The Man of Forty Crowns
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The Man of Forty Crowns (French: L'Homme aux quarante écus) is a fable written by Voltaire, From Voltaire's Romances, translated from French in 1889.

The Man of Forty Crowns


M. de Voltaire.

I choose that a story should be founded on probability, and not always resemble a dream. I desire to find nothing in it trivial or extravagant; and I desire above all, that under the apperance of fable there many apear some latent truth, obvious to the discerning eye, though it escape the observation of the vulgar. — Voltaire.

National Poverty

An old man, who is forever pitying the present times, and extolling the past, was saying to me: “Friend, France is not so rich as it was under Henry the IVth.”

“And why?”

“Because the lands are not so well cultivated; because hands are wanting for the cultivation; and because the day-laborer having raised the price of his work, many land owners let their inheritances he fallow.”

“Whence comes this scarcity of hands?”

“From this, that whoever finds in himself anything of a spirit of industry, takes up the trades of embroiderer, chaser, watchmaker, silk weaver, attorney, or divine. It is also because the revocation of the Edict of Nantes has left a great void in the kingdom; because nuns and beggars of all kinds have greatly multiplied; because the people in general avoid as much as possible the hard labor of cultivation, for which we are born by God’s destination, and which we have rendered ignominious by our own opinions; so very wise are we!

“Another cause of our poverty lies in our new wants. We pay our neighbors four millions of livres on one article, and five or six upon another, such, for example, as a stinking powder for stuffing up our noses brought from America. Our coffee, tea, chocolate, cochineal, indigo, spices, cost us above sixty millions a year. All these were unknown to us in the reign of Henry the IVth, except the spices, of which, however, the consumption was not so great as it is now. We burn a hundred times more wax-lights than were burnt then; and get more than the half of the wax from foreign countries, because we neglect our own hives. We see a hundred times more diamonds in the ears, round the necks, and on the hands of our city ladies of Paris, and other great towns, than were worn by all the ladies of Henry the IVth’s court, the Queen included. Almost all the superfluities are necessarily paid for with ready specie.

“Observe especially that we pay to foreigners above fifteen millions of annuities on the Hôtel-de-Ville; and that Henry the IVth, on his accession, having found two millions of debt in all on this imaginary Hôtel, very wisely paid off a part, to ease the state of this burden.

“Consider that our civil wars were the occasion of the treasures of Mexico being poured into the kingdom, when Don Philip el Discreto took it into his head to buy France, and that since that time, our foreign wars have eased us of a good half of our money.

“These are partly the causes of our poverty; a poverty which we hide under varnished ceilings, or with the help of our dealers in fashion. We are poor with taste. There are some officers of revenue, there are contractors or jobbers, there are merchants, very rich; their children, their sons-in-law, are also very rich, but the nation in general is unfortunately not so.”

This old man’s discourse, well or ill grounded, made a deep impression on me; for the curate of my parish, who had always had a friendship for me, had taught me a little of geometry and of history: and I begin to reflect a little, which is very rare in my province. I do not know whether he was right or not in every thing, but being very poor, I could very easily believe that I had a great many companions of my misery.

Disaster of the Man of Forty Crowns

I very readily make known to the universe that I have a landed estate which would yield me forty crowns a year, were it not for the tax laid on it.

There came forth several edicts from certain persons, who, having nothing better to do, govern the state at their fire-side, the preamble of these edicts was, “that the legislative and executive was born, jure divino, the co-proprietor of my land;” and that I owe it at least the half of what I possess. The enormity of this legislative and executive power made me bless myself. What would it be if that power which presides over “the essential order of society,” were to take the whole of my little estate? The one is still more divine than the other.

The comptroller general knows that I used to pay, in all, but twelve livres; that even this was a heavy burden on me, and that I should have sunk under it, if God had not given me the talent of making wicker baskets, which helped to carry me through my trials. But how should I, on a sudden, be able to give the king twenty crowns?

The new ministers also said in their preamble, that it was not fit to tax anything but the land, because every thing arises from the land, even rain itself, and consequently that nothing was properly liable to taxation, but the fruits of the land.

During the last war, one of their collectors came to my house, and demanded of me, for my quota, three measures of corn, and a sack of beans, the whole worth twenty crowns, to maintain the war — of which I never knew the reason, having only heard it said, that there was nothing to be got by it for our country, and a great deal to lose. As I had not at that time either corn, or beans, or money, the legislative and executive power had me dragged to prison; and the war went on as well as it could.

