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They may do Mr. Carlyle a good turn now and then
in the way of finishing in convenient vagueness some
terrible denunciation ; but they do this at the expense
of clear thinking on his part and clear apprehension
on the part of his readers. Nothing is more fallacious
than the use of what Mr. Foster, in his essay on the



244 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

use of the word romantic, calls " exploding terms."
They only serve the purpose of concealing obscurity
or confusion of thought, and, in the hands of Mr.
Carlyle, they serve this purpose many and many a
time. Even worse, if possible, is Mr. Carlyle's fondness
for nicknames, and the prominence he gives to physi-
cal peculiarities. It would be tedious to give in-
stances they are to be found on every page. In
regard to the latter point, Mr. Carlyle seems to have
taken a hint from Mr. Dickens. The peculiarities
both in dress and appearance of many of his charac-
ters of George II. for example are as frequently
insisted on and made as familiar to us as the coat-
tails of Mr. Pickwick or the teeth of Mr. Carker.

Such tricks, besides being in bad taste, are posi-
tively misleading. Mr. Carlyle's admirers are fond of
claiming for him the great merit of getting at the real
nature of a man of drawing his characters " from
within outwards," to use their favourite way of put-
ting it. The fact may be so ; but certainly the habit
we refer to gives no very strong testimony that it is
so. For in this way we get nothing but the outsides
of people. They are identified by some external
trait, and are ever after associated with it. Now, this
trait may be the index to the real character of the
man, but it also may not. We should like to have
the character well analysed before the nickname is
given, or the representative peculiarity fixed upon.
The device is amusing and telling. A forcible impres-
sion is produced on the imagination ; but the ques-
tion will intrude is that impression true ? Are the
pictures like the originals ? We feel ourselves too
much at the mercy of the writer, and would welcome
with a sense of security characters drawn in the old-
fashioned style.

With a brief but vehement protest against the use



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 245

of German nomenclature by Mr. Carlyle, at once
unpleasing and puzzling, and, worst of all, not con-
sistently kept up, we pass from considering the
book in its literary aspects.

Unfortunately, when we do this we leave all possi-
bilities of praise behind us, and get deeper and deeper
into the region of mere fault-finding. We say
nothing of his wonderful admirations, and for his
not less groundless dislikes ; but when we look at the
general scope and tenor of the book, we can hardly
convince ourselves that Mr. Carlyle is in earnest. We
feel it impossible to get into a state of moral indigna-
tion on the matter, as some reviewers have done ; the
whole thing looks so like a ponderous joke. Mr.
Carlyle's morality may be expressed by the formula
act up to your character, that is, do whatever you
like ; his politics may be expressed by the formula
seize whatever you have a chance of getting, and,
when asked to give it up, answer by demanding
more.

Thus he really seems to believe that he has satis-
factorily disposed of all objections to Frederic's faith-
lessness, by the question, " How, otherwise than even
as Friedrich did, would you, most veracious Smel-
fungus, have plucked out your Silesia from such an
element and such a time \ " which, in plain English,
means that by setting before yourself an utterly
unjustifiable end you become entitled to adopt any
means, however iniquitous, for its attainment. Again,
what can any reader make of the two following pas-
sages, occurring in the same volume, and but a few
pages apart :

" And indeed we will here advise our readers to prepare
for dismissing altogether that notion of Friedrich's dupli-
city, mendacity, finesse, and the like, which was once
widely current in the world ; and to attend always strictly



246 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

to what Friedrich says, if they wish to guess what he is
thinking ; there being no such thing as ' mendacity ' dis-
coverable in Friedrich, when you take the trouble to inform
yourself." Vol. iii. p. 419.

" Magnanimous I can by no means call Friedrich to his
allies and neighbours, nor even superstitiously veracious, in
this business ; but he thoroughly understands, he alone, what
first thing he wants out of it, and what an enormous wigged
mendacity it is he has got to deal with. For the rest, he is
at the gaming-table with these sharpers ; their dice all
cogged ; and he knows it, and ought to profit by his know-
ledge of it. And, in short, to win his stake out of that foul
weltering medley, and go home safe with it if he can."-
Vol. iii. p. 478.

