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.

NF_ill1

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

References

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).

VF networking at 2014/15 academic conferences

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

In March I visited Colonial Williamsburg where I was ‘personning’ the bookstand at the annual ASECS.

I stayed at the Cedars B&B (rather than the plush conference hotel), and as usual I enjoyed meeting existing ‘friends of the VF family’ (those who already know of and have collaborated with us) and making new VF friends.

A visit to historic Jamestown

A visit to historic Jamestown

Over 900 academics attended to give papers on panels, network, and browse the book display – mostly to capture information for their libraries to order as well as make some individual purchases. Also to do some 18C tourism! My own tourism treat was a visit to the Jamestown settlement.

Other members of the VF team are also out and about this Spring/Summer.

In May, our MHRA Research Associate Nick Treuherz is giving a paper at the Virtue and Enlightenment conference at Reid Hall, University of Kent, Paris, and Nicholas Cronk is the co-organiser of an ITEM study day on Enlightenment manuscripts at the IEA.

In June, we always attend the Journées Voltaire organised by the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes (SEV), this year on the theme of Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?

In July, part of the final volume in the Correspondence of Mme de Graffigny is the subject of David Smith’s talk at the Graffigny colloquium at the Château de Lunéville, called the Versailles of Lorraine.

The Château de Lunéville

The Château de Lunéville

Also Lyn Roberts will be attending the Society for the Study of French History conference in Durham on the theme of History and the senses.

Looking ahead to 2015

The annual BSECS conference in January at St Hugh’s College, Oxford is on the theme of Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions.

The VF co-funds an annual travel prize.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

The Voltaire Foundation’s stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

Many of us will be attending the next ISECS conference in July in Rotterdam on the theme of Opening Markets, Trade and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century. Founded by Theodore Besterman (who also founded the VF), this will be the 50th anniversary conference (and then for 2019 the ISECS conference returns to Scotland, where it started).

Will you be at any of these events? If so, please do get in touch via the comments or by emailing email@voltaire.ox.ac.uk – as always we’d love to hear from you!

–Clare

The trouble with money: crashes, recoinage and war in the Enlightenment

The problem of money has never been far from people’s minds. In the Enlightenment the issue took on new importance as a result of a series of famous crises.
ES_2014-05_cover
The best known are two runaway moments of financial speculation that ended in disaster, the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21, and the spectacular collapse in 1720 of Mississippi Company stock. An earlier incident, the Recoinage Crisis of 1696-98, had even more impact in terms of the monetary principles formulated as a result of it. Under conditions of a severely deteriorated silver currency (caused by illegal clipping), England was obligated to recoin all of its circulating medium, no easy feat in the midst of the Nine Years’ War with France when England’s armies and allies abroad required a steady diet of remittances. The question was whether to devalue the currency during the recoinage or to maintain the existing standard, with John Locke and Isaac Newton taking opposing positions on the matter. All these episodes invited new reflection on different kinds of credit and financial instruments, the role of banks, and a consideration of how to sustain and expand the money supply.

As I and a team of contributors explore in the recently published Money and political economy in the Enlightenment, what makes this period so remarkable is the way it witnesses not only the evolution of a financial system but also the entrance of leading philosophers into the debate over how to understand this new political and economic reality. John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume and Adam Smith all made major contributions, but they were not alone in taking on the intellectual challenges posed by an era of innovation.

Folio broadside of 1720 about the South Sea Bubble and the collapse of financial speculation

Folio broadside of 1720 about the South Sea Bubble and the collapse of financial speculation

One area of contention has been whether republican thinkers were able to accommodate the new commercial reality, given their traditional attachment to land as the key determinant of political power. In fact, important figures such as John Toland and Robert Molesworth had plenty to say in favour of mercantile sources of wealth. They also engaged in risky investments of their own, including the South Sea Company, with predictably unfortunate results. Later in the century, the republican period in France presented a different philosophical dilemma – how to reconcile inequalities associated with commercial society with an egalitarian political premise.

The Mississippi Copmpany share price, 1718-1722 (source: François R. Velde, 'Government equity and money: John Law's system in 1720 France', Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper No. 2003-31)

The Mississippi Company share price, 1718-1722 (source: François R. Velde, ‘Government equity and money: John Law’s system in 1720 France’, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper No. 2003-31)

Enlightenment authorities inherited and reshaped older assumptions but they did not arrive at an agreement on key issues surrounding money form, credit and the role of the state. Their views thus challenge the tendency to read the Enlightenment as a period of consensus, and for that matter how we periodise it.

When Charles Mackay reviewed the two great financial shocks of the eighteenth century – the crashes in value of the South Sea and Mississippi Companies – in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), he traced the potential for events of this kind to human social psychology, but he also, implicitly, signalled our capacity to transcend them. Today, if we have learned nothing else from the crisis that began in 2008, we have recognised our own ability to invent economic calamities in new forms, around ongoing patterns of expanding credit and investment. The Enlightenment’s legacy was to comment on these issues at the highest level philosophically. Whether our own experience will emulate these contributions with intellectual monuments of our own remains to be seen.

–Daniel Carey, National University of Ireland, Galway

A vote of confidence in Louis XVI? Voltaire’s Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares

It isn’t always possible to know what prompted Voltaire to write a particular text. The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares appear to be the response from one armchair traveller and great China admirer, Voltaire (or his young Benedictine alter ego), to another armchair traveller and China detractor, Cornelius de Pauw, author of Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (Berlin, 1773). However, Voltaire had finished reading the Recherches by September 1774 (D19110), over a year before we have any hint that he has started work on the Lettres chinoises.