On my release from the dungeon, being nothing but skin and bone, whom should I meet but a jolly fresh colored man in a coach and six? He had six footmen, to each of whom he gave for his wages more than the double of my revenue. His head-steward, who, by the way, looked in as good plight as himself, had of him a salary of two thousand livres, and robbed him every year of twenty thousand more. His mistress had in six months stood him in forty thousand crowns. I had formerly known him when he was less well to pass than myself. He owned, by way of comfort to me, that he enjoyed four hundred thousand livres a year.

“I suppose, then,” said I, “that you pay out of this income two hundred thousand to the state, to help to support that advantageous war we are carrying on; since I, who have but just a hundred and twenty livres a year, am obliged to pay half of them.”

“I,” said he, “I contribute to the wants of the state? You are surely jesting, my friend. I have inherited from an uncle his fortune of eight millions, which he got at Cadiz and at Surat; I have not a foot of land; my estate lies in government contracts, and in the funds. I owe the state nothing. It is for you to give half of your substance, — you who are a proprietor of land. Do you not see, that if the minister of the revenue were to require anything of me in aid of our country, he would be a blockhead, that could not calculate? for every thing is the produce of the land. Money and the paper currency are nothing but pledges of exchange. If, after having laid the sole tax, the tax that is to supply the place of all others, on those commodities, the government were to ask money of me; do you not see, that this would be a double load? that it would be asking the same thing twice over? My uncle sold at Cadiz to the amount of two millions of your corn, and of two millions of stuffs made of your wool; upon these two articles he gained cent. per cent. You must easily think that this profit came out of lands already taxed. What my uncle bought for tenpence of you, he sold again for above fifty livres at Mexico; and thus he made a shift to return to his own country with eight millions clear.

“You must be sensible, then, that it would be a horrid injustice to re-demand of him a few farthings on the tenpence he paid you. If twenty nephews like me, whose uncles had gained each eight millions at Buenos Ayres, at Lima, at Surat, or at Pondicherry, were, in the urgent necessities of the state, each to lend to it only two hundred thousand livres, that would produce four millions. But what horror would that be! Pay then thou, my friend, who enjoyest quietly the neat and clear revenue of forty crowns; serve thy country well, and come now and then to dine with my servants in livery.”

This plausible discourse made me reflect a good deal, but I cannot say it much comforted me.

Conversation with a Geometrician

It sometimes happens that a man has no answer to make, and yet is not persuaded. He is overthrown without the feeling of being convinced. He feels at the bottom of his heart a scruple, a repugnance, which hinders him from believing what has been proved to him. A geometrician demonstrates to you, that between a circle and a tangent, you may thread a number of curves, and yet cannot get one straight line to pass. Your eyes, your reason, tell you the contrary. The geometrician gravely answers you, that it is an infinitesimal of the second order. You stare in stupid silence, and quit the field all astonished, without having any clear idea, without comprehending anything, and without having any reply to make.

Consult but a geometrician of more candor, and he explains the mystery to you.

“We suppose,” says he, “what cannot be in nature, lines which have length without breadth. Naturally and philosophically speaking, it is impossible for one real line to penetrate another. No curve, nor no right line can pass between two real lines that touch one another. These theorems that puzzle you are but sports of the imagination, ideal chimeras. Whereas true geometry is the art of measuring things actually existent.”

I was perfectly well satisfied with the confession of the sensible mathematician, and, with all my misfortune, could not help laughing on learning that there was a quackery even in that science, which is called the sublime science. My geometrician was a kind of philosophical patriot, who had deigned to chat with me sometimes in my cottage. I said to him:

“Sir, you have tried to enlighten the cockneys of Paris, on a point of the greatest concern to mankind, that of the duration of human life. It is to you alone that the ministry owes its knowledge of the due rate of annuities for lives, according to different ages. You have proposed to furnish the houses in town with what water they may want, and to deliver us at length from the shame and ridicule of hearing water cried about the streets, and of seeing women inclosed within an oblong hoop, carrying two pails of water, both together of about thirty pounds weight, up to a fourth story. Be so good, in the name of friendship, to tell me, how many two-handed bipeds there may be in France?”

The Geometrician. — It is assumed, that there may be about twenty millions, and I am willing to adopt this calculation as the most probable, till it can be verified, which it would be very easy to do, and which, however, has not hitherto been done, because one does not always think of every thing.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — How many acres, think you, the whole territory of France contains?

The Geometrician. — One hundred and thirty millions, of which almost the half is in roads, in towns, villages, moors, heaths, marshes, sands, barren lands, useless convents, gardens of more pleasure than profit, uncultivated grounds, and bad grounds ill cultivated. We might reduce all the land which yields good returns to seventy-five millions of square acres; but let us state them at fourscore millions. One cannot do too much for one’s country.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — How much may you think each acre brings in yearly, one year with another, in corn, seeds of all kinds, wine, fish-ponds, wood, metals, cattle, fruit, wool, silk, oil, milk, clear of all charges, without reckoning the tax?

