What is the meaning of this Voltaire quote ?

Nos cinq sens imparfaits, donnés par la nature, de nos biens, de nos maux sont la seuls mesure.

I can't even parse this sentence.

  • "seule mesure" (feminine, not plural).
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 14:05
  • From Premier Discours. De L'égalité Des Conditions. in Discours En Vers Sur L'homme, 1734. I think keeping the verse structure and the rhyme (nature/mesure) would be appropriate. It can help parse.
    – Frank
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 14:12
  • @Frank Thank you, I simply kept the quotation spelling as I found it. google.com/…
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 8:51

1 Answer 1


It's a hard one to parse because it's part of a poem. The syntax has been distorted to produce the rhyme.

In a nutshell: "the five senses nature gave us, though imperfect, are the only way we can judge (measure) what is good or bad to us"

Here good and bad are not to be taken in the moral sense, but as adequate to our well being. As in "poverty is bad" and "wealth is good".

I took a look at the context, it seems to be part of the first discourse in Discours en Vers sur l'Homme, where Voltaire tries to argue that, beyond appearances, all people are equal in condition.

Right before OP's quote he states "Les mortels sont egaux, leur masque est différent" -> "mortals are equal, their masks (appearances) are different", and right after argues that even kings don't have more than 5 senses.

I claim no familiarity with this particular work, but from a rapid reading it looks like a very typical Voltaire-ish argument that rich people and kings also have their problems, and therefore poor people should not envy their condition or question why they are poor too much. Providing arguments as to why poor people should stay in their place is something Voltaire did a lot and it made him quite popular among the rich and opulent.

  • 1
    Here this paragraph is to show that all human are equal, in the sense that they have the same basic limitations and faculties. And this sentence is about the fact that all humans can judge by their senses ?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 6:35
  • I found this commentary (in French): canalacademies.com/emissions/2010-la-democratie/…. The original full text can be found here: sweet.ua.pt/fmart/dcvrhom.htm
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 6:36
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    @starckman that is what i thought a priori, but looking at the context my opinion is just that he wants to emphasize that all humans have but 5 senses and therefore share the same limitations. It might be linked to empiricism (otherwise he would have found a verse about, say, how we all share the same sense of reason or something), but it's not the main topic here.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 7:01
  • 1
    @Frank Thank you. I think here it is more about determinism and free will than materialism. What do you think?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 21, 2023 at 8:35
  • 1
    @Frank I agree. Thank you for your nice responses and for the link. This Stanford website is really a treasure, but I didn't know they had a page dedicated to Voltaire!
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 4:05

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