The history of Voltaire



IT was while in Berlin, between 1751 and 1753, on the invitation of Frederick the Great, that Voltaire finished and printed his Siecle de Louis XIV, a work which had occupied him intermittently for some ten or twelve years. Louis XIV had succeeded his father at the age of five in 1643; and throughout the fifty-three years which followed Mazarin's death his declaration 'L'etat, c'est moi' had been politically and socially a truth. He controlled France with an absolute sway; and while he did not make France the dictator of Europe, under him she became the unchallenged leader of literary and artistic culture and taste. Voltaire's Age of Louis XIV contains a great mass of interesting matter treated by a man of acute intellect and high literary powers.

[FRANCE UNDER MAZARIN - VOLTAIRE]

WE do not propose to write merely a life of Louis XIV; our aim is a far wider one. It is to give posterity a picture, not of the actions of a single man, but of the spirit of the men of an age the most enlightened on record.

Every period has produced its heroes and its politicians, every people has experienced revolutions; the histories of all are of nearly equal value to those who desire merely to store their memory with facts. But the thinker, and that still rarer person the man of taste, recognizes only four epochs in the history of the world--those four fortunate ages in which the arts have been perfected; the great age of the Greeks, the age of Caesar and of Augustus, the age which followed the fall of Constantinople, and the age of Louis XIV; which last approached perfection more nearly than any of the others.

On the death of Louis XIII his queen, Anne of Austria, owed her acquisition of the regency to the Parlement of Paris. Anne was obliged to continue the war with Spain, in which the brilliant victories of the young Duc d'Enghien, known to fame as the Great Conde, brought him sudden glory, and unprecedented prestige to the arms of France.

But internally the national finances were in a terribly unsatisfactory state. The measures for raising funds adopted by the minister Mazarin were the more unpopular because he was himself an Italian. The Paris Parliament set itself in opposition to the minister; the populace supported it; the resistance was organized by Paul de Gondi, afterwards known as the Cardinal de Retz. The court had to flee from Paris to St. Germain. Conde was won over by the queen--regent; but the nobles, hoping to recover the power which Richelieu had wrenched from them, took the popular side. And their wives and daughters surpassed them in energy.

A very striking contrast to the irresponsible frivolity with which the whole affair was conducted is presented by the grim orderliness with which England had at that very moment carried through the last act in the tragedy of King Charles I. In France the factions of the Fronde were controlled by love intrigues.

Conde was victorious. But he was at feud with Mazarin, made himself personally unpopular, and found himself arrested when he might have made himself master of the government. A year later the tables were turned; Mazarin had to fly and the Fronde released Conde. The civil war was renewed; a war in which no principles were at stake, in which the popular party of yesterday was the unpopular party of to-day; in which there were remarkable military achievements, much bloodshed and much suffering, and which finally wore itself out in 1653, when Mazarin returned to undisputed power. Louis XIV was then a boy of fifteen.

Mazarin had achieved a great diplomatic triumph by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648; but Spain had remained outside that group of treaties; and, owing to the civil war of the Fronde, Conde's successes against her had been to a great extent made nugatory--and now Conde was a rebel and in command of Spanish troops. But Conde met his match in Turenne with a French army.

At this moment, Christina of Sweden was the only European sovereign who had any personal prestige. But Cromwell's achievements in England now made each of the European statesmen anxious for the English alliance; and Cromwell chose France. The combined arms of France and England were triumphant in Flanders, when Cromwell died; and his death changed the position of England. France was financially exhausted, and Mazarin now desired a satisfactory peace with Spain.

The result was the Treaty of the Pyrenees, by which the young King Louis took a Spanish princess in marriage, an alliance which ultimately led to the succession of a grandson of Louis to the Spanish throne. Immediately afterwards, Louis' cousin, Charles II, was recalled to the throne of England. This closing achievement of Mazarin had a triumphant aspect; his position in France remained undisputed till his death in the next year (1661). He was a successful minister; whether he was a great statesman is another question. His one real legacy to France was the acquisition of Alsace.





Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I