VOLTAIRE: Potsdam and Frederick

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


IV. Potsdam and Frederick

Those who could not come to him wrote to him. In 1786 began his correspondence with Frederick, then Prince, and not yet Great. Frederick’s first letter was like that of a boy to a king; its lavish flattery gives us an inkling of the reputation which Voltaire—though he had not yet written any of his masterpieces—had already won. It proclaims Voltaire as “the greatest man of France, and a mortal who does honor to language. … I count it one of the greatest honors of my life to be born the contemporary of a man of such distinguished attainments as yours. … It is not given to everyone to make the mind laugh”; and “what pleasures can surpass those of the mind?” Frederick was a free-thinker, who looked upon dogmas as a king looks upon subjects; and Voltaire had great hopes that on the throne Frederick would make the Enlightenment fashionable, while he himself, perhaps, might play Plato to Frederick’s Dionysius. When Frederick demurred to the flattery with which Voltaire answered his own, Voltaire replied: A prince who writes against flattery is as singular as a pope who writes against infallibility.” Frederick sent him a copy of the Anti-Machiavel, in which the prince spoke very beautifully of the iniquity of war, and of the duty of a king to preserve peace; Voltaire wept tears of joy over this royal pacifist. A few months later Frederick, made king, invaded Silesia and plunged Europe into a generation of bloodshed. 

Prince Frederick was very charmed by Voltaire. And Voltaire had great hopes of Frederick as King.

In 1745 the poet and his mathematician went to Paris, when Voltaire became a candidate for membership in the French Academy. To achieve this quite superfluous distinction he called himself a good Catholic, complimented some powerful Jesuits, lied inexhaustibly, and in general behaved as most of us do in such cases. He failed; but a year later he succeeded, and delivered a reception address which is one of the classics of the literature of France. For a while he lingered in Paris, flitting from salon to salon, and producing play after play. From Oedipe at eighteen to Irene at eighty-three he wrote a long series of dramas, some of them failures, most of them successes. In 1730 Brutus failed, and in 1732 Eriphyle failed; his friends urged him to abandon the drama; but in the same year he produced Zaire, which became his greateat success. Mahomet followed in 1741, Merope in 1743, Semiramis. n 1748, and Tancrede in 1760. 

Voltaire, in writing drama, had some failures but mostly successes.

Meanwhile tragedy and comedy had entered his own life. After fifteen years, his love for Mme. du Chatelet had somewhat thinned; they had even ceased to quarrel. In 1748 the Marquise fell in love with the handsome young Marquis de Saint-Lambert. When Voltaire discovered it he raged; but when Saint-Lambert asked his forgiveness he melted into a benediction. He had reached the crest of life now, and began to see death in the distance; he could not take it ill that youth should be served. “Such are women,” he said philosophically (forgetting that there are such men too): “I displaced Richelieu, Saint-Lambert turns me out! That is the order of things; one nail drives out another; so goes the world.” He wrote a pretty stanza to the third nail: 

Saint-Lambert, it is all for thee 
The flower grows; 
The rose’s thorns are all for me; 
For thee the rose. 

Then, in 1749, came the death of Mme. du Chatelet in childbirth. It was characteristic of the age that her husband and Voltaire and Saint-Lambert should meet at her death-bed with not one word of reproach, and indeed made friends by then common loss. 

Voltaire had quite a love life.

Voltaire tried to forget his bereavement in work; for a time he busied himself with his Siecle de Louis XIV; but what rescued him from despondency was the opportune renewal of Frederick’s invitation to come to his court at Potsdam. An invitation accompanied by 3000 francs for traveling expenses was irresistible. Voltaire left for Berlin in 1750. 

It soothed him to find himself assigned to a splendid suite in Frederick’s palace, and accepted on equal terms by the most powerful monarch of the age. At first his letters were full of satisfaction: writing on July 24 to d’Argental he describes 

Potsdam—“150,000 soldiers; … opera, comedy, philosophy, poetry, grandeur and graces, grenadiers and muses, trumpets and violins, the suppers of Plato, society and liberty,—who would believe it? Yet it is very true.” Years before, he had written: “Mon Dieu! … what a delightful life it would be to lodge with three or four men of letters with talents and no jealousy” (what imagination!), “to love one another, live quietly, cultivate one’s art, talk of it, enlighten ourselves mutually!—I picture to myself that I shall some day live in this little Paradise.” And here it was! 

In 1750, Voltaire moved to Potsdam at King Frederick’s invitation. At first, he found a lot of satisfaction there.

