Reference > Quotations > S.A. Bent, comp. > Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men
S.A. Bent, comp.  Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men.  1887.
Frederick II.
        [King of Prussia, called “the Great;” born in Berlin, Jan. 24, 1712; ascended the throne, 1740; invaded Silesia in the war of the Austrian succession; invited Voltaire to Berlin, 1750; invaded Saxony in the Seven Years’ War, 1756; gained the battle of Rossbach over the French in November, and over the Austrians at Leuthen in December, 1757; over the Russians at Zorndorf, 1758; routed at Kunersdorf, 1759, when Berlin was occupied by the enemy; acquired Polish Prussia, 1772; died Aug. 17, 1786.]
One cannot imitate Voltaire without being Voltaire.
          The first letter from Frederick, then crown-prince, to Voltaire, was dated Berlin, Aug. 8, 1736; in it he said that the French philosopher inspired one to follow in his footsteps, but the burden was too great. It led to a correspondence in which the prince acknowledged himself an apprentice in the poet’s trade. “Voltaire,” says Carlyle, “at sight of the princely productions is full of encouragement,—does a little in correcting, solecisms of grammar chiefly.” Johnson’s opinion of Frederick’s style was severe: “He writes just as you may suppose Voltaire’s foot-boy to write, who has been his amanuensis.”
I am above grammar.
          During the time of their early intimacy Voltaire endeavored to flatter the prince by telling him that he wrote better French than Louis XIV., who made frequent mistakes in spelling. Frederick replied, that Louis was a great monarch in an infinite number of respects. A mistake in spelling could not tarnish the brilliancy of his reputation, established by so many actions which had immortalized him. “It belonged to him to say in every sense, Cæsar est supra grammaticam,” added the prince. He referred to the celebrated retort of the Emperor Sigismund at the Council of Constance in 1414. In his opening speech he said to the assembled prelates, referring to the Bohemian reformation, “See to it that this nefarious schism is eradicated” (Date operam ut illa infanda schisma eradicetur); whereupon he was reminded by Cardinal Placentinus, that schisma was of the neuter and not of the feminine gender. To this the emperor replied, “Placentinus, however agreeable you may be to others, you please us not when you assert that we have less authority than the grammarian Priscianus, whom you say I have offended.” The mot more generally quoted has the authority of Menzel (“History of the Germans,” chap. 325): “Ego sum rex Romanus et supra grammaticam” (I am king of the Romans and above grammar).
  Molière did not exempt his royal master from the rule of syntax; for he alludes to “grammar which controls even kings” (la grammaire qui sait régenter jusqu’aux rois).—Les Femmes Savantes, II. 6.
  Napoleon was a notoriously bad speller: he excused it by saying, “A man occupied with public business cannot attend to orthography.”
  Pope John XII., in his reply to the council which preferred charges against him of gross misconduct, used a double negative, “so that you may not have power to perform mass or to ordain no one” (ut non habeatis licentiam missam celebrate aut nullum ordinare). “The council replied by a letter of humorous expostulation,” says Bryce, “begging the Pope to reform both his morals and his Latin.”—Holy Roman Empire, chap. ix.
The king has sent me some of his dirty linen to wash.
          Writing, in 1742, of their familiar intercourse, as that of Terence with Scipio, Voltaire remarked, “You will say that I am not Terence: true, but neither is he altogether Scipio.” This was the time when he called Frederick “the Solomon of the North.” Afterwards, when coolness had succeeded to the poet’s early enthusiasm, he added, “Epithets cost nothing.” He also styled Catherine II. “the Semiramis of the North.”
  Voltaire wrote, Oct. 29, 1751, when his relations with the Prussian king were on a doubtful footing: “The man who, fell from the top of a steeple, and who, finding himself softly cushioned in the air, said, ‘Good, provided it lasts,’ resembles me not a little.”
