Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE TO CATILINE. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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PREFACE TO CATILINE. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems). 
From The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. Vol. X The Dramatic Works Part 1 (Zaire, Caesar, The Prodigal, Prefaces) and Part II (The Lisbon Earthquake and Other Poems).
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PREFACE TO CATILINE.
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[This tragedy differs in many respects from that which appeared at Paris under the same title in 1752, when it was transcribed from the representation by some vile copyists, who most shamefully disfigured it; the parts then omitted were filled up by other hands, and over a hundred verses interpolated not written by the author of “Catiline.” From this imperfect copy was published a surreptitious edition, full of errors from beginning to end, which was followed by another in Holland, still more faulty. The present edition was carefully inspected by the author himself, who even altered several whole scenes in it. It is certainly a most flagrant abuse, which calls every day for redress, that the works of authors should be printed in spite of themselves. A bookseller is in a hurry to publish a bad edition of a work that falls into his hands, and this very bookseller will afterward complain most bitterly, when the author whom he has injured gives us the performance as it really is. Such is the miserable condition of modern literature.]
Two motives induced me to make choice of a subject for tragedy, which seemed on the first view of it but ill adapted to the manners and customs of the French theatre. I was willing to endeavor once more, by a tragedy without any declarations of love in it, to put an end to the reproaches so often thrown out against us in the learned world, of filling our stage with nothing but gallantry and intrigue, and at the same time to make our young men, who frequent the theatre, better acquainted with Cicero. The amazing grandeur of Rome in past times still commands the attention of all mankind; and modern Italy derives part of her glory from the discoveries she is every day making of the ruins of the ancient. The house where Cicero lived is shown to us with some degree of veneration, his name is echoed by every tongue, and his writings are in every hand. Those who are unable to inform us who presided at the courts of justice within these fifty years in their own country, can tell you when Cicero was at the head of Rome. The more light we have into the last period of the Roman commonwealth the more do we admire this great man; though it must be confessed that most of our too lately civilized nations have entertained very false and imperfect ideas concerning him; his works indeed made a part of our education, but we remained still ignorant of his true merit; the author was superficially studied, the consul almost utterly unknown; the lights which we have since acquired let us into his real character, and set him far above all those who ever were employed in the affairs of government, or were distinguished by their eloquence.
Cicero might, perhaps, have been anything, and everything that he chose to be; he gained a victory in the town of Issus, where Alexander had conquered the Persians; it is very probable, that if he had applied himself entirely to the art of war, a profession which requires a good understanding, and extraordinary industry, he would have shone among the most illustrious commanders of his age; but as Cæsar would have been but the second of orators, Cicero would have been but the second of generals: he preferred to all other glory that of being the father of Rome, the mistress of the world; and how extraordinary must have been the merit of a private gentleman of Arpinum, who could make his way through such a number of great men, and attain, without intrigue, the most exalted place in the whole universe, in spite of the envy and malice of so many Patricians, who at that time bore sway in Rome!
What we have still more reason to be astonished at is, that amidst a thousand cares and disquietudes, and during a whole tempestuous life, burdened as he was both by public and private affairs, this wonderful man could yet find leisure to acquaint himself with all the various sects of religion in Greece, and shine forth one of the greatest philosophers, as well as orators, of his age. Are there many ministers, magistrates, or lawyers, now in Europe, of any eminence, who are able, I will not say to explain the discoveries of Newton, or the ideas of Leibnitz, in the same manner as Cicero illustrated the principles of Zeno, Plato, and Epicurus, but even to solve any difficult problem in philosophy?
Cicero, a circumstance which very few are acquainted with, was withal one of the best poets of the age he lived in, when poetry was yet in its infant state; he even rivalled Lucretius. Can anything be more beautiful than these verses yet remaining of his poem on Marius, which make us still regret the loss of that excellent performance?
I am thoroughly persuaded that our language is incapable of expressing the harmonious energy of Greek and Latin verses; I will, however, venture to give a slight sketch from this little picture, painted by the great man whom I have characterized in my “Rome Preserved,” and whose Catiline I have imitated in some parts of the tragedy.
Those who have the least spark of taste will perceive, even in this imperfect copy, the force of the original; whence comes it then that Cicero should pass for a bad poet? Simply because Juvenal has thought fit to say so, and imputed to him that ridiculous verse,
So ridiculous that the French poet, who was desirous of pointing out the absurdity of it in a translation, could not succeed in it:
does not express half the nonsense of the Latin.
Is it possible the author of those fine verses I just now quoted could ever write anything so ridiculous! there are follies which a man of sense and genius can never be guilty of: but the real truth is that prejudice, which will never allow two species of excellency to one man, denied Cicero’s ability to make verses, because he himself thought fit to renounce it. Some low buffoon, who envied the reputation of this great man, wrote that foolish verse, and attributed it to the orator, the philosopher, the father of Rome. Juvenal, in the succeeding age, adopted this popular error, and handed it down to posterity in his satirical declamations. I believe many a reputation both good and bad is established in the same manner. These two verses, for instance, are imputed to Malebranche:
To which it is added, that he made them purposely to show that a philosopher could be a poet whenever he had a mind to. What man, with common sense, could ever be persuaded that Malebranche was capable of writing anything so absurd? Yet let a retailer of anecdotes, or a literary compiler, transmit this idle tale to posterity, and in process of time it will gain credit; and though Malebranche was one of the greatest of men, it will be said one day or other that this great man turned fool when he got out of his sphere.