Voltaire avoided the state dinners; he could not bear to be surrounded with bristling generals; he reserved himself for the private suppers to which Frederick, later in the evening, would invite a small inner circle of literary friends; for this greatest prince of his age yearned to be a poet and a philosopher. The conversation at these suppers was always in French; Voltaire tried to learn German, but gave it up after nearly choking; and wished the Germans had more wit and fewer consonants. One who heard the conversation said that it was better than the most interesting and best-written book in the world. They talked about everything, and said what they thought. Frederick’s wit was almost as sharp as Voltaire’s; and only Voltaire dared to answer him, with that finesse which could kill without giving offense. “One thinks boldly, one is free here,” wrote Voltaire joyfully. Frederick “scratches with one hand, but caresses with the other. … I am crossed in nothing … I find a port after fifty years of storm. I find the protection of a king, the conversation of a philosopher, the charms of an agreeable man, united in one who for sixteen years consoled me in misfortune and sheltered me from my enemies. If one can be certain of anything it is of the character of the King of Prussia.” However … 

He had great company at private suppers with the King of Prussia.

In November of this same year Voltaire thought he would improve his finances by investing in Saxon bonds, despite Frederick’s prohibition of such investments. The bonds rose, and Voltaire profited; but his agent, Hirsch, tried to blackmail him by threatening to publish the transaction. Voltaire “sprang at his throat and sent him sprawling.” Frederick learned of the affair and fell into a royal rage. “I shall want him at the most another year,” he said to La Mettrie; “one squeezes the orange and throws away the rind.” La Mettrie, perhaps anxious to disperse his rivals, took care to report this to Voltaire. The suppers were resumed, “but,” wrote Voltaire, “the orange rind haunts my dreams. … The man who fell from the top of a steeple, and finding the falling through the air soft, said, ‘Good, provided it lasts,’ was not a little as I am.” 

But then he ran afoul of the King by profiting from a prohibited investment.

He half desired a break; for he was as homesick as only a Frenchman can be. The decisive trifle came in 1752. Maupertuis, the great mathematician whom Frederick had imported from France with so many others in an attempt to arouse the German mind by direct contact with the “Enlightenment,” quarreled with a subordinate mathematician, Koenig, over an interpretation of Newton. Frederick entered into the dispute on the side of Maupertuis; and Voltaire, who had more courage than caution, entered it on the side of Koenig. “Unluckily for me,” he wrote to Mme. Denis, “I am also an author, and in the opposite camp to the King. I have no scepter, but I have a pen.” About the same time Frederick was writing to his sister: “The devil is incarnate in my men of letters; there is no doing anything with them. These fellows have no intelligence except for society. … It must be a consolation to animals to see that people with minds are often no better than they.” It was now that Voltaire wrote against Maupertuis his famous “Diatribe of Dr. Akakia.” He read it to Frederick, who laughed all night over it, but begged Voltaire not to publish it. Voltaire seemed to acquiesce;· but the truth was that the thing was already sent to the printer, and the author could not bring himself to practice infanticide on the progeny of his pen. When it appeared Frederick burst into flame, and Voltaire fled from the conflagration. 

The decisive trifle came in 1752. And Voltaire fled from Potsdam.

At Frankfort, though in territory quite outside Frederick’s jurisdiction, he was overtaken and arrested by the King’s agents, and told that he could not go on until he surrendered Frederick’s poem, the Palladium, which had not been adapted for polite society, and out-Pucelled Voltaire’s Pucelle itself. But the terrible manuscript was in a trunk which had been lost on the way; and for weeks, till it came, Voltaire was kept almost in prison. A book-seller to whom he owed something thought it an opportune moment to come and press for the payment of his bill; Voltaire, furious, gave him a blow on the ear; whereupon Voltaire’s secretary, Collini, offered comfort to the man by pointing out, “Sir, you have received a box on the ear from one of the greatest men in the world.” 

Voltaire own life was quite dramatic.

Freed at last, he was about to cross the frontier into France, when word came that he was exiled. The hunted old soul hardly knew where to turn; for a time he thought of going to Pennsylvania—one may imagine his desperation. He spent the March of 1754 seeking “an agreeable tomb” in the neighborhood of Geneva, safe from the rival autocrats of Paris and Berlin; at last he bought an old estate called Les Delices; settled down to cultivate his garden and regain his health; and when his life seemed to be ebbing away into senility, entered upon the period of his noblest and greatest work. 

Exiled from France, and fleeing for Germany, he finally settled in Geneva. When his life seemed to be ebbing away into senility, entered upon the period of his noblest and greatest work. 


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