People have declaimed against luxury for two thousand years, in verse
and in prose, and people have always delighted in it.
What has not been said of the early Romans when these brigands ravaged
and pillaged the harvests; when, to enlarge their poor village, they
destroyed the poor villages of the Volscians and the Samnites? They were
disinterested, virtuous men; they had not yet been able to steal either
gold, silver, or precious stones, because there were not any in the
little towns they plundered. Their woods and their marshes produced
neither pheasants nor partridges, and people praise their temperance.
When gradually they had pillaged everything, stolen everything from the
far end of the Adriatic Gulf to the Euphrates, and when they had enough
intelligence to enjoy the fruit of their plundering; when they
cultivated the arts, when they tasted of all pleasures, and when they
even made the vanquished taste of them, they ceased then, people say, to
be wise and honest men.
All these declamations reduce themselves to proving that a robber must
never either eat the dinner he has taken, or wear the coat he has
pilfered, or adorn himself with the ring he has filched. He should throw
all that, people say, in the river, so as to live like an honest man.
Say rather that he should not have stolen. Condemn brigands when they
pillage; but do not treat them as senseless when they enjoy. Honestly,
when a large number of English sailors enriched themselves at the taking
of Pondicherry and Havana, were they wrong to enjoy themselves later in
London, as the price of the trouble they had had in the depths of Asia
The declaimers want one to bury in the ground the wealth one has amassed
by the fortune of arms, by agriculture, by commerce and by industry.
They cite Lacedaemon; why do they not cite also the republic of San
Marino? What good did Sparto to Greece? Did she ever have Demosthenes,
Sophocles, Apelles, Phidias? The luxury of Athens produced great men in
every sphere; Sparta had a few captains, and in less number even than
other towns. But how fine it is that as small a republic as Lacedaemon
retains its poverty.
One arrives at death as well by lacking everything as by enjoying what
can make life pleasant. The Canadian savage subsists, and comes to old
age like the English citizen who has an income of fifty thousand
guineas. But who will ever compare the land of the Iroquois to England?
Let the republic of Ragusa and the canton of Zug make sumptuary laws,
they are right, the poor man must not spend beyond his powers; but I
have read somewhere:
"Learn that luxury enriches a great state, even if it ruins a
If by luxury you understand excess, everyone knows that excess in any
form is pernicious, in abstinence as in gluttony, in economy as in
generosity. I do not know how it has happened that in my village where
the land is ungrateful, the taxes heavy, the prohibition against
exporting the corn one has sown intolerable, there is nevertheless
barely a cultivator who has not a good cloth coat, and who is not well
shod and well fed. If this cultivator toiled in his fields in his fine
coat, with white linen, his hair curled and powdered, there, certainly,
would be the greatest luxury, and the most impertinent; but that a
bourgeois of Paris or London should appear at the theatre clad like a
peasant, there would be the most vulgar and ridiculous niggardliness.
When scissors, which are certainly not of the remotest antiquity, were
invented, what did people not say against the first men who pared their
nails, and who cut part of the hair which fell on their noses? They were
treated, without a doubt, as fops and prodigals, who bought an
instrument of vanity at a high price, in order to spoil the Creator's
handiwork. What an enormous sin to cut short the horn which God made to
grow at the end of our fingers! It was an outrage against the Deity! It
was much worse when shirts and socks were invented. One knows with what
fury the aged counsellors who had never worn them cried out against the
young magistrates who were addicted to this disastrous luxury.
 Lacedaemon avoided luxury only by preserving the community or
equality of property; but she did not preserve either the one or the
other save by having the land cultivated by an enslaved people. The
existence of the equality or community of property supposes the
existence of an enslaved people. The Spartans had virtue, just like
highwaymen, inquisitors and all classes of men whom habit has
familiarized with a species of crime, to the point of committing them
 The sumptuary laws are by their nature a violation of the right of
property. If in a little state there is not a great inequality of
fortune, there will be no luxury; if this inequality exists, luxury is
the remedy for it. It is her sumptuary laws that have lost Geneva her
 If by luxury one understands everything that is beyond the
necessary, luxury is a natural consequence of the progress of the human
species; and to reason consequently every enemy of luxury should believe
with Rousseau that the state of happiness and virtue for man is that,
not of the savage, but of the orang-outang. One feels that it would be
absurd to regard as an evil the comforts which all men would enjoy:
also, does one not generally give the name of luxury to the
superfluities which only a small number of individuals can enjoy. In
this sense, luxury is a necessary consequence of property, without which
no society can subsist, and of a great inequality between fortunes which
is the consequence, not of the right of property, but of bad laws.
Moralists should address their sermons to the legislators, and not to
individuals, because it is in the order of possible things that a
virtuous and enlightened man may have the power to make reasonable laws,
and it is not in human nature for all the rich men of a country to
renounce through virtue procuring for themselves for money the
enjoyments of pleasure or vanity.