Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


I find not one monument of flattery in remote antiquity; there is no flattery in Hesiod — none in Homer. Their stories are not addressed to a Greek, elevated to some dignity, nor to his lady; as each canto of Thomson’s “Seasons” is dedicated to some person of rank, or as so many forgotten epistles in verse have been dedicated, in England, to gentlemen or ladies of quality, with a brief eulogy, and the arms of the patron or patroness placed at the head of the work.

Nor is there any flattery in Demosthenes. This way of asking alms harmoniously began, if I mistake not, with Pindar. No hand can be stretched out more emphatically.

It appears to me that among the Romans great flattery is to be dated from the time of Augustus. Julius Cæsar had scarcely time to be flattered. There is not, extant, any dedicatory epistle to Sulla, Marius, or Carbo, nor to their wives, or their mistresses. I can well believe that very bad verses were presented to Lucullus and Pompey; but, thank God, we do not have them.

It is a great spectacle to behold Cicero equal in dignity to Cæsar, speaking before him as advocate for a king of Bithynia and Lesser Armenia, named Deiotarus, accused of laying ambuscades for him, and even designing to assassinate him. Cicero begins with acknowledging that he is disconcerted in his presence. He calls him the vanquisher of the world —“victorem orbis terrarum.” He flatters him; but this adulation does not yet amount to baseness; some sense of shame still remains.

But with Augustus there are no longer any bounds; the senate decrees his apotheosis during his lifetime. Under the succeeding emperors this flattery becomes the ordinary tribute, and is no longer anything more than a style. It is impossible to flatter any one, when the most extravagant adulation has become the ordinary currency.

In Europe, we have had no great monuments of flattery before Louis XIV. His father, Louis XIII., had very little incense offered him. We find no mention of him, except in one or two of Malherbe’s odes. There, indeed, according to custom, he is called “thou greatest of kings”— as the Spanish poets say to the king of Spain, and the English poets (laureate) to the king of England; but the better part of the poet’s praises is bestowed on Cardinal Richelieu, whose soul is great and fearless; who practises so well the healing art of government, and who knows how to cure all our evils:

Dont l’âme toute grande est une âme hardîe,

Qui pratique si bien l’art de nous secourir,

Que, pourvu qu’il soit cru, nous n’avons maladie,

Qu’il ne sache guérir.

Upon Louis XIV. flattery came in a deluge. But he was not like the man said to have been smothered by the rose leaves heaped upon him; on the contrary, he thrived the more.

Flattery, when it has some plausible pretext, may not be so pernicious as it has been thought; it sometimes encourages to great acts; but its excess is vicious, like the excess of satire. La Fontaine says, and pretends to say it after Æsop:

On ne peut trop louer trois sortes de personnes;

Les dieux, sa maitresse, et son roi.

Ésope le disait; j’y souscris quant à moi;

Ces sont maximes toujours bonnes.

Your flattery to three sorts of folks apply:—

You cannot say too civil things

To gods, to mistresses, and kings;

So honest Æsop said — and so say I.

Honest Æsop said no such thing; nor do we find that he flattered any king, or any concubine. It must not be thought that kings are in reality flattered by all the flatteries that are heaped upon them; for the greater number never reach them.

One common folly of orators is that of exhausting themselves in praising some prince who will never hear of their praises. But what is most lamentable of all is that Ovid should have praised Augustus even while he was dating “de Ponto.

The perfection of the ridiculous might be found in the compliments which preachers address to kings, when they have the happiness of exhibiting before their majesties. “To the reverend Father Gaillard, preacher to the king.” Ah! most reverend father, do you preach only for the king? Are you like the monkey at the fair, which leaps “only for the king?”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01