French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting [...], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).

14th International Congress for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS 2015) Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 26-31 July 2015 Call for Proposals: panels/papers/posters

The Congress of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS) is the world’s largest meeting of specialists on all aspects of the eighteenth century, and takes place every four years. Recent ISECS conferences have been held in Dublin (1999), Los Angeles (2003), Montpellier (2007) and Graz (2011). The 14th ISECS Congress will be organized in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, from 26 to 31 July 2015. It is organized by the Dutch-Belgian Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies (DBSECS – Werkgroep 18e Eeuw) and is hosted by the Erasmus University Rotterdam on Campus Woudestein. We can welcome more than one thousand participants.

The theme of the 14th ISECS Congress is Opening Markets: Trade and Commerce in the 18th Century. The program will include theme-related keynote lectures and sessions, as well as panels and round tables on all topics related to the long eighteenth century (1670-1830). The conference will also facilitate poster presentations. We are looking forward to inspiring lectures, debates and presentations on the conference theme and on all issues regarding the Age of Enlightenment and Sensibility.

Online registration is now open for:

  • Submission of proposals for panel sessions and round table sessions. The online Call for Panels is open from February 2014 until September 1, 2014. Submit a proposal through
  • Submission of proposals for individual papers or poster presentations. The online Call for individual Papers & Posters is open from June 2014 until January 12, 2015. Submit a proposal through
  • Pre-registration: You can e-mail the organizers ( a request for pre-registration. By pre-registering, you subscribe to a newsletter that will keep you regularly informed about the organization of the ISECS 2015 Congress, including planned sessions, round tables and other meetings. The online Registration for the ISECS 2015 Congress will open from September 1, 2014 until April 30, 2015.

Don’t hesitate to distribute this call among interested colleagues and networks! If you have any questions in the meantime, please contact the local host committee via or visit the conference website:

ISECS 2015 is open to all persons interested in topics and issues having to do with the long eighteenth century and the Age of Enlightenment. Membership of an ISECS constituent or affiliated organization is not necessary for registration. The online Registration for the Early Career Eighteenth-Century Scholar Seminar will open in September 2014.

Instructions for Panel Session Submissions

The ISECS 2015 Committee invites those interested to organize thematic meetings in the program of the Conference to submit proposals for panel sessions and round tables. The submission of proposals for panels will be open until September 1, 2014. Panel organizers are requested to complete the online form at Organizers are asked to supply information about the theme of the proposed panel and the panel members along with an abstract of their contribution to the panel meeting. Panels have a duration of one and a half hours, and should consist of 3 to 4 speakers (depending on the amount of discussion time the panel organizer wants to provide). It is also possible to submit a panel suggestion without concrete panelists or partly filled with panelists. In the coming months, we will present a list with panels accepting proposals on our website. Open panels will also be promoted through our newsletter.

Instructions for Individual Paper Proposals

The submission of proposals for papers is open until January 12, 2015. Participants in the ISECS 2015 Congress can submit one proposal for an individual paper. In the menu (, you will find a dropdown box with submitted panels that are open for paper submissions. Here, you can indicate which panel your paper could be part of. Paper proposals are reviewed by the scientific committee and by the panel organizers. The ISECS 2015 Scientific Committee is responsible for organizing the panels in which the papers and posters will be presented. Only registered participants can present individual papers and posters. Participants who intend to submit more than one paper proposal are requested to contact the organizers of the ISECS 2015 Conference (

Call for Posters

Are you involved in an interesting project or in an area of work that you would like to discuss with or show to other Conference attendees? Why not present your work in the ISECS Poster Sessions?

Format & Presentation

Your topic could be described on a printed poster or by photographs, graphics and pieces of text that you attach to the presentation panel. Posters in both English and French are welcome.

Presenters of a poster will be expected to be present on Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 28-30 July, in order to explain their poster and to hand out any leaflets, or other information materials they have available for viewers of their poster. Each presenter can therefore only present one poster. Any organization that submits more than one application should indicate a priority to their submissions.

Conference participants interested in presenting a poster should complete the application form on It is important that applicants describe how they intend to illustrate the project in the poster format. The poster has to be an experience in itself for the one who looks at it and should show awareness of the poster format. Special consideration will be given to ensure that a variety of topics and geographical/cultural range will be represented. The deadline is January 12, 2015. After the deadline, applications will no longer be accepted.

