THE Marquise du Châtelet died under circumstances that were tragical enough to herself, but which disgust the grave, while they give a grotesque amusement to those who look with cynical eye upon what they choose to treat as the great human comedy. In 1749 the friendship of sixteen years thus came to its end, and Voltaire was left without the tie that, in spite of too frequent breaking away from it, had brought him much happiness and good help so far on the road. He was now free, disastrously free as the event proved, to accept the invitations with which he had so long been pressed to take up his residence with the king who may dispute with him the claim to be held the most extraordinary man of that century.
Neither credit nor peace followed Voltaire in his own land. Louis XV., perhaps the most worthless of all the creatures that monarchy has ever corrupted, always disliked him. The whole influence of the court and the official world had been uniformly exerted against him. Many years went by before he could even win a seat in the academy, a distinction, it may be added, to which Diderot, hardly second to Voltaire in originality and power, never attained to the end of his days. Madame de Pompadour, the protectress of Quesnay, was Voltaire's first friend at court. He said of her long afterwards that in the bottom of her heart she belonged to the philosophers, and did as much as she could to protect them. She had known him in her obscurer and more reputable days, and she charged him with the composition of a court-piece (1745), to celebrate the marriage of the dauphin. The task was satisfactorily performed, and honors which had been refused to the author of "Zaïre," "Alzire," and the "Henriade," were at once given to the writer of the "Princess of Navarre," which Voltaire himself ranked as a mere farce of the fair. He was made gentleman of the chamber and historiographer of France. He disarmed the devout by the Pope's acceptance of "Mahomet," and by a letter which he wrote to Father Latour, head of his former school, protesting his affection for religion and his esteem for the Jesuits. Condorcet most righteously pronounces that, in spite of the art with which he handles his expressions in this letter, it would undoubtedly have been far better to give up the academy than to write it. It answered its purpose, and Voltaire was admitted of the forty (May, 1746). This distinction, however, was far from securing for him the tranquillity which he had hoped from it, and worse libels tormented him than before. The court sun ceased to shine. Madame de Pompadour gave to Crébillon a preference which Voltaire resented with more agitation than any preference of Madame Pompadour's ought to have stirred in the breast of a strong man.
We cannot, however, too constantly remember not to ask from Voltaire the heroic. He was far too sympathetic, too generously eager to please, too susceptible to opinion. Of that stern and cold stuff which supports a man in firm march and straight course, giving him the ample content of self-respect, he probably had less than any one of equal prominence has ever had. Instead of writing his tragedy as well as he knew how, and then leaving it to its destiny, he wrote it as well as he knew how, and then went in disguise to the café of the critics to find out what his inferiors had to say about his work. Instead of composing his court-piece, and taking such reward as offered, or disdaining such ignoble tasks — and nobody knew better than he how ignoble they were — he sought to catch some crumb of praise by fawningly asking of the vilest of men, Trajan est-il content? Make what allowance we will for difference of time and circumstance, such an attitude to such a man, whether in Seneca towards Nero, or Voltaire towards Louis XV., is a baseness that we ought never to pardon and never to extenuate. Whether or no there be in the human breast that natural religion of goodness and virtue which was the sheet-anchor of Voltaire's faith, there is at least a something in the hearts of good men which sets a vast gulf between them and those who are to the very depths of their souls irredeemably saturated with corruption.
We may permit ourselves to hope that it was the consciousness of the humiliation of such relations as these, rather than the fact that they did not answer their own paltry purpose, that made Voltaire resolve a second time to shake the dust of his own country from off his feet. In July, 1750, he reached Potsdam, and was installed with sumptuous honor in the court of Frederick the Great, twenty-four years since he had installed himself with Mr. Falkener, the English merchant at Wandsworth. Diderot was busy with the first volume of the Encyclopaedia, and Rousseau had just abandoned his second child in the hospital for foundlings. If the visit to London did everything for Voltaire, the visit to Berlin did nothing. There was no Prussia, as there was an England. To travel from the dominion of George II. to the dominion of his famous nephew, was to go from the full light of the eighteenth century back to the dimness of the fifteenth. An academy of sciences, by the influence of Sophie-Charlotte, and under the guidance of Leibnitz, had been founded at Berlin at the beginning of the eighteenth century; but Frederick William had an angry contempt for every kind of activity except drill and the preaching of orthodox theology, and during his reign the academy languished in obscurity. The accession of Frederick II. was the signal for its reconstitution, and the revival of its activity under the direction of Maupertuis. To the sciences of experiment and observation, which had been its original objects, was added a department of speculative philosophy. The court was materialist, skeptical, Voltairean, all at the same time; but the academy as a body was theologically orthodox, and it was wholly and purely metaphysical in its philosophy. We may partly understand the distance at which Berlin was then behind Paris, when we read d'Alembert's just remonstrances with Frederick against giving as subjects for prize-essays such metaphysical problems as "The search for a primary and permanent force, at once substance and cause."
Whatever activity existed outside of the court and the academy was divided between the dialectic of Protestant scholasticism, and Wolf's exposition and development of Leibnitz. In literature proper there arose with the accession of Frederick a small group of essentially secondary critics, of whom Sulzer was the best, without the vivid and radiant force of either Voltaire or Diderot, and without the deep inspiration and invention of those who were to follow them, and to place Germany finally on a level with England and France. Lessing, the founder of the modern German literature, was at this time a youth of twenty-two, and by a striking turn of chance was employed by Voltaire in putting into German his pleadings in the infamous Hirschel case. It was not then worth while for a stranger to learn the language in which Lessing had not yet written, and Voltaire, who was a master of English and Italian, never knew more German than was needed to curse a postilion. Leibnitz wrote everything of importance in Latin or French, the Berlin academy conducted its transactions first in Latin, next and for many years to come in French, and one of its earliest presidents, a man of special competence, pronounced German to be a noble but frightfully barbarized tongue. The famous Wolf had done his best to make the tongue of his country literate, but even his influence was unequal to the task.
Society was in its foundations not removed from the mediæval. The soldiers with whom Frederick won Zorndorf and Leuthen, like the Russians and Austrians whom he defeated on those bloody days, were not more nor less than serfs. Instead of philosophers like Newton and Locke, he had to find the pride and safety of his country in swift-rushing troopers like Winterfeld and Ziethen. A daring cavalry-charge in season was for the moment more to Prussia than any theory why it is that an apple falls, and a new method of drill much more urgent than a new origin for ideas. She was concerned not with the speculative problem of the causes why the earth keeps its place in the planetary system, but with the practical problem how Prussia was to make her place in the system of Europe. Prussia was then far more behind France in all thought and all arts, save the soldier's, than England was in front of France.
Voltaire had nothing to learn at Berlin, and may we not add, as the king was a rooted Voltairean long before this, he had nothing to teach there? The sternest barrack in Europe was not a field in which the apostle of free and refined intelligence could sow seed with good hope of harvest. Voltaire at this time, we have to recollect, was in the public mind only a poet, and perhaps was regarded, if not altogether by Frederick, certainly by those who surrounded him, as much in the same order of being with Frederick's flute, fitted by miracle with a greater number of stops. "I don't give you any news of literature," d'Alembert wrote from Potsdam in 1763, "for I don't know any, and you know how barren literature is in this country, where no one except the king concerns himself with it." There is no particular disgrace to Berlin or its king in this. Their task was very definite, and it was only a pleasant error of Frederick's rather fantastic youth to suppose that this task lay in the direction of polite letters. The singer of the "Henriade" was naturally of different quality and turn of mind from a hero who had at least as hard an enterprise in his hand as that of Henry IV. Voltaire and Frederick were the two leaders of the two chief movements then going on, in the great work of the transformation of the old Europe into the new. But the movements were in different matter, demanded vastly different methods, and, as is so often the case, the scope of each was hardly visible to the pursuer of the other. Voltaire's work was to quicken the activity and proclaim the freedom of human intelligence, and to destroy the supremacy of an old spiritual order. Frederick's work was to shake down the old political order. The sum of their efforts was the definite commencement of that revolution in the thought and the political conformation of the West, of which the momentous local revolution in France must, if we take a sufficiently wide survey before and after, be counted a secondary phase. The conditions of the order which was established after the confusion of the fall of the Roman power before the inroads of the barbarians, and which constituted the Europe of the early and middle ages, are now tolerably well understood, and the historic continuity or identity of that order is typified in two institutions, which by the middle of the eighteenth century had reached very different stages of decay, and possessed very different powers of resisting attack. One was the German Empire and the other was the Holy Catholic Church. Frederick dealt a definite blow to the first, and Voltaire did the same to the second.
