Friedrich Melchior Grimm and The Corréspondance litteraire 1753

On Voltaire’s “The Century of Louis XIV”

Source: Correspondance littéraire, philosophique, et critique. Vol 1. Paris, Furne, 1829;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

June 15, 1753

Under the title of Frankfurt an edition of M. de Voltaire’s “The Century of Louis XIV” was published here, augmented by a great number of remarks by M. de Beaumelle. These remarks, which earned their author lodgings at the Bastille because of several comments directed against the regent, the Duke of Orleans, are almost all trivial, often false, and written with an impudence appropriate only to the pen of the impertinent author of “Qu'en dira-t-on?” We find at the front of this book three or four letters, the first of which would be amusing if it was possible to forget that it is Beaumelle who is writing and that he writes to the greatest man of the century, whose very errors don’t free gens de lettres of the respect and veneration they owe his talents and works. Only a man like Beaumelle is capable of forgetting this. He is a maleficent insect who must doubtless be despised, but who must also be crushed.

The most serious and well-founded objection is that which the commentator on “The Century of Louis XIV” makes concerning the plan of the work. Despite the great success that “The Century of Louis XIV” had in Paris and elsewhere, and despite the enthusiasm that M. de Voltaire’s brilliant depiction is sure to excite, it is difficult to hide from oneself that the author did not fulfill his object or satisfy the title he gave the work. Even if we adopt M. de Voltaire’s plan it must be admitted that the first part is nothing but a summary of the history of the reign of Louis XIV and not his century; and the second volume, which is the most important, seems to have been written carelessly and hastily and is nothing but a slight sketch of the genius of this century. The carelessness of style, which is often the charm of “Charles XII,” is not appropriate to the tone of a work as serious and important as “The Century of Louis XIV” should have been. It is inconceivable that M. de Voltaire’s should so degrade himself as to respond to Beaumelle, and yet this is what he did in a “Supplement to The Century of Louis XIV” printed in Saxony and which we just received in Paris. This brochure also contains his tragedy “Catilina, or Rome Saved,” which had not yet been published, with a preface where he attempts to give a more correct view of Cicero than the one commonly held. M. de Voltaire added an “Examination of the Political Testament of Cardinal Alberoni.” We know that he does not like the testaments of ministers. The pleasantries, which he makes with his usual grace, concerning that of Cardinal Alberoni, have not harmed my ideas concerning this work full of genius and enlightenment. M. de Voltaire mocks the cardinal’s projects because they will never take place. It’s as if someone were to prove to me that Shakespeare had no genius because his tragedies could not be successfully performed in France. Or rather it’s like condemning the genius of the architect of the Louvre because his plan was not executed and this superb monument is today abandoned and unjustly hidden by wretched building. In his “Supplement” M. de Voltaire attacks the chapter of [Montesquieu’s] “The Spirit of Laws” entitled “That Virtue is Not the Principle of a Monarchic State,” and in another place, less openly, the one in which the image of a despotic state is outlined. These objections all miss their mark, M. de Voltaire not having understood, or feigning not to understand, the true meaning of the illustrious author of “The Spirit of Laws.” On the other hand, Cardinal Alberoni’s criticism of President Montesquieu in my opinion is just and intelligent. “The sprit of system,” he says, “is no less dangerous in politics than it is in philosophy. There is a certain temerity in seeking the causes of the grandeur and decadence of the Romans in the constitution of their state. Events in which human prudence had but a small part to play are epochs rather than consequences. It is only up to history to detail the causes of the grandeur and decadence of states.” Following the cardinal, we observe here that M. de Montesquieu fell into the same error concerning the English constitution in his “Spirit of Laws.” He seeks, and he has the secret of always finding, the causes of events in the principle of the constitution of this state. If states, like systems of philosophy, arranged themselves on paper this manner of proceeding could take place. But we see every day that the greatest events, the laws and the constitution of a state, are nothing but the work of fate and a thousand arbitrary circumstances between which we can, with much wit, find imaginary connections that never existed and which, consequently, cannot satisfy anyone seeking the truth.