A jury representing the ISECS Organizing Committee will review all submissions and at the Conference they will select the winner of the ISECS Poster Award 2015 based on the criteria below. The topic of the poster should:

  • Look interesting and/or inspiring; Look lively;
  • Lend itself to a poster session; not be too abstract;
  • Present new ideas;
  • Be clearly explained;
  • Not duplicate another poster, nor have the same presenter as another poster
  • A presenter must be present during the poster session to explain the poster to viewers
  • Have a relationship to the theme of the 2015 ISECS Conference.
  • Describe a project that is ongoing or near completion, not one that is yet to start.

For useful tips & tricks on how to design a poster, see:

The ‘Smile Revolution’ in Enlightenment Paris

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766 (WikiArt)

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766 (WikiArt)

‘What can one say of a person who has suffered so much with heroic courage… the most horrible pains in the mouth, in the neck and on the brain; and who after nearly fifteen months spent peacefully without any suffering now despairs that her teeth, which look beautiful are not good at all; and who at every moment thinks she will lose them; who dreams of this at night; who looks at them a hundred times a day; who imagines one is good for nothing when one does not have perfect teeth; and who is amazed at the thought of finding friends, lovers, a husband…’ [1]

The hysterical despair about the state of her mouth expressed by the Swiss-Dutch writer, 25-year-old Isabelle de Charrière, was a not uncommon Enlightenment reaction. With the entry of sugar into elite and even popular diet over the course of the eighteenth century, toothache could claim to be the mal du siècle. This was all the more anxiety-producing because the smile was becoming in the public sphere the badge of relaxed unstuffy sociability and of healthy virtue. And the new smile of sensibility featured white teeth. Rousseau’s Julie and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa had shown how it should look. So, more graphically, did Madame Vigée Le Brun: her white tooth smiling portrait displayed at the Salon in 1787 (and still viewable in the Louvre in our own day) caused something of a rumpus in the stuffy art establishment.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun: self-portrait with her daughter, Jeanne-Lucie (The Louvre)

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun: self-portrait with her daughter, Jeanne-Lucie (The Musée du Louvre)

As I show in my book, The Smile Revolution in eighteenth-century Paris, the emergence of the smile of sensibility owed something to scientific innovation as well as to cultural trends. Modern dentistry emerged at precisely this time, with Paris as its most brilliant champion. The crude tooth-puller of yore now gave way to the dental surgeon who focused on tooth conservation rather than extraction. New technologies of tooth maintenance and beautification emerged too, not least the humble toothbrush, which offered individuals a way of keeping Isabelle de Charrière’s nightmare at bay. A toothbrush was soon to be found in the nécessaire of every woman of sensibility, and many a man of feeling too.

A ‘Smile Revolution’ appeared to be in the offing in late eighteenth-century Paris. It would take the Revolution of 1789 – and particularly the Terror – to destroy it. Despite this initial outing, the white tooth smile would only conquer western civilisation in the twentieth century.

– Colin Jones

[1] Isabelle de Charrière to Constant d’Hermenches, 6 May 1765.

An eighteenth-century horsehair toothbrush

An eighteenth-century horsehair toothbrush

Further reading: C. P. Courtney, Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen) (ISBN 978-0-7294-0439-6).

Isabelle de Charrière, brilliant letter-writer and gifted novelist, is now recognised as one of the most fascinating literary figures of her time. In this lively and comprehensive biography, Cecil Courtney chronicles her life by making full use of the original sources, notably Belle’s extensive correspondence with many of the leading figures of her time.

Of bees and baffled naturalists

In a nutshell, my research explores the ways in which eighteenth-century French thinkers were transformed by their engagement with insects. Thanks to a generous grant from the Voltaire Foundation, I had the opportunity to study the large collections of letters exchanged between the most important observers of insects of the Enlightenment – mainly Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur and Charles Bonnet – held at the archives of the Académie des Sciences in Paris and of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

‘Mouches à miel, ruches’ (1762) from Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie

‘Mouches à miel, ruches’ (1762) from Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (with thanks to ARTFL)

To give you an example: the way in which insects constantly thwarted observers’ expectations about nature’s supposed laws influenced new standards for verification. In 1770, the Journal des savants published a report on the German naturalist Adam Gottlob Schirach’s observation that all bee larvae, thought to be sexless, could be turned into a queen bee simply by being fed differently than the other worker bees. [1] That the gender of an animal was not determined from the start of its life disturbed naturalists’ idea of natural laws. As the Swedish observer Charles De Geer wrote to his Swiss friend Charles Bonnet:

‘J’avoue que cette observation ne m’étonne pas seulement, mais même qu’elle me répugne; je ne sçaurai jamais croire, que le ver d’une abeille ouvriere, sans sexe, pourroit devenir une abeille femelle, par la seule façon d’être nourri différement. De telles sortes de métamorphoses sont inouïes dans l’histoire naturelle.’ [2]

Because of the contentious nature of Schirach’s observations, the Journal required a trustworthy naturalist to verify them. Thus, Duhamel de Monceau asked Bonnet, on behalf of the Académie des Sciences, to repeat Schirach’s observation, again emphasising the way in which it contradicted nature’s laws:

Portrait of Charles Bonnet, engraving by Johan Frederik Clemens (1779) after a painting by Jens Juel (1777)

Portrait of Charles Bonnet, engraving by Johan Frederik Clemens (1779) after a painting by Jens Juel (1777)

‘Les experiences de M. Schirach sont singulieres Monsieur et elles semblent renverser tout l’ordre de la nature. Mais elles ont été suivies avec des précautions qui engagent à y avoir confiance et je ne peux leur refuser la mienne quand je vois qu’elles ont merité votre approbation. Cependant l’academie etant dans l’usage d’en adopter les choses qui paroissent s’éloigner de la marche ordinaire de la nature qu’après un severe examen elle se propose de faire repeter les experimens de Mr Schirach et pour cela je suis chargé de vous demander les details suffisants pour les exécuter.’ [3]

Since naturalists and philosophers looked to ‘nature’, including insects, to understand human behaviours, such discoveries about the fluidity of gender roles were troubling. Despite the fact that naturalists repeatedly emphasised their openness to the surprises of insects, these creatures continued to puzzle them. Verification according to a set of prescribed, accepted procedures could somehow curb the uncontrollable contradictions of insects; as they continued to show surprising behaviours, the naturalists continued to evolve their methods for understanding them.

– Elisabeth Wallmann, University of Warwick


[1] Charles Bonnet, ‘Lettre sur les abeilles, adressée à messieurs les auteurs du Journal des savants’, Le Journal des savants, November 1770, p.746-53.

[2] De Geer to Bonnet, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Bonnet 30, 19.7.1771.

[3] Duhamel de Monceau to Bonnet, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. Bonnet 30, 23.3.1770.

Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits des Lumières

Dans le cadre superbe de l’hôtel de Lauzun, l’Institut d’études avancées de Paris a accueilli le 26 mai 2014 une journée d’étude destinée à faire le point sur certaines des découvertes récentes dans la recherche sur les manuscrits du Siècle des Lumières. Depuis quelques années, l’actualité attire l’attention sur certains manuscrits mythiques, comme celui d’Histoire de ma vie de Casanova qui a rejoint les collections publiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France en 2010 grâce à un mécène, ou bien tout récemment, le rouleau des 120 journées de Sodome de Sade enfin de retour à Paris, pour y être exposé à l’automne au Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits.


Le manuscrit des 120 journées de Sodome

Les salles de vente bruissent des papiers des écrivains du XVIIIe siècle: ceux d’Emilie du Châtelet sont passés il y a peu aux enchères ainsi que dernièrement ceux de Portalis, l’un des auteurs du Code civil, dont la Cour de Cassation a réussi à acquérir le dossier génétique complet d’une de ses œuvres, la Consultation sur la validité des mariages protestants de France, qui comprend une copie au net annotée de la main de Voltaire.

Tandis que les manuscrits sortent des coffres et s’exposent derrière des vitrines ou sur des écrans numériques, de leur côté les chercheurs se lancent dans leur patiente analyse. Ce fut le but de cette journée, organisée par Nicholas Cronk, Nathalie Ferrand et Andrew Jainchill en collaboration avec l’équipe Ecritures du XVIIIe siècle de l’Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes, de montrer tout l’intérêt, pour la compréhension et l’interprétation des œuvres, de l’étude de leurs états préparatoires et remaniés.

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

La page de titre des Considérations sur le gouvernement du marquis d’Argenson (1764)

Ouvrant la matinée avec une intervention consacrée au marquis d’Argenson, Andrew Jainchill (Queen’s University, IEA) a présenté quatre états manuscrits de ses Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, l’une des critiques les plus vives de la monarchie française au XVIIIe siècle – citée plusieurs fois dans le Contrat Social – dont il put interpréter l’évolution en fonction des additions de l’auteur dans ses différentes versions.

