Something of His Own

Jonathan Rée

  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works and Thought by H.B. Nisbet
    Oxford, 734 pp, £85.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 967947 8

One of the curiosities of German literature is a spirited little pamphlet called Pope ein Metaphysiker!, which appeared anonymously in Berlin bookshops in 1755. The argument is tendentious, convoluted and slightly mad, but the overall purpose is clear: to make fun of the learned members of the Royal Prussian Academy and accuse them of dishonouring the memory of their founding president, Gottfried Leibniz. The academy had decided to offer a prize for a dissertation about Pope’s Essay on Man, concentrating on what it called ‘Pope’s system, as contained in the proposition daß alles gut sey (that all is well)’. This sounded innocent enough, but according to the pamphlet the competition was really a sneaky way of declaring open season on Leibniz’s doctrine that ‘everything is for the best,’ and implicitly on German philosophy as a whole.

But the plot was stupid as well as devious. The academicians must be hopeless at English if they believed that Pope’s declaration that ‘whatever is, is right’ had anything to do with Leibniz’s ‘everything is for the best,’ or that either of them could be reduced to the fatuous assurance that ‘all is well.’ And they must be ignorant philistines if they thought Pope could be treated as a metaphysician rather than a poet. He might have borrowed a few phrases from Plato and the English moralists, but he had never engaged in anything like the virtuosic logical reasoning practised by Leibniz. Pope was a poet – not just a versifier, but an inventor and entertainer – and he presented his readers with an elegant dance of words and impressions rather than a long trek through definitions, axioms and proofs. (‘Poets do not construct systems – and they would not want to even if they could.’) The case against the academy was clinched with a quotation in which Pope himself appeared to describe his Essay as a masquerade rather than a manifesto, asking his readers for permission to ‘wear the beard of a Philosopher, till I pull it off, and make a jest of it.’ In treating Pope as a proxy for Leibniz, the benighted academicians were confusing poetry with philosophy; or in other words they were ‘mistaking a false beard for the real thing’.

Pope ein Metaphysiker! was an impudent prank at the expense of the cultural establishment in Berlin, and the perpetrators covered their tracks by suppressing their names and getting their pamphlet printed in faraway Danzig. But they seem to have wanted to be found out in due course, and on the title page they left a riddling clue to their identity: a vignette depicting a chubby cherub holding a bearded mask to his face and startling two naked boys. Intriguing, but what could it mean?

In 1740, when the Prussian throne passed to the youthful crown prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, there had been jubilation in the salons of Paris but not in the streets of Berlin. Friedrich was notorious as an art-loving Francophile, and had recently placed himself under the tutelage of Voltaire, receiving masterclasses in the rules of French poetry. Voltaire seems to have been impressed. He described his pupil as a modern Socrates who would turn Berlin into a better Athens; and when the prince philosophe became King Friedrich II he hailed him as a great man as well as a great monarch – ‘your humanity’, ‘the Prussian Marcus Aurelius’ and ‘my messiah of the north’. Friedrich was well aware of the hopes riding on him, and in the early years of his long reign – before becoming the rapacious empire-builder Frederick the Great – he tried to fulfil them by finding ways to make German civilisation more philosophical and more French. He devised an elaborate stratagem to get Voltaire expelled from France so that he would move to Berlin and take charge of his cultural revolution, but the scheme misfired, and Voltaire ended up for a while as official historian to the French court. Friedrich then turned to another French superstar, the mathematician Pierre Maupertuis, who accepted the presidency of a reformed Royal Prussian Academy in 1746. As a long-standing partisan of Newton against Leibniz, and a Frenchman with no intention of learning German, he was well equipped to antagonise the old guard in Berlin, and soon proved his usefulness as an ally to the king. But Friedrich did not want his courtiers to become complacent, and he was delighted when Voltaire found it necessary to leave France in the summer of 1750 and take refuge at the Prussian court. To the discomfiture of Maupertuis and his circle, Voltaire settled in as a well-paid guest at the royal palaces in Berlin and Potsdam, cheerfully adding to the turmoil and rivalry that swirled around the king. After two and a half years, however, he had to hurry off to Geneva amid a flurry of court proceedings and recriminations. It can’t be easy to be a philosopher in the service of a philosopher king.

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