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Voltaire: The laws of robbers and war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

Voltaire: Selections on war

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Voltaire
From Philosophical Dictionary
Translated by William F. Fleming

I was told that laws existed even among robbers, and that there were also laws in war. “They are,” said someone, “to hang up a brave officer for maintaining a weak post without cannon; to hang a prisoner if the enemy has hanged any of yours; to ravage with fire and sword those villages which shall not have delivered up their means of subsistence by an appointed day, agreeably to the commands of the gracious sovereign of the vicinage…I admit that these laws are severe, although their execution is a little severe; but I must acknowledge I am no friend to laws which authorize a hundred thousand neighbors to loyally set about cutting one another’s throats…

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It is…very likely, after all the revolutions of our globe, that it was the art of working metals that made kings, as it is the art of casting cannon which now maintains them.

Our instinct, in the first place, impels us to beat our brother when he vexes us, if we are roused into a passion with him and feel that we are stronger than he is. Afterwards, our sublime reason leads us on to the invention of arrows, swords, pikes, and at length muskets to kill our neighbor with.

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Were you ever acquainted with any king or republic that made either war or peace, that issued decrees, or entered into conventions from any other motive than that of interest?

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Why, of all the various tribes of animals, has man alone the mad ambition of domineering over his fellow? Why and how could it happen, that out a thousand millions of men more than nine hundred and ninety-nine have been sacrificed to this mad ambition?

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Since we write upon the rights of the people, on taxation, on customs, etc., let us endeavor, by profound reasoning, to establish the novel maxim that a shepherd ought to shear his sheep, and not to flay them.

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