On Prejudices
by Voltaire

PREJUDICE is an opinion without judgment. Thus all over the world do people inspire children with all the opinions they desire, before the children can judge.

There are some universal, necessary prejudices, which even make virtue. In all countries children are taught to recognize a rewarding and revenging God; to respect and love their father and their mother; to look on theft as a crime, selfish lieing as a vice, before they can guess what is a vice and what a virtue.

There are then some very good prejudices; they are those which are ratified by judgment when one reasons.

Sentiment is not a simple prejudice; it is something much stronger. A mother does not love her son because she has been told she must love him; she cherishes him happily in spite of herself. It is not through prejudice that you run to the help of an unknown child about to fall into a precipice, or be eaten by a beast.

But it is through prejudice that you will respect a man clad in certain clothes, walking gravely, speaking likewise. Your parents have told you that you should bow before this man; you respect him before knowing whether he merits your respect: you grow in years and in knowledge; you perceive that this man is a charlatan steeped in arrogance, self-interest and artifice; you despise what you revered, and the prejudice cedes to judgment. Through prejudice you have believed the fables with which your childhood was cradled; you have been told that the Titans made war on the gods, and Venus was amorous of Adonis; when you are twelve you accept these fables as truths; when you are twenty you look on them as ingenious allegories.

Let us examine briefly the different sorts of prejudices, so as to set our affairs in order. We shall be perhaps like those who, at the time of Law's system, perceived that they had calculated imaginary riches.


Is it not strange that our eyes always deceive us, even when we have very good sight, and that on the contrary our ears do not deceive us? Let your well-informed ear hear " You are beautiful, I love you"; it is quite certain that someone has not said " I hate you, you are ugly ": but you see a smooth mirror; it is demonstrated that you are mistaken, it has a very uneven surface. You see the sun as about two feet in diameter; it is demonstrated that it is a million times bigger than the earth.

It seems that God has put truth in your ears, and error in your eyes; but study optics, and you will see that God has not deceived you, and that it is impossible for objects to appear to you otherwise than you see them in the present state of things.


The sun rises, the moon also, the earth is motionless : these are natural physical prejudices. But that lobsters are good for the blood, because when cooked they are red; that eels cure paralysis because they wriggle; that the moon affects our maladies because one day someone observed that a sick man had an increase of fever during the waning of the moon; these ideas and a thousand others are the errors of ancient charlatans who judged without reasoning, and who, being deceived, deceived others.


Most historical stories have been believed without examination, and this belief is a prejudice. Fabius Pictor relates that many centuries before him, a vestal of the town of Alba, going to draw water in her pitcher, was ravished, that she gave birth to Romulus and Remus, that they were fed by a she-wolf, etc. The Roman people believed this fable; they did not examine whether at that time there were vestals in Latium, whether it were probable that a king's daughter would leave her convent with her pitcher, whether it were likely that a she-wolf would suckle two children instead of eating them; the prejudice established itself.

A monk writes that Clovis, being in great danger at the battle of Tolbiac, made a vow to turn Christian if he escaped; but is it natural to address oneself to a foreign god on such an occasion? is it not then that the religion in which one was born acts most potently? Which is the Christian who, in a battle against the Turks, will not address himself to the Holy Virgin rather than to Mohammed? It is added that a pigeon brought the holy phial in its beak to anoint Clovis, and that an angel brought the oriflamme to lead him; prejudice believed all the little stories of this kind. Those who understand human nature know well that Clovis the usurper and Rolon (or Rol) the usurper turned Christian in order to govern the Christians more Surely, just as the Turkish usurpers turned Mussulman in order to govern the Mussulmans more surely.


If your nurse has told you that Ceres rules over the crops, or that Vishnou and Xaca made themselves men several times, or that Sammonocodom came to cut down a forest, or that Odin awaits you in his hall near Jutland, or that Mohammed or somebody else made a journey into the sky; if lastly your tutor comes to drive into your brain what your nurse has imprinted on it, you keep it for life. If your judgment wishes to rise against these prejudices, your neighbours and, above all, your neighbours' wives cry out " Impious reprobate," and dismay you; your dervish, fearing to see his income diminish, accuses you to the cadi, and this cadi has you impaled if he can, because he likes ruling over fools, and thinks that fools obey better than others: and that will last until your neighbours and the dervish and the cadi begin to understand that foolishness is good for nothing, and that persecution is abominable.