Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

 

Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

Sir Isaiah Berlin, as he eventually became, was the leading British intellectual historian of his time. He was born in 1909 in Riga, on the western edge of the Russian Empire. To avoid the Revolution, his family moved to Britain, where the young Berlin pursued a brilliant academic career in philosophy, becoming a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford in 1932. His many later achievements included the founding of Wolfson College, also in Oxford. As a public intellectual, he was famous as a spell-binding lecturer, much in demand for talks and broadcasts.

Feeling somewhat constrained by Oxford philosophy, Berlin turned increasingly to the history of ideas. No such subject was recognized in mid-twentieth-century Britain, though it was represented in the United States by Arthur O. Lovejoy, author (among much else) of The Great Chain of Being (1933). By the time of Berlin’s death in 1998, the ‘Cambridge school’ of intellectual history, based less on discrete concepts than on the historical study of languages and vocabularies, was well established, thanks to Quentin Skinner and John Pocock. But for some decades Berlin had the field virtually to himself.

Though Berlin’s interests were many and various, he is associated especially with the Enlightenment. And here some oddities occur, which Laurence Brockliss and I sought to explore in a conference held at Wolfson in 2014 and in the resulting book, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (2016).

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Berlin came to the Enlightenment via Karl Marx. In 1933 he was commissioned to write a small book on Marx for a general audience. It appeared in 1939 as Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. Berlin read not only Marx’s voluminous writings but also the authors who had influenced him, including the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. In exploring their work, Berlin, who knew Russian perfectly, was guided by the work of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov’s writings directed him to the radical materialists Helvétius and d’Holbach. They were convinced that human beings came into the world with minds like blank slates (as Locke had argued), owed all their knowledge to external sensations and influences, and could therefore be shaped through education and guided towards perfection.

In all Berlin’s subsequent references to the Enlightenment, this utopian doctrine reappears. The Enlightenment stands for the hope of reshaping the world through rational education and leading humanity towards a perfect society. Naturally Berlin regarded such hopes with scepticism. While respecting the humane intentions of the philosophes, he thought that their programme would involve unacceptable coercion and would risk ironing out the rich diversity of human life into boring uniformity. Above all, it was sure to founder on what Kant, in a phrase Berlin loved to quote, called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. Human beings were too quirky, too awkward, too cussed to fit into any utopian scheme – and that was fortunate, considering how the utopian hopes invested in the Soviet Union had turned out.

Berlin’s opposition to utopian schemes made him one of the great liberal intellectuals who were much needed during the Cold War period. He has an American counterpart in the New York critic Lionel Trilling, whose novel The Middle of the Journey (1948) culminates in a fine statement of liberal values.

But was Berlin fair to the Enlightenment? He foregrounds thinkers who now seem minor and relatively uninteresting. He never gives extended discussion to the far more complex, more sceptical, and more talented writers Voltaire and Diderot. More curiously still, when the New American Library commissioned him in the 1950s to compile an anthology of philosophical texts, The Age of Enlightenment (1956; re-issued in 1979 by Oxford University Press), most space is given to British writers – Locke, Hume, and Berkeley; of the French, only Voltaire features, and that briefly; and we find a very incongruous writer, Johann Georg Hamann.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Hamann (1730-1788), a fellow-townsman and acquaintance of Kant and other Enlightenment luminaries, was a devout if unorthodox Christian who wrote in a perplexingly opaque style. He dwells on the inadequacy of reason, the limitations of language, the need for a constant dialogue with God who himself speaks in riddles. He represents the antithesis to the utopian optimism that Berlin ascribed to the Enlightenment. Hamann became a central figure in what Berlin called ‘the Counter-Enlightenment’. This term referred to the late-eighteenth-century reaction against Enlightenment universalism in favour of the unique particular. It rejected reason in favour of emotion, ‘progress’ in favour of pessimism; instead of affirming humanity’s basic goodness, it warned darkly of original sin.

Berlin did not share these beliefs. But, by his own account, he found the Counter-Enlightenment a salutary reminder of the insufficiency of Enlightenment values. One of Berlin’s favourite ideas was that humanity had to choose or compromise between incompatible goods. Enlightenment, reason, and liberty were excellent; but to embrace them you had to relinquish other values which were also good.

Neither Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, nor that of the Counter-Enlightenment, would be generally accepted now. But the tension he found between them illustrates an undeniable moral dilemma in human life. And his expression of this dilemma may well be found memorable and challenging, long after his conception of intellectual history has retreated into the past.

