Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

Cromwell is described as a man who was an impostor all his life. I can scarcely believe it. I conceive that he was first an enthusiast, and that he afterwards made his fanaticism instrumental to his greatness. An ardent novice at twenty often becomes an accomplished rogue at forty. In the great game of human life, men begin with being dupes, and end in becoming knaves. A statesman engages as his almoner a monk, entirely made up of the details of his convent, devout, credulous, awkward, perfectly new to the world; he acquires information, polish, finesse, and supplants his master.

Cromwell knew not, at first, whether he should become a churchman or a soldier. He partly became both. In 1622 he made a campaign in the army of the prince of Orange, Frederick Henry, a great man and the brother of two great men; and, on his return to England, engaged in the service of Bishop Williams, and was the chaplain of his lordship, while the bishop passed for his wife’s gallant. His principles were puritanical, which led him to cordially hate a bishop, and not to be partial to kingship. He was dismissed from the family of Bishop Williams because he was a Puritan; and thence the origin of his fortune. The English Parliament declared against monarchy and against episcopacy; some friends whom he had in that parliament procured him a country living. He might be said only now to have commenced his existence; he was more than forty before he acquired any distinction. He was master of the sacred Scriptures, disputed on the authority of priests and deacons, wrote some bad sermons, and some lampoons; but he was unknown. I have seen one of his sermons, which is insipid enough, and pretty much resembles the holdings forth of the Quakers; it is impossible to discover in it any trace of that power by which he afterwards swayed parliaments. The truth is, he was better fitted for the State than for the Church. It was principally in his tone and in his air that his eloquence consisted. An inclination of that hand which had gained so many battles, and killed so many royalists, was more persuasive than the periods of Cicero. It must be acknowledged that it was his incomparable valor that brought him into notice, and which conducted him gradually to the summit of greatness.

He commenced by throwing himself, as a volunteer and a soldier of fortune, into the town of Hull, besieged by the king. He there performed some brilliant and valuable services, for which he received a gratuity of about six thousand francs from the parliament. The present, bestowed by parliament upon an adventurer, made it clear that the rebel party must prevail. The king could not give to his general officers what the parliament gave to volunteers. With money and fanaticism, everything must in the end be mastered. Cromwell was made colonel. His great talents for war became then so conspicuous that, when the parliament created the earl of Manchester general of its forces, Cromwell was appointed lieutenant-general, without his having passed through the intervening ranks. Never did any man appear more worthy of command. Never was seen more activity and skill, more daring and more resources, than in Cromwell. He is wounded at the battle of York, and, while undergoing the first dressing, is informed that his commander, the earl of Manchester, is retreating, and the battle lost. He hastens to find the earl; discovers him flying, with some officers; catches him by the arm, and, in a firm and dignified tone, he exclaims: “My lord, you mistake; the enemy has not taken that road.” He reconducts him to the field of battle; rallies, during the night, more than twelve thousand men; harangues them in the name of God; cites Moses, Gideon, and Joshua; renews the battle at daybreak against the victorious royalist army, and completely defeats it. Such a man must either perish or obtain the mastery. Almost all the officers of his army were enthusiasts, who carried the New Testament on their saddle-bows. In the army, as in the parliament, nothing was spoken of but Babylon destroyed, building up the worship of Jerusalem, and breaking the image. Cromwell, among so many madmen, was no longer one himself, and thought it better to govern than to be governed by them. The habit of preaching, as by inspiration, remained with him. Figure to yourself a fakir, who, after putting an iron girdle round his loins in penance, takes it off to drub the ears of other fakirs. Such was Cromwell. He becomes as intriguing as he was intrepid. He associates with all the colonels of the army, and thus forms among the troops a republic which forces the commander to resign. Another commander is appointed, and him he disgusts. He governs the army, and through it he governs the parliament; which he at last compels to make him commander. All this is much; but the essential point is that he wins all the battles he fights in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and wins them, not consulting his own security while the fight rages, but always charging the enemy, rallying his troops, presenting himself everywhere, frequently wounded, killing with his own hands many royalist officers, like the fiercest soldier in the ranks.

In the midst of this dreadful war Cromwell made love; he went, with the Bible under his arm, to an assignation with the wife of his major-general, Lambert. She loved the earl of Holland, who served in the king’s army. Cromwell took him prisoner in battle, and had the pleasure of bringing his rival to the block. It was his maxim to shed the blood of every important enemy, in the field or by the hand of the executioner. He always increased his power by always daring to abuse it; the profoundness of his plans never lessened his ferocious impetuosity. He went to the House of Commons, and drove all the members out, one after another, making them defile before him. As they passed, each was obliged to make a profound reverence; one of them was passing on with his head covered; Cromwell seized his hat and threw it down. “Learn,” said he, “to respect me.”

