• Published 19th Jul 2012
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The Best of All Possible Worlds - McPoodle

The philosopher Voltaire finds himself in the most-frustrating place imaginable: Equestria

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Chapter 18

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Chapter 18

That night was the grand ball in honor of the delegation from Griffonia. The grand ballroom was decked out in colors of orange and brown, and everywhere was to be found actual and symbolic representations of peaches, the griffon export especially loved by the ponies.

Princess Celestia’s counselors surrounded her as she watched the dances from her dais. Voltaire was particularly pleased by the music, because it sounded a century out of date. The human may have been at the very forefront when it came to the matters of rights and freedoms, but in the arts, he was most-definitely a retrograde. He considered the era of the previous French king, Louis XIV, to be the very height of human civilization, a peak that he believed would never again be attained. For this reason he valued the music of Lully far above that of Vivaldi or Bach, Voltaire’s contemporaries. On the floor a step below him, ponies and griffons were performing a quadrille—on Earth, this was a form of dance that (in Voltaire’s day at least) was only performed by mounted horses.

Behind them, Cog was up on a ladder, trying to nail a mechanical monstrosity to the wall. Being an earth pony, wielding the hammer was proving difficult. Most of the guests tried to reduce his humiliation by pretending they didn’t see him.

Eventually the dance ended. The ponies applauded by lightly tapping the floor with their forehooves, and the griffons did the same using the boots over their claws, despite the fact that it would be easier for them to applaud as a human or dragon does. The concertmaster turned to face the audience and bowed.

Now came the moment of the event that was the centerpiece, while simultaneously being the most yawn-inducing: the time for self-aggrandizing speechifying. Voltaire was only slightly disappointed to find that not even the Princess herself was immune to this phenomenon.

“I feel a special kinship with the griffons,” she said, as servants passed around mugs filled with a frothy brown beer. “When I took in Otto Feuerhausen, or Duke Thunderwing as he came to be known, I treated him like my own son. I taught him everything I knew about politics, but more importantly, I taught him of the power of friendship.

“It was through the power of friendship that he turned a crumbing frontier outpost into a thriving pony community, turned an army of forty pony volunteers into five hundred mostly-griffon followers, gained ally after ally without resorting to arms, and healed the seemingly irreparable breach in Griffonia’s royal bloodline.

“Therefore, in no small way, I feel responsible for Griffonia’s fate: the occasional missteps of its past, as well as its recent triumphs against draconic encroachment. May I now offer a toast!” And so saying, she picked up her large mug of griffon beer with one hoof. “To the intertwined fates of Equestria and Griffonia: may we together face a most glorious future!”

“Hear, hear!”

The next to speak was the leader of the griffon delegation, Sky Shock. “Tonight,” she began, “marks an historic occasion.” She was speaking Equine fluently, with only a slight Griffon accent. The feathers around her eyes were colored light blue in contrast to the white of the rest of her head and neck, and formed flame-shaped masks. “One hundred years ago today, the griffons and the ponies signed an unprecedented trade agreement, dropping almost all of the tariffs that blocked the free and equal trade between our peoples. The result has been happiness and prosperity, riches the likes of which neither Equestria nor Griffonia had ever known. And all of our subjects have shared in this plenteous bounty! A toast!”

“A toast to the true beneficiaries to this bounty,” interrupted Gordon caustically, “which most certainly does not include the poorest of the poor. A toast to the rich, who made sure that the destitute got nothing. A toast to the current arrangement: power and glory for the nobles, so they might drive the nails of oppression ever deeper into the hooves of the impoverished! Same as it ever was, same as it ever was!”

Princess Celestia sighed inwardly as Gordon drained his glass alone. Her jester had definitely taken a turn for the bitter as the days since the loss of his daughter built up. But, as was usual for the court jester, his words were completely ignored by everypony. Unheard by Celestia, Sky Shock had completed her toast by raising her voice over Gordon’s, and the others had already drunk to it. The only other person who seemed to have actually heard Gordon’s words was Voltaire...

And Voltaire had stopped breathing.

“Voltaire...” she said gently, to no response. “Voltaire!”