– Ritchie Robertson

Animals and humans in the long eighteenth century: an intricate relationship

How does a scholarly book get started? In the majority of cases it is bound with the author or editor’s passion and deep-rooted (and often inexplicable) connection with his or her subject matter. For me, Animals and humans: sensibility and representation, 1650-1820 began nearly ten years ago, when I read Kathryn Shevelow’s eminently readable book For the love of animals, about the growth of the animal welfare movement in the eighteenth century. Our relationship with animals never ceases to fascinate, as we see from the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Making nature: how we see animals’, and animal studies has recently flourished in the academic mainstream. Like Shevelow’s book, it crosses the boundaries between specialised academic study and deeply felt human experience.

My own beginning with this subject, though, occurred almost in infancy. An innate attraction to animals, these others with whom we co-exist on this planet, is shared by almost all small children and all human cultures in one way or another, and is represented throughout human history. And as we see in very small children, in this oldest relationship of the human species we still find a deep connection and resonance. In bringing together and editing this book, it was wonderfully liberating to be able to combine a lifelong passionate interest in animals with my own professional field of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies.

Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782)

Thomas Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782), oil on canvas; Castle Howard Collection. © Castle Howard; reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family.

1650-1820 – the timeframe we cover in our study – is the period associated both with the growth of experimental science and the horrors of vivisection, and with the rise of modern humanitarianism. While the defence of animal rights itself goes back to classical times, in the eighteenth century it was directly linked to a growing awareness of universal human rights and a new definition of humanity based on the ability to feel rather than in the primacy of reason. Together with the abolitionist and feminist movements of the later eighteenth century, animal welfare came to resemble its modern self, with legislation first enacted in 1820.

Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman

Peter Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman (1791 [1787]), stipple engraving; Sudbury, Gainsborough House. © Gainsborough House.

But in this book we aim to explore more deeply the human relationship with animals in the long eighteenth century, in many different forms of expression. As shown by the different essays in this volume, this ancient relationship challenges not only the arbitrary divisions of Western cultural history (classicism and romanticism, for example), and not only disciplinary boundaries between poetry and science, art and animal husbandry, fiction and natural history, but also the basic assumptions of human self-perception, in which we do not see animals as objects of our ‘objective’ study, but rather as beings with whom we share a space and who demand a mutual response. A major thread of this book, then, is the re-evaluation of sentiment and sensibility, terms that in the eighteenth century referred to the primacy of emotion, and which were not solely the prerogative of humans. Through the lens of eighteenth-century European culture, contributors to this volume show how the animal presence, whether real or imagined, forces a different reading not only of texts but also of society: how humans are changed, and how we the readers are changed, in our encounters with the non-human other, in history, art, literature, natural science and economics. More deeply, we are reminded of the power and antiquity of this relationship.

– Katherine M. Quinsey

OSE Digitisation for archiving… then sale?

The Vf is in the midst of a big project to digitise all 550+ books from the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series into ORA (Oxford University Research Archive), the University’s own archive of scholarly publications – Oxford’s dark archive.

We are heavily indebted to four students who have hugely helped by working over the last two years. Here, Andi and Elizabeth give us their views, which show how much publishing has evolved since the beginning of the series and the benefits that the metadata capture and printing-on-demand (a.k.a. PODing) will bring to the users and buyers of Studies volumes.

Print-on-demand creationAndi Glover

I worked as a digitisation assistant for the Voltaire Foundation for four months, administering the creation of print-on-demand (POD) editions of volumes in the SVEC series (Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century), now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

SVEC, established by Theodore Besterman in 1955, is a series of scholarly monographs in French and English on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European history, culture and ideas. The volumes I worked on, published between 1964 and 1979, covered subjects as diverse as Molière’s critical reception in his time (vol.112), and a study of the influence of Hobbes and Locke on the concept of sovereignty in French philosophy (vol.101). Many of these volumes were written by authors still collaborating with the Vf today, such as a study on the account of Rousseau given in Madame de Graffigny’s letters (vol.175) by English Showalter, now the editor of her complete correspondence.

As a student of librarianship, I was aware of Besterman’s contribution to bibliography as the author of The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography (1935), Counsellor of the World Bibliographical and Library centre, and editor of the World Bibliography of Bibliographies. Several SVEC volumes bear witness to his application of these skills to Voltaire studies, such as Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (vol.111), which builds on earlier bibliographies of Voltaire with editions that Besterman located through his research.