  The change of their relations, from the time when Voltaire used to flatter Frederick’s French, is seen by a remark which Maupertuis circulated to the poet’s discredit. It was the reply of Voltaire to Gen. Manstein, who asked him to revise some papers he had written on Russia. “The king has just sent me some of his dirty linen to wash: I will wash yours at another time” (Voilà le roi qui m’envoit son linge à blanchir: je blanchirai le vôtre une autre fois). Repeated to the king, it destroyed Voltaire’s position at court. Frederick, in submitting his “dirty linen,” excused the mistakes his compositions might contain, by saying, “We must leave him the pleasure of finding some fault.” He now applied to Voltaire the phrase, “fruitful of uneasiness” (fécond en inquiétudes), which Marshal Catinat had previously used in a more complimentary sense, in a letter in which he spoke of the genius of Vauban, and the feeling with which he inspired the enemy.
  Napoleon, on his return from Elba, convoked the Legislative Assembly, and addressed them in a speech of power, but in a tone of contemptuous familiarity; saying, among other things, “If you have complaints to make, take another occasion, when, with my counsellors and myself, we may discuss your griefs, and I will see if they have any foundation. But this explanation must be in private; for dirty linen should be washed at home, not in public” (car c’est en famille, ce n’est pas en public, qu’on lave son linge sale). Similar advice was given by Voltaire to the Encyclopædists.
We squeeze an orange, and throw away the rind.
          The climax of the king’s antipathy to Voltaire is expressed by a statement to his friend La Mettraie, in September, 1751, that he should want Voltaire a year longer. “We squeeze an orange,” he added, “and throw away the rind.” This was quoted by Voltaire himself in a letter to Mme. Denis. La Mettraie died shortly afterwards; and the king inquired anxiously concerning his last hours,—whether he had observed all the Catholic forms, etc. Being told that his friend died like a philosopher, Frederick remarked, “I am very glad of it, for the repose of his soul.” The king’s real opinion of such men is illustrated by his saying, “If I wished to punish a province, I would have it governed by philosophers.” The men he asked to his table amused his leisure: he did not invite them into his cabinet.
Voltaire is about to set.
          Seven years after his accession to the throne, Frederick wrote to Baculard d’Arnaud, in acknowledgment of some rhymes:—
        “Voltaire est à son couchant,
Vous êtes à votre aurore;”
which Carlyle renders, “Welcome, young Sunrise, since Voltaire is about to set!” whereupon the latter, insulted, but anxious not to be supplanted, started on his fifth and last visit to Berlin.
  Carlyle has a poor opinion of this Baculard, a poet once patronized by Voltaire himself, but whom Carlyle calls “a conceited, foolish young fellow, given to writing verses of a dissolute, esurient, slightly profligate turn.” Rivarol said of him, that “his ideas resembled the panes of glass in a glazier’s basket,—clear separately, obscure together” (claires une à une, et obscures toutes ensemble). The only good thing attributed to him is not authentic: when Frederick, in one of his philosophical symposia, asked him if he still believed in the existence of God, Baculard replied, that he loved to think there was a being superior to kings (j’aime à croire à un être supérieur aux rois).
France has been considered thus far as the asylum of unfortunate monarchs: I wish that my capital should become the temple of great men.
          Letter to Voltaire, Oct. 7, 1743.
  Thus Frederick said to Maupertuis, who had been sent by the French Academy to Lapland to measure a degree of the meridian, and was asked to organize an academy at Berlin, “You have shown the figure of the earth to mankind: show also to a king how sweet it is to possess such a man as you.”
  Frederick invited Wolf, banished from Halle in the previous reign for his independent views, to return; saying, “A man that seeks truth, and loves it, must be reckoned precious in any human society.”
Every man must get to heaven his own way.
          The tolerant spirit which Frederick showed on his accession to the throne is illustrated by his comment upon the report of the Board of Religion, as Carlyle calls it, June 22, 1740, that the Roman-Catholic schools for the children of soldiers were used for sectarian purposes. On the margin of the report the king wrote, with spelling in this instance uncorrected by Voltaire: “All religions must be tolerated, and the Fiscal must have an eye that none of them make unjust encroachment on the other; for in this country every man must get to heaven his own way” (den [denn] hier mus [muss] ein jeder nach seiner Fasson selich [Façon selig] werden).
