Strange skies: Voltaire’s physics

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons ever managed to; it made me realise that even the laws of gravity were a new discovery once.

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‘Figure des tourbillons de Descartes’, in Voltaire, La Henriade, divers autres poèmes etc. [Geneva, Cramer and Bardin], 1775, 37 vol., vol.26, facing p.355.

However, it was the way in which Descartes’ world was depicted that left a greater mark on me, through its apparent strangeness (although, had I heard about it in a physics classroom, no doubt it would seem as banal as gravity). In Voltaire’s portrayal, the emphasis is on movement, ‘tourbillons de matière subtile’,[1]  next to which our modern conception of gravity seems, if more accurate, somehow less dynamic. This theoretical universe is a crowded one, where light ‘existe dans l’air’ and the dominant forces are pushing ones; Newton’s is an elegant void, where movement is due to attraction.

After studying the letter, I wrote the poem below, inspired both by the painterly quality of Voltaire’s images, and the way in which reading it had offered me a new perspective on the way human knowledge changes. Letter XIV typifies a time very different from our era of specialization, where science and the humanities are carefully cordoned off from one another. Voltaire was spreading something that was, at that time, revolutionary, and it seems unlikely nowadays that a literary figure could be so fully involved with the cutting edge of science. I wanted to capture this sense of change, and the related fact that, while these competing explanations for the universe once ranked side by side, one has now been relegated to the status of image, while the other has become (relatively) unquestioned scientific fact.

Descartes thought the sky was made of spirals,
spangled whirlwind scrawls, a tide of starlight,
oily brushstrokes crowding in the midnight,
currents sweeping past the moon. His rival,
a Mr Newton, won; the Lumières jeered,
and though the sciences were an art those days,
the pictures Descartes saw were just a phase,
an early Van Gogh in the wrong career.

StarryNight_VanGogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.

– Rowan Lyster

(Poem first published in the ISIS magazine, Oxford)

[1] All quotes are from Letter XIV, Lettres philosophiques.

Besterman’s commitment to the Eighteenth Century is still alive

Besterman

Theodore Besterman in the late 1940s

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end of the mantelpiece sits a white bust of Voltaire, and a picture of a stern-looking Rousseau hangs on the wall between them. Our meetings are thus presided over by this august trio.

I had heard the name Besterman in my academic publishing career before joining the Voltaire Foundation, because as a bibliographer, he gave his name to the Besterman/McColvin Awards for reference works (in both print and electronic forms). These are awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

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The mantlepiece in the Besterman Room at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Tristram Besterman has just written a most informative personal memoir about his step-grandfather for the VF website. His account joins Giles Barber’s biography of Besterman as well as Haydn Mason’s history of the Voltaire Foundation.

One of Besterman’s many significant contributions to 18th-century scholarship was to found the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (or ISECS), the ‘umbrella’ organisation for all thirty national eighteenth-century societies worldwide. The VF still provides the secretariat functions for ISECS to this day.

ISECS holds an international congress every four years and the VF will of course be attending the next congress in July 2015 in Rotterdam. We hope to meet up with many of our colleagues, contributors and friends at our bookstand.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

There will be plenary lectures given by Dan Brewer and John Robertson (author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to the Enlightenment, due in September 2015). In 2019 the ISECS congress will be held at St Andrews, which was the location of the first congress, in 1967.

Besterman also started the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (in 1955), formerly known as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (or SVEC for short). After 60 years and over 500 books, it remains the leading series in the area of Enlightenment studies.

We are currently seeking to appoint a new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

The successful candidate would initially work alongside Professor Jonathan Mallinson who is standing down after 13 years. In 2016 he or she would take over as General Editor and be involved in appointing a deputy (who will be francophone if the General Editor is not, and vice versa).

Besterman’s legacy is still very much alive as demonstrated by the VF publications still rolling off the press – a new book in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series every month as well as six new volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire each year (the print edition is due for completion in 2018-2019). The VF’s blog gives an insight into the extended reach of our activities and some of our inner workings and musings – hence this blogpost.

– Clare

Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].

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The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri, http://pfef.free.fr/Index.htm)

 

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Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.

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Robert-François Damiens (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

 

The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.

Picturing the reign of Louis XIV

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

In 2015, the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, the VF is delighted to be launching our publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV, critical edition by Diego Venturino of the Université de Lorraine. We are very proud to be doing so with the generous support of the Centre de recherche du Château de Versailles.