To digitise and create POD editions of these volumes, I first prepared draft preliminary pages and covers, and sent them to typesetters with whom I then liaised to finalise the PDF files they created. I also approached some of the original authors to request overview text for the covers of their volumes; their good wishes and enthusiasm for the project were encouraging. Where we could not contact authors, I enjoyed choosing extracts from the books themselves that I felt would inform and engage a scholarly reader.

Next, I uploaded my proofs to the printer, Ingram’s Lightning Source website, and input key metadata about the volumes, such as number of pages and year of publication. Finally, I posted the hard copy volumes, provided by the Taylor Institution, to Ingram for scanning, and checked the resulting digital and hard copy proofs. The first hard copy proof arrived in early August; two months and many cups of coffee later, I had sent 60 volumes to be scanned and digitised.

Working simultaneously on several volumes, each at a different stage in the process, was challenging. I was well supported throughout as well as being free to make decisions independently about formatting, and organising my own workload, and as a result I have become more confident about managing responsibility!

Andi Glover is a Library and Information Studies MA student at University College London. Tweet @librarimand, or e-mail.

Malheur aux détails, la postérité les néglige tous… (*) except when needed for e-books! – Elizabeth Duncan

I worked at the Voltaire Foundation a couple of weeks after finishing the final exams for my BA degree in Classics and French, looking to gain some practical experience in publishing.

Over the summer I worked on capturing metadata for the digitisation of the extensive back catalogue of books in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (formerly Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century).

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment holds a wealth of interesting and erudite work on the Enlightenment which deserves to be made more readily accessible and widely available, and digitisation, or electronic publishing, offers a way to achieve this aim.

Drawing of Château at Ferney

Drawing of Château at Ferney on website of Vanderbilt Library – relating to Voltaire’s British visitors

Begun in 1955, with over five hundred books to its name, the series encompasses scholarship ranging from highly specialised work on Voltaire, such as Sir Gavin de Beer and André-Michel Rousseau’s detailed catalogue of Voltaire’s British visitors, for which I wrote a description for the website, to broader studies shedding light on neglected areas, such as Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’ (November 2015) for which I checked the first proofs.

My work largely consisted of cross-checking the details held about each book, from its ISBN to its pagination, and keying the short descriptions and tables of contents, in order to capture all the information (or metadata) necessary to find the electronic books when digitised and online. In the cases of earlier books, ones from the 1950s and 1960s when no-one ever dreamt that a book could become, or should become, an intangible piece of electronic data, finding and collating these details was sometimes a challenge! This initial project was an essential step in a longer process, and it is exciting to think of these older books, which still have valuable things to say about the Enlightenment, being made available once again to a new audience through a medium invented many years after they were written.

The other advantage of working in a small team like the Voltaire Foundation is that I had the opportunity to see other aspects of publishing by doing other odd jobs – I have definitely had my practical experience!

As a keen student of French literature who had very much enjoyed the eighteenth-century literature I covered at Oxford, I also really appreciated the chance to broaden my acquaintance with the subject by seeing the diversity of topics on which scholars work and publish, especially the opportunities to dip into the proofs of books not even published yet to see where the very newest thought on the Enlightenment is going.

(*) Title reference: Letter from Voltaire to the abbé Dubos, Best.D1569

Falconet: a sculptor’s quest for influence

Portrait of Falconet

Portrait of Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) (Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Younger, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Etienne Maurice Falconet came out of nowhere. We have no record of the years he is reported to have spent as an apprentice in a master’s shop. Although Parisian by birth, he did not belong to any of the established artistic dynasties. At eighteen, he is said to have worked at a chair-maker’s shop, heralding the type of artisanal livelihood that so many now unknown sculptors embraced in the burgeoning luxury trade of early eighteenth-century Paris. But soon enough he managed to ease his way out of chair-making and into the fortunate selection of young sculptors to compete for and achieve membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. What happened next, Falconet’s reinvention of himself as a modern philosophe, can be considered a singular achievement by any standards.

Contemporary apocrypha of course reinforce the idea of the hypnotic charm exuded by his works, and leave the man out of the picture. Chance discoveries in the gardens of Versailles and furtive work in the studio of his master Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne are all part of the legend: Lemoyne is reported to have barged in on Falconet during waged hours, catching him red-handed modelling an independent work, his Milo of Croton. Lemoyne then cheered him on. ‘The young Falconet offered himself to Lemoyne as servant, valet, anything he liked’, is how Denis Diderot, one of his closest friends and allies, recalls a decisive encounter between the two. Falconet’s mode of introduction to Lemoyne was a selling point, and it would have involved intricacies of parentage, speech, demeanour and manner.

