Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Goethe, Voltaire, and Friedrich the Great


Frederick Strolls with Voltaire at San Souci
 Yesterday I picked up a small volume entitled Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire. Its opening sounded almost like that of a novel:  “I was weary of the idle, noisy life of Paris, with all its fops and coxcombs; tired of the dreadful books published with royal approval, the cabals of writers, the low tricks and highway robberies committed by those wretches who dishonored literature.” The year was 1733, and Voltaire had gone to live with Mme de Chȃtelet at her chateau on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, where they lived an idyll, studying Leibniz and Newton, one result of which was the translation by the brilliant lady of Newton’s Principia. In 1740 they traveled to Brussels to settle a de Chȃtelet family lawsuit. It was while they were there that King Friedrich William of Prussia died, and his son became Frederick II.

And so begins the true subject of The Memoirs, Voltaire’s relationship with Friedrich II. Andrew Brown, the translator, notes that The Memoirs were probably written in 1758-59, at the same time as Candide, but not published in Voltaire’s lifetime. It has been ages since I have read anything that offered such a glimpse of the malignant society of the ancien regime. It was a time when literally everyone except the king was on the make, jockeying for position, for favor, for wealth, all the while using their wits to destroy rivals. Voltaire fell under the spell of power, in the person of Frederick. As Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote in his own essay on Frederick, Voltaire became “one of the most illustrious inmates” at the court in Potsdam, … the most remarkable of all who entered the enchanted garden in the inebriation of delight, and quitted it in agonies of rage and shame.” Macaulay goes one to say that “Never had there met two persons so exquisitely fitted to plague each other.”

Macaulay’s essay throws some light on Frederick’s disdain for German literature. “He had German enough to scold his servants or to give the word of command to his grenadiers; but his grammar and pronunciation were extremely bad. He found it difficult to make out the meaning even of the simplest German poetry.” The monarchs of Europe spoke French, and so, too, Frederick. And, as “a young man devoted to literature, and acquainted only with the literature of France,” it was not surprising that “he should have looked with  profound veneration on the genius of Voltaire.” It seems that Frederick apparently had no Latin or Greek, had never read Homer or Virgil or Tasso, and thus was unable to discern the inferiority of Voltaire’s Henriade in comparison. Macaulay quotes Calderon: “A man who has never seen the sun cannot be blamed for thinking that no glory can exceed that of the moon. A man who has seen neither moon nor sun, cannot be blamed for talking of the unrivaled brightness of the morning star.”

It is interesting to read Goethe’s comments on Frederick in Dichtung und Wahrheit. The first appear in Book 2, with the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1763, when factional differences divided families in Frankfurt, including Goethe’s own. On one side was his grandfather, who was on the side of the empress Maria Theresa, from whom he had received a pendant containing her portrait during the coronation of Francis I. On the other was his father, whose sympathies were Prussian. The young Goethe became a “Fritzian” — “what did we care about Prussia?” Book 3 relates the billeting of the French count Thoranc in the family home from 1759 and the agitation this produced in his father. The presence of the French lieutenant in his house meant that Goethe saw some of the important military figures of the war, including the Prince de Soubise and Marshal de Broglie. And in Easter week of 1759, French troops marched in great numbers through Frankfurt on their way to Berlin.


In Book 7, Goethe is now a student in Leipzig and beginning to doubt the authority of all the individuals he had formerly admired. And these included Frederick, under whom Leipzig had suffered massively in the war: 

Frederick II, in my estimation, still outranked all the prominent men of the century, and therefore I found it very perplexing when my praise of him turned out to be just as unacceptable to the inhabitants of Leipzig as it had been in my grandfather’s house. … They agreed that he was certainly a remarkable man, but by no means a great one. They said it did not take much skill to accomplish something if one had great resources, and if one spared neither lands, nor money, nor blood, then one’s project could eventually be carried out. … In proclaiming these sentiments they had endless details to cite that I could not gainsay, and gradually I felt that the implicit respect I had paid this remarkable sovereign from childhood was cooling off.

Voltaire in his Memoirs also finds that Frederick had a pernicious effect on the destiny of Europe, beginning with his invasion of Silesia in 1740, while the invasion of Saxony, at the beginning of the Seven Years War, “changed the whole system of Europe single-handedly.” Macaulay says of this 18th-century world war: “On the head of Frederick is all the blood which was shed in a war which raged during many years and in every quarter of the globe … The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and, in order that he might rob a neighbor who he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.”

Contemporary painting of the battle of Roßbach
To complete the circle and to return to Goethe: Macaulay also claims that this war, especially after Frederick’s victory at Roßbach in 1757, began to free Germany from French taste, from “the foreign yoke. … in the act of vanquishing Soubise, he was, unintentionally, rousing the spirit which soon began to question the literary precedence of Boileau and Voltaire. … A prince who read only French, who wrote only French, who aspired to rank as a French classic, became, quite unconsciously, the means of liberating half the Continent from the dominion of that criticism of which he was himself, to the end of his life, a slave.”