The Geometrician. — Why, if they produce each twenty-five livres, (about twenty English shillings), it is a great deal; but not to discourage our countrymen, let us put them at thirty livres. There are acres which produce constantly regenerating value, and which are estimated at three hundred livres: there are others which only produce three livres. The mean proportion between three and three hundred is thirty; for you must allow that three is to thirty as thirty is to three hundred. If, indeed, there were comparatively many acres at thirty livres, and very few at three hundred, our account would not hold good; but, once more, I would not be over punctilious.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — Well, sir; how much will these fourscore millions of acres yield of revenue, estimated in money?

The Geometrician. — The account is ready made; they will produce two thousand four hundred millions of livres of the present currency.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — I have read that Solomon possessed, of his own property, twenty-five thousand millions of livres, in ready money; and certainly there are not two thousand four hundred millions of specie circulating in France, which, I am told, is much greater and much richer than Solomon’s country.

The Geometrician. — There lies the mystery. There may be about nine hundred millions circulating throughout the kingdom; and this money, passing from hand to hand, is sufficient to pay for all the produce of the land, and of industry. The same crown may pass ten times from the pocket of the cultivator, into that of the ale-housekeeper, and of the tax-gatherer.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — I apprehend you. But you told me that we are, in all, about twenty millions of inhabitants, men, women, old and young. How much, pray, do you allow for each?

The Geometrician. — One hundred and twenty livres, or forty crowns.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — You have just guessed my revenue. I have four acres, which, reckoning the fallow years with those of produce, bring me in one hundred and twenty livres; which is little enough, God knows.

But if every individual were to have his contingent, would that be no more than five louis d’ors a year?

The Geometrician. — Certainly not, according to our calculation, which I have a little amplified. Such is the state of human nature. Our life and our fortune have narrow limits. In Paris, they do not, one with another, live above twenty-two or twenty-three years, and, one with another, have not, at the most, above a hundred and twenty livres a year to spend. So that your food, your raiment, your lodging, your movables, are all represented by the sum of one hundred and twenty livres.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — Alas! What have I done to you, that you thus abridge me of my fortune and life? Can it then be true, that I have but three and twenty years to live, unless I rob my fellow-creatures of their share?

The Geometrician. — This is incontestable in the good city of Paris. But from these twenty-three years you must deduct ten, at the least, for your childhood, as childhood is not an enjoyment of life; it is a preparation; it is the porch of the edifice; it is the tree that has not yet given fruits; it is the dawn of a day. Then again, from the thirteen years which remain to you, deduct the time of sleep, and that of tiresomeness of life, and that will be at least a moiety. You will then have six years and a half left to pass in vexation, in pain, in some pleasures, and in hopes.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — Merciful heaven! At this rate, your account does not allow us above three years of tolerable existence.

The Geometrician. — That is no fault of mine. Nature cares very little for individuals. There are insects which do not live above one day, but of which the species is perpetual. Nature resembles those great princes, who reckon as nothing the loss of four hundred thousand men, so they but accomplish their august designs.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — Forty Crowns and three years of life! What resource can you imagine against two such curses?

The Geometrician. — As to life, it would be requisite to render the air of Paris more pure — that men should eat less and take more exercise — that mothers should suckle their own children — that people should be no longer so ill-advised as to dread inoculation. This is what I have already said; and as to fortune, why, even marry and rear a family.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — How! Can the way to live more at ease be to associate to my own bad circumstances those of others?

The Geometrician. — Five or six bad circumstances put together form a tolerable establishment. Get a good wife, and we will say only two sons and two daughters; this will make seven hundred and twenty livres for your little family, that is to say, if distributive justice were to take place, and that each individual had an hundred and twenty livres a year. Your children, in their infancy, stand you in almost nothing; when grown up they will ease and help you. Their mutual aid will save you a good part of your expenses, and you may live very happy, like a philosopher. Always provided, however, that those worthy gentlemen who govern the state have not the barbarity to extort from each of you twenty crowns a year. But the misfortune is, we are no longer in the golden age, where the men, born all equals, had an equal part in the nutritive productions of uncultivated land. The case is now far from being so good a one, as that every two-handed biped possesses land to the value of an hundred and twenty livres a year.

The Man of Forty Crowns. — ’Sdeath! You ruin us. You said but just now, that in a country of fourscore millions of inhabitants, each of them ought to enjoy an hundred and twenty livres a year, and now you take them away from us again!

The Geometrician. — I was computing according to the registers of the golden age, but we must reckon according to that of iron. There are many inhabitants who have but the value of ten crowns a year, others no more than four or five, and above six millions of men who have absolutely nothing.

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