Voltaire, Frederick and Maupertuis

A lovely parody of Voltaire appeared in ‘The Gentleman’s and London Magazine’ and can be found, courtesy of Geri Walton, here.

The parody was published anonymously in London in 1756, apparently penned by ‘a great prince’ and forwarded by an ‘ingenious Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin’.  If this is so, the readers would have understood the anonymous scribe to be no less a figure than Frederick the Great.  In 1750, Voltaire had moved to Frederick’s court and, by 1752, was engaged in a bitter feud with Pierre Louis Maupertuis (portrait), president of the Berlin Academy of Science.   The result was a devastating satire by Voltaire of Maupertuis and the creation of a minor literary classic entitled Docteur Akakia.  Aram Vartanian notes: ‘Maupertuis emerges from its scathing pages as more than merely a savant whose pretentiousness, overbearing manner, and craving for originality have rendered him the perfect butt of Voltairean sarcasm; he is perceived also as the personification of a whole phase in the history of eighteenth century science’ (‘Voltaire’s quarrel with Maupertuis’).   So angry was Frederick, who sided with Maupertuis, that he ordered all copies of it burned by the hangman.  Nonetheless, Docteur Akakia was a great success.  30,000 copies of the essay were sold in Paris alone.

So was the parody written by Frederick?  Or could the knowing reference to ‘a great prince’ have been the invention of some enterprising author and printer looking to boost sales?  Could the parody have been written by a friend of Maupertuis or perhaps by Maupertuis himself?

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