Lytton Strachey: Voltaire and Frederick the Great



At the present time [October 1915] when it is so difficult to think of anything but of what is and what will be, it may yet be worthwhile to cast occasionally a glance backward at what was. Such glances may at least prove to have the humble merit of being entertaining: they may even be instructive as well. Certainly it would be a mistake to forget that Frederick the Great once lived in Germany. Nor is it altogether useless to remember that a curious old gentleman, extremely thin, extremely active, and heavily bewigged, once decided that, on the whole, it would be as well for him not to live in France. For, just as modern Germany dates from the accession of Frederick to the throne of Prussia, so modern France dates from the establishment of Voltaire on the banks of the Lake of Geneva. The intersection of those two momentous lives forms one of the most curious and one of the most celebrated incidents in history. To English readers it is probably best known through the few brilliant paragraphs devoted to it by Macaulay; though Carlyle's masterly and far more elaborate narrative is familiar to every lover of The History of Friedrich II. Since Carlyle wrote, however, fifty years have passed. New points of view have arisen, and a certain amount of new material -- including the valuable edition of the correspondence between Voltaire and Frederick published from the original documents in the Archives at Berlin -- has become available. It seems, therefore, in spite of the familiarity of the main outlines of the story, that another rapid review of it will not be out of place.

Voltaire was forty-two years of age, and already one of the most famous men of the day, when, in August 1736, he received a letter from the Crown Prince of Prussia. This letter was the first in a correspondence which was to last, with a few remarkable intervals, for a space of over forty years. It was written by a young man of twenty-four, of whose personal qualities very little was known, and whose importance seemed to lie simply in the fact that he was heir- apparent to one of the secondary European monarchies. Voltaire, however, was not the man to turn up his nose at royalty, in whatever form it might present itself; and it was moreover clear that the young Prince had picked up at least a smattering of French culture, that he was genuinely anxious to become acquainted with the tendencies of modern thought, and, above all, that his admiration for the author of the Henriede and Zaire was unbounded. 

La douceur et le support [wrote Frederick] que vous marques pour tous ceux qui se vouent aux arts et aux sciences, me font espérer que vous ne m'exclurez pas du nombre de ceux que vous trouvez dignes de vos instructions. Je nomme ainsi votre corm merce de lettres, qui ne peut être que profitable à tout être pensant. J'ose même avancer, sans déroger, au mérite d'autrui, que dans l'univers entier il n'y aurait pas d'exception à faire de ceux dont vous ne pourriez être le maître.
The great man was accordingly delighted; he replied with all that graceful affability of which he was a master, declared that his correspondent was "un prince philosophe qui rendra les hommes heureux," and showed that he meant business by plunging at once into a discussion of the metaphysical doctrines of "le sieur Wolf," whom Frederick had commended as "le plus célèbre philosophe de nos jours." For the next four years the correspondence continued on the lines thus laid down. It was a correspondence between a master and a pupil: Frederick, his passions divided between German philosophy and French poetry, poured out with equal copiousness disquisitions upon Free Will and la raison suffisante, odes sur la Flatterie, and epistles sur l'Humanité, while Voltaire kept the ball rolling with no less enormous philosophical replies, together with minute criticisms of His Royal Highness's mistakes in French metre and French orthography. Thus, though the interest of these early letters must have been intense to the young Prince, they have far too little personal flavour to be anything but extremely tedious to the reader of to-day. Only very occasionally is it possible to detect, amid the long and careful periods, some faint signs of feeling or of character. Voltaire's empressement seems to take on, once or twice, the colours of something like a real enthusiasm; and one notices that, after two years, Frederick's letters begin no longer with "Monsieur " but with "Mon cher ami" which glides at last insensibly into "Mon cher Voltaire"; though the careful poet continues with his "Monseigneur" throughout. Then, on one occasion, Frederick makes a little avowal, which reads oddly in the light of future events.

Souffrez [he says] que je vous fasse mon caractère, afin que vous ne vous y mépreniez plus.... J'ai peu de mérite et peu de savoir; mais j'ai beaucoup de bonne volonté, et un fonds inépuisable d'estime et d'amitié pour les personnes d'une vertu distinguée et avec cela je suis capable de toute la constance que la vraie amitié exige. J'ai assez de jugement pour vous rendre toute la justice que vous méritez; mais je n'en ai pas assez pour m'empêcher de faire de mauvais vers.
But this is exceptional; as a rule, elaborate compliments take the place of personal confessions; and, while Voltaire is never tired of comparing Frederick to Apollo, Alcibiades, and the youthful Marcus Aurelius, of proclaiming the re-birth of "les talents de Virgile et les vertus d'Auguste," or of declaring that "Socrate ne m'est rien, c'est Frédéric que j'aime," the Crown Prince is on his side ready with an equal flow of protestations, which sometimes rise to singular heights. "Ne croyez pas," he says, "que je pousse mon scepticisme a outrance... Je crois, par exemple, qu'il n'y a qu'un Dieu et qu'un Voltaire dans le monde; je crois encore que ce Dieu avait besoin dans ce siècle d'un Voltaire pour le rendre aimable." Decidedly the Prince's compliments were too emphatic, and the poet's too ingenious; as Voltaire himself said afterwards, "les epithetes ne nous coutaient rien"; yet neither was without a little residue of sincerity. Frederick's admiration bordered upon the sentimental; and Voltaire had begun to allow himself to hope that some day, in a provincial German court, there might be found a crowned head devoting his life to philosophy, good sense, and the love of letters. Both were to receive a curious awakening.

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