Random Quote #82 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778


Ask a toad what beauty is, the _to kalon_? He will answer you that it is
his toad wife with two great round eyes issuing from her little head, a
wide, flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back. Interrogate a Guinea
negro, for him beauty is a black oily skin, deep-set eyes, a flat nose.
Interrogate the devil; he will tell you that beauty is a pair of horns,
four claws and a tail. Consult, lastly, the philosophers, they will
answer you with gibberish: they have to have something conforming to the
arch-type of beauty in essence, to the _to kalon_.

One day I was at a tragedy near by a philosopher. "How beautiful that
is!" he said.

"What do you find beautiful there?" I asked.

"It is beautiful," he answered, "because the author has reached his

The following day he took some medicine which did him good. "The
medicine has reached its goal," I said to him. "What a beautiful
medicine!" He grasped that one cannot say a medicine is beautiful, and
that to give the name of "beauty" to something, the thing must cause you
to admire it and give you pleasure. He agreed that the tragedy had
inspired these sentiments in him, and that there was the _to kalon_,

We journeyed to England: the same piece, perfectly translated, was
played there; it made everybody in the audience yawn. "Ho, ho!" he said,
"the _to kalon_ is not the same for the English and the French." After
much reflection he came to the conclusion that beauty is often very
relative, just as what is decent in Japan is indecent in Rome, and what
is fashionable in Paris, is not fashionable in Pekin; and he saved
himself the trouble of composing a long treatise on beauty.

There are actions which the whole world finds beautiful. Two of Caesar's
officers, mortal enemies, send each other a challenge, not as to who
shall shed the other's blood with tierce and quarte behind a thicket as
with us, but as to who shall best defend the Roman camp, which the
Barbarians are about to attack. One of them, having repulsed the enemy,
is near succumbing; the other rushes to his aid, saves his life, and
completes the victory.

A friend sacrifices his life for his friend; a son for his father....
The Algonquin, the Frenchman, the Chinaman, will all say that that is
very _beautiful_, that these actions give them pleasure, that they
admire them.

They will say as much of the great moral maxims, of Zarathustra's--"In
doubt if an action be just, abstain..."; of Confucius'--"Forget
injuries, never forget kindnesses."

The negro with the round eyes and flat nose, who will not give the name
of "beauties" to the ladies of our courts, will without hesitation give
it to these actions and these maxims. The wicked man even will recognize
the beauty of these virtues which he dare not imitate. The beauty which
strikes the senses merely, the imagination, and that which is called
"intelligence," is often uncertain therefore. The beauty which speaks to
the heart is not that. You will find a host of people who will tell you
that they have found nothing beautiful in three-quarters of the Iliad;
but nobody will deny that Codrus' devotion to his people was very
beautiful, supposing it to be true.

There are many other reasons which determine me not to write a treatise
on beauty.


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