Those who read history and biography with a sturdy and childish preconception that the critical achievements in the long course of the world's progress must of necessity have fallen to the lot of the salt of the earth, will find it hard to associate the beginning of the great overt side of modern movement with the two men who versified and wrangled together for some two and a half years in the middle of the eighteenth century at Berlin. It is hard to think of the old state, with all its memories of simple enthusiasm and wild valor and rude aspiration after some better order, finally disappearing into the chaos for which it was more than ripe, under the impulse of an arch cynic. And it is hard, too, to think that the civilizing religion which was founded by a Jew, and first seized by Jews, noblest and holiest of their race, got its first and severest blow from one who was not above using a Jew to cheat Christians out of their money. But the fact remains of the vast work which this amazing pair had to do, and did.
The character of the founder of the greatness of Prussia, if indeed we may call founder one rather than another member of that active, clear, and farsighted line, can have no attraction for those who require as an indispensable condition of fealty that their hero shall have either purity, or sensibility, or generosity, or high honor, or manly respect for human nature. Frederick's rapidity and firmness of will, his administrative capacity, his military talent, were marvellous and admirable enough; but on the moral side of character, in his relations to men and women, in his feeling for the unseen, in his ideas of truth and beauty, he belonged to a type which is not altogether uncommon. In his youth he had much of a sort of shallow sensibility, which more sympathetic usage might possibly have established and to some small extent even deepened, but which the curiously rough treatment that his pacific tastes and frivolous predilections provoked his father to inflict, turned in time into the most bitter and profound kind of cynicism that the world knows. No cynic is so hard and insensible as the man who has once had sensibility, perhaps because the consciousness that he was in earlier days open to more generous impressions persuades him that the fault of any change in his own view of things must needs lie in the world's villainy, which he has now happily for himself had time to find out. Sensibility of a true sort, springing from natural fountains of simple and unselfish feeling, can neither be corrupted nor dried up. But at its best, Frederick's sensibility was of the literary and æsthetic kind, rather than the humane and social. It concerned taste and expression, and had little root in the recognition as at first-hand of those facts of experience, of beauty and tenderness and cruelty and endurance, which are the natural objects that permanently quicken a sensitive nature. In a word, Frederick's was the conventional sensibility of the French literature of the time; a harmless thing enough in the poor souls that only poured themselves out in bad romance and worse verse, but terrible when it helped to fill with contempt for mankind an absolute monarch, with the most perfect military machine in Europe at his command. Frederick is constantly spoken of as a man typical of his century. In truth he was throughout his life in ostentatious opposition to his century on its most remarkable side. There has never been any epoch whose foremost men had such faith and hope in the virtues of humanity. There has never been any prominent man who despised humanity so bitterly and unaffectedly as Frederick despised it.
We know what to think of a man who writes a touching and pathetic letter condoling with a friend on the loss of his wife, and on the same day makes an epigram on the dead woman; who never found so much pleasure in a friendly act as when he could make it the means of hurting the recipient; whose practical pleasantries were always spiteful and sneering and cruel. As we read of his tricks on d'Argens or Pöllnitz, we feel how right Voltaire was in borrowing a nickname for him from a mischievous brute whom he kept in his garden. He presented d'Argens with a house; when d'Argens went to take possession he found the walls adorned with pictures of all the most indecent and humiliating episodes of his own life. This was a type of Frederick's delicacy towards some of those whom he honored with his friendship. It is true that, except Voltaire and Maupertuis, most of the French philosophers whom Frederick seduced into coming to live at Berlin were not too good for the corporal's horse-play of which they were the victims. But then we know, further, what to think of a man whose self-respect fails to proscribe gross and unworthy companions. He is either a lover of parasites, which Frederick certainly was not, or else the most execrable cynic, the cynic who delights in any folly or depravity that assures him how right he is in despising "that damned race."
Frederick need not have summoned the least worthy French freethinkers, men like d'Argens and La Mettrie and De Prades, in their own way as little attractive in life and in doctrine as any monk or Geneva preacher, to warrant him in thinking meanly of mankind. If any one wants to know what manner of spirit this great temporal deliverer of Europe was of, he may find what he seeks in the single episode of the negotiations at Klein-Schnellendorf in 1741. There, although he had made and was still bound by a solemn treaty of alliance with France, he entered into secret engagements with the Hungarian queen, to be veiled by adroitly pretended hostilities. Even if, as an illustrious apologist of the Prussian king is reduced to plead, this is in a certain fashion defensible, on the ground that France and Austria were both playing with loaded dice, and therefore the other dicer of the party was in self-defence driven to show himself their superior in these excellent artifices, there still seems a gratuitous infamy in hinting to the Austrian general, as Frederick did, how he might assault with advantage the French enemy, Frederick's own ally at the moment. This was the author of the plea for political morality, called the Anti-Machiavelli, whose publication Voltaire had superintended the year before, and for that matter, had done his best to prevent. Still, as Frederick so graciously said of his new guest and old friend: "He has all the tricks of a monkey; but I shall make no sign, for I need him in my study of French style. One may learn good things from a scoundrel: I want to know his French; what is his morality to me?" And so a royal statesman may have the manners of the coarsest corporal, and the morality of the grossest cynic, and still have both the eye to discern, and the hand to control, the forces of a great forward movement.
Frederick had the signal honor of accepting his position, and taking up with an almost perfect fortitude the burden which it laid upon him. "We are not masters of our own lot," he wrote to Voltaire, immediately after his accession to the throne; "the whirlwind of circumstances carries us away, and we must suffer ourselves to be carried away." And what he said in this hour of exaltation he did not deny nearly twenty years later, when his fortunes seemed absolutely desperate. "If I had been born a private person," he wrote to him in 1759, "I would give up everything for love of peace; but a man is bound to take on the spirit of his position." "Philosophy teaches us to do our duty, to serve our country faithfully at the price of our blood and our ease, to sacrifice for it our whole existence." Men are also called upon by their country to abstain from sacrificing their existence, and if Frederick's sense of duty to his subjects had been as perfect as it was exceptionally near being so, he would not have carried a phial of poison round his neck. Still on the whole he devoted himself to his career with a temper that was as entirely calculated for the overthrow of a tottering system, as Voltaire's own. It is difficult to tell whether Frederick's steady attention to letters and men of letters, and his praiseworthy endeavors to make Berlin a true academic centre, were due to a real and disinterested love of knowledge, and a sense of its worth to the spirit of man, or still more to weak literary vanity, and a futile idea of universal fame so far as his own productions went, and a purely utilitarian purpose so far as his patronage of the national academy was concerned. One thing is certain, that the philosophy which he learned from French masters, which Voltaire brought in his proper person to Berlin, and to which Frederick to the end of his days was always adding illustrative commentaries, never made any impression on Germany. The teaching of Leibnitz and Wolf stood like a fortified wall in the face of the French invasion, and whatever effective share French speculation had upon Germany, was through the influence of Descartes upon Leibnitz.
