Voltaire and Choiseul: the ever-evolving French diplomacy of 1759-1760

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748)

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748).

In May 1759 king Frederick II of Prussia sent Voltaire a poem disdaining the French king Louis XV (see Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire, OCV, vol.45C, p.439) and insulting his favorite, Mme de Pompadour. The Cabinet noir, empowered to read letters, informed the concerned parties, and Voltaire’s position with the French court was suddenly at stake. In a conciliatory effort, instead of waiting for lightning to strike him, Voltaire sent the poem to the duc de Choiseul, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was protected by Pompadour.

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746)

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746).

Choiseul responded in kind, sending a poem ridiculing the Prussian sovereign, with a threat to publish it should Frederick disclose his to the public (D8270; part of the poem is in Mémoires, p.441). This was an invitation: either to encourage a war of words between Frederick and Choiseul, or to mediate between Prussia and France. Thus was born a utilitarian relationship, whereby Voltaire shared Frederick’s messages with the minister, suggested diplomatic actions in line with Choiseul’s policies, and, most importantly, applauded Choiseul’s every move to the public.

In response Choiseul could tactfully disseminate specific ideas of his ministry by merely corresponding with the philosophe. Because of the fame they each enjoyed, they both understood that their relationship was not entirely private, but their exchanges benefited from a veil of intimate friendship. Therefore, when salons passed around copies of Voltaire’s letters, or when Choiseul’s responses ‘accidentally’ found themselves in the hands of peers, both could retreat into the légèreté that characterized Choiseul’s ministry. Choiseul used this to his advantage to navigate the tumultuous seas of the Seven Years’ War.

Summer 1759

The first exchanges between Choiseul and Voltaire present a spunky star minister possessing shameless confidence. He responds to Frederick’s verses by calling him a coward, too insignificant to be noticed by the big players of the European arena. On top of his brazenness, he explicitly leaves Voltaire the choice of transmitting his thoughts back to the enemy. Keen to claim a sense of privacy in his correspondence, the minister nonetheless wastes no time in showing his anger over Frederick’s poetry to the Austrian ambassador.

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763)

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763).

Choiseul’s words were not, in fact,  spontaneous or innocent. Throughout the spring of 1759 Choiseul had worked hard to inspire faith in the new alliance on both the French and Austrian sides, to convince the Austrian administration of his goodwill, and finally to ratify the new defensive treaty between France and Austria to protect against Prussian aggression on the continent. In the same vein, in his letter of 6 July 1759 (D8387) he tactfully asks Voltaire to share Frederick’s letters with the Russian ambassador to reveal Frederick’s vulgar comments on the czarina. Two days later he also sends a memoir to his ambassador to St Petersburg in which he justifies the need for more Russian involvement in the war, possibly as a mediator for peace. Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and czarina Elizaveta of all the Russias shared a healthy diplomatic relationship, due to their common interest in crushing Prussia. Very much aware of this, Choiseul wanted to show his support for their alliance, for the continental war, and for Russia’s growing role on the European scene. The minister used these spontaneous events and the genuineness of correspondence between friends to emphasize his diplomatic commitments.

Autumn 1759

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757)

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757).

In his letter of 12 November of the same year (D8588) Choiseul recognizes, with optimism, the many obstacles impeding French diplomacy. News of the loss of Québec had reached France by then. He quotes the proverb placed as a motto over his door by his relative Henri-Louis de Choiseul, marquis de Meuse, ‘A force d’aller mal tout ira bien’, before sneering at his favorite target, the Prussian princeling. The minister makes more explicit links between France, Austria, and Russia, likening them to doctors curing Europe of war while Prussia is merely a soothsayer. By focusing on the continental war in his semi-public correspondence, he purposefully aligns all three powers to the eyes of the public. His growing ties with the Spanish court and his concerns for the maritime war against England are carefully omitted. Indeed, on 10 August 1759 king Carlos III ascended to the Spanish throne, advocating for a strong alliance with France and for firm defence against English sea power. The French ambassador always at his side, his plans for the Bourbon Family Pact were soon under way, much to Vienna’s dismay. Taking great care not to cause waves in the fragile Austrian alliance, Choiseul uses the cover of a friendly letter to underline his pro-Austrian and pro-Russian position on the European continent.

Winter 1759-1760

Come December, all of this has changed. Not only has France lost Québec, but the French invasion of England had been a complete, and very costly, disaster. Thankfully on 27 November England and Prussia proposed a peace congress to all belligerent parties. On 20 December  (D8666) Choiseul jokes to Voltaire about signing a peace treaty and claims France’s only quarrel is with England. Spain is boldly mentioned, and the additional risk taken of saying how war on the continent does not interest the king’s cabinet. The French minister is indirectly striking back at the request by Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kaunitz that France forget about her maritime war and focus solely on supporting Austria. Choiseul has decided to make his distance from Austrian interests clear in this letter. Peace has become his only concern, and he actively solicits his ambassadors to Russia, Denmark, Holland and Spain in the hopes of finding a mediating power. In a letter of 14 January (D8708) the minister brags about France having the power to crush Prussia, whose only hope for survival would be a peace treaty. From his perspective, only Prussia’s enemies or his allies can make peace, not France. The duke makes his terms for peace very clear in the letter, arguing for no territorial gain on France’s behalf. While he continues to bash Frederick II with his usual panache, by winter his intentions have changed radically: instead of criticizing Frederick to show his engagement with Austria, he now ridicules the sovereign in the hopes he will realize how much Europe needs peace.

