What does a dog owe to a dog, and a horse to a horse? Nothing, no animal depends on his life; but man having received the ray of divinity called reason, what is the result? Slavery throughout almost the whole world.
Were this world what it seems that it should be, that is, if man found everywhere on it easy and assured subsistence and a climate appropriate to his nature, it is clear that it would have been impossible for one man to subjugate another. Let this globe be covered with wholesome fruit; let the air which must contribute to our life no longer give us illness and death; let man require no other lodging and no other bed than those of the deer and the stage: then the Genghis Khans and the Tamerlanes would have no other servants than their children, who would be upright enough to help them in their old age.
In this natural state enjoyed by all quadrupeds, birds and reptiles, man would be as happy as they, domination would then be a chimera, an absurdity which would occur to nobody: for why seek for servitors when you need no service?
If some individual with a tyrannical head and vigorous arm got the idea of subjugating a neighbour less strong than he, the thing would be impossible: the oppressed would be 100 leagues away before the oppressor could take action.
Thus all men would necessarily be equal if they were without needs. The poverty characteristic of our species subordinates one man to another. It is not inequality that is the real evil, but dependence. It matters very little that some man is called his highness, and another his holiness; but it is hard to serve one or the other.
A numerous family has cultivated good land. Two small neighbouring families have barren and obstinate fields. It is obvious enough that the two poor families must serve the opulent family or murder it. One of the two indignant families offers its labour to the rich to get bread; the other attacks it and is beaten. The former family originated servant and labourers, the defeated family slaves.
It is impossible on our wretched globe for men living in society not to be divided into two classes, one of oppressors, the other of the oppressed; and these subdivide into a thousand, and the thousand have further gradations.
All the oppressed are not absolutely unhappy. Most of them are born in that state, and continual work prevents them from feeling their condition too keenly; but when they feel it, then we have wars like that in Rome of the popular party against that of the senate, and those of the peasants in Germany, in England, in France. All these wars end sooner or later by the enslavement of the people because the powerful have the money, and in a state money is the master of everything: I say in a state, because it is not so in every nation. The nation making the best use of the sword will always subjugate that having more gold is less courage.
Every man is born with a powerful enough desire for domination, wealth and pleasure, and with much taste for idleness. Consequently every man would like to have other people’s money and wives or women, to be their master, to subjugate them to all his caprices, and to do nothing, or at least to do only very agreeable things. Obviously, having such amiable dispositions, it is as impossible for men to be equal as it is impossible for two preachers or two professors of theology not to be jealous of one another.
Mankind cannot subsist at all unless there is an infinite number of useful men who possess nothing at all. For a prosperous man will certainly not leave his land to cultivate yours; and if you need a pair of shoes it is not a judge who will make them for you. Equality is thus at once the most natural and the most chimerical of things.
As men are extreme in everything whenever possible, this inequality has been exaggerated. In some countries it has been claimed that a citizen is not entitled to leave the country in which he is born by chance. The meaning of this law is obviously: This country is so bad and so badly governed that we forbid every individual to leave it, for fear that everybody will leave. Do better: make all your subjects wish to remain at home and strangers to come to you.
Every man has the right to believe himself, at the bottom of his heart, entirely equal to all other men. It does not follow from this that a cardinal’s cook should order his master to prepare his dinner; but the cook can say: “I’m a man like my master, like him I am born in tears; like me he will die with the same sufferings and the same ceremonies. Both of us perform the same animal functions. If the Turks capture Rome, and I am then a cardinal and my master a cook, I will take him into my service”. All this speech is reasonable and just; but until the Grand Turk captures Rome the cook must do his duty, or every human society is perverted.
As for a man who is neither a cardinal’s cook nor endowed with any other public office; as for a private person of modest views, but who is annoyed because he is received everywhere with an air of patronage or disdain, who sees clearly that several monsignors have no more knowledge, no more intelligence, no more virtue than he, and who is sometimes wearied to find himself in their waiting rooms, what should he do? He should leave.Voltaire (1778) Equality