The dissolution of the outer framework of the European state-system, for which Frederick's seizure of Silesia was the first clear signal, followed as it was by the indispensable suppression of the mischievous independence, so called, of barbaric and feudal Poland, where bishops and nobles held a people in the most oppressive bondage, can only concern us here slightly, because it was for the time only indirectly connected with the characteristic work of Voltaire's life. But, though indirect, the connection may be seen at our distance of time to have been marked and unmistakable. The old order and principles of Europe were to receive a new impress, and the decaying system of the middle age to be replaced by a polity of revolution, which should finally change the relations of nations, the types of European government, and the ideas of spiritual control.
In 1733 the war of the Polish succession between Austria and Russia on the one hand, and France and Spain on the other, had given the first great shock to the house of Austria, which was compelled to renounce the pretensions and territory of the Empire in Italy, or nearly all of them, in favor of the Spanish Bourbons, as well as to surrender Lorraine to Stanislaus, with reversion to the crown of France. We may notice in passing that it was at Stanislaus's court of Lunéville that Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet passed their last days together. The wars of the Polish succession were remarkable for another circumstance. They were the first occasion of the decisive interference of Russia in western affairs, an only less important disturbance of Europe than the first great interference of Prussia a few years later. The falling to pieces of the old Europe was as inevitable as, more than twelve centuries before, had been the dissolution of that yet older Europe whose heart had been not Vienna but Rome. Russia and Prussia were not the only novel elements. There was a third from over the sea, the American colonies of France and England.
Roman Europe had been a vast imperial state, with slavery for a base. Then, after the feudal organization had run its course, there was a long and chaotic transition of dynastic and territorial wars, frightfully wasteful of humanity and worse than unfruitful to progress. In vain do historians, intent on vindicating the foregone conclusions of the optimism which a distorted notion about final causes demands or engenders in them, try to show these hateful contests as parts of a harmonious scheme of things, in which many diverse forces move in a mysterious way to a common and happy end. As if any good use, for instance, were served by the transfer, for one of the chief results of the war of the Polish succession, of the Italian provinces of the Empire of the Spanish Bourbons. As if any good or permanent use were served by the wars which ended in the Peace of Utrecht, when victorious England conceded, and with much wisdom conceded, the precise point which she had for so many years been disputing. From the Peace of Westphalia to the beginning of the Seven Years' War, it is not too much to say that there was a century of purely artificial strife on the continent of Europe, of wars as factious, as merely personal, as unmeaning, as the civil war of the Fronde was all of these things. In speaking roundly of this period, we leave out of account the first Silesian War, because the issue between Prussia and Austria was not decisively fought out until the final death-struggle from 1756 to 1763. It was the entry of Frederick the Great upon the scene, that instantly raised international relations into the region of real matter and changed a strife of dynasties, houses, persons, into a vital competition between old forces and principles and new. The aimless and bloody commotions which had raged over Europe, and ground men's lives to dust in the red mill of battle, came for a time to an end, and their place was taken by a tremendous conflict, on whose issue hung not merely the triumph of a dynasty, but the question of the type to which future civilization was to conform.
In the preliminary war which followed immediately upon the death of Charles VI. in 1740, and which had its beginning in Frederick's invasion of Silesia, circumstances partially marched in the usual tradition, with France and Austria playing opposite sides in an accustomed game. Before the opening of the Seven Years' War the cardinal change of policy and alliances had taken place. We are not concerned with the court intrigues that brought the change about, with the intricate manœuvres of the Jesuits, or the wounded vanity of Bernis, whose verses Frederick laughed at, or the pique of Pompadour, whom Frederick declined to count an acquaintance. When conflicting forces of tidal magnitude are at work, as they were in the middle of the last century, the play of mere personal aims and ambitions is necessarily of secondary importance; because we may always count upon there being at least one great power that clearly discerns its own vital interest, and is sure therefore to press with steady energy in its own special direction. That power was Austria. One force of this kind is enough to secure a universal adjustment of all the others in their natural places.
The situation was apparently very complex. There were in the middle of the century two great pairs of opposed interests, the interests of France and England on the ocean and in America, and the interests of Austria and Prussia in central Europe. The contest was in each of the two cases much more than a superficial affair of dynasties or division of territory, to meet the requirements of the metaphysical diplomacy of the balance of power. It was a re-opening in far vaster proportions of those profound issues of new religion and old which had only been damned up, and not permanently settled, by the great Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In vaster proportions, not merely because the new struggle between the Catholic and Protestant powers extended into the new world, but because the forces contained in these two creeds had been widened and developed, and a multitude of indirect consequences, entirely apart from theology and church discipline, depended upon the triumph of Great Britain and Prussia. The Governments of France and Austria represented the feudal and military idea, not in the strength of that idea while it was still alive, but in the narrow and oppressive form of its decay. No social growth was possible under its shadow, for one of its essential conditions was discouragement, active and passive, of commercial industry, the main pathway then open to an advancing people. Again, both France and Austria represented the old type of monarchy, as distinguished alike from the aristocratic oligarchy of England, and the new type of monarchy which Prussia introduced into Europe, frugal, encouraging industry, active in supervision, indefatigable in improving the laws. Let us not omit above all things the splendid religious toleration, of which Prussia set so extraordinarily early an example to Europe. The Protestants whom episcopal tyranny drove from Salzburg found warm hospitality among their northern brethren. While the professors of the reformed faith were denied civil status in France, and subjected to persecution of a mediæval bloodiness, one Christian was counted exactly as another in Prussia. While England was revelling in the infliction of atrocious penal laws on her Catholic citizens, Prussia extended even to the abhorred Jesuit the shelter which was denied him in Spain and at Rome. The transfer of territory from Austria to Prussia meant the extension of toleration in that territory. Silesia, for instance, no sooner became Prussian, than the University of Breslau, whose advantages had hitherto been rigidly confined to Catholics, was at once compulsorily opened to Protestants and Catholics alike. In criticising Frederick's despotism let us recognize how much enlightenment, how much of what is truly modern, was to be found in the manner in which this despotic power was exercised, long before the same enlightened principles were accepted in other countries.
There is a point of view from which we may justly regard the violent change that was the result of the Seven Years' War, as a truly progressive step. We cannot be as reasonably sure that the old conditions of men's relations in society are in whatever new shape destined to return, as we are sure that it was a good thing to prevent a feudal and jesuitical government like Austria from retaining a purely obstructive power in Europe, and a jesuitical government like France from establishing the same obstructive kind of power in America. The advantages of the final acquisition of America by Protestantism, and the decisive consolidation of Prussia, were not without alloy. History does not present us with these clean balances. It is not at all difficult to see the injurious elements in this victory of the northern powers, and nobody would be less willing than the present writer to accept either the Prussian polity of Frederick, or the commercial polity of England and her western colonies, as offering final types of wholesome social states. But the alternative was the triumph of a far worse polity than either, the polity of the Society of Jesus.
Even those who claim our respect for the Jesuits as having in the beginning of their course served the very useful purpose of honestly administering that spiritual power which had fallen from the hands of the Popes, who had mischievously entered the ranks and followed the methods of temporal princes, do not deny that within a couple of generations they became a dangerous obstacle to the continuity of European progress. Indeed, it is clear that they grew into the very worst element that has ever appeared in the whole course of European history, because their influence rested on a systematic compromise with moral corruption. They had barely seized the spiritual power in the Catholic countries when it was perceived that as an engine of moral control their supposed power was no power at all; and that the only condition on which they could retain the honor and the political authority which were needful to them was that they should connive at moral depravity. They had the education of the country in their hands, and from the confessor's closet they pulled the wires which moved courts. There was no counter-force, for the mass of the people was dumb, ignorant, and fettered. Say what we will of the need for a spiritual power, the influence of the Jesuits by the middle of the eighteenth century was cutting off the very root of civilization. This was the veritable Infamous. And this was the influence which the alliance of England and Prussia, a thing accidental enough to all appearance, successfully and decisively checked, because the triumph of the two northern powers was naturally the means of discrediting the Jesuit intrigues in the court of Versailles and elsewhere, and stripping them of those associations of political and material success which had hitherto stood to them in the stead of true spiritual credit.