As part of our partnership, we are doing something completely new for OCV and the VF in producing an illustrated edition of the Siècle. Each chapter will benefit from at least one image from the rich collections of the château de Versailles, the full extent of which are rarely seen by the public.

Valérie Bajou, specialist curator at Versailles came to Oxford in the autumn, bringing with her an entire filing cabinet (almost!) full of the results of her research. Alongside the VF team, and with valuable input from our scientific editor, Diego Venturino, we compiled a shortlist for each of the thirty-nine chapters of Voltaire’s text. We had to work within certain technical constraints, and so concentrated on engravings (for better quality reproduction in black and white), prioritising portrait format over landscape to fit with the dimensions of the book, and preferring contemporary representations to more recent renditions.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Benoist.

Attrib. Antoine Benoist (1632-1717), Portrait de Louis XIV, lead pencil, sanguine and white chalk © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Jean-Marc Manaï.

We tried not to simply show a succession of portraits of famous people, including in addition allegorical prints, depictions of battles and even diagrams. Some chapters gave us more trouble than others: we found plenty to choose from in those chapters dealing with the Sun King’s many military successes; but, unsurprisingly, rather less choice for chapters such as number 21, ‘Suite des disgrâces de la France…’ We found a beautiful and very human drawing of the king in extreme old age which contrasts wonderfully with the famous Rigaud portrait of him resplendent in full-wigged, red-heeled glory.

Chapter 7, ‘Louis XIV gouverne par lui-même’, finds an echo in an engraving with the legend: ‘Le Roi mon maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout’. We were keen to include some images of Versailles itself, whose construction was a major part of the Sun King’s life’s work and legacy, and we were thrilled to discover a rather daring image of his mistress, Mme de Montespan, legs and bosom bare…

Painting by Pierre Le Pautre.

Pierre Le Pautre (1652-1716), Le Roi mon Maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout, 1669, burin et eau-forte © Château de Versailles.

It has been such a pleasure to discover the treasures of the Versailles image collection, and a privilege to work with all the knowledgeable people there who are helping us to make this edition one of the most beautiful so far in the OCV series.

– AO

Learning art in Rome… à la française

Can art be taught? Certainly. The larger question is, can it be learnt? And if so, how?

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Charles-Joseph Natoire, Life class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (detail), 1746, The Courtauld Institute, London

From at least 1298, when Philip IV sponsored a court artist’s study-tour of Italy, French monarchs and ministers believed art was best learned by reproducing the frescoes, paintings, statuary and Roman ruins found beyond the Alps. While the origins of Philip’s respect for Italy are unclear, not so that of the Valois kings who profited aesthetically from sixty-five years of warfare on the peninsula (1494-1559) and issued invitations to Italian masters upon their return. Perhaps inspired by their work, French artists and architects made their separate ways to Florence and Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some with government support, others on their own. Whether they selected a mentor or allowed curiosity to lead them, their experiences were necessarily uneven, but the glories of French Renaissance and Classical art and architecture leave no doubt that they did indeed ‘learn’.

Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

Individual artists continued to study Italian masterworks throughout the Ancien Régime, but in so far as official France was concerned, structured curricula replaced independent study – even in Rome itself. In Charles-Joseph Natoire and the Académie de France in Rome: a re-evaluation I discuss how Jean-Baptiste Colbert instituted advanced training in the papal city for a select group of young men who had been awarded Grands Prix by the Académies royales de peinture et de sculpture (1648-1793) and Architecture (1671-1793).

For some twenty years, Grands Prix painters and sculptors were further prepared for Rome through the government-sponsored programme at the Ecole royale des élèves protégés in Paris (1751-1774). Each step in the educational programme decreased students’ control over their art, for financial support brought obligation. Even if, from 1676 onward, the Académie de peinture reviewed portfolios to determine who had to compete for that year’s Grand Prix, students were still at liberty to conceptualise and develop the topics assigned. As the king’s protégés, however, they copied artwork held in the Louvre and, in general, chafed under the rules Colbert had developed for the pensionnaires of the Académie de France in Rome (1666-1793), whose goal was to form artists ‘capable of serving the king well’. Colbert interpreted this literally.

