Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PETER THE GREAT AND J. J. ROUSSEAU.

The Czar Peter . . . . had not true genius — that which creates and makes all of nothing. Some things which he did were good; the greater part were misplaced. He saw that his people were barbarous; he has not seen that they were not prepared for polishing; he would civilize them when they only wanted training. He wished at once to make Germans and English when he should have commenced by making Russians. He prevented his subjects from becoming what they might be, by persuading them that they were what they are not. It is thus that a French preceptor forms his pupil to shine for a moment in his childhood, and never afterwards to be anything. The empire of Russia would subjugate Europe, and will be subjugated itself. The Tartars, its subjects or neighbors, will become its masters and ours. This revolution appears to me unavoidable: all the kings of Europe labor together to accelerate it.” (Contrat Social, livre ii. chap. viii.) These words are extracted from a pamphlet entitled the “Contrat Social,” or “unsocial,” of the very unsociable Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is not astonishing, that having performed miracles at Venice he should prophesy on Moscow; but as he well knows that the good time of miracles and prophecies has passed away, he ought to believe, that his prediction against Russia is not so infallible as it appeared to him in his first fit of divination. It is pleasant to announce the fall of great empires; it consoles us for our littleness. It will be a fine gain for philosophy, when we shall constantly behold the Nogais Tartars — who can, I believe, bring twelve thousand men into the field — coming to subjugate Russia, Germany, Italy, and France. But I flatter myself, that the Emperor of China will not suffer it; he has already acceded to perpetual peace, and as he has no more Jesuits about him, he will not trouble Europe. Jean Jacques, who possesses, as he himself believes, true genius, finds that Peter the Great had it not.

A Russian lord, a man of much wit, who sometimes amuses himself with reading pamphlets, while reading this, remembered some lines of Molière, implying, that three miserable authors took it into their heads, that it was only necessary to be printed and bound in calf, to become important personages and dispose of empires:

Il semble à trois gredins, dans leur petit cerveau,

Que pour être imprimés et reliés en veau,

Les voilà dans l’état d’importantes personnes,

Qu’avec leur plume ils font le destin des couronnes.

The Russians, says Jean Jacques, were never polished. I have seen some at least very polite, and who had just, delicate, agreeable, cultivated, and even logical minds, which Jean Jacques will find very extraordinary. As he is very gallant, he will not fail to say, that they are formed at the court of the empress of Russia, that her example has influenced them: but that prevents not the correctness of his prophecy — that this empire will soon be destroyed.

This good little man assures us, in one of his modest works, that a statue should be erected to him. It will not probably be either at Moscow or St. Petersburg, that anyone will trouble himself to sculpture Jean Jacques.

I wish, in general, that when people judge of nations from their garrets, they would be more honest and circumspect. Every poor devil can say what he pleases of the Romans, Athenians, and ancient Persians. He can deceive himself with impunity on the tribunes, comitia, and dictatorships. He can govern in idea two or three thousand leagues of country, whilst he is incapable of governing his servant girl. In a romance, he can receive “an acrid kiss” from his Julia, and advise a prince to espouse the daughter of a hangman. These are follies without consequence — there are others which may have disastrous effects.

Court fools were very discreet; they insulted the weak alone by their buffooneries, and respected the powerful: country fools are at present more bold. It will be answered, that Diogenes and Aretin were tolerated. Granted; but a fly one day seeing a swallow wing away with a spider’s web, would do the same thing, and was taken.

§ II.

May we not say of these legislators who govern the universe at two sous the sheet, and who from their garrets give orders to all kings, what Homer said to Calchas?:

Os ede ta conta, taere essomena, pro theonta.

He knew the past, present, and future.

It is a pity that the author of the little paragraph which we are going to quote, knew nothing of the three times of which Homer speaks. “Peter the Great,” says he, “had not the genius which makes all of nothing.” Truly, Jean Jacques, I can easily believe it; for it is said that God alone has this prerogative. “He has not seen that his people were not prepared for polishing.”

In this case, it was admirable of the czar to prepare them. It appears to me, that it is Jean Jacques who had not seen that he must make use of the Germans and English to form Russians.

“He has prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might be,” etc. Yet these same Russians have become the conquerors of the Turks and Tartars, the conquerors and legislators of the Crimea, and twenty different nations. Their sovereign has given laws to nations of which even the names were unknown in Europe.

As to the prophecy of Jean Jacques, he may have exalted his soul sufficiently to read the future. He has all the requisites of a prophet; but as to the past and the present, it must be confessed that he knows nothing about them. I doubt whether antiquity has anything comparable to the boldness of sending four squadrons from the extremity of the Baltic into the seas of Greece — of reigning at once over the Ægean and the Euxine Seas — of carrying terror into Colchis, and to the Dardanelles — of subjugating Taurida, and forcing the vizier Azem to fly from the shores of the Danube to the gates of Adrianople.

If Jean Jacques considers so many great actions which astonished the attentive world as nothing, he must at least confess, that there was some generosity in one Count Orloff, who having taken a vessel which contained all the family and treasures of a pasha, sent him back both his family and treasures. If the Russians were not prepared for polishing in the time of Peter the Great, let us agree that they are now prepared for greatness of soul; and that Jean Jacques is not quite prepared for truth and reasoning. With regard to the future, we shall know it when we have Ezekiels, Isaiahs, Habakkuks, and Micahs; but their time has passed away; and if we dare say so much, it is to be feared that it will never return.

I confess that these lies, printed in relation to present times, always astonish me. If these liberties are allowed in an age in which a thousand volumes, a thousand newspapers and journals, are constantly correcting each other, what faith can we have in those histories of ancient times, which collected all vague rumors without consulting any archives, which put into writing all that they had heard told by their grandmothers in their childhood, very sure that no critic would discover their errors?

We had for a long time nine muses: wholesome criticism is the tenth, which has appeared very lately. She existed not in the time of Cecrops, of the first Bacchus, or of Sanchoniathon, Thaut, Bramah, etc. People then wrote all they liked with impunity. At present we must be a little more careful.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25