The peace of 1763 had important territorial consequences. By the treaty of Paris between France, England, and Spain, Great Britain was assured of her possessions on the other side of the Atlantic. By the treaty of Hubertusburg between Austria, Prussia, and Saxony, Prussia was assured of her position as an independent power in Europe. These things were much. But the decisive repulse of the great Jesuit organization was yet more. It was the most important side of the same facts. The immediate occasions of this repulse varied in different countries, and had their origin in different sets of superficial circumstance, but the debility of the courts of Austria and France was the only condition on which such occasions could be seized. The very next year, after the treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg, the Society of Jesus was suppressed in France, and its property confiscated. Three years later it was expelled from Spain. Within ten years from the peace of 1763 it was abolished by the virtuous Clement XIV. In Canada, where the order had been extremely powerful, their authority vanished, and with it the probability of establishing in the northern half of the new world those ideas of political absolutism and theological casuistry which were undoing the old. Whatever the accidents which hurried the catastrophe, there were two general causes which really produced it, the revolution in ideas, and the revolution in the seat of material power. If this be a true description of the crisis, we can see sufficiently plainly to what an extent Voltaire and Frederick, while they appeared to themselves to be fellow-workers only in the culture of the muses, were in fact unconsciously co-operating in a far mightier task. When the war was drawing to an end, and Frederick was likely to escape from the calamities which had so nearly overwhelmed him and his kingdom in irretrievable ruin, we find Voltaire writing to d'Alembert thus: "As for Luc" (the nickname borrowed for the king of Prussia from an ape with a trick of biting), "though I ought to be full of resentment against him, yet I confess to you that in my quality of thinking creature and Frenchman, I am heartily content that a certain most devout house has not swallowed Germany up, and that the Jesuits don't confess at Berlin. Superstition is monstrously powerful towards the Danube." To which his correspondent replied that he quite agreed that the triumph of Frederick was a blessing for France and for philosophy. "These Austrians are insolent Capuchins, whom I would fain see annihilated with the superstition they protect." Here was precisely the issue.
It would be a great mistake to suppose that Frederick consciously and formally recognized the ultimate ends of his policy. Such deliberate marking out of the final destination of their work, imputed to rulers, churchmen, poets, is mostly a figment invented by philosophers. Frederick thought nothing at all about the conformation of the European societies in the twentieth century. It was enough for him to make a strong and independent Prussia, without any far-reaching vision, or indeed without any vision at all, of the effect which a strong and independent Prussia would finally have upon the readjustment of ideas and social forces in western civilization. We are led to a false notion of history, and of all the conditions of political action and the development of nations, by attributing to statesmen deep and far-reaching sight of consequences, which only completed knowledge and some ingenuity enable those who live after to fit into a harmonious scheme. "Fate," says Goethe, "for whose wisdom I entertain all imaginable reverence, often finds in chance, by which it works, an instrument not over manageable." And the great ruler, knowing this, is content to abstain from playing fate's part, feeling his way slowly to the next step. His compass is only true for a very short distance, and his chart has marks for no long course. To make Prussia strong was the aim of Frederick's life. Hence, although the real destiny of his policy was to destroy the house of Austria, he did not scruple in 1741 to offer to assist Maria Theresa with his best help against all the other invaders of the famous Pragmatic Sanction, which they had solemnly sworn to uphold. Afterwards, and before the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, he sought the alliance of France, but happily for Europe, not until after Kaunitz and Maria Theresa had already secured that blind and misguided power, thus driving him into an alliance with Great Britain. And so chance did the work of fate after all.
It may be said that such a view of the operation of the great forces of the world is destructive of all especial respect and gratitude towards the eminent men, of whom chance and fate have made mere instruments. What becomes of hero-worship, if your hero after all only half knew whither he sought to go, and if those achievements which have done such powerful service were not consciously directed towards the serviceable end? We can only answer that it is not the office of history to purvey heroes, nor always to join appreciation of a set of complex effects with veneration for this or that performer. For this veneration, if it is to be an intelligent mood, implies insight into the inmost privacy of aim and motive, and this insight, in the case of those whom circumstance raises on a towering pedestal, we can hardly ever count with assurance on finding faithful and authentic. History is perhaps not less interesting for not being distorted into a new hagiography.
It is equally unwarranted to put into Frederick's mind conscious ideas as to the type of monarchy proper for Europe in the epoch of passage from old systems. Once more, he thought of his own country, and his own country only, in all those wise measures of internal government which have been so unjustly and so childishly thrust by historians into the second place behind his exploits as a soldier, as if the civil activity of the period between 1763, when peace was made, and 1786, when he died, was not fully as remarkable in itself, and fully as momentous in its results, as the military activity of the period between 1763 and 1740. There is in men of the highest governing capacity, like Richelieu, or Cromwell, or Frederick, an instinct for good order and regular administration. They insist upon it for its own sake, independently of its effects either on the happiness of subjects, or on the fundamental policy and march of things. If Frederick had acceded to the supreme power in a highly civilized country, he would have been equally bent on imposing his own will and forcing the administration into the exact grooves prescribed by himself, and the result would have been as pestilent there as it was beneficial in a backward and semi-barbarous country such as Prussia was in his time. This good internal ordering was no more than a part of the same simple design which shaped his external policy. He had to make a nation, and its material independence in the face of Austria and Russia was not more a part of this process than giving it the great elements of internal well-being, equal laws, just administration, financial thrift, and stimulus and encouragement to industry. Such an achievement as the restoration of the germs of order and prosperity, which Frederick so rapidly brought about after the appalling ruin that seven years of disastrous war had effected, is unmatched in the history of human government. Well might he pride himself, as we know that he did, on replacing this social chaos by order, more than on Rossbach or Leuthen. Above all, he never forgot the truth which every statesman ought to have burning in letters of fire before his eyes; I am the procurator of the poor.
It commits us to no general theory of government to recognize the merits of Frederick's internal administration. They constitute a special case, to be judged by its own conditions. We may safely go so far as to say that in whatever degree the social state of a nation calls for active government, whether, as the people of the American Union boast of themselves, they need no government, or whether, as is the case in Great Britain, the wretched lives of the poor beneath the combined cupidity and heartless want of thought of the rich cry aloud for justice, in this degree it is good that the statesmen called to govern should be in that capacity of Frederick's type, conceding all freedom to thought, but energetic in the use of power as trustees for the whole nation against special classes. To meet completely the demands of their office they should have, what Frederick neither had nor could under the circumstances of his advent and the time be expected to have, a firm conviction that the highest ultimate end of all kingship is to enable nations to dispense with that organ of national life, and to fit them for a spontaneous initiative and free control in the conduct of their own affairs.
