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three pairs of lovers with space


The pre-eminent French philosopher of the Enlightenment François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), much better known by his nom de plume of Voltaire, wrote about ”Socratic Love” as one of the seventy-three articles in the first edition of his Dictionnaire philosophique anonymously published in Geneva in June 1764.

“Amour Socratique” was a common expression for Greek love among French writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Any notion that Voltaire might have meant homosexuality in general is easily dispelled by his judgement that this love is “a mistake in nature” occasioned by its being “nothing uncommon for a boy by the beauty of his complexion, and the mild sparkle of his eyes for two or three years, to have the look of a pretty girl.”  Moreover, he made copious references to the love of boys or youths, but none at all to the love of mature men.

The importance and interest of Voltaire’s article lies in his beliefs about Greek love as an enlightened child of his times, and in its influence as almost certainly the most widely-read pronouncement on the subject in the eighteenth century.

The Dictionnaire philosophique was a lifelong project, for which Voltaire had compiled the earliest articles in 1751, and he continued to expand and modify it in successive editions. As a result, his article on Socratic Love was transformed considerably over time, and two versions are given here.



The anonymous translation into English of this early version is from “The Philosophical Dictionary by M. de Voltaire. A New and Correct Edition, with Notes, … printed for Wynne and Scholey, 45, and James Wallis, 46, Paternoster Row”, London, 1802, pp. 237-42. 

Title page of the English edition of The Philosophical Dictionary, 1802

HOW could it be, that a vice, which if general, would extinguish the human species, an infamous crime against nature, should become so natural? It appears to be the last degree of reflective corruption; and yet it is usually found in those who have not had time to be corrupted. It makes its way into novice hearts, who are strangers to ambition, fraud and a thirst after wealth; it is blind youth, which at the end of childhood, by an unaccountable instinct, plunges itself into this enormity.

The inclination of the two sexes for each other declares itself very early; but after all that has been said of the African woman, and those of the southern part of Asia, this propensity is much stronger in man than in woman. Agreeably to the universal law of nature in all creatures, it is ever the male who makes the first advances. The young males of our species brought up together, coming to feel that play which nature begins to unfold to them, in the want of the natural object of their instinct, betake themselves to a resemblance of such objects.

It is nothing uncommon for a boy by the beauty of his complexion, and the mild sparkle of his eyes for two or three years, to have the look of a pretty girl: now the love of such a boy arises from a mistake in nature; the female sex is honoured in our fondness for what partakes of her beauties, and when such resemblance is withered by age, the mistake is at an end.

citraque juventam
Aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.

This mistake in nature is known to be much more common in mild climates than amidst the northern frosts, the blood being there more fervid and the occasion more frequent: accordingly, what seems only a weakness in young Alcibiades, is in a Dutch sailor or a Russian sutler, a loathsome abomination.

I cannot bear that the Greeks should be charged with having authorized this licentiousness. The legislator Solon is brought in because he has said,

“Thou shalt caress a beauteous boy,
Whilst no beard his smooth chin deforms."

But who will say that Solon was a legislator at the time of his making those two ridiculous lines? He was then young, and when the rake was grown virtuous, it cannot be thought that he inserted such an infamy among the laws of his republic: it is like accusing Theodore de Beza of having preached up pederasty in his church, because, in his youth, he had made verses on young Candidus, and says:

“Amplector hunc et illam.”

Plutarch likewise is misunderstood, who, among his rants in the dialogue on love, makes one of the speakers say, that women are not worthy of a genuine love; but another speaker keenly takes the women's part.

"M. de Voltaire"; the frontispiece to the same English edition of The Philosophical Dictionary, 1802

It is as certain, as the knowledge of antiquity can be, that Socratic love was not an infamous passion. It is the word love has occasioned the mistake. The lovers of a youth were exactly what among us are the minions of our princes, or, formerly the pages of honour; young gentlemen who had partaken of the education of a child of rank, and accompanied him in his studies or in the field: this was a martial and holy institution, but it was soon abused, as were the nocturnal feasts and orgies.

The troop of lovers instituted by Laius, was an invincible corps of young warriors engaged by oath, mutually to lay down their lives for one another; and, perhaps, never had ancient discipline any thing more grand and useful.

