Front Page Titles (by Subject) EPISTLE ON THE NEWTONIAN PHILOSOPHY. * TO THE MARCHIONESS OF CHÂTELET. - 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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EPISTLE ON THE NEWTONIAN PHILOSOPHY. * TO THE MARCHIONESS OF CHÂTELET. - 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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I was at Lille in 1741, where M. de Voltaire came to pass a few days; there was then the best company of actors in the town that had even been in Provence, who presented this piece to the satisfaction of a very numerous audience. The governor and the intendant were several times present at the performance. A tragedy written in so new a taste, and on so delicate a subject, treated with such judgment and discretion, induced many prelates to have it acted in a private house by the same persons. Their opinion confirmed that of the public. The author was at the same time so happy as to get his manuscript presented to one of the first men in the church, and indeed in all Europe,1 who supported the weight of public affairs with firmness, and judged concerning works of genius with true taste, at an age when few men have, and still fewer preserve their wit and delicacy. He decided that the piece was written with all proper decorum and circumspection, and that it was impossible to handle with more prudence so dangerous a subject; but that with regard to the poetry, there were many things in it that wanted correction; these the author, to my knowledge, afterward retouched with the greatest care. This was also the opinion of another eminent personage of equal rank, and of equal abilities.
At length this excellent performance, which had been licenced according to form in many other places, was exhibited at Paris on August 9, 1742: a whole box was filled with the principal magistrates of the city; the ministers were also present, and all were of the same opinion as the excellent judges above mentioned. There were, however, some persons at the first representation who disapproved of it: whether it was that in the hurry of the action they did not sufficiently attend to the gradual process of it, or that they were little versed in stage matters,1 they seemed shocked at Mahomet’s ordering a man to commit murder, and making use of his religion to stir up an innocent youth, the instrument of his crimes, to an assassination. These gentlemen, struck with the horror of the action, did not sufficiently consider, that this murder is represented in the tragedy as the most atrocious of all crimes, and that indeed it was morally impossible it should be otherwise. The truth was, they saw indeed but one side, the usual method which men take to deceive themselves. And as they considered that side only, it was no wonder they should take offence, which a little more attention would easily have removed: but in the first heat of their zeal they cried out that it was a dangerous performance, and fit only to produce Ravaillacs and Jacques Cléments. A most extraordinary piece of criticism which these gentlemen no doubt are by this time heartily ashamed of. This would in effect be to affirm that Hermione teaches us to assassinate kings, Electra to kill our mothers, Cleopatra and Medea to slay our own children: that Harpagon makes misers, the Gamester gamesters, and Tartuffe hypocrites. The censure of Mahomet would carry with it even more injustice than this, because the iniquity of that false prophet is represented in a light more odious and detestable than any of the vices or follies satirized in those performances. The tragedy was written directly in opposition to the Ravaillacs and Jacques Cléments, insomuch that, as a person of excellent judgment lately observed, if “Mahomet” had been written in the time of Henry III. and Henry IV. it might have saved both their lives. Would one think it possible that the author of “La Henriade” would ever have met with such a reproach, he who has so often in that poem, and in other parts of his works, lifted up his voice, not only against such crimes, but against all those pernicious maxims which are the causes of them? The more I read that writer’s works, the more have I always found the love of public good their distinguishing characteristic: every part of them inspires horror and detestation of rebellion, persecution, and fanaticism.
He soon perceived that a formidable party was raised against him; some of the most violent among them got the ear of a few great men, who not having seen the piece themselves believed everything that these gentlemen thought proper to report concerning it. The celebrated Molière, the glory of France, was once in nearly the same condition, when his “Tartuffe” was first exhibited; he had immediate recourse to Louis the Great, who knew and loved him. The authority of that monarch soon put an end to the sinister and malevolent misrepresentations of “Tartuffe;” but times are changed; that protection which is given to arts in their infant state cannot be expected to continue after those arts have been cultivated for a length of time: besides one man may not have interest to obtain that which another has procured with ease; hence some instruments must be set to work, some discussions made, some new examinations passed through, before anything can be done in his favor. The author therefore thought it most advisable to withdraw his piece, after the third representation, in hopes that time would get the better of prejudice, which must inevitably happen among a people so sensible and judicious as our own.1 It was stated in the public papers, that the tragedy of “Mahomet” had been stopped by order of the government, which was an absolute falsehood; no such order was ever given; and the first men in the kingdom, who had seen this tragedy, unanimously concurred in their admiration of it. Some persons having hastily transcribed a few scenes from the actors’ parts, two or three imperfect editions crept into the world; it is easy to see how much they differ from the true work which I have here given. Prefixed to this tragedy are several interesting pieces; one of the most curious among them, in my opinion, is a letter written by the author to his majesty, the King of Prussia, on his return through Holland, after a visit to him. In papers of this kind, which were not originally designed for the public, one sees the real sentiments of men: I flatter myself they will afford the same pleasure to every true philosopher which they gave me in the perusal.
EPISTLE ON THE NEWTONIAN PHILOSOPHY.*
[1 ] Cardinal Fleury.
[1 ] The true state of the case was that Abbé Desfontaines and some others as malicious as himself, decried the tragedy of “Mahomet,” as a wicked and scandalous performance: the affair made so much noise that the prime minister, Cardinal Fleury, who had long before read and approved of it, was obliged to advise the author to withdraw it.
[1 ] What the editor foresaw in 1742 did actually come to pass in 1751, when this tragedy was presented with universal applause. Cabal and persecution gave way to the voice of the public, and perhaps the more readily as many by this time began to feel some remorse at having forced a man to quit his country, who had labored so successfully for the honor of it.
[* ] This Epistle was prefixed to the “Elements of Newton’s Philosophy,” published by M. de Voltaire, in 1738 and 1741.
[* ] The period of the procession of the equinoxes, which is finished in twenty-six thousand nine hundred and twenty years.
[* ] M. Algarotti, a young Venetian, was then printing at Venice a treatise on light, in which he explains attraction. M. de Voltaire was the first in France that explained the discoveries of the great Newton.