Let us be careful to remember that, if Frederick was a great ruler in the positive sense, he sprang from the critical school. The traditions of his house were strictly Protestant, his tutors were Calvinistic refugees, and his personal predilections had from his earliest youth been enthusiastically Voltairean May we not count it one of the claims of the critical philosophy to a place among the leading progressive influences in western history, that it tended to produce statesmen of this positive type? I do not know of any period of corresponding length that can produce such a group of active, wise, and truly positive statesmen as existed in Europe between 1760 and 1780. Besides Frederick, we have Turgot in France, Pombal in Portugal, Charles III. and Aranda in Spain. If Charles III. was faithful to the old creed, the three greatest, at any rate, of these extraordinary men drew inspiration from the centre of the critical school. Aranda had mixed much with the Voltairean circle while in Paris. Pombal, in spite of the taint of some cruelty, in so many respects one of the most powerful and resolute ministers that has ever held office in Europe, had been for some time in England, and was a warm admirer of Voltaire, whose works he caused to be translated into Portuguese. The famous school of Italian publicists, whose speculations bore such admirable fruit in the humane legislation of Leopold of Tuscany, and had so large a share in that code with which the name of the ever hateful Bonaparte has become fraudulently associated, these excellent thinkers found their oracles in that practical philosophy, of which we are so unjustly bidden to think only in connection with shallow and reckless destruction. The application of reason to the amelioration of the social condition was the device of the great rulers of this time, and the father and inspirer of this device was that Voltaire who is habitually presented to us a mere mocker.
Psychologues like Sulzer might declare that the scourge of right thinking was to be found in "those philosophers who, more used to sallies of wit than to deep reasoning, assume that they have overthrown by a single smart trope truths only to be known by combining a multitude of observations, so delicate and difficult that we cannot grasp them without the aid of the firmest attention." How many of these so-called truths were anything but sophistical propositions, the products of intellectual ingenuity run riot, without the smallest bearing either on positive science or social well-being? And is it not rather an abuse of men's willingness to take the profundity of metaphysics on trust, that any one who has formulated a metaphysical proposition, with due technicality of sounding words, has a claim to arrest the serious attention of every busy passer-by, and to throw on this innocent and laudable person the burden of disproof? If Duns Scotus or St. Thomas Aquinas had risen from the dead, Voltaire would very properly have declined a bout of school dialectic with those famous shades, because he was living in the century of the Encyclopædia, when the exploration of things and the improvement of institutions had taken the place of subtle manipulation of unverified words, important as that process had once been in the intellectual development of Europe. He was equally wise in declining to throw more than a trope or sprightly sally in the direction of people who dealt only in the multiplication of metaphysical abracadabras. It was his task to fix the eyes of men upon action. In the sight of Lutheran or Wolfian conjurors with words this was egregious shallowness. Strangely enough they thought it the climax of philosophic profundity to reconcile their natural spiritualism with the supernatural spiritualism of the Scriptures, and rationalistic theism with the historic theism of revelation. Voltaire repudiated the supernatural and pseudohistoric half of this hybrid combination, and in doing so he showed a far profounder logic than the cloudiest and most sonorous of his theologico-metaphysical critics. We may call him negative and destructive on this account if we please, yet surely the abnegation of barren and inconsistent speculation, and of fruitless effort to seize a vain abstract universality, was a very meritorious trait in a man who did not stop here, but by every means, by poetry, by history, by biography, and by the manifestation of all his vivid personal interests, drew every one who was within the sphere of his attraction to the consideration of social action as the first fact for the firm attention of the leaders of mankind.
It may be said that even from this side Voltaire was destructive only, and undoubtedly, owing to the circumstances of the time, the destructive side seemed to predominate in his social influence. To say this, however, is not to bring an end to the matter. The truth is that no negative thinking can stop at the negative point. To teach men to hate superstition and injustice is a sure, if an indirect, way of teaching them to seek after their opposites. Voltaire could only shake obscurantist institutions by appealing to man's love of light, and the love of light, once stirred, leads far. He appealed to reason, and it was reason in Frederick and the others, which had quickened and strengthened the love of good order, that produced the striking reforming spirit which moved through the eighteenth century, until the reaction against French revolutionary violence arrested its progress. It is one of the most difficult questions in all history to determine whether the change from the old order to the new has been damaged or advanced by that most memorable arrest of the work of social renovation in the hands of sovereign and traditional governments, administered by wise statesmen with due regard to traditional spirit; and how far the passionate efforts of those classes, whose only tradition is a tradition of squalor and despair, have driven the possessors of superior material power back into obstructive trepidation. The question is more than difficult, it is in our generation insoluble, because the movement is wholly incomplete. But whether the French outbreak from 1789 to 1794 may prove to have been the starting-point of a new society, or only to have been a detrimental interruption and parent of interruptions to stable movement forwards, we have in either case to admit that there was a most vigorous attempt made in all the chief countries in Europe, between the middle of the century and the fall of the French monarchy, to improve government and to perfect administration; that Frederick of Prussia was the author of the most permanently successful of these endeavors; and that Frederick learned to break loose from dark usage, to prefer equity of administration, to abandon religious superstition, and to insist on tolerance, from the only effective moral and intellectual masters he ever had, first the French Calvinists, and then the French critical school, with Voltaire for chief. It is true, as we shall presently see, that an important change in the spirit of French writers was marked by the Encyclopædia, which was so much besides being critical. But then this famous work only commenced in the year when Voltaire reached Berlin, and Frederick's character had received its final shape long before that time.
With the exception of Voltaire, d'Alembert was the only really eminent Frenchman whose work ever struck Frederick, and we are even conscious, in comparing his letters to these two eminent men, of a certain seriousness and deferential respect towards the latter friend, which never marked his relations with Voltaire after the early days of youthful enthusiasm. Frederick's admiration for France, indeed, has been somewhat overstated by French writers, and by those of our own country who have taken their word for granted. "Your nation," Frederick once wrote to Voltaire, "is the most inconsequent in all Europe. It abounds in bright intelligence, but has no consistency in its ideas. This is how it appears through all its history. There is really an indelible character imprinted on it. The only exception in a long succession of reigns is to be found in a few years of Louis XIV. The reign of Henry IV. was neither tranquil enough nor long enough for us to take that into account. During the administration of Richelieu we observe some consistency of design and some nerve in execution; but in truth they are uncommonly short epochs of wisdom in so long a chronicle of madnesses. Again, France has been able to produce men like Descartes or Malebranche, but no Leibnitz, no Lockes, no Newtons. On the other hand, for taste, you surpass all other nations, and I will surely range myself under your standards in all that regards delicacy of discernment and the judicious and scrupulous choice between real beauties and those which are only apparent. That is a great point in polite letters, but it is not everything." Frederick, however, could never endure the least hint that he was not a perfect Frenchman in the order of polite letters. The article on Prussia in the Encyclopædia was full of the most flattering eulogies of his work as a soldier and an administrator, and even contained handsome praise for his writings; but Diderot, the author of this part of the article, delicately suggested that a year or two in the Faubourg St. Honoré would perhaps have dispersed the few grains of Berlin sand which hindered the perfect purity of note of that admirable flute. Frederick, who had hitherto been an ardent reader of the Encyclopædia, never opened another volume.
We can understand Voltaire's character without wading through the slough of mean scandals which sprang up like gross fungi during his stay at Berlin. Who need remember that Frederick spoke of his illustrious guest as an orange of which, when one has squeezed the juice, one throws away the skin? Or how Voltaire retorted by speaking of his illustrious host, whose royal verses he had to correct, as a man sending his dirty linen to him to wash? Or, still worse, as a compound of Julius Cæsar and the Abbé Cotin? Nor need we examine into stories, suspicious products of Berlin malice, how Frederick stopped his guest's supply of sugar and chocolate, and how Voltaire put his host's candle-ends into his pocket. It is enough to know that the king and the poet gradually lost their illusions, and forgot that life was both too short and too valuable to waste in vain efforts of making believe that an illusion is other than it is. Voltaire took a childish delight in his gold key and his star, and in supping as an intimate with a king who had won five battles. His life was at once free and occupied, the two conditions of happy existence. He worked diligently at his "Siècle de Louis XIV.," and diverted himself with operas, comedies, and great entertainments among affable queens, charming princesses, and handsome maids of honor. Yet he could not forget the saying, which had been so faithfully carried to him, of the orange-skin. He declared that he was like the man who fell from the top of a high tower, and finding himself softly supported in the air, cried out, Good, if it only lasts. Or he was like a husband striving hard to persuade himself of the fidelity of a suspected wife. He had fits of violent nostalgia. "I am writing to you by the side of a stove, with drooping head and heavy heart, looking on to the River Spree, because the Spree falls into the Elbe, the Elbe into the sea, and the sea receives the Seine, and our Paris house is near the River Seine, and I say, Why am I in this palace, in this cabinet looking into this Spree, and not in our own chimney-corner?…How my happiness is poisoned, how short is life! What wretchedness to seek happiness far from you; and what remorse, if one finds it away from you." This was to Madame Denis, his niece; but a Christmas in the Berlin barrack made even a plain coquette in Paris attractive and homely. We may imagine with what tender regrets he would look back upon the old days at Cirey.