Sextus Empiricus and others may talk as long as they please of pederasty being recommended by the laws of Persia. Let them quote the text of the law, and even shew the Persian code, yet will I not believe it; I will say it is not true, by reason of its being impossible. I do aver that it is not in human nature to make a law contradictory and injurious to nature ; a law which, if literally kept to, would put an end to the human species. The thing is, scandalous customs being connived at, are often mistaken for the laws of a country. Sextus Empiricus, doubting of every thing, might as well doubt of this jurisprudence. If living in our days he had seen two or three young Jesuits fondling some scholars, could he from thence say that this sport was permitted them by the constitutions of Ignatius Loyola ?

The love of boys was so common at Rome, that no punishment was thought of for a foolery into which every body run headlong. Octavius Augustus, that sensualist, that cowardly murderer, dared to banish Ovid, at the same time that he was very well pleased with Virgil's singing the beauty and flights of Alexis, and Horaces's making little odes for Ligurinus. Still the old Scantinian law against pederasty was in force : the Emperor Philip revived it, and caused the boys, who followed that trade to be driven out of Rome. In a word, I cannot think that ever there was a policed nation, where the laws[2] were contrary to morality.


The following text is from volume VII of the translation by William F. Fleming of the “Edition de la Pacification” published by E.R. DuMont as A Philosophical Dictionary in twelve volumes in 1901. This edition was evidently posthumous. As will be seen, it includes “Observations by Another Hand”, attributed to “K.” in Louis Moland’s  Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, volume 17 (Paris, 1878) p. 183.

If the love called Socratic and Platonic is only a becoming sentiment, it is to be applauded; if an unnatural license, we must blush for Greece.

Title page of volume VII of Fleming's edition of A Philosophical Dictionary, 1901

It is as certain as the knowledge of antiquity can well be, that Socratic love was not an infamous passion. It is the word “love” which has deceived the world. Those called the lovers of a young man were precisely such as among us are called the minions of our princes — honorable youths attached to the education of a child of distinction, partaking of the same studies and the same military exercises — a warlike and correct custom, which has been perverted into nocturnal feasts and midnight orgies.

The company of lovers instituted by Laius was an invincible troop of young warriors, bound by oath each to preserve the life of any other at the expense of his own. Ancient discipline never exhibited anything more fine.

Sextus Empiricus and others have boldly affirmed that this vice was recommended by the laws of Persia. Let them cite the text of such a law; let them exhibit the code of the Persians; and if such an abomination be even found there, still I would disbelieve it, and maintain that the thing was not true, because it is impossible. No; it is not in human nature to make a law which contradicts and outrages nature itself — a law which would annihilate mankind, if it were literally observed. Moreover, I will show you the ancient law of the Persians as given in the “Sadder.” It says, in article or gate 9, that the greatest sin must not be committed. It is in vain that a modern writer seeks to justify Sextus Empiricus and pederasty. The laws of Zoroaster, with which he is unacquainted, incontrovertibly prove that this vice was never recommended to the Persians. It might as well be said that it is recommended to the Turks. They boldly practise it, but their laws condemn it.

How many persons have mistaken shameful practices, which are only tolerated in a country, for its laws. Sextus Empiricus, who doubted everything, should have doubted this piece of jurisprudence. If he had lived in our days, and witnessed the proceedings of two or three young Jesuits with their pupils, would he have been justified in the assertion that such practices were permitted by the institutes of Ignatius Loyola?

It will be permitted to me here to allude to the Socratic love of the reverend father Polycarp, a Carmelite, who was driven away from the small town of Gex in 1771, in which place he taught religion and Latin to about a dozen scholars. He was at once their confessor, tutor, and something more. Few have had more occupations, spiritual and temporal. All was discovered; and he retired into Switzerland, a country very distant from Greece.

The monks charged with the education of youth have always exhibited a little of this tendency, which is a necessary consequence of the celibacy to which the poor men are condemned.