The human suddenly snapped out his reverie and looked up at her. “Yes, Your Royal Highness?”

Celestia saw a deep-seated fear now in his eyes, which were nervously scanning the crowd. She would have liked to ask him about it, but this was not the time. “I would have the pleasure of your company tonight, before Cog’s party.”

Voltaire nodded. “We have much to discuss,” he said, before turning back to watch the curious crowd that was looking at them.

~ ~ ~

A few minutes later, a couple of griffon guards led a younger male griffon into the ballroom and up to Sky Shock. He was colored similarly to her, but without the eye masks. The nobleffony[1] looked upon him in dismay: he was wearing no boots, his beak was quite prominent, and he had no trace of a mane. He was at least wearing the orange cap that translated Griffon into Equine. “[Thundering Paws, you are a disgrace to your herd!]” she hissed at him in Griffon through a closed beak. “[Compose yourself for your Princess!]”

Translator’s Note #1: If a noble pony is a noblepony, then a noble griffon is a nobleffony. And no, you’re not allowed to snicker when you hear it.

The younger griffon laughed in her face, and let the cap translate his words into Equine so that all might hear: “Mother, shall I tell you how many errors you have made in those two sentences alone? First, I have told you before and I tell you again, I will not accept the pony name of Thundering Paws! Paws do not thunder, hooves do! Address me as my friends do, by my birth name, by my griffon name: Leopold of the Frozen North! Second, we are not a herd, we are a flock! And finally, finally my dear Mother, I shall not compose myself for ‘my’ Princess, because she is not my Princess! My loyalty is due to my duchess. I shall respect Her Royal Highness Celestia in her lands, and thank her for the gift of the sun, but her sovereignty does not extend to the Aerie! Our own Praiseworthy should not be a duchess, she should be a princess, like Celestia! For does she not rule her own land and people like Celestia rules her land and people?” He turned away from the gaping noble to face the Princess, and was pleased to see that she was intrigued rather than infuriated at him. He bowed respectfully in her direction, but not too deeply. “Your pardon, Your Highness, for my rude behavior just now, but I do have a small question to which you alone possess the answer.”

“You may ask...Leopold, but I do not promise that I shall answer.”

“Is it true that Duke Thunderwing was only a duke because he expected you to annex Griffonia?”

Celestia frowned. “He did ask it of me, yes. Many times in fact, but I refused him. It was only a small minority of the griffons who wished to adopt pony ways, and I felt that to make the griffons part of Equestria, to make them obey laws that were meant for ponies, would in the end cause far more anguish than happiness.”

Leopold now gave the Princess the deep bow he had refused her before. “You are indeed a wise monarch, oh Princess.”

“Tell me, Leopold,” Voltaire asked with a smile. “Are you an only child? I expect that Sky Shock wouldn’t have a feather left on her head if she had to handle more than one of you.”

“I have an older sister,” Leopold said quietly, looking off into the distance. “Her name is Grizelda.” He then cast a glance as his mother. “Sky Spire, I mean. She works in the Bakery[2].” Voltaire noticed that Sky Shock lightly bit her tongue on hearing her son say that last sentence.

Translator’s Note #2: I could (and in fact did) write an entire monograph of the implications of this crucial fact about the Equine and Griffon languages: they use the same word to mean both “bakery” and “armory”.

“You see,” Sky Shock explained to Voltaire, “griffons, like ponies, are divided into three tribes: the Flyers, the Magicians, and the majority, who are the peasants. Sky Spire was born without magical ability and...unable to fly. Like all nobility in this situation, she was taken to the Bakery upon reaching her majority...where she’s been ever since.” Her voice nearly broke on the word “where”. “The Bakery is where all who cannot serve the Duchess in any other way dwell. The place is guarded by the Forty—the hundreds of descendants of the ponies who accompanied Thunderwing into Griffonia, like Plasticity here.” She gestured towards the geologist pony who had accompanied the griffons to Canterlot, and was currently trying to keep from blushing because Nightingale was smiling sweetly at him.

~ ~ ~

Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!