Even in respect of the very mischief from which he had fled, the detraction and caballing of the envious, he was hardly any better off at Berlin than he had been at Paris. D'Argental, one of the wisest of his friends, had forewarned him of this, and that he had fled from enemies whom at any rate he never saw, only to find other enemies with whom he had to live day after day. This was exactly what came to pass. Voltaire often compared the system of life at Berlin and Potsdam to that of a convent, half military, half literary. The vices of conventual life came with its other features, and among them jealousy, envy, and malice. The tale-bearer, that constant parasite of such societies, had exquisite opportunities, and for a susceptible creature like Voltaire, the result was wholly fatal. The nights and suppers of the gods became, in his own phrase, suppers of Damocles. Alexander the Great was transformed into the tyrant Dionysius. The famous Diatribe of Doctor Akakia, in the autumn of 1752, brought matters to a climax, because its publication was supposed to show marked defiance of the king's wishes.
Maupertuis had been one of the earliest and most strenuous Newtonians in France, and had at his own personal risk helped to corroborate the truth of the new system. In 1735 the zeal for experimental science, which was so remarkable a trait in this century of many-sided intellectual activity, induced the academy of sciences to despatch an expedition to take the actual measure of a degree of meridian below the equator, and the curious and indefatigable La Condamine, one of the most ardent men of that ardent time, with two other inquirers went to Peru. In 1736 Maupertuis and Clairaut under the same auspices started for the north pole, where, after undergoing the severest hardships, they succeeded in measuring their degree, and verifying by observation Newton's demonstration of the oblate figure of the earth, a verification that was further completed by La Caille's voyage to the Cape of Good Hope in 1750. Maupertuis commemorated his share in this excellent work by having a portrait of himself executed, in which the palm of a hand gently flattens the north pole. He was extremely courageous and extremely vain. His costume was eccentric and affected, his temper more jealous and arbitrary than comports with the magnanimity of philosophers, and his manner more gloomily solemn than the conditions of human life can ever justify. With all his absurdities, he was a man of real abilities, and of a solidity of character beyond that of any of his countrymen at Frederick's court. I would rather live with him, Frederick wrote to the Princess Wilhelmina, than with Voltaire; "his character is surer," which in itself was saying little. But then, the moment he came into collision with Voltaire, his absurdities became the most important thing about him, because it was precisely these which Voltaire was sure to drag into unsparing prominence. In old days they had been good friends, and a letter still remains, mournfully testifying to the shallowness of men's sight into the roots of their relations with others, for it closes by bidding Maupertuis be sure that Voltaire will love him all the days of his life. The causes of their collision were obvious enough. As Frederick said, of two Frenchmen in the same court, one must perish. Maupertuis, from the heights of the exact sciences, probably despised Voltaire as a scribbler, while Voltaire, with a heart flowing over with gay vivacity, assuredly counted Maupertuis arbitrary, ridiculously solemn, and something of an impostor. The compliances of society, he said of the president of the Berlin academy, are not problems that he is fond of solving. Maupertuis acted to König, in the matter of an academic or discoverer's quarrel, in a way that struck Voltaire, and all men since, as tyrannical, unjust, and childish, all in one. He unhappily wrote a book which gave Voltaire such an excuse for punishing the author's injustice to König, as even Voltaire's spleen could hardly have hoped for, and the result was the wittiest and most pitiless of all the purely personal satires in the world. The temptation was certainly irresistible.
Maupertuis, as has been said, was courageous and venturesome, and this venturesomeness being uncorrected by the severe discipline of a large body of accurate positive knowledge, such as Clairaut and Lagrange possessed, led him into some worse than equivocal speculation. He was in the depths of the metaphysical stage, and developed physical theories out of abstract terms. Of some of these theories the worst that could be said was that they were wholly unproved. He advanced the hypothesis, for instance, that all the animal species sprang from some first creature, prototype of all creatures since. Others of his theories were right in idea, but wrong in form, and without even an attempt at verification. The famous principle of the minimum of action, for example, in spite of the truth at the bottom of it, was valueless and confused, until Lagrange connected it with fundamental dynamic principles, generalized it, and cleared the unsupported metaphysical notions out of it. All this, however, was wise and Newtonic compared with the ideas promulgated in the Philosophic Letters, on which the wicked Akakia so swiftly pounced. Here were notions which it needed more audacity to broach, than to face the frosts and snows of Lapland; strange theories that in a certain state of exaltation of the soul one may foresee the future; that if the expiration of vital force could only be prevented, the body might be kept alive for hundreds of years; that by careful dissection of the brains of giants, Patagonian and other, we should ascertain something of the composition of the mind; that a Latin town if it were established, and this was not an original idea, would be an excellent means of teaching the Latin language. Voltaire knew exactly what kind of malicious gravity and feigned respect would surround this amazing performance and its author with inextinguishable laughter, and his thousand turns and tropes cut deep into Maupertuis like sharpened swords.
Voltaire was not by scientific training competent to criticise Maupertuis. This is true; but then Voltaire had what in such cases dispensed with special competence, a preternatural gift of detecting an impostor, and we must add that here as in every other case his anger was set aflame not by intellectual vapidity, but by what he counted gross wrong. Maupertuis had acted with despotic injustice towards König, and Voltaire resolved to punish him. This is perhaps the only side of that world-famous and truly wretched fray which it is worth our while to remember, besides its illustration of the general moral that active interest in public affairs is the only sure safeguard against the inhuman egotism, otherwise so nearly inevitable and in any wise so revolting, of men of letters and men of science.
Frederick took the side of the president of his academy, and had Doctor Akakia publicly burnt within earshot of its author's quarters.1 Voltaire had long been preparing for the end by depositing his funds in the hands of the Duke of Würtemberg, and by other steps, which had come to the king's ears, and had by no means smoothed matters. He sees now that the orange has been squeezed, and that it is his business to think of saving the skin. He drew up for his own instruction, he said, a pocket-dictionary of terms in use with kings: My friend means my slave; my dear friend means that you are more than indifferent to me; understand by I will make you happy, I will endure you as long as I have need of you; sup with me to-night means I will make fun of you to-night. Voltaire, though he had been, and always was, the most graceful of courtiers, kept to his point, and loudly gave Frederick to understand that in literary disputes he recognized no kings. An act of tyranny had been committed towards König, who was his friend, and nothing would induce him to admit either that it was anything else, or that it was other than just to have held up the tyrant to the laughter of Europe.
Frederick was profoundly irritated, and the terms in which he writes of his French Virgil as an ape who ought to be flogged for his tricks, a man worse than many who have been broken on the wheel, a creature who may deserve a statue for his poetry but who certainly deserves chains for his conduct, seem to imply a quite special mortification and resentment. He had no doubt a deep and haughty contempt for all these angers of celestial minds. The cabals of men of letters, he wrote to Voltaire, seemed to him the lowest depths of degradation. And he would fain have flung a handful of dust on the furious creatures. After three months of vain effort to achieve the impossible, Voltaire being only moderately compliant, the king in March, 1753, gave him leave to depart, though with a sort of nominal understanding for politeness' sake that there was to be a speedy return.