  No monarch was less particular in maintaining his royal dignity. He commanded his attendants to take down from a high wall a scurrilous placard upon himself, which a crowd was trying to read, and put it where they could see it better. “My subjects and I,” Frederick said, “have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.” He seems to have been more scrupulous in regard to his personal dignity. Thus Heinrich von Schmidt, advancing towards Frederick, after his accession, says Carlyle, with jocose countenance, in the manner of their old comradeship, met unexpected rebuff from the words, “My cousin, I am now king!” (jetzt bin ich König!)
  The motto of Frederick’s political testament was written in French with his own hand: “A prince is the first servant and first magistrate of the state” (Un prince est le premier serviteur et le premier magistrat de l’état). The aphorism occurs at least four times in his works, and may have been derived from Massillon, the study of whose sermons powerfully affected his youth. The French pulpit-orator addressed Louis XV., then nine years old, thus: “The freedom princes owe their people is the freedom of law, of which you are only the minister and first depositary.” He drew the sentiment from Seneca: “The king will show that he belongs to the republic, not the republic to him” (Rex provabit non rem publicam suam esse, sed se rei publicæ).—De Clementia, i. 19.
  The thought expressed in his testament was the echo of that by which his accession was inaugurated; for on its official announcement Frederick said, June 2, 1740, “My will henceforth is, if it ever chance that my particular interest and the general good of my countries should seem to go against each other, in that case, my will is, that the latter always be preferred.”
  He answered his mother, when she for the first time addressed him as “your Majesty,” “Call me son, that is the title of all others most agreeable to me.”
  “Toleration, in Frederick’s spiritual circumstances,” says Carlyle, “was perhaps no great feat;” but one hardly expects to hear of freedom of the press. His first act was to make arrangements for a newspaper “frondent with genial leafy speculation.” Accordingly, after allowing unlimited freedom to the “Berliner-zeitung,” we find a cabinet-minister writing to the minister of war, June 5, 1740, that he had taken the liberty of suggesting that a certain court was very sensitive on this point, but that the king replied, “If newspapers are intended to be interesting, they must not be hampered” (Gazetten, wenn sie interessant sein sollten, müssen nicht genirt werden).
  Of the principles which governed Frederick as ruler we have illustrations in sayings which apply to all times and all forms of government; as, for instance, in objecting to a medal in his honor proposed by Maupertuis, “Let us do good without hope of recompense; let us fulfil our duty without ostentation; and our name will live among people of worth.” Wellington repeated the sentiment more laconically: “There is little or nothing in this life worth living for, but we can all of us go straight forward and do our duty.”
  On confirming a nomination which Maupertuis had made, Frederick added a remark not unworthy of attention in republics: “Bad appointments to office are a threefold inconvenience: they are an injury to public business; they dishonor the prince; and they are a kind of robbery of those who deserve advancement.” The ability to perform well one’s part depended on the man, not on his rank. “Talents,” said the king, “are distributed by nature, without regard to genealogies;” and again, “I love the lineage of heroes, but I love merit more.” Indeed, the man of camps and battle-fields seems to have had little respect for official emptinesses. When told of a Saxon minister of state who had three hundred wigs, “So many perukes,” he exclaimed, “for such an insignificant head!”
I will attack them even though they stood on the steeples of Breslau.
          When Frederick was marching against Breslau, November, 1757, in his second expedition against Silesia, during the Seven Years’ War. It was in this crisis of his career that the king addressed his generals, telling them, that, in defiance of the rules of war, he meant to attack the Austrians, and that, if any one of them felt unequal to the task, “he can have his discharge this evening, and shall not suffer the least reproach from me;” and when all swore to stand by him, “Good-night, gentlemen,” he said: “shortly we shall either have beaten the enemy, or we never see one another again.” About this time dates the anecdote of the deserter, which Carlyle says has merit as a myth: “What made thee desert, then?”—“H’m, alas! your Majesty, we were got so down in the world, and had such a time of it!”—“Well,” replied Frederick, “try it one day more, and if we cannot mend matters, thou and I will both desert!” Carlyle dismisses the tradition that the king shouted to his wavering troops, at Kolin, June 18, 1757, as stated by Martin (“History of France,” vol. XV. chap. xcviii.); or, as others say, at Kunersdorf, Aug. 12, 1759, “Dogs, would ye live forever?” (Hunde, wollt ilr ewig leben?) It was after Kunersdorf, when his coat was riddled with bullets, and two horses had been killed under him, that Frederick declared in writing to minister Finckenstein, “The consequences of this battle will be worse than the battle itself. I will not survive the destruction of my country, Farewell forever.”
