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Voltaire: Bellicose father or pacific son?

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Voltaire: Selections on war

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Voltaire
From Philosophical Dictionary
Translated by H.I. Woolf

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Cromwell

He governs the army, and by it he governs the parliament; he puts this parliament in the necessity of making him commander-in-chief at last. All this was a great deal; but what is essential is that he wins all the battles he engages in in England, Scotland and Ireland; and he wins them, not in watching the fighting and in taking care of himself, but always by charging the enemy, rallying his troops, rushing everywhere, often wounded, killing many royalist officers with his own hand, like a desperate and infuriated grenadier.

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Amid this frightful war Cromwell made love; he went, his Bible under his arm, to sleep with the wife of his major-general, Lambert. She loved the Count of Holland, who was serving in the king’s army. Cromwell took him prisoner in a battle, and enjoyed the pleasure of having his rival’s head cut off. His maxim was to shed the blood of every important enemy, either on the field of battle, or by the executioner’s hand.

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He lived poorly and anxiously until he was forty-three; from that time he bathed himself in blood, passed his life in turmoil, and died before his time at the age of fifty-seven. Let us compare this life with that of Newton, who lived eighty-four years, always tranquil, always honoured, always the light of all thinking beings, seeing increase each day his renown, his reputation, his fortune, without ever having either care or remorse; and let us judge which of the two had the better part.

Oliver Cromwell was regarded with admiration by the Puritans and independents of England; he is still their hero; but Richard Cromwell, his son, is my man.

The first is a fanatic who would be hissed to-day in the House of Commons, if he uttered there one single one of the unintelligible absurdities which he gave out with so much confidence before other fanatics who listened to him open-mouthed and wide-eyed, in the name of the Lord. If he said that one must seek the Lord, and fight the Lord’s battles; if he introduced the Jewish jargon into the parliament of England, to the eternal shame of the human intelligence, he would be nearer to being led to Bedlam than to being chosen to command armies.

He was brave without a doubt; so are wolves; there are even monkeys as fierce as tigers. From being a fanatic he became an adroit politician, that is to say that from a wolf he became fox, climbed by imposture from the first steps where the infuriated enthusiasm of the times had placed him, right to the pinnacle of greatness; and the impostor walked on the heads of the prostrated fanatics. He reigned, but he lived in the horrors of anxiety. He knew neither serene days nor tranquil nights. The consolations of friendship and society never approached him; he died before his time, more worthy, without a doubt, of execution than the king whom he had conducted from a window of his own palace to the scaffold.

Richard Cromwell, on the contrary, born with a gentle, wise spirit, refused to keep his father’s crown at the price of the blood of two or three rebels whom he could sacrifice to his ambition. He preferred to be reduced to private life rather than be an omnipotent assassin. He left the protectorate without regret to live as a citizen. Free and tranquil in the country, he enjoyed health there, and there did he possess his soul in peace for eighty-six years, loved by his neighbours, to whom he was arbiter and father.

Readers, give your verdict. If you had to choose between the destiny of the father and that of the son, which would you take?

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Edward Bulwer Lytton
From Devereaux (1829)

Perhaps, young stranger, at some future period of a life, which I venture to foretell will be adventurous and eventful, it may afford you a matter for reflection, or a resting-spot for a moral, to remember that you have seen, in old age and obscurity, the son of him who shook an empire, avenged a people, and obtained a throne, only to be the victim of his own passions and the dupe of his own reason. I repeat now the question I before put to you, — Was the fate of the great Protector fairer than that of the despised and forgotten

RICHARD CROMWELL?

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