And this line of defence, not only immoral, but
shabby unworthy of any higher order of criminal
than a thimble- rigger is further supported on the
ground that Frederic " did not volunteer into this
foul element like the others," an assertion which is as
nearly as possible the exact reverse of fact. Whether
Frederic's invasion of Silesia was justifiable or not, we
shall presently see ; but that, whether justifiable or
unjustifiable, it was entirely voluntary on his part,
is beyond question. Statements of this sort and
throughout these volumes their name is legion alto-
gether overthrow our confidence in the candour of the
historian.

Space would soon fail us did we attempt anything
like an enumeration of the fallacious arguments
and perverted judgments with which the "Life of
Frederic" abounds. We will recall to the recollection
of our readers but one more example perhaps the
most remarkable of all. No one who ever read it has
forgotten the story of the execution of Katte, the un-
happy companion of Frederic's flight, when driven to
despair by the brutality of his father. Mr. Carlyle



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 247

does his best to gloss over the barbarity of Frederic
William ; but the facts represented even by his
friendly pen the sentence of *the court-martial
changed into one of death by the king the sudden
intimation to the prisoner his night drive of sixty
miles just before his execution, for no other purpose
but that the prince should " see him die " the prince
himself tortured into a happy insensibility, and so
only escaping the sight of the death of his friend,
make up a drama of refined cruelty which recalls
Carrier or Lebon,or some other of the more distinguished
ruffians of the French Ee volution. And then, at the
end of all this, Mr. Carlyle tells us that it was " in-
deed like the doings of the gods, which are cruel,
though not that alone/' To the justly exasperated
reader we can suggest this comfort, that a hobby is
least mischievous when pushed to its greatest extreme.
Headers may therefore restrain their wrath ; serious
remonstrance would be even more out of place ; but
a feeling of considerable irritation cannot be altogether
restrained. If an author of ordinary powers and
moderate pretensions were to indite nonsense of this
sort, inextinguishable laughter would be his portion.
But when it comes from a great teacher in Israel a
writer of rare genius and of vast influence ; when it
is forced upon us with profound confidence, and our
assent demanded with the loftiest arrogance, a plain
man feels at once impatient and affronted. It is not
so much that his sense of morality is offended, the
thing is too preposterous for that ; but he feels in a
manner aggrieved by such outrageous insults to his
understanding. What, on the other hand, are those
qualities which gain Mr. Carlyle's approval which
make him thus slow to mark all extremes of iniquity ?
So far as we can see, mainly the possession of a
mysterious something called veracity. Thus Frederic



248 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

William is forgiven everything, because he is " a wild
man, wholly in earnest, veritable as the old rocks,
and with a terrible volcanic fire in him too. There is
a divine idea of fact put into him, the genus Sham
never hatefuller to any man." We are not supplied
with any clearer definition than the above of this
precious characteristic; neither do we gain much
knowledge of it from a study of those men by whom
it has been possessed and displayed in action. Crom-
well, Napoleon, Frederic William, Frederic the Great,
what have these men in common ? And our difficul-
ties are further increased by the fact that Mr. Carlyle
is by no means consistent in his predilections. Thus,
in "Hero- Worship," the leaders of the Commons Pym,
Hampden, etc. are lightly spoken of, as " worthy,"
but " unloveable " men, while in his " Cromwell " they
are restored to favour ; here we have Napoleon and
his wars denounced as " grounded on Drawcansir
rodomontade, grandiose Dick Turpinism, revolutionary
madness, and unlimited expenditure of men and gun-
powder;" while in the "History of the French Ke volu-
tion " this same Napoleon was '-a natural terror and
horror to all phantasms, being himself of the genus
Eeality ! " So true is it that eccentricities and dog-
matism surely lead to inconsistency and self-contra-
diction. 1

But Mr. Carlyle is open to another charge, worse
even than this wanton disregard of plain morality :
he is not always scrupulous or candid in his state-
ments of facts. When, as not unfrequently happens,
the exigencies of his case drive him into a corner, he does
not stick at a trifle to get out of it. We are far from
saying that Mr. Carlyle is wilfully unfair or inaccurate
naturally he is, we should think, the most honest of
men, but we do mean to say, that to be constantly

