself also,” replied the poet, “who have made two happy, and one wise.”
  The poet Saint-Ange, in taking leave of him, said, “To-day, sir, I have called to see Homer. I shall call another day to see Euripides and Sophocles; afterwards, Tacitus; then, Lucian;” at which Voltaire asked, “Could you not pay all these visits the same day?” (Ne pourriez-vous pas faire toutes vos visites le même jour?) To Mercier, who told him that he had surpassed all his contemporaries, and would surpass Fontenelle, in the art of living long: “Ah, sir,” interrupted Voltaire, “Fontenelle was a Norman, and cheated nature.”
I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.
          Voltaire’s last declaration, written with his own hand, Feb. 28, 1778 (Je meurs en adorant Dieu, en aimant mes amis, en ne haïssant pas mes ennemis, et en détestant la superstition). Having sufficiently recovered from an alarming illness in February, he attended a representation of “Irene” on the 30th of March. The audience called him to the front of his box, and one of the actors placed a laurel crown upon his head, amid great enthusiasm. “Ah, mon Dieu!” he exclaimed, “you wish, then, to make me die of glory!” The triumph which he received affected him to tears. “They wish,” he said, “to stifle me under roses.”
  John Adams, minister of the United States, records in his diary seeing Voltaire and Franklin embrace in the hall of the French Academy, after a scene of similar enthusiasm. “The cry,” he writes, “immediately spread through the kingdom, ‘How charming it was to see Solon and Sophocles embrace!’”
  Having persuaded the Academy to undertake a new dictionary of the French language, they divided the letters among themselves, Voltaire himself taking A; at the close of the exciting session he took leave of the Immortals with the words, “Gentlemen, I thank you in the name of the alphabet.” The reply was a pun: “We thank you in the name of [the] letters” (des lettres).
  In the oration pronounced May 30, 1878, on the one-hundredth anniversary of Voltaire’s death, Victor Hugo said, “If to kill be a crime, to kill much cannot be an extenuating circumstance…. In the eyes of the eternal God, a murderer is not changed in character, because, instead of a hangman’s cap, there is placed upon his head an emperor’s crown…. Let us say it with a sentiment of profound respect: Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled. Of that divine tear and of that human smile is composed the sweetness of the present civilization.” Mgr. Dupanloup, Bishop of Orleans, having criticised the speech, Victor Hugo in his reply alluded to the history of France under the Second Empire: “During that time you were in a palace, I was in exile. I pity you, sir.”—PARTON: Life of Voltaire.

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