Voltaire, however, was not a man in whose breast the flame of resentment ever flickered away in politeness, until his adversary had humbled himself. Though no one ever so systematically convinced himself each day for thirty years that he was on the very point of death, no one was less careful to measure the things that were worth doing from the point of view of a conventional memento mori. Nobody spoke about dying so much, nor thought about it so little. The first use he made of his liberty was to shoot yet another bolt at Maupertuis from Leipsic, more piercing than any that had gone before. Frederick now in his turn abandoned the forms of politeness, and the renowned episode of Frankfort took place. Voltaire, on reaching Frankfort, was required by the Prussian resident in the free city to surrender his court decorations, and, more important than these, a certain volume of royal verse containing the "Palladium," a poem of indecencies which were probably worse than those of the "Pucelle," because an indecent German is usually worse than an indecent Frenchman. The poems, however, were what was far worse than indecent in Frederick's eyes; they were impolitic, for they contained bitter sarcasm on sovereigns whom he might be glad to have, and one of whom he did actually have, on his side in the day of approaching storm. Various delays and unlucky mishaps occurred, and Voltaire underwent a kind of imprisonment for some five weeks (May 31 to July 7, 1753), under extremely mortifying and humiliating circumstances. There was on the one part an honest, punctual, methodic, rather dull Prussian subordinate, anxious above all other things in the world, not excepting respect for genius and respect for law, to obey the injunctions of his master from Berlin. On the other part Voltaire, whom we know; excitable as a demon, burning with fury against his enemies who were out of his reach now that he had spent all his ammunition of satire upon them, only half understanding what was said to him in a strange tongue, mad with fear lest Frederick meant to detain him after all. It would need the singer of the battle of the frogs and mice to do justice to this five-weeks' tragi-comedy. A bookseller with whom he had had feuds years before, injudiciously came either to pay his respects, or to demand some trivial arrears of money; the furious poet and philosopher rushed up to his visitor and inflicted a stinging box on the ear, while Collini, his Italian secretary, hastily offered this intrepid consolation to Van Duren, "Sir, you have received a box on the ear from one of the greatest men in the world." A clerk came to settle this affair or that, and Voltaire rushed towards him with click of pistol, the friendly Collini again interfering to better purpose by striking up the hand that had written "Mérope" and was on the point of despatching a clerk. We need not go into the minute circumstances of the Frankfort outrage. Freytag, the subordinate, clearly overstrained his instructions, and his excess of zeal in detaining and harassing Voltaire can only be laid indirectly to Frederick's charge. But Frederick is responsible, as every principal is, who launches an agent in a lawless and tyrannic course. The German Varnhagen has undoubtedly shown that Voltaire's account, witty and diverting as it is, is not free from many misrepresentations, and some tolerably deliberate lies. French writers have as undoubtedly shown that the detention of a French citizen by a Prussian agent in a free town of the empire was a distinct and outrageous illegality. We, who are fortunately not committed by the exigencies of patriotism to close our eyes to either half of the facts, may with facile impartiality admit both halves. Voltaire, though fundamentally a man of exceptional truth, was by no means incapable of an untruth when his imagination was hot, and Frederick was by no means incapable of an outrage upon law, when law stood between him and his purpose. Frederick's subordinates had no right to detain Voltaire at all, and they had no right to allow themselves to be provoked by his impatience into the infliction of even small out-rages upon him and his obnoxious niece. On the other hand, if Voltaire had been a sort of Benjamin Franklin, if he had possessed a well-regulated mind, a cool and gentle temper, a nice sense of the expedient, then the most grotesque scene of a life in which there was too much of grotesque would not have been acted as it was, to the supreme delight of those miserable souls who love to contemplate the follies of the wise.
Any reader who takes the trouble to read the documents affecting this preposterous brawl at Frankfort between a thoroughly subordinate German and the most insubordinate Frenchman that ever lived — this adventure, as its victim called it, of Cimbrians and Sicambrians — will be rather struck by the extreme care with which Frederick impresses on the persons concerned the propriety of having Voltaire's written and signed word for such parts of the transaction as needed official commemoration. In one place he expressly insists that a given memorandum should be written by Voltaire's own hand from top to bottom. This precaution, which seems so strange in a king who had won five battles, dealing with the author of a score of tragedies, an epic, and many other fine things, sprang in truth from no desire to cast a wanton slight on Voltaire's honor, but from the painful knowledge that the author of the fine things was not above tampering with papers and denying patent superscriptions. Voltaire's visit had not been of long duration, before the unfortunate lawsuit with Abraham Hirschel occurred. Of this transaction we need only say this much, that Voltaire employed the Jew in some illegal jobbing in Saxon securities; that he gave him bills on a Paris banker, holding diamonds from the Jew as pledge of honest Christian dealing; that his suspicions were aroused, that he protested his bills, then agreed to buy the jewels, then quarrelled over the price, and finally plunged into a suit, of which the issues were practically two, whether Hirschel had any rights on one of the Paris bills, and whether the jewels were fairly charged. Voltaire got his bill back, and the jewels were to be duly valued; but the proceedings disclosed two facts of considerable seriousness for all who should have dealings with him; first, that he had interpolated matter to his own advantage in a document already signed by his adversary, thus making the Jew to have signed what he had signed not; and second, that when very hard pushed he would not swerve from a false oath, any more than his great enemy the apostle Peter had done. Frederick had remembered all this, just as every negotiator who had to deal with Frederick remembered that the great king was not above such infamies as Klein-Schnellendorf, nor such meanness as filching away with his foot a letter that had slipped unseen from an ambassador's pocket.
And so there was an end, if not of correspondence, yet of that friendship, which after all had always belonged rather to the spoken order than to the deep unspeakable. There was now cynical, hoarse-voiced contempt on the one side, and fierce, reverberating, shrill fury on the other. The spectacle and the sound are distressing to those who crave dignity and admission of the serious in the relations of men with one another, as well as some sense of the myriad indefinable relations which encompass us unawares, giving color and perspective to our more definable bonds. One would rather that even in their estrangement there had been some grace and firmness and self-control, and that at least the long-cherished illusion had faded away worthily, as when one bids farewell to a friend whom a perverse will carries from us over unknown seas until a far day and we know not if we shall see his face any more. It jars on us that the moon which has climbed into the night and moved like sound of music over heath and woodland, should finally set in a gray swamp amid the harsh croaking of amphibians. But the intimacy between Frederick and Voltaire had perhaps been always most like the theatre moon.
We may know what strange admixture of distrust, contempt, and tormenting reminiscence, mingled with the admiration of these two men for one another's genius, from the bitterness which occasionally springs up in the midst of their most graceful and amiable letters of a later date. For instance, this is Voltaire to Frederick: "You have already done me ill enough; you put me wrong for ever with the king of France; you made me lose my offices and pensions; you used me shamefully at Frankfort, me and an innocent woman who was dragged through the mud and down into jail; and now, while honoring me with letters, you mar the sweetness of this consolation by bitter reproaches…. The greatest harm that your works have done, is in the excuse they have given to the enemies of philosophy throughout Europe to say, 'These philosophers cannot live in peace, and they cannot live together. Here is a king who does not believe in Jesus Christ; he invites to his court a man who does not believe in Jesus Christ, and he uses him ill; there is no humanity in these pretended philosophers, and God punishes them by means of one another….' Your admirable and solid wisdom is spoiled by the unfortunate pleasure you have always had in seeing the humiliation of other men, and in saying and writing stinging things to them; a pleasure most unworthy of you, and all the more so as you are raised above them by your rank and by your unique talents." To which the king answers that he is fully aware how many faults he has, and what great faults they are, that he does not treat himself very gently, and that in dealing with himself he pardons nothing. As for Voltaire's conduct, it would not have been endured by any other philosopher. "If you had not had to do with a man madly enamored of your fine genius, you would not have got off so well with anybody else. Consider all that as done with, and never let me hear again of that wearisome niece, who has not so much merit as her uncle, with which to cover her defects. People talk of the servant of Molière, but nobody will ever speak of the niece of Voltaire."
