Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ARTS— FINE ARTS.
[ARTICLE DEDICATED TO THE KING OF PRUSSIA.]

Sire: The small society of amateurs, a part of whom are laboring at these rhapsodies at Mount Krapak, will say nothing to your majesty on the art of war. It is heroic, or — it may be — an abominable art. If there were anything fine in it, we would tell your majesty, without fear of contradiction, that you are the finest man in Europe.

You know, sire, the four ages of the arts. Almost everything sprung up and was brought to perfection under Louis XIV.; after which many of these arts, banished from France, went to embellish and enrich the rest of Europe, at the fatal period of the destruction of the celebrated edict of Henry IV. — pronounced irrevocable, yet so easily revoked. Thus, the greatest injury which Louis XIV. could do to himself did good to other princes against his will: this is proved by what you have said in your history of Brandenburg.

If that monarch were known only from his banishment of six or seven hundred thousand useful citizens — from his irruption into Holland, whence he was soon forced to retreat — from his greatness, which stayed him at the bank, while his troops were swimming across the Rhine; if there were no other monuments of his glory than the prologues to his operas, followed by the battle of Hochstet, his person and his reign would go down to posterity with but little éclat. But the encouragement of all the fine arts by his taste and munificence; the conferring of so many benefits on the literary men of other countries; the rise of his kingdom’s commerce at his voice; the establishment of so many manufactories; the building of so many fine citadels; the construction of so many admirable ports; the union of the two seas by immense labor, etc., still oblige Europe to regard Louis XIV. and his age with respect.

And, above all, those great men, unique in every branch of art and science, whom nature then produced at one time, will render his reign eternally memorable. The age was greater than Louis XIV., but it shed its glory upon him.

Emulation in art has changed the face of the continent, from the Pyrenees to the icy sea. There is hardly a prince in Germany who has not made useful and glorious establishments.

What have the Turks done for glory? Nothing. They have ravaged three empires and twenty kingdoms; but any one city of ancient Greece will always have a greater reputation than all the Ottoman cities together.

See what has been done in the course of a few years at St. Petersburg, which was a bog at the beginning of the seventeenth century. All the arts are there assembled, while in the country of Orpheus, Linus, and Homer, they are annihilated.

That the Recent Birth of the Arts does not Prove the Recent Formation of the Globe.

All philosophers have thought matter eternal; but the arts appear to be new. Even the art of making bread is of recent origin. The first Romans ate boiled grain; those conquerors of so many nations had neither windmills nor watermills. This truth seems, at first sight, to controvert the doctrine of the antiquity of the globe as it now is, or to suppose terrible revolutions in it. Irruptions of barbarians can hardly annihilate arts which have become necessary. Suppose that an army of negroes were to come upon us, like locusts, from the mountains of southern Africa, through Monomotapa, Monoëmugi, etc., traversing Abyssinia, Nubia, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, and all Europe, ravaging and overturning everything in its way; there would still be a few bakers, tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters left; the necessary arts would revive; luxury alone would be annihilated. Such was the case at the fall of the Roman Empire; even the art of writing became very rare; nearly all those arts which contributed to render life agreeable were for a long time extinct. Now, we are inventing new ones every day.

From all this, no well-grounded inference can be drawn against the antiquity of the globe. For, supposing that a flood of barbarians had entirely swept away the arts of writing and making bread; supposing even that we had had bread, or pens, ink, and paper, only for ten years — the country which could exist for ten years without eating bread or writing down its thoughts could exist for an age, or a hundred thousand ages, without these helps.

It is quite clear that man and the other animals can very well subsist without bakers, without romance-writers, and without divines, as witness America, and as witness also three-fourths of our own continent. The recent birth of the arts among us does not prove the recent formation of the globe, as was pretended by Epicurus, one of our predecessors in reverie, who supposed that, by chance, the declination of atoms one day formed our earth. Pomponatius used to say: “Se il mondo non é eterno, per tutti santi é molto vecchio”—“If this world be not eternal, by all the saints, it is very old.”

Slight Inconveniences Attached to the Arts.

Those who handle lead and quicksilver are subject to dangerous colics, and very serious affections of the nerves. Those who use pen and ink are attacked by vermin, which they have continually to shake off; these vermin are some ex-Jesuits, who employ themselves in manufacturing libels. You, Sire, do not know this race of animals; they are driven from your states, as well as from those of the empress of Russia, the king of Sweden, and the king of Denmark, my other protectors. The ex-Jesuits Polian and Nonotte, who like me cultivate the fine arts, persecute me even unto Mount Krapak, crushing me under the weight of their reputation, and that of their genius, the specific gravity of which is still greater. Unless your majesty vouchsafe to assist me against these great men, I am undone.

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