1 See too as to F. W. vol. i. p. 406 ; cf. vol. ii. p. 227, and vol. i. p. 424.



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 249

maintaining a pet paradox, or supporting a very
doubtful hero, must have a demoralising effect on the
mind. A writer with such aims ever before him can-
not preserve the fairness of his spirit. Historic im-
partiality is one of the rarest of virtues, and is hardly
attainable by a man who is always fighting against
general opinion. It is not that directly erroneous
statements are made, but hostile facts are so lightly
thought of that they are dropped out of the narrative
altogether ; things are looked at from a false point of
view, are seen by a coloured, not by a white light.
Thus when Walpole sends subsidies to Austria he is
covered with contempt ; when Pitt does the same by
Frederic he is exalted to all honour. France is, by some
curious legerdemain, made responsible for all the evils
that have ever befallen Germany, for the Seven Years'
War, for the Thirty Years' War, both of which had
begun before she drew the sword. Nay, in order to
show how combustible were the elements in 1740,
and so afford some colour of an excuse to Frederic,
the Spanish war, into which popular clamour dragged
Walpole, is defended, a war which was afterwards
condemned by the very men whose party-spirit
brought it on, which, after lasting ten years, ended in
a discreditable peace, without one of the objects for
which it was undertaken having been gained. The
story of Jenkins' ear is narrated with some pathos,
and without the slightest indication of doubt, as an
instance of the high-handed doings of the Spanish
Guarda-Costas, and as " calculated to awaken a mari-
time public careful of its honour." And yet Mr.
Carlyle can hardly be unaware that Burke treated the
said story as a fable, and that good authorities have
attributed the loss of Mr. Jenkins' ear (which he
always carried about with him wrapped up in cotton),
not to the truculcnce of Spanish Guarda-Costas, but to



250 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

the homely severities of the English pillory. When he
comes on matters in which his favourites are directly
concerned, his colouring is yet more illusory. We
have already remarked on the way in which he
glosses over the shameful story of Katte. In the
same fashion he omits or softens down many instances
of Frederic's harshness, as his injustice to Moritz at
Colin, or the bitter contempt by which he broke his
brother's heart ; of his cruelty, as his order before
Zorndorf that no quarter should be given ; or his
scandalous bombardment of Dresden, which Sismondi
reprobates as " une des toshes les plus odieuses qui
ternissent sa memoire" Worse still, we hear not a
word of those professions of regard and friendship
with which this most " veracious " politician amused
the Empress-Queen up to the very moment when he
dashed into Silesia. Again, the miserable Voltaire -
quarrels are set forth with much partiality, and at
times convenient obscurity. Doubtless, Voltaire has
exaggerated the treatment he and his niece received
at Frankfort from coarse Prussian soldiers ; but is
there no truth in his story? Making every allow-
ance for exaggeration, was not the conduct of these
military bullies savage to a degree ; and if Frederic
did not expressly authorise their harshness, did he
ever disavow it ? Did he ever punish or rebuke any
one in consequence of it ? Was not the whole trick
exactly what might have been expected from Frederic,
the result of an unamiable craving for a con-
temptible revenge ? the meanness of the proceeding
being, if possible, increased by the pains taken that
Frederic's share in it should be concealed. How low
this great prince should stoop to gratify his pleasure
in inflicting pain, may be gathered from the fact of
his having actually issued orders to curtail the sugar
and chocolate consumed by his distinguished guest, a



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 251

charge which Mr. Carlyle, so far as we can see, does
not venture to contradict. Often a vital fallacy is
dexterously conveyed in a few words, as when we are
told of " the Silesian or partition of Prussia ques-
tion ; " the fact being that Silesia did not at that
time belong to Prussia at all, and that the Empress-
Queen, in her attempts on the province, was only
seeking to regain her own. Very extraordinary, too,
is Mr. Carlyle's way of dealing with Frederic's flight
from the field at Mollwitz. That a young prince at
his first battle should have been disturbed by the
defeat of his cavalry, and even swept away in their
headlong rout, is small discredit to him ; Frederic's
after life can well bear this slight weakness. But no
spots must be on Mr. Carlyle's sun. Accordingly,
instead of simply saying that Frederic ran away, he
tells us that he "was snatched by Morgante into
Fairyland, carried by Diana to the top of Pindus (or
even by Proserpine to Tartarus, through a bad sixteen
hours), till the battle whirlwind subsided." Mau-
pertuis told the English Ambassador at Vienna how
he rode off in the King's suite, how some Austrian
hussars sallied out of Oppeln upon them, whereupon
Frederic, exclaiming, " Farewell, my friends, I am
better mounted than you all," gaily rode off, leaving
his friends to captivity. No very great sin after all,
except in the manner of doing the thing ; but Mr.
Carlyle will have none of it, and so disposes of Mau-
pertuis by quoting against him Voltaire's account of
his doings after Mollwitz. This is really too bad.
Voltaire to be cited as a good authority against Mau-
pertuis, the man of all others whom he most hated
and despised ! What a " world of scorn would look
beautiful " in Mr. Carlyle's eyes at the idea of Voltaire
being quoted as an authority against Frederic ! This
list of omissions and misrepresentations, ranging from