Après la théorie politique, c’est la philosophie naturelle de Mme du Châtelet qui fut l’objet d’une étude menée par Karen Detlefsen (U. of Pennsylvania) et Andrew Janiak (Duke U.), à partir d’une comparaison des manuscrits de ses Institutions de physique conservés à Paris et à Saint-Pétersbourg. Dans l’après-midi, Nicholas Cronk (U. of Oxford, IEA) a présenté les dernières découvertes dans le domaine voltairien, et a montré à quel point la recherche des manuscrits est féconde – y compris pour des auteurs canoniques comme Voltaire dont on croit tout savoir –, puisqu’on continue de découvrir de nouveaux manuscrits qui renouvellent les connaissances établies.

Au plus près du papier et des instruments d’écriture des auteurs, Claire Bustarret (CNRS-EHESS) a ensuite présenté les apports de la codicologie pour déterminer les campagnes d’écriture au sein de corpus manuscrits imposants, comme dans le cas des papiers de Condorcet. La journée s’est achevée par une intervention de Nathalie Ferrand (CNRS-ENS) sur l’importance croissante accordée aux manuscrits d’auteurs au sein des études dix-huitiémistes et sur le rôle qu’ont pu jouer les manuscrits des Lumières dans l’émergence progressive de la critique génétique au cours du XXe siècle, concluant par l’interprétation génétique d’une page de La Nouvelle Héloïse que Rousseau récrit en puisant au lyrisme du Tasse.

– Nathalie Ferrand, Ecole normale supérieure-CNRS

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Caption: Page de corrections de La Nouvelle Héloïse de la main de J.-J. Rousseau

Turkish catechism (En hommage à Voltaire)

THE FRENCHMAN: Is it true that your Sultan can marry hundreds of wives who are kept in a forbidden place known as a ‘harem’, to which, apart from the Sultan himself, only eunuchs have access, men whom our Voltaire describes as chaponnés? Is it true that their job is to keep the harem tidy, to sort out squabbles between inmates, and to make sure that whichever wife the Sultan has chosen for the night is epilated, bathed and perfumed ready for her master’s bed?

Is it also true that only one wife is permitted to bear the children that will constitute the royal bloodline? And that any offspring born to the others will be considered illegitimate? And that of those bastard children, the pretty girls will be offered to another ruler for his harem (thereby making sure that the Sultan does not, inadvertently, bed one of his own daughters), while the plain or ugly girls and all the boys are sold at market?

"Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Glavani in Turkish costume", oil on canvas by the Swiss-French artist Jean-Etienne Liotard. Painted at Constantinople circa 1740, the work shows English merchant Francis Levett, of the Levant Company, with his friend Miss Glavani, in the dress favoured by Liotard in his works. Courtesy of the Louvre Museum, Paris.

“Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Glavani in Turkish costume”, oil on canvas by the Swiss-French artist Jean-Etienne Liotard. Painted at Constantinople circa 1740, the work shows English merchant Francis Levett, of the Levant Company, with his friend Miss Glavani, in the dress favoured by Liotard in his works. Courtesy of the Louvre Museum, Paris.

THE TURK: All too true. Our pirate ships criss-cross the seas on the lookout for vessels likely to be carrying pretty girls, and the pirates seize them. Once on board they separate the men and the boys from the women, and the pretty girls from the plain or ugly ones. They then sell the males and the less attractive females at market wherever they happen next to make landfall. The pretty girls are then offered to the Sultan for his harem.

As for the elaborate rituals involved in preparing the wife whom the Sultan appoints to share his bed on a particular night, I can do no better than refer you to Wikipedia, a work of reference which can be consulted much faster than it takes to lift down from the shelf the weighty tomes of the work edited by your Monsieur Diderot.

As for the locus standi of a particular member of a harem, a case involving a lady from what you call the Holy Land is about to be heard in London. The High Court will decide if a vow the Sultan made her – to wit, that she would be well provided for once he no longer required her services – is enforceable in law. If it turns out to be so, his Sultanic Highness will have to hand over twelve million gold dinars to the lady in question. It is a landmark case; here is the reference for your convenience.

– John Fletcher, translator of Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary

Voltaire and space exploration

A popular book on space exploration and the long-term future of a spacefaring humankind is not a place where one would immediately think of finding quotations by Voltaire. But Pale Blue Dot by the famous US astronomer Carl Sagan is inspired by Voltaire’s writings in several places.

Carl Sagan (NASA)

Carl Sagan (NASA)

Sagan’s chapter 3, ‘The Great Demotions’, is prefixed by an epigraph from Micromégas, a philosophical tale by Voltaire. In this quotation, a human philosopher tells two celestial visitors, one from Sirius and the other from Saturn, that they, their worlds and their stars were created solely for the use of man: ‘At this assertion our two travelers let themselves fall against each other, seized with a fit of inextinguishable laughter.’ A fitting introduction to a chapter relating how scientific discoveries have progressively marginalised humanity’s conception of its place in the universe – the Copernican revolution in thought, with which Voltaire was clearly in sympathy.