Another trigger might have been the assemblée générale du clergé that was held in Paris for much of 1775. Voltaire billed his Lettres chinoises – published early in 1776, once the clergy was safely home again – as ‘insolent’,[1] and indeed they argue for the anteriority and superiority of Eastern philosophies and religions over Judaeo-Christianity.

I just wonder whether the Lettres chinoises may also partly have been written as a sort of vote of confidence in Louis XVI. Nowhere is the king mentioned explicitly. It is only in a private letter to D’Alembert, quoted below, or in the unpublished Edits de sa majesté Louis XVI (1776), that Louis XVI and Chinese emperors are clearly linked in Voltaire’s mind. Yet might the Lettres chinoises’s undiluted admiration for Eastern rulers seem to validate some of the controversial decisions that the king faced in the first two years of his reign?

Qianlong (1711-1799) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Qianlong (1711-1799)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In September 1774, Louis XVI had signed an edict penned by his controller-general, Turgot, bringing about free trade in grain. The edict was contentious enough (though Voltaire thoroughly approved), but its explanatory preface was also criticised on the grounds that a king should not have to justify his rulings. Though the Lettres chinoises do not mention this edict, or the following six that coincided with their publication, they lavish praise on the current Chinese emperor, Qianlong, for communicating with his people: ‘How did [Qianlong] have a heart good enough to give such lessons to a hundred and fifty million men?’; ‘Here is an emperor more powerful than Augustus, more revered, busier; who only writes for the instruction and the happiness of humankind’.[2]

Writing to Frederick the Great on 3 October 1775, D’Alembert complained that the clergy assembled in Paris was attempting to persuade Louis XVI to renew edicts against the Protestants.[3] On 6 November, Voltaire noted in code to D’Alembert: ‘They say that the bonzes [i.e. the French clergy] have recently wanted to harm the disciples of Confucius [the Protestants], and that the young emperor Kangxi [Louis XVI] has calmed everything down with a wisdom beyond his years’.[4]

Kangxi (1654-1722) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Kangxi (1654-1722)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In the Lettres chinoises, the Chinese emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng are both held up as models of rationality in their dealings with religious troublemakers. Kangxi’s message to the Jesuits at his court is quoted approvingly:

‘The emperor is surprised to see you so stubbornly attached to your ideas. Why concern yourselves with a world that you are not yet in? Enjoy the here and now. Your attentions make no odds to your god. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’[5]

Voltaire similarly approves of Yongzheng’s ‘admirable speech’ expelling the Jesuits in 1724:

‘What would you say if I sent a troupe of bonzes and lamas to your country to preach their dogmas there: – bad dogmas are those which under the pretext of teaching virtue, sow discord and revolt: you want all Chinese to become Christian, I know; then what will we become? The subjects of your kings.’[6]

Yongzheng (1678-1735) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng (1678-1735)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng apparently gave the departing Jesuits money and supplies, as well as escorts to protect them against the fury of the people. The Lettres chinoises do not mention the persecution of the Jesuits, claiming instead that ‘there was no dragonnade’ (a reference to seventeenth-century persecution of French Protestants).[7]

The Lettres chinoises may serve more than one purpose: they reassert Voltaire’s idealised view of China against Cornelius de Pauw, they make Judaeo-Christian religions look small alongside ancient Eastern religions, and perhaps they also implicitly lend their support to a king whose actions seem to parallel those of great Chinese emperors.

  • The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares have just been published in volume 77B, Œuvres de 1775-1776, of the Complete Works of Voltaire.
  • Voltaire had to make do with being an armchair traveller to China, India and Tartary. Travel, real and imagined, is the theme of this year’s Journées Voltaire, ‘Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?’, which take place on 13 and 14 June 2014 in Paris, at the Sorbonne.
  • There is no doubt that the East, especially the Far East, was in demand when Voltaire wrote his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares. Currently on display at Versailles are precious Chinese objects collected by French royals throughout the eighteenth century: ‘La Chine à Versailles, art et diplomatie au dix-huitième siècle’ is on until 26 October 2014.

–Alice

 

[1] ‘Puisque vous me répondez de M. de Sartines, je vais donc lui adresser les insolentes Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares’ (20 March 1776, to d’Argental, D20010).

[2] ‘Comment a-t-il eu un cœur assez bon pour donner de telles leçons à cent cinquante millions d’hommes […]? […] Voici un empereur plus puissant qu’Auguste, plus révéré, plus occupé; qui n’écrit que pour l’instruction et pour le bonheur du genre humain’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.116-17).

[3] ‘Quant aux prêtres, qui sont actuellement assemblés comme ils le sont par malheur tous les cinq ans, et qui dans cette assemblée se dévorent et se déchirent entre eux, ils partent de là pour aller à Versailles conjurer le roi de renouveler les édits atroces et absurdes qui ordonnent la persécution des protestants’ (Œuvres de Frédéric le Grand, 30 vol., Berlin, 1846-1856, vol.25, p.31: http://friedrich.uni-trier.de/de/oeuvres/25/31/text/).

[4] ‘On dit que des bonzes ont voulu depuis peu faire du mal aux disciples de Confucius, et que le jeune empereur Kan-hi a tout apaisé avec une sagesse au dessus de son âge’ (D19729).

[5] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.157).

[6] ‘Que diriez-vous si j’envoyais une troupe de bonzes et de lamas dans votre pays pour y prêcher leurs dogmes: – les mauvais dogmes sont ceux qui sous prétexte d’enseigner la vertu, soufflent la discorde et la révolte: vous voulez que tous les Chinois se fassent chrétiens, je le sais bien; alors que deviendrons-nous? les sujets de vos rois’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).

[7] ‘Il n’y eut point de dragonnade’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).