Cicero has been reproached for too much sensibility, and too much dejection in adversity; he imparts his well-grounded complaints to his wife and friends, and his frankness is imputed to cowardice; but let who will blame him for pouring into the bosom of friendship that grief which he concealed from his persecutors, I love him the more for it; the virtuous soul alone is capable of feeling. Cicero, fond as he was of glory, had no ambition of appearing to be what he was not. We have seen men in our own times dying with grief at the loss of very trifling emoluments, after a ridiculous pretence of not regretting them at all. What is there then so mean or cowardly in acknowledging to a wife or friend that a man was unhappy at being banished from his country, which he had served, or at being persecuted by a set of ungrateful and perfidious villains? Surely we ought to shut our hearts against the tyrants who oppress us, and open them to those we love.
Cicero was free and ingenuous throughout his whole conduct; he spoke of his afflictions without shame, and of his thirst after true glory without disguise: this character is natural, at the same time that it is great. Shall we prefer to this the policy of Cæsar, who tells us in his “Commentaries,” that he offered peace to Pompey, and yet in his private letters vows that he never had any such intention? Cæsar was a great man, but Cicero was an honest man: but his having been a good poet, and philosopher, an excellent governor, or an able general, his having had a feeling and a good heart, are not points that concern our present purpose. He saved Rome in spite of the senate; one-half of which at least opposed him, from motives of the most inveterate envy and malice; even those whose oracle, whose deliverer and avenger he was, were among his worst foes; he laid the foundation of his own ruin by the most signal service that man ever performed for his country. To represent this is the principal design of the tragedy; it is not so much the ferocious spirit of Catiline, as the generous and noble soul of Cicero, which I have there endeavored to describe.
It has always been asserted, and the opinion gains ground among us, that Cicero is one of those characters which should never be brought upon the stage.
The English, who hazard everything without knowing what they hazard, have given us a tragedy on the conspiracy of Catiline, wherein Ben Jonson has made no scruple of translating seven or eight pages of Tully’s oration; he has even translated them into prose, not imagining it possible to make Cicero speak in verse. The consul’s prose, to say the truth, mingled with the verse of the other characters, forms a contrast worthy of the barbarous age of Ben Jonson; but to treat a subject so grave, and withal so totally void of those passions which generally captivate the heart, we must have to do with a serious and cultivated people, worthy in some measure of having the manners of ancient Rome exhibited before them. I acknowledge at the same time that this subject is not well adapted to our stage: we have much more taste, decorum, and knowledge of the theatre than the English, but our manners for the most part are not so strong. We are only pleased with the struggle of those passions which we ourselves experience; those among us who are best acquainted with the works of Cicero and the Roman republic are not frequenters of a play house, they do not in this respect follow the example of Tully himself, who, we know, was constantly there. It is astonishing that they should pretend to more gravity than he; they have only less taste for the fine arts, or they are withheld by a ridiculous prejudice. What progress soever those arts may have made in France, those gentlemen of distinguished genius and abilities who have cultivated them among us have not yet imparted true taste to the whole nation. We are not born so happy as the Greeks and Romans, but frequent the theatre more out of idleness than from any real regard to literature.
This tragedy seems rather to be made for the closet than the stage; it met with applause indeed, and even more than “Zaïre,” but it is not of such a species as to support itself on the stage like “Zaïre:” still it is written with more strength. The single scene between Cæsar and Catiline was executed with more difficulty than half those pieces which are filled with nothing but love; but to these the heart returns with pleasure, whilst our admiration of the ancient Romans is quickly exhausted. In our times nobody enters into conspiracies, but everybody is in love. The representation of Catiline requires withal a large company of actors, and a magnificent apparatus.
The learned will not here meet with a faithful narrative of Catiline’s conspiracy; a tragedy, they very well know, is not a history, but they will see a true picture of the manners of those times: all that Cicero, Catiline, Cato and Cæsar do in this piece is not true, but their genius and character are faithfully represented; if we do not there discover the eloquence of Cicero, we shall at least find displayed all that courage and virtue which he showed in the hour of danger. In Catiline is described that contrast of fierceness and dissimulation which formed his real character; Cæsar is represented as growing into power, factious, and brave; that Cæsar who was born at once to be the glory and the scourge of Rome.
I have not brought on the stage the deputies of the Allobroges, who were not the ambassadors of Gaul, but agents of a petty province of Italy, subject to the Romans, who only appeared in the low character of informers, and were therefore not proper persons to appear in company with Cicero, Cæsar, and Cato.
If this performance should appear tolerably well written, and to give us some idea of ancient Rome, it is all that the author pretends to, and all the reward which he expects from it.