In eighteenth-century Europe, much like today, figures like Voltaire offered their fame as a channel through which savvy politicians could run their public relations. With his early letters Choiseul plugs the many holes causing the Austrian alliance to sink, portraying a unified continental alliance system that laughs in the face of German princelings. Later the minister advocates for peace on every front, formal or informal, diplomatic or social, making a point to open the way towards negotiation without pointing fingers. The recurrent coincidence in timing between his letters and news from the different battle fronts make clear the moments when Choiseul reached certain conclusions about his diplomatic strategy, and when he put them into action.

The ‘war of poems’ is discussed, with some questions about the accuracy of Voltaire’s account, in Choiseul et Voltaire: d’après les lettres inédites du duc de Choiseul à Voltaire, edited by Pierre Calmettes (Paris, 1902), p.7f. Not all the letters mentioned have survived. Those that have are available in Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, ed. Th. Besterman, and Electronic Enlightenment, identified by D and the letter number.

Aliénor Sauvage

The Journées Voltaire 2019

La vision et la réception de Voltaire et de ses séjours dans l’espace allemand au sein des réseaux de communication germanophones (XVIIIe- XIXe siècles).

The recent Journées Voltaire held on 13-14 June at Amiens and Paris focused on Voltaire’s reception in the German-speaking lands. Papers dealt with such questions as the diffusion of Voltaire’s work’s outre-Rhin, and the presence of Germany or German subjects in Voltaire’s works, as well as Voltaire’s influence on the major figures in German literature and philosophy: Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Nietzsche and others.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

The conference’s final panel featured two papers of interest to the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Complete Works: Antony McKenna’s “La Lettre sur Locke à la cour princière de Rheinsberg”, and my own “L’Avis de l’éditeur précédant la Réponse aux vers précédents (c’est-à-dire les Vers aux Roi de Prusse) est-il de Voltaire?”

Enthusiasm can flag during the last panel of a conference, but such was not the case on 14 June. Under the presidency of Christiane Mervaud, Antony McKenna argued conclusively that as early as July 1736 a clandestine version of Lettre 13, “Sur Locke”, had made its way to Berlin where it was favourably received by Crown Prince Frederick. The young Frederick, it seems, now turned away from Wolff’s metaphysics and, following Voltaire’s interpretation of Locke, he increasingly called into doubt the immortality of the soul. These early days chronicle the beginning of Frederick the Great’s lifelong association with Voltaire, and they mark a turning point in the young Prince’s conversion to Enlightenment ideals. Interestingly, according to McKenna, the 1736 publication of the clandestine version of Lettre 13 was orchestrated by Voltaire’s enemies, who sought to discredit him by exposing his anti-Christian convictions to the wider public, especially in France. These findings will no doubt be considered as the VF prepares its forthcoming edition of the Lettres philosophiques.

Voltaire’s unsigned works have long occupied critics. Previously unattributed works, nevertheless, continue to be identified. In the second of the panel’s papers I wondered whether Voltaire wrote the Avis de l’éditeur preceding the poem entitled Réponse aux vers précédents, the latter an unbridled attack on Voltaire’s scandalous Vers au roi de Prusse. The Avis and Réponse were published anonymously in the last pages of the 1757 edition of the Lettre philosophique par M. de V*** (p. 276-285). The Avis’s ironic tone and word choices certainly appear to bear Voltaire’s stamp. Voltaire’s authorship seems even more plausible when one considers the Réponse’s menacing tone: “Comment ton grand savoir ne te dicte-t-il pas / Que les rois sont à craindre, ayant de fort longs bras?” (p. 283). Voltaire was hardly going to take such a threat lying down. Recalling his house arrest in Frankfurt in 1753 after he left Frederick’s court in Potsdam under a cloud, it seems likely that Voltaire arranged to publish the Réponse, preceded with the Avis, right after his own Vers au roi de Prusse, in order to discredit Frederick and expose the hostility his verse aroused at the Prussian court.

As Voltaire knew well, attack is the best form of defence.

– Edouard Langille

Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

Georges Pilard et Karen Chidwick

Who’s got the last laugh now?


Maupertuis by Robert Levrac-Tournières and Jean Daullé, 1741 (Paris, BnF)

One of the bitterest and most famous of the many quarrels that Voltaire was involved in during his long life was the one that pitted him against Maupertuis from 1752 onwards. The quarrel started while both men were living at Frederick the Great’s court, Maupertuis as the president of the Académie de Berlin and Voltaire as Frederick’s personal guest.

The details of the dispute itself are too intricate to be exposed here but can be found in Voltaire’s Histoire du docteur Akakia, a collection of texts which were both a response to and a continuation of this quarrel. The dispute eventually saw the king of Prussia himself intervene on behalf of the president of his Académie, and damaged almost irreparably the friendship between Voltaire and his crowned admirer. The quarrel also seriously damaged Maupertuis’s reputation as a scientist, as Voltaire conducted a relentless campaign of denigration aimed at both his enemy’s character and writings, which continued well after his foe’s demise in 1759.

The wit and sarcasm deployed by Voltaire against Maupertuis overshadowed the latter’s undeniable contribution to the scientific advances of his century and the visionary aspect of some of his writings. Among Voltaire’s recurring targets for mockery is the idea proposed by the scientist that drilling a hole to the centre of the Earth would be of enormous interest to science.[1] For all of Voltaire’s scathing gibes at what he repeatedly described as the fanciful notions of a madman, modern science has now vindicated the much-maligned Maupertuis, not his formidable detractor, as can be seen in an article published in The New Scientist. Similarly, the hypothesis that some celestial bodies might contain diamonds which the scientist formulated in his Œuvres and which Voltaire dutifully ridiculed does not sound that far-fetched to modern-day astronomers.

No doubt Maupertuis would have welcomed these new developments, more than two and a half centuries after his scientific intuitions were so mercilessly and relentlessly mocked by Voltaire.

Georges Pilard

[1] in his Œuvres de M. de Maupertuis (1752).