When he had outraged all kings by beheading his own legitimate king, and he began himself to reign, he sent his portrait to one crowned head, Christina, queen of Sweden. Marvel, a celebrated English poet, who wrote excellent Latin verses, accompanied his portrait with six lines, in which he introduces Cromwell himself speaking; Cromwell corrected these two last verses:

At tibi submittit frontem reverentior umbra,

Non sunt hi vultus regibus usque truces.

The spirit of the whole six verses may be given thus:

Les armes à la main j’ai defendu les lois;

D’un peuple audacieux j’ai vengé la querelle.

Regardez sans frémir cette image fidèle:

Mon front n’est pas toujours l’épouvante des rois.

’Twas mine by arms t’uphold my country’s laws;

My sword maintained a lofty people’s cause;

With less of fear these faithful outlines trace,

Menace of kings not always clouds my face.

This queen was the first to acknowledge him after he became protector of the three kingdoms. Almost all the sovereigns of Europe sent ambassadors to their brother Cromwell — to that domestic of a bishop, who had just brought to the scaffold a sovereign related to them. They emulously courted his alliance. Cardinal Mazarin, in order to please him, banished from France the two sons of Charles I., the two grandsons of Henry IV., and the two cousins-german of Louis XIV. France conquered Dunkirk for him, and the keys of it were delivered into his possession. After his death, Louis XIV. and his whole court went into mourning, except mademoiselle, who dared to appear in the circle in colors, and alone to maintain the honor of her race.

No king was ever more absolute than Cromwell. He would observe “that he had preferred governing under the name of protector rather than under that of king, because the English were aware of the limits of the prerogative of a king of England, but knew not the extent of that of a protector.” This was knowing mankind, who are governed by opinion, and whose opinion depends upon a name. He had conceived a profound contempt for the religion to which he owed his success. An anecdote, preserved in the St. John family, sufficiently proves the slight regard he attached to that instrument which had produced such mighty effects in his hands. He was drinking once in company with Ireton, Fleetwood, and St. John, great grandfather of the celebrated Lord Bolingbroke; a bottle of wine was to be uncorked, and the corkscrew fell under the table; they all looked for it, and were unable to find it. In the meantime a deputation from the Presbyterian churches awaited in the antechamber, and an usher announced them. “Tell them,” said Cromwell, “that I have retired, and that I am seeking the Lord.” This was the expression employed by the fanatics for going to prayers. Having dismissed the troop of divines, he thus addressed his companions: “Those fellows think we are seeking the Lord, while we are only seeking a corkscrew.”

There is scarcely any example in Europe of a man who, from so low a beginning, raised himself to such eminence. But with all his great talents, what did he consider absolutely essential to his happiness? Power he obtained; but was he happy? He had lived in poverty and disquiet till the age of forty-three; he afterwards plunged into blood, passed his life in trouble, and died prematurely, at the age of fifty-seven. With this life let any one compare that of a Newton, who lived fourscore years, always tranquil, always honored, always the light of all thinking beings; beholding every day an accession to his fame, his character, his fortune; completely free both from care and remorse; and let him decide whose was the happier lot.

O curas hominum! O quantum est in rebus inane!

O human cares! O mortal toil how vain!

§ II.

Oliver Cromwell was regarded with admiration by the Puritans and Independents of England; he is still their hero. But Richard Cromwell, his son, is the man for me. The first was a fanatic who in the present day would be hissed down in the House of Commons, on uttering any one of the unintelligible absurdities which he delivered with such confidence before other fanatics who listened to him with open mouth and staring eyes, in the name of the Lord. If he were to say that they must seek the Lord, and fight the battles of the Lord — if he were to introduce the Jewish jargon into the parliament of England, to the eternal disgrace of the human understanding, he would be much more likely to be conducted to Bedlam than to be appointed the commander of armies.

Brave he unquestionably was — and so are wolves; there are even some monkeys as fierce as tigers. From a fanatic he became an able politician; in other words, from a wolf he became a fox, and the knave, craftily mounting from the first steps where the mad enthusiasm of the times had placed him, to the summit of greatness, walked over the heads of the prostrated fanatics. He reigned, but he lived in the horrors of alarm and had neither cheerful days nor tranquil nights. The consolations of friendship and society never approached him. He died prematurely, more deserving, beyond a doubt, of public execution than the monarch whom, from a window of his own palace, he caused to be led out to the scaffold.

Richard Cromwell, on the contrary, was gentle and prudent and refused to keep his father’s power at the expense of the lives of three or four factious persons whom he might have sacrificed to his ambition. He preferred becoming a private individual to being an assassin with supreme power. He relinquished the protectorship without regret, to live as a subject; and in the tranquillity of a country life he enjoyed health and possessed his soul in peace for ninety years, beloved by his neighbors, to whom he was a peacemaker and a father.

Say, reader, had you to choose between the destiny of the father and that of the son, which would you prefer?

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