The message is reinforced in another quotation from Micromégas, in which Voltaire describes how the cosmic travellers eventually discovered ‘a small light, which was the Earth’, but even then were unable to find ‘the smallest reason to suspect that we and our fellow-citizens of this globe have the honor to exist’.

The minuteness of planet Earth and of its human inhabitants in the enlightened cosmic perspective is the main theme of Sagan’s book, which takes as its starting-point a series of 60 photographs taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, after it had passed beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. From Voyager’s vantage point 6 billion kilometres distant, Earth appears as a single bluish pixel of light, the ‘pale blue dot’ of the book’s title, just as Voltaire’s travellers would have seen it. Yet, after decades of outbound flight since its launch in 1977, Voyager 1 has still only travelled a small fraction of the distance that separates us from Sirius, one of the closest stars to our Sun, and the home of one of Voltaire’s fictional aliens (Voyager is currently about one part in 4500 of that distance away from us).

The Voyager 1 space probe (NASA)

The Voyager 1 space probe (NASA)

A quotation from Voltaire’s Memnon puts humanity in its place in another way: ‘our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds’ (in a footnote, Sagan approves the accuracy of that order of magnitude figure given current knowledge). Yet there is not only mockery of our pretensions and self-importance, but hope for the future, too, for Sagan was an optimist who saw an opportunity for our descendants to become cosmic travellers, just as Voltaire describes his aliens doing in Micromégas: ‘Sometimes by the help of a sunbeam, and sometimes by the convenience of a comet, [they] glided from sphere to sphere, as a bird hops from bough to bough. In a very little time [they] posted through the Milky Way’ (according to the translation in Pale Blue Dot).

In order to achieve such a future without destroying itself in the process, humankind must order its affairs in a more enlightened manner: such is Sagan’s message. Voltaire would surely have agreed: his historical writings which have passed across my desk on their way to typesetting are full of scathingly critical comments about the crimes committed by popes, kings and emperors, and they express his horror at the tortures and injustices inflicted by members of one religious sect on another.

Bust of Voltaire by Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Houdon

Yet in the end, it seems, Voltaire could not shake off his doubts. In an article entitled ‘Voltaire’s astronauts’, William Barber points out that when Voltaire wrote of the material inhabitants of other planets visiting Earth, during the 1730s, both his scientific enthusiasms and his personal contentment were at their height: ‘Man is in his rightful place in a Newtonian universe where order and reason prevail.’

But the evils and misfortunes of life subject such optimism to severe strain, and Voltaire later found it necessary to construct tales of metaphysical visitors, such as the angel Jesrad in Zadig (1747), who it was hoped would bring divine consolation and reassurance that all really was well. This they were unable to achieve, at least in Voltaire’s stories, because their religious prestige was tarnished, Barber writes, ‘derived from a world-view already rejected’.

Again, Katherine Astbury notes at the end of her edition of Memnon for OCV (a conte which was closely related to Zadig): ‘Memnon’s refusal to accept the view of his guardian angel and submit to providence is a reflection of Voltaire’s dissatisfaction with optimism in general and Pope’s view of the universe in An Essay on man in particular.’

We, too, face conflicts between optimistic visions of a civilisation steadily gaining wealth and knowledge and expanding out into the cosmos, versus pessimistic ones of our imminent destruction through climate change, nanotechnology, the information revolution, peak oil or other causes. Hopefully, with the longer perspective allowed us by 250 years of scientific progress to which Voltaire was not privy, we have more reason to maintain our optimism than he did.

Stephen Ashworth


Pale Blue Dot (Headline, 1995) is an accessible popular book by a widely respected scientist giving his views on the planetary explorations in which he took part and on the future prospects for our species. Carl Sagan quotes from or references Voltaire on pages 25, 34, 35, 59, 394, 397.

Micromégas is available in Romans et Contes, ed. Frédéric Deloffre and Jacques van den Heuvel (Paris, Gallimard [Pléiade], 1979). Its publication in OCV is provisionally scheduled for vol.20C in 2018. It is available online in French (TOUT VOLTAIRE) and in English translation (Project Gutenberg).

Memnon and Zadig are published in OCV, vol.30B.

W.H. Barber’s article ‘Voltaire’s astronauts’ appeared in French Studies 30 (1976), p.28-42, available online (subscription required).