Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1 PREFACE TO SOCRATES. - 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).
Return to Title Page for 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).
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
1 PREFACE TO SOCRATES. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
1 PREFACE TO SOCRATES.
The original footnote shows that Voltaire wrote this as “Mr. Fatima.” For some unknown reason, or as a mere whim.
It has been said by one author, and repeated by another, that the simple representation of a merely virtuous man, without passion or intrigue, cannot possibly meet with applause on the stage, which I look upon as an injurious reflection on human nature, and the falsehood of it is sufficiently proved by this performance, written by the late Mr. Thomson. The famous Mr. Addison was a long time in doubt as to whether he should make Socrates or Cato the subject of his tragedy; he thought Cato a virtuous man, and as such a proper object of imitation; but that Socrates was much superior to him: the virtue of the latter, he observed, had more softness and humanity in it, and was withal more resigned to the will of God than that of the former: the Grecian, he used to say, did not, like the Roman, imagine that he was at liberty to destroy himself, or to quit the post which God had allotted to him; Addison, in short, considered Cato as the victim of liberty, and Socrates as the martyr of wisdom. Sir Richard Steele, however, persuaded him that Cato was a subject better adapted to the theatre than the other, and at the same time likely to prove more agreeable to the nation, while it was in a political ferment. To say the truth, the death of Socrates would perhaps have made very little impression in a country where no man is ever persecuted on account of his religion; where a general toleration has so prodigiously enriched and peopled the community; as it has also in Holland, my native country. Sir Richard Steele says expressly, in his Tatler, that the subject of a dramatic piece should always be the reigning vice or foible of the nation where it is represented. The success which Addison met with in his Cato encouraged him to sketch out the death of Socrates, in three acts. The place of secretary of state, which he had some time after, prevented his finishing this work; he gave the manuscript to his pupil, Mr. Thomson, who was afraid to hazard on the stage a subject so extremely grave, and at the same time void of all those fashionable embellishments which had then taken possession of the English theatre.
He began therefore with some other tragedies, “Sophonisba,” “Coriolanus,”1 “Tancred,” etc., and finished with the “Death of Socrates,” which he wrote in prose scene by scene, and showed to his illustrious friends, Mr. Doddington and Mr. Lyttleton, persons deservedly ranked among the first geniuses in England. These two gentlemen, whom he always consulted, advised him to follow the example of Shakespeare; to introduce the whole body of the people into his tragedy; to print Xantippe, the wife of Socrates, just as she really was, a peevish, cross-grained city madam, scolding her husband, and yet fond of him; to bring the Areopagus on the stage; and, in a word, to make the whole piece a simple representation of human life; one of those pictures that exhibit a view of every state and condition. This is an undertaking attended with some difficulty; and though the sublime continued throughout is a species of writing infinitely superior to it, this mixture of the pathetic and familiar has its degree of merit. One may compare them to the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Mr. Lyttleton would not suffer the piece to be played, because the character of Melitus too closely resembled that of Sergeant Catbrée, to whom he was related; besides, that the whole was rather a sketch than a finished performance.
He made me a present of this drama when he last came to Holland. I translated it immediately into Dutch, my mother tongue. I did not, however, think proper to bring it on the stage at Amsterdam, though, thank God, among all our pedants, we have not one there so hateful or so impertinent as Sergeant Catbrée. The great number of actors which this play requires, deterred me from any thoughts of exhibiting it. I translated it afterward into French, and shall let this translation pass, till I have an opportunity of publishing the original.
Since this “The Death of Socrates” has been represented at London, but that was not the play written by Mr. Thomson.
N. B. There have been some people ridiculous enough to endeavor to refute the palpable truths advanced in this preface; pretending that Mr. Fatima could not have written it in 1755, because he died in 1754: if it was really so, what a foolish reason! The fact is, he died in 1757.
[1 ] What reasons M. Voltaire might have for not acknowledging himself the author of “Socrates” on its first publication we cannot determine: those amongst our readers however, who have any acquaintance with the English stage will easily perceive that the whole story in the preface about Addison, Thomson, and Lord Lyttleton, is nothing but pure fiction, designed to conceal the real author of this motley performance.
[1 ] M. Voltaire either forgot or did not know that “Coriolanus” was Mr. Thomson’s last tragedy, and was played after his death for the benefit of his relatives.