  He wrote to Voltaire in 1757, that, although threatened with shipwreck, he will look the tempest in the face, and think, live, and die like a king:—
        “Pour moi, menacé du naufrage,
Je dois, en affrontant l’orage,
Penser, vivre, et mourir en roi.”
Œuvres, vol. ii.    
  Of less serious form is his remark to the Austrian minister Thugut, who left on the floor the red tape belonging to a bundle of papers: “Take it, sir: I don’t care for other’s goods” (Tenez, monsieur: je n’aime pas le bien d’autrui). This was just after Frederick had taken Silesia, the very considerable “goods” of Thugut’s mistress, Maria Theresa. Of her and her royal sister, Catherine II. of Russia, the king said at the time of the partition of Poland, “I would as soon write the Jewish history in madrigals, as make three sovereigns agree, especially when two are women.”
Frederick said to the Bishop of Ermeland, two-thirds of whose revenues he had appropriated, “Under your mantle I hope to slip into paradise.”—“Hardly,” was the response: “your majesty has cut my mantle too close.” The king received two even sharper answers from Sir Hugh Eliot, who was the English ambassador at Berlin. Frederick maliciously asked him, alluding to the invasion of the Carnatic, who Hyder Ali was, “who arranges matters so well for you in India” (qui sait si bien arranger vos affaires aux Indes). The imperturbable ambassador, referring in his turn to Frederick’s conquest of Silesia and the partition of Poland, replied, “He is an old despot, who has extensively pillaged his neighbors, but is now, thank God, in his dotage!” (C’est un vieux despote, qui a beaucoup pillé ses voisins, mais qui, Dieu merci, commence à radoter!) This is, however, considered apocryphal by Carlyle (“Frederick the Great,” XXI. 5). The following, if not true, is equally ben trovato. When Frederick asked Sir Hugh, “What do they say of —— in London?” (referring to the Prussian minister, described as “a notoriously ill-conditioned fellow,” appointed merely to spite the English government), Eliot replied, “A worthy representative of your Majesty” (digne représentant de votre majesté). After this the free-spoken ambassador was transferred to Copenhagen.
I am obliged to keep that young gentleman in my eye.
          Frederick enjoyed the society of Joseph II., whose radical views of government harmonized with his own early aspirations. He saw in him, however, an ambition which needed watching; and, when some one remarked upon the different portraits of the emperor which adorned the walls of the palaces of Berlin, Potsdam, and Sans-Souci, “Ah, yes!” said Frederick, “I am obliged to keep that young gentleman in my eye” (c’est un jeune homme que je ne dois pas perdre de vue).
At the close of the Seven Years’ War, when Frederick was dining with the Emperor Joseph II. at Neisse, he spied the Austrian general Laudon about to seat himself at the foot of the table on the other side. “Come here,” said the king, making a place for him next to himself: “I have always wanted you by my side, rather than opposite to me.”
The finest day of life is that on which one quits it.
          As Frederick was building a country house near the palace of Potsdam, he was heard to say, looking at the royal tombs close at hand, “Once there, one will be out of bother” (Oui, alors je serai sans souci); from which, and the fact that the cottage was to be a retreat from the cares of official life, came the name it has since borne, “Sans-Souci.” It was there that Frederick died; but he was not buried in the tomb near by, but in the garrison-church of Potsdam. His last words, about midnight, Aug. 17, 1784, were, “We are over the mountain, we shall go better now” (La montagne est passée, nous irons mieux). Of doubtful authenticity is the sardonic remark to his nephew, the crown prince, when the court physician held out a hope of recovery: “Pardon me, my nephew, if I keep you waiting!” and the statement that he interrupted the singing of a hymn, containing the words, “Naked came I into the world, and naked I shall go out,”—“Not quite naked, I shall have my uniform on!”

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