One of the case studies in Albrecht Schöne’s new book on Goethe as a letter writer (Der Briefschreiber Goethe) is a letter addressed to Carl August, dated September 9–10, 1779, regarding action to take in response to a letter from Prussian cousin Frederick (amounting to a “diplomatisch höfliche Androhung der Okkupation”) demanding that Weimar contribute soldiers for his ongoing quarrel with Austria. As Macaulay writes, Frederick’s army at the end of the Seven Years War had been depleted: “Some great generals, and a crowd of excellent officers had fallen, and it had been impossible to supply their place. The difficulty of finding recruits had, towards the close of the war, been so great, that selection and rejection were impossible. Whole battalions were composed of deserters or prisoners. It was hardly to be hoped that thirty years of repose and industry would repair the ruin produced by seven years of havoc.”

According to Schöne, Goethe’s response (“der 7seitige, in gleichmäßig-sorgfältiger Handschrift gehaltene Text”), written within a day of Carl August’s request for advice, was “ein meisterliches Lehrstück strategischen Denkens.” Schöne calls it “ein Paradenbeispiel politischer Beratung überhaupt,” and indeed, we must gather, an example of why the duke prized Goethe:

So gründlich durchdacht und auf den Punkt genau formuliert, von solcher Stringenz nicht nur seiner kritischen Darstellung der Ausgangslage, sondern auch der vorausgreifenden Gedankenzüge, wie sich das gewiß nicht aus dem Stegreif aufs Papier bringen ließ.”

To end this overly long post, let me mention that a new biography of Frederick has appeared, written by Tim Blanning, a scholar who has written much on German history. The reviewer in the Spectator, Peter Mansel, notes that Frederick “could be more radical than most leaders today.” He is referring of course to Frederick’s atheism and homosexuality. Blanning, however, seems to consider that Frederick’s reign, in the long term, was “a poisoned chalice.” Here is meant, among other things, the effect of the elevation of the Prussian army and the inculcation of military spirit in the population as well as Frederick's contempt for Poles and Russians. “Annexed in 1871 without the presence of consultation, Alsace-Lorraine became another source of wars and tension— the Silesia of the late 19th century.”

Images: The Spectator; Total War Center

6 comments:

Sven Wifstrand said...

wünsche Ihnen ein Gutes Neues Goethe-Jahr!

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks! Good to hear from you.

DJK said...

Hi! I just discovered your blog and wanted to say how interesting and informative it is. I first read Goethe several years ago - Faust, Egmont, Maxims, Essays, Poems etc. - but have recently decided to read more of his works, particularly Poetry and Truth, Italian Journey, and Conversations with Eckermann. I've also been reading whatever articles and essays I can find online, which are surprisingly few. That's why your blog is so invaluable. I'm reading Auden's translation of the Journey and John Oxenford's translation of the Conversations and Poetry and Truth. I actually have a fifteen (I think) volume set of his works printed in 1902 that includes George Henry Lewes' biography. Have you read that? And if so, is it still worth reading? I'm aware of Nicholas Boyle's voluminous bio and I'm sure that's probably the best place to start, but, well, I already own Lewes and apparently A. N. Wilson is a fan, so why not start there!

-Derek

Goethe Girl said...

Welcome, Derek! Tell me more about why Goethe interests you. Boyle is indeed voluminous, but with lots of detail. I didn't know that about A.N. Wilson: is he a fan of Goethe or of Lewes? In any case, I like Lewes, too. Frankly, unless a bio is very short, I have problems getting through the whole thing. After all, it is just one writer's take, right?

DJK said...


That A.N. Wilson is a fan of Lewes I saw in a blurb he wrote for Andrea Wulf's new book on Alexander Von Humboldt: "This is one of the most exciting intellectual biographies I have ever read, up there with Lewes’s Goethe and Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein." But why does Goethe interest me. That's a tough question. I think I first encountered him through Carlyle and later Emerson's Representative Men, which I read in 2007, and their high praise led me to check out a few of his books. I can't recall the first thing I read by him, but it may have been Faust - which at the time didn't quite resonate with me. (It's well known, and I'm sure you can attest to the fact that Goethe suffers from inadequate English translations.) Anyway, I suppose I'm drawn to him again the same way I'm drawn to any writer who has an insatiable curiosity about life, who is interested in a wide variety of fields - literature, art, architecture, music, botony etc. That is, men and women who are themselves pretty inexhaustible. I'm thinking of some of my favorites like Goethe, Proust, Thomas Mann, Saul Bellow, Rebecca West. That isn't a great answer, but I guess I've never really asked myself why! Some writers I can just connect with on a deeper level than most.

Goethe Girl said...

Thanks for that info on Wilson's jacket copy. I heard Andrea Wulf speak when she gave a presentation here in NYC a couple of months ago. Yes, Goethe does suffer in English. His language is gorgeous. And yes, he is inexhaustible.