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In its early years, the Académie de France functioned more like a boot camp than an art school, as students reproduced ‘everything beautiful’ in the city and Colbert dispatched cargo ships from Marseilles to collect work intended to enhance the halls and gardens of the king’s multiple properties. That need eventually diminished: in 1742, Philibert Orry, who then directed the Bâtiments du roi, served notice that no more copies of antique statuary were required. The pensionnaires were still not free to explore their own interests, however. In 1752, Bâtiments director Marigny, told Natoire that students’ ‘real business’ was to copy the work of the great masters and do this ‘without ceasing’.

Did students learn from these experiences? Certainly, all were competent and many became successful, as Bourbon France defined that success: admitted to the royal academies, exhibiting at the Salons and working for French and European courts. Looking back, though, only the autonomous Jacques-Louis David has proved as influential as certain seventeenth-century painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun, whose independent study in Rome transformed the Ecole française.

– Reed Benhamou, Indiana University

Further reading:

Reed Benhamou, Regulating the Académie: art, rules and power in ancien régime France, ISBN 978-0-7294-0972-8 (SVEC 2009:08)

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.

Pierre Bayle: a pre-Enlightenment luminary

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle at approximately 27 years of age. Portrait by Louis Elle-Ferdinand le jeune.

Hyperconnected, multidisciplinary, transnational – the buzzwords of twenty-first century digital communication could just as easily apply to the pan-European Republic of Letters in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An empire of paper rather than Facebook posts or tweets, the Republic of Letters transcended national boundaries as writers and thinkers criticized, complemented, and commented on the controversies of the moment in a dense nexus of correspondence. These erudite intellectual exchanges between friends and foes fostered the heated debates which shaped modern thought.

The Republic’s major architect was the prolific Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) – best-selling author, journalist, and audacious thinker.

As editor of the journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, which published its first issue in 1684, Bayle was arguably the first to coin the term ‘Republic of Letters’. The very title of the journal testifies to Bayle’s ambition. Bringing together articles and reviews of new publications from contributors across Europe, and with a Europe-wide distribution, Pierre Bayle was a man in dialogue with his peers and his times, constantly challenging the consensus and engaging with the opinions of others in his own analysis of the quest for philosophical and historical certainty. Marked by his early experiences of religious intolerance (a recurrent theme in his work) as a Protestant living in predominantly Catholic seventeenth century France, Bayle settled in tolerant Rotterdam where he dedicated himself to a life of creative ferment and intellectual rigour.

Bayle_Dictionnaire_title_page

Dissatisfied with the conclusions of Descartes in his Discours de la méthode (1637), and closer to Gassendi in his critique of Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques (1641), Bayle proposed a radical scepticism towards the ability of human reason to reach true knowledge about the universe, and firmly pinpointed the antagonism of reason and religious faith and the dangers of religious fanaticism. He is perhaps best-known for his monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) – a hybrid and polymathic bestseller. With articles on every conceivable topic, it appears as a forerunner of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and had a considerable influence outside France, reaching Leibniz, Hume and Kant.

As seen in the recently published volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, edited by Antony McKenna et al, the complexity, ambiguity, and plurality of Bayle’s work still make him a fascinating subject of study today.

Volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle dates from the period January 1699-December 1702: a time of effervescence for Bayle, who was preparing the second edition of his extremely successful Dictionnaire at a feverish pace, while fielding commentaries and criticisms from readers of the first edition. His circle of correspondents was expanding apace. At a time when numerous projects – Early Modern Letters Online, Mapping the Republic of Letters, and Electronic Enlightenment – are using modern technology and graphics to find new ways of recreating the Republic of Letters, this volume of correspondence has a vital place in our understanding of the period.

Pierre Bayle is a model for our age of networking. From the dense web of articles in his Dictionnaire to his border-transcending Nouvelles and correspondence, his networks illuminate the intellectual exchanges firing the bold new thought which sparked the Enlightenment. Perhaps, as indicated in the very first Voltaire Foundation blogpost, The Online Republic of Letters, Bayle’s legacy lives on in this blog!

Rotterdam.

Rotterdam, where Bayle spent the last 25 years of his life.

– Madeleine Chalmers

Bibliography

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, Volume XII, edited by †Elisabeth Labrousse, Antony McKenna, Wiep van Bunge, Edward James, Bruno Roche, Fabienne Vial-Bonacci, ISBN 978-0-7294-1028-1, March 2015

Le Rayonnement de Bayle, ed. Philippe de Robert, Claudine Pailhès and Hubert Bost, SVEC 2010:06, ISBN 978-0-7294-0995-7

Click here for a list of books and articles published by the Voltaire Foundation on Pierre Bayle or his work.