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l'Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l’Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

The remainder of Falconet’s life story, now less apocryphal, shows that the man was unusually adept at winning over the well-connected and powerful. No other artist of his time seemed better able to tap into the wishes and convictions of his beneficiaries or contemporaries: to his Parisian masters, he was a renegade with an admiration for the Provençal sculptor Pierre Puget, while at the Académie royale, he was a social riser, author of a lecture on the art of sculpture written with a clarity and forcefulness worthy of a literate amateur member. He was a sumptuously decorative artist to Madame de Pompadour, who appointed him to the post of modeller for the recently created Sèvres National Porcelain Manufactory. He was the Boucher of sculpture to fashionable Parisian art collectors, and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of sculpture to Diderot, his friend at the radical Salon d’Holbach. A bibliophile who, by the early 1760s, had accumulated a stunning facility with classical literature, Falconet culled from the stoics a persona of utter restraint, with living and dressing habits to match.

This was all before 1766, when, aged fifty, he emigrated to St Petersburg where he played a French homme d’esprit and confidant to Catherine II of Russia, who commissioned him with what would be his magnum opus as a sculptor: the landmark equestrian statue of Peter I in St Petersburg, known in street parlance as the ‘Bronze horseman’. Was this all really because his sculptures were so well done? As Diderot quipped in his Jacques le fataliste, we may believe it to be true, or decide it is a falsehood, and we would not be wrong in either case.

Inauguration of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great

Inauguration of the Monument to Peter the Great, A. K. Melnikov, A. P. Davydov, 1782

1 December 2016 marked three centuries since the birth of this remarkable actor of the Enlightenment stage. Art history, the discipline that through the twentieth century rediscovered him as a proto-romantic rebel, seems of late to have ignored his sculpture. He was not one to sympathize with those men of letters who reviewed works at the Salons where he exhibited his marble sculptures, even though these men were inventing modern art criticism. Conversely, their parliamentary reformism did not inform his manicured, seductive sculpture by any perceivable or logical rationale. Perhaps one day more will come of comparing his work to Diderot’s materialism and complex rethinking of the links between artistic activity and moral realities, illusion and artifice in art.

For now, the way one understands the socio-cultural and aesthetic modernity breaking through in eighteenth-century France is more Chardin or David than Falconet. By contrast, Falconet’s writings, which were recuperated from oblivion by Yves Benot and Anne Betty Weinshenker (Falconet: his writings and his friend Diderot, published in 1966), continue to represent a challenge, almost a missing link to fledging Enlightenment cultural battles. But theory too seems to have represented for Falconet a means of bending and refashioning his circumstances for the better. After starting on his Russian mission in 1766, Falconet practically gave up sculpture in order to devote himself to his written polemics. This new obsession led to his falling out with Diderot, who was wary of Falconet’s plans to publish a series of letters they had exchanged since 1765.

macsotay-bookcover

After this, Falconet set out to extract from the letters a body of critical commentary that, in 1781, became published simply as a collection of polemical pieces. Only in these pieces does Falconet deploy a more strident persona: an iconoclast that attacks false privilege and the condescension of literary luminaries writing inanely on art. It is left to the discerning connoisseur and the critical art historian to quarrel over how to credit Falconet’s successes. Was it a result of his sheer vocation for modelling and carving marble figures, or should we also see other factors at work? Power-grabbing is one thing to consider, as Jacques-Louis David made clear in his commentary on a heated argument from 1793 on power abuses at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In David’s report, he recalled how a young former student of Falconet committed suicide after a falling-out with the sculptor. Whatever this may say to us, Falconet had a tenacious way of making sure he stayed on the winning side.

For a deeper analysis of the sculptor’s life at the famous Académie, see my book The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

– Tomas Macsotay

Voltaire and the Jacobites

Battle of Culloden

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general.  He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV.  In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts.  He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758.  He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’).  Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.

Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic.  His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester.  Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722.  The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination.  Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade.  The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.

Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator.  In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire.  Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England.  Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.

Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.

Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728.  Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics.  Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’.  For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration.  Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections.  Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722.  These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government.  Although he was able to publish La Henriade by subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England.  Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.

After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer.  In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke.  Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines.  Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars.  Voltaire idolized de Thou.  Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’.  Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.

Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime.  Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury.  He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country.  Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen.  In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.

– Paul Monod, Middlebury College

 

Voltaire and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.