252 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

matters of the highest moment to matters seemingly
of the lowest, might be extended almost indefinitely ;
and it seems conclusive against the trustworthiness of
Mr. Caiiyle's history.

With all this, what has Mr. Carlyle made out?
The main purpose of his book seems to be twofold
first, to give to the world in Frederic the ideal of a
patriot king ; second, to vindicate the Carlylian theory
of government more completely and conclusively than
has ever yet been done, by showing it successful in
action. Has either of these things been accom-
plished ?

Till Mr. Carlyle took the matter in hand, people
had pretty well made up their minds as to the char-
acter of Frederic. Lord Stanhope, the most impartial
and sober-minded of historians, thus writes of him :

"Vain, selfish, and ungrateful, destitute of truth and
honour, he valued his companions, not from former kind-
ness, but only for future use. But turn we to his talents,
and we find the most consummate skill in war, formed by his
own genius, and acquired from no master ; we find a prompt,
sagacious, and unbending administration of affairs; an
activity and application seldom yielding to sickness, and
never relaxed by pleasure, and seeking no repose except by
variety of occupation ; a high and overruling ambition,
capable of the greatest exploits, or of the most abject base-
ness, as either tended to its object, but never losing sight of
that object; pursuing it with dauntless courage and an
eagle eye, sometimes in the heavens and sometimes through
the mire, and never tolerating either in himself or in others
one moment of languor, or one touch of pity/'

To reverse such judgment as this to make the
world recognise in Frederic not only a great warrior
and statesman, but also an honest politician and a
high-minded man, is Mr. Carlyle's leading object.
Whether or not he has succeeded in this object we



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 253

shall hereafter see ; but, in the first place, we must
remark that his devotion thereto has, in one important
respect, been prejudicial to the real value and interest
of his work. His endeavour to set Frederic before us
in a new light makes him dwell upon the influence
and doings of that prince, to the entire exclusion of
the various elements, at once of discord and of pro-
gress, which were then awakened in the world. Mr.
Carlyle could never be a supporter of the "dynamical"
theory of history ; but in this book he rejects it alto-
gether, and thereby misses the real grandeur of his
theme. In the struggle which we know by the name
of the Seven Years 7 War, many forces were at work
very different from the ambition of Frederic. The
national and political spirit of Germany was moving
on the face of the waters. It had slept a deep sleep
ever since the death of Gustavus on the field of
Liitzen. The old mediaeval tendencies towards inde-
pendence and self-government had been utterly over-
whelmed in the Thirty Years' War. A gloomy reign
of darkness and terror of Austria and Popery had
lasted for some hundred years. But the time had
now come, though the fulness of time was not yet.
The league formed against Frederic, which Pitt, with
pardonable exaggeration, styled "the most powerful
and malignant confederacy that ever yet has threat-
ened the independence of mankind/ 7 roused, to some
extent, that independence which it menaced. Despite
the blind of the accession of Sweden, it was univers-
ally felt to be a league of Catholics against Protes-
tantism, and the spirit of the sixteenth century
swelled high in favour of the successor of the " Lion
of the North." Clement xm. did Frederic an invalu-
able service when he sent a sword and a velvet hat,
and dove of pearls, enriched with his pontifical bene-
diction, to Marshal Daun. It was a struggle, too, of



254 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

despotism against liberty. Austria, the overthrower
of the Hanseatic cities, the destroyer of Bohemia, the
violator of the Constitution of Hungary and of the
Low Countries, could never be regarded as other than
the bitter foe of freedom and of German nationality.
In every way it was a contest between darkness and
light, for the awakening mind of Germany was natur-
ally on the side of German independence. Thus all
the stars in their courses fought for Frederic. In his
behalf the sceptic, the despot, the French litterateur
were enlisted the influences of Protestantism, of
love of liberty, and of the rising power of German'
thought. The spirit of the times was on the side of
Frederic an aid which, even if despised by him or
undeserved, should not have been omitted in the
story of his life. Such omission may tend to the
greater glory of Frederic, though we doubt this ; but
it certainly is a serious injustice to the reader, and
detracts sadly from the dignity and the value of the
record.