This vice was so common at Rome that it was impossible to punish a crime which almost every one committed. Octavius Augustus, that murderer, debauchee, and coward, who exiled Ovid, thought it right in Virgil to sing the charms of Alexis. Horace, his other poetical favorite, constructed small odes on Ligurinus; and this same Horace, who praised Augustus for reforming manners, speak in his satires in much the same way of both boys and girls. Yet the ancient law “Scantinia,” which forbade pederasty, always existed, and was put in force by the emperor Philip, who drove away from Rome the boys who made a profession of it. If, however, Rome had witty and licentious students, like Petronius, it had also such preceptors as Quintilian; and attend to the precautions he lays down in his chapter of “The Preceptor,” in order to preserve the purity of early youth. “Cavendum non solum crimine turpitudinis, sed etiam suspicione.” We must not only beware of a shameful crime but even of the suspicion of it. To conclude, I firmly believe that no civilized nation ever existed which made formal laws against morals.[3]


Observations by Another Hand.

We may be permitted to make a few additional reflections on an odious and disgusting subject, which however, unfortunately, forms a part of the history of opinions and manners.

The first edition of the Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764, pretending to be published in London

This offence may be traced to the remotest periods of civilization. Greek and Roman history in particular allows us not to doubt it. It was common before people formed regular societies, and were governed by written laws.

The latter fact is the reason that the laws have treated it with so much indulgence. Severe laws cannot be proposed to a free people against a vice, whatever it may be, which is common and habitual. For a long time many of the German nations had written laws which admitted of composition and murder. Solon contented himself with forbidding these odious practices between the citizens and slaves. The Athenians might perceive the policy of this interdiction, and submit to it; especially as it operated against the slaves only, and was enacted to prevent them from corrupting the young free men. Fathers of families, however lax their morals, had no motive to oppose it.

The severity of the manners of women in Greece, the use of public baths, and the passion for games in which men appeared altogether naked, fostered this turpitude, notwithstanding the progress of society and morals. Lycurgus, by allowing more liberty to the women, and by certain other institutions, succeeded in rendering this vice less common in Sparta than in the other towns of Greece.

When the manners of a people become less rustic, as they improve in arts, luxury, and riches, if they retain their former vices, they at least endeavor to veil them. Christian morality, by attaching shame to connections between unmarried people, by rendering marriage indissoluble, and proscribing concubinage by ecclesiastical censures, has rendered adultery common. Every sort of voluptuousness having been equally made sinful, that species is naturally preferred which is necessarily the most secret; and thus, by a singular contradiction, absolute crimes are often made more frequent, more tolerated, and less shameful in public opinion, than simple weaknesses. When the western nations began a course of refinement, they sought to conceal adultery under the veil of what is called gallantry. Then men loudly avowed a passion in which it was presumed the women did not share. The lovers dared demand nothing; and it was only after more than ten years of pure love, of combats and victories at tournaments that a cavalier might hope to discover a moment of weakness in the object of his adoration. There remains a sufficient number of records of these times to convince us that the state of manners fostered this species of hypocrisy. It was similar among the Greeks, when they had become polished. Connections between males were not shameful; young people united themselves to each other by oaths, but it was to live and die for their country. It was usual for a person of ripe age to attach himself to a young man in a state of adolescence, ostensibly to form, instruct, and guide him; and the passion which mingled in these friendships was a sort of love — but still innocent love. Such was the veil with which public decency concealed vices which general opinion tolerated.

In short, in the same manner as chivalric gallantry is often made a theme for eulogy in modern society, as proper to elevate the soul and inspire courage, was it common among the Greeks to eulogize that love which attached citizens to each other.

Plato said that the Thebans acted laudably in adopting it, because it was necessary to polish their manners, supply greater energy to their souls and to their spirits, which were benumbed by the nature of their climate. We perceive by this, that a virtuous friendship alone was treated of by Plato. Thus, when a Christian prince proclaimed a tournament, at which every one appeared in the colors of his mistress, it was with the laudable intention of exciting emulation among its knights, and to soften manners; it was not adultery, but gallantry, that he would encourage within his dominions. In Athens, according to Plato, they set bounds to their toleration. In monarchical states, it was politic to prevent these attachments between men, but in republics they materially tended to prevent the double establishment of tyranny. In the sacrifice of a citizen, a tyrant knew not whose vengeance he might arm against himself, and was liable, without ceasing, to witness conspiracies grow out of the resolutions which this ambiguous affection produced among men.