The ponies all looked in shock at Cog’s invention. A door in the front was open, and a little wooden bird standing on a platform (with an enormous plumed tail) was being thrust out and pulled back in for each obnoxious sound.

“What does that mean?” Celestia asked Cog, rubbing an ear with a hoof to try and restore her hearing.

“It means that it is 8 o’clock,” Cog explained.

“Well, I guess that’s the end of the party then,” the Princess announced. “It was quite enjoyable. Thank you all!” She then turned and walked out of a side door, followed by all of the counselors except for Voltaire.

The guests agreed with the true reason for the Princess’s sudden departure (not wanting to be in the same room with a device that made a sound like that), and quickly exited the room as well.

“So, what do you think?” Cog asked his adviser eagerly. “It’s called a peacock clock.”

“I think you might want to try using a different bird,” Voltaire replied. “One that doesn’t make everyone want to destroy your invention.”

“Good idea!” said Cog. “One problem though—the part of the clock that makes the sound is a non-magical dragon invention (I wanted to avoid using any magic in my clocks if at all possible), and I’m not sure if I can figure out how to modify it.”

“Who in their right mind would want to invent a device that does nothing but mimic the most-annoying sound in Nature?” Voltaire asked incredulously.

“Oh, it was a very clever dragon,” Cog explained with an innocent smile, “by the name of Oubliette. After he presented it to the chief of his clan, he was rewarded with an all-new type of room, named for him! He got to spend the rest of his life in it, listening to his invention over and over and over again!”

Voltaire face-palmed.

Voltaire eventually found the Princess and Eveningstar waiting for him in the same small room he had earlier seen Celestia and her family tree. That particular document was no nowhere to be seen. Voltaire entered the room and closed the door behind them.

“So,” said Celestia. “There was a matter you wished to discuss?”

“Your Royal Highness, I know that Equine has a word for ‘revolution’. Does it have any...political meaning for you?”

“Only in the outer lands,” answered Eveningstar. “The dragons like to say they have undergone one every time a clan chief has been replaced. In reality though, those are merely coups by a small minority. I don’t think there has ever been a true revolution of the people.”

Voltaire sighed and ran a hand across his face as he tried to collect his thoughts. “There is...a sort of pattern in human history,” he told them. “I do not know if ponies are vulnerable to this pattern, in fact I cannot be sure that this pattern actually exists in human history, as I have never encountered a work by any other historian pointing it out. It is somewhat evident in French history, a little more obvious in German history, and blatantly obvious in English history, but the English are themselves blithely ignorant of it.”

It seemed obvious to Celestia that the human was trying to prolong as long as possible getting to the unpleasant point of his argument. “Go on,” she prompted him.

“Well, consider your average two-tiered society,” Voltaire said. “You have the peasants, who do all the work and get none of the reward, and you have the nobility and royalty, who do none of the work and get all of the reward. This situation arose because the nobility saved the peasantry from conquest in the past, or perhaps they were the ones doing the conquering, and the peasants are the vanquished.”

Considering that Voltaire was himself a minor member of the nobility, and he was talking to two rather peeved nobles, he felt the need for a disclaimer: “Nobility have a definite purpose in life: they use their leisure and prosperity to fund the artists that justify our existence as a race. They also have the time for education and self-study, which leads to wisdom. They are the rulers, and they deserve to be.

“But over time they forget about their responsibilities,” he continued. “They expect the rewards without having to work for them, and they expect greater and greater amounts of respect and tribute from the peasants for doing this. Eventually, they stop even considering the lower classes as belonging to the same species as themselves.

“Meanwhile for the peasant, life becomes more and more unbearable. But the important thing to realize here is that this is a gradual process. Over the course of a single lifetime, no peasant ever realizes that things are getting worse and, being illiterate, have no way of learning this.

“This trend can continue indefinitely, until something comes to disrupt it, and that disruption is always the same: prosperity. Adversity actually makes things better, as it drives weak and powerful together, but prosperity pushes the classes apart. The rich get richer and, by controlling the flow of money, keep most of those riches out of the hands of the poor. Then they use their newfound wealth to make the poor even more miserable.