But to return to Frederic's character. The point
on which he is most generally condemned is his con-
duct of the foreign affairs of Prussia. In his relations
with other kingdoms he is accused of unprincipled
ambition and utter faithlessness. Now we should
have been well content had the question of Frederic's
public morality or immorality been left without
remark to the judgment of the reader. We have no
great love for that style of history-writing which is
always pointing a moral. We prefer greatly the
passionless indifference of Thucydides, who sheds his
light alike upon the just and the unjust. We have no
inclination to preach ourselves, and we have still less
inclination to listen to the preaching of others. If
Mr. Carlyle would only tell us calmly and truthfully
what took place, and then leave us alone ! But this



FREDERIC THE GREAT. 255

is precisely what Mr. Carlyle will not do. He is for
ever in the pulpit ; exhorting, prophesying, denounc-
ing. If his doctrine were sound, and his preaching
dull, we might silently go to sleep. But no slumbers
are possible to Mr. Carlyle's hearers ; and as we can-
not choose but listen, and listen to much that is quite
wrong, we are forced to take up our testimony on the
other side.

Two events in Frederic's life may be taken as
decisive of the case the invasion of Silesia and the
partition of Poland. Of these the former is, in this
point of view, the more important. For here un-
doubtedly we have the key to the whole of Frederic's
career. If his seizure of Silesia, in the first instance,
was justifiable, the guilt of what followed does not
rest with him. Mr. Carlyle has laboured this point
in his hero's favour, and quite fairly : " His first
expedition to Silesia,, a rushing out to seize your
own stolen horse, while the occasion answered, was
a voluntary one ; produced, we may say, by Fried-
rich's own thought and the Invisible Powers. But
the rest were all purely compulsory, to defend the
horse he had seized." Doubtless this last sentence is
quite true. All Frederic's subsequent history runs up
to the invasion of Silesia. His wars were undertaken
either to ward off" anticipated danger from this coveted
province, or to defend it when openly attacked. They
all take their character, so to speak, from the original
outbreak in 1740. It becomes therefore a matter of
some importance to see what was the nature of Frede-
ric's claims to Silesia. The sort of information which
the reader will gain from Mr. Carlyle on this point
may be gathered from the following passages :

" No fair judge can blame the young man that he laid
hold of the flaming Opportunity in this manner, and obeyed
the new oinen. To seize such an opportunity, and peril-



256 CARLYLE'S HISTORY OF

ously mount upon it, was the part of a young magnanimous
king, less sensible to the perils and more to the other con-
siderations, than one older would have been."

" Friedrich, after such trial and proof as has seldom been,
got his claims on Schlesien allowed by the Destinies. His
claims on Schlesien ; and on infinitely higher things ; whicli
were found to be his and his nation's : though he had not
been consciously thinking of them in making that adventure.
For, as my poor Friend insists, there are Laws valid in Earth
and Heaven ; and the great soul of the world is just."
Vol. iii. pp. HI, 335.

This can hardly be considered satisfactory historical
information ; and really there is little better to be got.
We suspect that very few, even among the careful
students of these volumes, could tell what Frederic's
claims on Silesia really were. Explicit statement of
them there is none ; but from the obscurities of the
first volume the diligent reader may glean an idea
of their nature, though a vague and insufficient one.
We will do our best to state them shortly and plainly.

When Silesia first comes clearly into the light of
European history about the middle of the tenth
century it had been Christianised, and was governed
by Poland. Divisions of the heritage of the Polish
crown among the members of the Eoyal family made
Silesia independent about the middle of the twelfth
century. Towards the middle of the fourteenth cen-
tury it became a feudatory of Bohemia, or rather a
part of that kingdom, partly by resignations of



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 20 of 38)