In the meantime, in spite of ideas so remote from our sentiments and manners, this practice was regarded as very shameful among the Greeks, every time it was exhibited without the excuse of friendship or political ties. When Philip of Macedon saw extended on the field of battle of Chæronea, the soldiers who composed the sacred battalion or band of friends at Thebes, all killed in the ranks in which they had combated: “I will never believe,” he exclaimed, “that such brave men have committed or suffered anything shameful.” This expression from a man himself soiled with this infamy furnishes an indisputable proof of the general opinion of Greece.

At Rome, this opinion was still stronger. Many Greek heroes, regarded as virtuous men, have been supposed addicted to the vice; but among the Romans it was never attributed to any of those characters in whom great virtue was acknowledged. It only seems, that with these two nations no idea of crime or even dishonor was attached to it unless carried to excess, which renders even a passion for women disgraceful. Pederasty is rare among us, and would be unknown, but for the defects of public education.

Montesquieu pretends that it prevails in certain Mahometan nations, in consequence of the facility of possessing women. In our opinion, for “facility” we should read “difficulty.”


[1] [By the anonymous editor] The very ingenious and learned critics, known by the vulgar name of Monthly Reviewers, have passed a most severe censure upon this whole article. “We conceive, say they, it could only come from the pen of one of the most inconsiderate, dissolute, and abandoned of mankind. Nothing can be more infamous than what is there advanced, in palliation of the most detestable of all crimes." But nothing can be more false, than that our author attempts to palliate this crime. Does not he set out with affirming it to be destructive of the human race, a debasement and violation of nature, and the highest degree of corruption? Is this a palliation? or is it not rather a representation of that infamous vice in the light it deserves. Whether he be mistaken in tracing its source, we cannot pretend to affirm, not being so well acquainted as those learned critics with the practices of the courts of justice, nor with the arts of those hypocritical monsters, hackneyed in the ways of iniquity. But after all, this is a mere point of speculation, not at all tending to immorality. He may be mistaken again, when he says, that the Greeks never authorized this vice, and that the Socratic Love was not infamous. But these are historical matters, concerning which men of very great learning have differed in opinion. Our author, however, thinks the crime so horrid and unnatural, that it could never be authorized by any government; so that, instead of looking on this article of Socratic Love with the same horror as the scrupulous Reviewers, we rather apprehend it to be one of the least exceptionable parts of the whole work. But as Mr. Dryden well observes, much of ill nature and a very little judgment, go far in finding the mistakes of writers.

[2] The French edition of Louis Moland in his  Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, volume 17 (Paris, 1878) p. 183 here appends the following footnote by Voltaire (here translated into English) without specifying in which edition it first appeared:

A New Song of Law or Justice: a Dutch sodomite being burned July 1730

“The non-conformist gentlemen should be sentenced every year to present to the police a child in their own way. The ex-Jesuit Desfontaines was on the point of being burned in the Place de Grève, for having abused some little Savoyards who were cleaning up his chimney; protectors saved him. [On this point, Louis Crompton explains in his Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard, 2003) p. 517: ‘Voltaire had been a friend of Guyot Desfontaines, whom he had rescued from imprisonment on charges of sodomy by interceding with the Paris police. But when Desfontaines later criticized a tragedy by Voltaire, the poet was enraged at his ingratitude. A lengthy war began in which the two exchanged scurrilous insults.’] A victim was needed: Deschaufours was burned in his place. This is too much; moderation in all things: the sentences should be proportional to the offenses. What would have been said by Caesar, Alcibiades, the king of Bithynia Nicomedes, the king of France Henry III, and so many other kings? 
      When Deschaufours was burned, they relied on the Laws of St. Louis, put into new French in the 15th century. ‘If anyone is suspected of b ..... must be led to the bishop; and if it be proved, he must be burnt, and all his possessions are to go to the baron, & c.’ St. Louis does not say what to do to the baron if the baron is suspected and if it is proved. It must be observed that by the word b…., St. Louis meant the heretics, who were not then called by another name. An equivocation burned at Paris Deschaufours, a gentleman from Lorraine. Despréaux was right to make a satire against the equivocation; it has done much more harm than one thinks.”

[3] See note 2 above.




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