“Now, for the first time, the peasants can see their lives getting worse by the year instead of by the lifetime, and they can see where the trend is headed. Keep this up for a century, follow by a minor crisis of any kind, and the result is revolution.

“Most of the time, these attempted revolutions fail, but sometimes they succeed, and things get really, really ugly. Sooner or later, however, the nobility always regain control, because they are more organized and because they are facing a group habitually used to obeying orders. The resulting counter-revolution is even worse than the revolution, as the nobility conquer their own people. And so the cycle is reset.”

“Wow,” said Eveningstar in dismay. “That’s...that’s horrible!”

Celestia uncomfortably rubbed the side of her neck with one hoof. “I had hoped that humanity had found a way out of that kind of trap. The Romans seemed particularly vulnerable to it. Tell me you at least got rid of slavery.”

Now it was Voltaire’s turn to feel uncomfortable. “Ah...depends on the continent.” He brightened up slightly. “Europe doesn’t have it. We still have serfdom,” he added under his breath, “but not slavery.

“Is there any chance that a revolution could happen in Equestria?” Eveningstar asked, eyes wide.

Celestia sighed deeply. “No,” she finally answered. “I will never be overthrown by a popular uprising based on class warfare.”

Voltaire stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Celestia smiled coyly at him, raising one eyebrow. “Yes...?”

“How do you...?”

“I know, Voltaire.”

“You...know. You know because ponies are incapable of disloyal thoughts?”

“I never put a restriction like that upon them,” said Celestia. “In fact, I am rather proud of the fact that it is just not magically possible for anyone to restrict ponies’ thoughts in that way. Do you think you would have been allowed to form a shadow government today otherwise?”

“I suppose not,” answered Voltaire. “Well, do you know because...wait, that is a really specific statement of fact: you will never be overthrown, by a popular uprising, based on class warfare. You leave yourself wide open for any number of miscellaneous political disturbances with a statement like that.”

“Voltaire, I know certain things. Never mind how I know them, I just do. It’s only a very few things, and the vast majority of them have already happened. Just trust me on this.”

Voltaire bowed his head. Running around quoting prophesies, Voltaire thought. You’re not making my Grand Plan for your benefit any easier, you know!

~ ~ ~

“There has to be some way for humans to avoid that unfortunate cycle,” commented Eveningstar.

“I am in complete agreement,” Voltaire said earnestly, “because the alternative is the complete destruction of France. Long-term, the best solution is the education of the masses, so they have the tools to peacefully fight back against oppression themselves. In the short term, the best way to avoid revolution is for the powerful to be aware of the needs of the powerless. That is the duty of the enlightened monarch.”

“Does Earth have any of those?” asked the Princess.

“Few, very few,” Voltaire said sadly. “But I have been most fortunate in having one of them as my employer.”

“King Friedrich,” said Celestia. “Tell me about him, Voltaire—perhaps I have something to learn from an enlightened monarch.”

“King Friedrich the Great was the eldest son of King Friedrich William, the so-called ‘Soldier-king’ of Prussia,” recited Voltaire. This was from a biographical speech he had prepared several years earlier in a vain attempt to gain Émilie’s sympathy for the man. “The father centralized the government. He centralized everything, really—he sought to control his kingdom as much as possible through laws and regulations instead of the prior system of mass corruption and terror. That phrase I used once, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’? That was Friedrich William’s catch-phrase. He was an absolute despot, with a terrible temper, but he had the virtue of detesting his nobility at least as much as he despised his peasantry. Prince Friedrich was the heir to the throne from his birth. Instead of being raised as a pampered aristocrat, his father insisted that he be raised as a common soldier. This was an improvement, but young Friedrich insisted on teaching himself the classics and contemporary philosophy in secret. That’s how he first got in contact with me.