The poet had talked, after his usual manner, of being old and worn out, and tottering on the brink of the grave. "Why, you are only sixty-two," said Frederick, "and your soul is full of that fire which animates and sustains the body. You will bury me and half the present generation. You will have the delight of making a spiteful couplet on my tomb." Voltaire did not make a couplet, but he wrote a prose lampoon on the king's private life, which is one of the bitterest libels that malice ever prompted, and from which the greater part of Europe has been content to borrow its idea of the character of Frederick. This was vengeance enough even for Voltaire. We may add that while Voltaire constantly declared that he could never forget the outrages which the king of Prussia had inflicted on him, neither did he forget to draw his pension from the king of Prussia even in times when Frederick was most urgently pressed. It may be said that he was ready to return favors; "If things go on as they are going now," he wrote with sportive malice, "I reckon on having to allow a pension to the king of Prussia."
It was not surprising that Voltaire did not return to Paris. His correspondence during his residence at Berlin attests in every page of it how bitterly he resented the cabals of ignoble men of letters, and the insolence of ignoble men of authority. "If I had been in Paris this Lent," he wrote in 1752, "I should have been hissed in town, and made sport of at court, and the Siècle de Louis XIV. would have been denounced, as smacking of heresy, as audacious, and full of ill significance. I should have had to go to defend myself in the anteroom of the lieutenant of police. The officers would say, as they saw me pass, There is a man who belongs to us…. No, my friend, qui bene latuit, bene vixit." With most just anger, he contrasted German liberality with the tyrannical suspicion of his own government. The emperor, he says, made no difficulty in permitting the publication of a book in which Leopold was called a coward. Holland gave free circulation to statements that the Dutch are ingrates and that their trade is perishing. He was allowed to print under the eyes of the king of Prussia that the Great Elector abased himself uselessly before Louis XIV., and resisted him as uselessly. It was only in France where permission was refused for a eulogy of Louis XIV. and of France, and that, because he had been neither base enough nor foolish enough to disfigure his eulogy either by shameful silences or cowardly misrepresentations. The imprisonment, nine years before this, of Lenglet Dufresnoy, an old man of seventy, for no worse offence than publishing a supplement to de Thou's history, had made a deep impression on Voltaire. He would have been something lower than human if he had forgotten the treatment which he had himself received at the hands of the most feeble and incompetent government that ever was endured by a civilized people.
So he found his way to Geneva, then and until 1798 an independent republic or municipality. There (1755) he made himself two hermitages, one for summer, called the Délices, a short distance from the spot where the Arve falls into the Rhone, and the other near Lausanne (Monrion) for winter. Here, he says, "I see from my bed this glorious lake, which bathes a hundred gardens at the foot of my terrace; which forms on right and left a stream of a dozen leagues, and a calm sea in front of my windows; and which waters the fields of Savoy, crowned with the Alps in the distance." "You write to me," replied d'Alembert, "from your bed, whence you command ten leagues of the lake, and I answer you from my hole, whence I command a patch of sky three ells long." To poor d'Alembert the name of the famous lake was fraught with evil associations, for he had just published his too veracious article on Geneva in the Encyclopædia, in which he paid the clergy of that city the unwelcome compliment, that they were the most logical of all Protestants, for they were Socinians; and he was now suffering the penalty of men who stir up angry hives.
The enjoyment which Voltaire had then and for twenty years to come in his noble landscape, and which he so often commemorates in his letters, is a proof that may be added to others, of the injustice of the common idea that the Voltairean school of the eighteenth century were specially insensible to the picturesque. Morellet, for instance, records his delight and wonder at the Alps and the descent into Italy, in terms quite as warm as, if much less profuse than, those of the most impressible modern tourist. Diderot had a strong spontaneous feeling for nature, as he shows not only in his truly remarkable criticisms on the paintings of twenty years, but also in his most private correspondence, where he demonstrates in terms too plain, simple, and homely, to be suspected of insincerity, the meditative delight with which the solitary contemplation of fine landscape inspired him. He has no peculiar felicity in describing natural features in words, or in reproducing the inner harmonies with which the soft lines of distant hills, or the richness of deep embosoming woodlands, or the swift procession of clouds driven by fierce or cheerful winds, compose and strengthen the sympathizing spirit. But he was as susceptible to them as men of more sonorous word. And Voltaire finds the liveliest pleasure in the natural sights and objects around him, though they never quickened in him those brooding moods of egotistic introspection and deep-questioning contemplation in which Jean Jacques, Bernardin de St. Pierre, and Senancour, found a sort of refuge from their own desperate impotency of will and of material activity. Voltaire never felt this impotency. As the very apostle of action, how should he have felt it? It pleased him in the first few months of his settlement in new scenes, and at other times, to borrow some of Frederick's talk about the bestial folly of the human race, and the absurdity of troubling oneself about it; but what was a sincere cynicism in the king, was in Voltaire only a bit of cant, the passing affectation of an hour. The dramatist whose imagination had produced so long a series of dramas of situation, the historian who had been attracted by such labors as those of Charles XII. of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia, as well as by the achievements of the illustrious men who adorned the age of Louis XIV., proved himself of far too objective and positive a temperament to be capable of that self-conscious despair of action, that paralyzing lack of confidence in will, which drove men of other humor and other experience forlorn into the hermit's caves of a new Thebaid. Voltaire's ostentatious enjoyment of his landscape and his garden was only the expansion of a seafarer, who after a stormful voyage finds himself in a fair haven. His lines to Liberty give us the keynote to his mood at this time. He did not suppose that he had got all, but he knew that he had got somewhat.
Je ne vante point d'avoir en cet asile
Rencontré le parfait bonheur:
Il n'est point retiré dans le fond d'un bocage;
Il est encore moins chez les rois;
Il n'est pas même chez le sage;
De cette courte vie il n'est point le partage;
Il y faut renoncer; mais on peut quelquefois
Embrasser au moins son image.
"'Tis a fine thing, is tranquillity," he wrote; "yes, but ennui is of its acquaintance and belongs to the family. To repulse this ugly relation, I have set up a theatre." Besides the theatre, guests were frequent and multitudinous. He speaks of sometimes having a crowd of fifty persons at table. Besides Les Délices and Lausanne, he purchased from the President de Brosses a life-interest in Tourney, and in the same year (1758) he bought the lordship of Ferney, close by. He was thus a citizen of Geneva, of Berne, and of France, "for philosophers ought to have two or three holes underground against the hounds who chase them." If the dogs of France should hunt him, he could take shelter in Geneva. If the dogs of Geneva began to bay, he could run into France. By and by this consideration of safety grew less absorbing, and all was abandoned except Ferney; a name that will always remain associated with those vigorous and terrible assaults upon the Infamous, which first definitely opened when Voltaire became the lord of this little domain.
1. It may be worth mentioning that there actually existed in the sixteenth century a French physician, who changed his real name of Sans-Malice into Akakia, and left descendants so called. See M. Jal's "Dictionnaire Critique de Biographie et d'Histoire, p. 19 (1869).
Last updated Friday, December 25, 2015 at 11:50