“Most people don’t think they get the father that they deserve. Prince Friedrich hated his father. He wanted to be a philosopher, and out of all of the competing schools of thought he decided to follow mine. This is rather funny, because I have no school of thought, just a string of disconnected beliefs. Nevertheless, he made me his honorary father, and he built up a court of idealistic young men that shared my views. I wasn’t then able to join him—perhaps that was for the best. He got an admiration of English customs from me, and when he turned 18, he tried to escape Prussia and flee to England. He was caught, and forced by his father to watch the punishment dealt out to his best friend. I won’t tell you what that punishment was, but I will tell you that Prince Friedrich went mad for three whole days afterwards. As soon as he recovered, he intrigued to get himself married to the heiress of the Emperor of Austria, which would have automatically excluded him from the Prussian succession. For this, he was punished by having the only remaining source of happiness in his life, his sister Wilhelmina, taken away to marry a margrave. He was then himself married to a loathsome client of the Austrians, for whom he could feel neither love nor friendship.

“At the age of 27, I helped him to write the Anti-Machiavel, an anonymous refutation of the soulless political manual he had been raised under, and which the rulers of Europe to this day give more respect than the Holy Bible. The next year, he finally succeeded to the throne of Prussia. He immediately began putting into place the reforms I and other philosophers had urged upon him. Religious tolerance was proclaimed, work programs were instituted for the poor, the insane were given charitable treatment...” (a slight pause here to ponder the way that this last one had affected the life of one François-Marie Arouet) “...and the tax system was reformed to be less oppressive. In addition, he set vast projects in place to reclaim lands from the swamps and to plant newly-discovered crops like the mysterious potato.”

“So is he an ideal king?” asked Celestia.

“Well...no,” answered Voltaire hesitantly. “For better or for worse, Friedrich William made King Friedrich the man he is today. He started his reign by taking Silesia from the Austrians, and even now he plots additional wars to fill in the holes in his territories—because of a series of dynastic arrangements, the map of Prussia looks like a Swiss cheese. Even more unfortunately, this ambition threatens to trigger a war between the English and the French. With their extensive colonies on every continent, the next Prussian war could become the first-ever World War. Friedrich also shares his father’s unfortunate temper, although luckily, he has thus far displayed it on far fewer occasions than Frederick William.”

Celestia nodded to herself on the completion of Voltaire’s account, but said nothing.

“That was an interesting observation about fathers,” said Eveningstar. “If this isn’t too personal, may I ask if you got the father you deserved?”

Voltaire scowled. “No, I most certainly did not. My father was interested in one thing and one thing only: getting rich, by any means necessary. He believed that with enough money he could buy himself all the respect he could ever want, and in the corrupt world of contemporary France, he was absolutely right. He always preferred my elder brother Armand over me, because Armand knew enough to keep his opinions to himself.”

“You still haven’t learned that lesson, Voltaire,” Celestia said, laughing gently at him.

“Yes, well the fact remains that I am nothing like my father.”

“Nothing?” Celestia said with raised brow. “Nothing he taught you managed to stick?”

“Well...there is one thing. Right after I returned to France from my first exile...”

“...your first exile?” Eveningstar interrupted with an incredulous grin. “What happened, did you decide to quit being banished?”

“As I was saying,” Voltaire said insistently, “after I returned, a scientist friend of mine made me aware of a new government lottery designed to get the crown’s finances out of a hole. This lottery had been so incompetently set up that there was a way to legally extract huge sums from it, a sort of ‘intelligence tax’ that the clever could levy on idiotic government officials and use to line our own pockets. I made myself absurdly wealthy from this before a panicked government finally shut it down. If I was anyone else, I would have spent all of that money in five years and spent the rest of my life in poverty, but I was the son of a greedy treasurer, so I knew how to invest and loan the money out so that I was set for life. That is the primary reason that I was able to put my true opinions to paper, because the truth never sells in my world.

“If I may dare to ask the Princess the same question,” Voltaire said with a crafty smile, “did you get the father you deserve?”

Princess Celestia gave Voltaire a long cold look before finally answering. “My father made me the Celestia you see today.” Without another word, she turned and walked out of the room, her horn’s magic opening and closing the door.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” said Eveningstar.

Voltaire shook his head. “She didn’t say that her father made her what she is today. She said that her father made her what she is today.”

Author's Note:

The gap in time between writing the last chapter and writing this one was covered by the blog post "Anonymous Author on Earth Fic, Part 1" (posted during Everfree Northwest), and the actual posting of Chapter 18 was accompanied by Part 2.