The history of the book that never was: Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). (Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia commons)

‘Je doute qu’il y ait à présent un homme dans l’Europe aussi bien au fait que moi de l’histoire de la dernière guerre’, wrote Voltaire in June 1752 about what he describes a few lines later as the ‘plus difficile de mes ouvrages’ (D4907, to the duc de Richelieu). The work was never published by him, however, so what went wrong? Voltaire sometimes delayed publication of his work until the time was ripe, or after a water-testing first draft that found the water chilly, but he rarely abandoned an entire book-length work. Yet this was the sad fate of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 (War of the Austrian Succession), now entering Voltaire’s complete works for the first time (OCV, vol.29C). Circumstances were against him all along, so that the time, the place and the loved one never did come together.

In 1745 the ‘loved one’ was Louis XV – ‘le bien aimé’. Louis’s personal presence during the Flanders campaigns of 1744 and 1745 showed him at his best, and so he is portrayed by Voltaire, writing as newly appointed historiographe de France in what became the relevant chapters of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. The first thing to go wrong was the time. Had an honourable peace for France been agreed at the end of 1745, as there was every reason to hope once the succession question had been resolved, the time would have been ripe for Voltaire, still living in Versailles, to have put down his pen and published his account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’, of which a manuscript had been sent to the king in 1746.

Stanislas Leszczynski by Jean Girardet

Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766) by Jean Girardet (1709-1778), court painter in Lunéville.

The war dragged on, however, until 1748, by which time Voltaire, disillusioned by life at Versailles, was on a protracted visit to King Stanislas Lesczynski at Lunéville where he still was when Mme Du Châtelet died in 1749. This catastrophe induced Voltaire to accept a long-standing invitation from Frederick II to stay in Potsdam. Here the Guerre de 1741 was eventually completed, but Voltaire never returned to live in Paris or Versailles, the sources of his inspiration and material and the natural springboard for his history.

Voltaire was evidently keen to test the waters in Paris with a revised version of the first part, up to the battle of Fontenoy, but his principal adviser, the comte d’Argental, warned him – ‘sans être obligé d’entrer dans les détails’ – on no account to publish it without approval (see D4843; 19 March 1752).

Although the war was no doubt still a sore subject with the king, d’Argental’s oblique hint shows that Voltaire was already aware of the justified criticisms that he had unduly flattered his friends, in particular by exaggerating the part played at Fontenoy by his friend and hero the duc de Richelieu and consequently downplaying that of the true victor, the maréchal de Saxe. Voltaire had been carried away, one might almost say that he had replaced one loved one with another.

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain (1696-1771). (Bibliothèque nationale, public domain)

Maurice de Saxe by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748). (Public domain)

Voltaire evidently cut his losses. From his base in Potsdam he had another string to his bow – publication of the full manuscript by Conrad Walther in Dresden. The idea had been mentioned in March (see D4841) but in August Voltaire was nervous, telling Walther that he would want a small printing in anticipation of an early second edition, as happened with the Siècle de Louis XIV on which Walther was then engaged (D4994). This unpromising request would explain why the work was not printed by Walther, if indeed the final manuscript was ever sent, but it is hard to account for Voltaire’s unease other than fear of mockery about the flattery of his friends.

So when three years later in 1755 the manuscript of the first part of the Guerre was ‘stolen’ and published under Voltaire’s name with an Amsterdam title-page, had he jumped or was he pushed? His disclaimers were not seriously believed either then or now. More interesting, and curious, is the fact that Voltaire did not proceed to publish his own authorised edition, nor did he take steps to publish the complete text to 1748 as promised to Walther. Once more he bided his time, but for what?

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un, title page of part 1 (Amsterdam [Paris], 1755). (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By late 1755 Voltaire was already in the process of preparing the edition of his complete works of 1756, where he was joining the Siècle de Louis XIV to the end of what became the Essai sur les mœurs […] depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours. What better solution than to tack on as well the early chapters of an abbreviated Guerre de 1741? The decisive nail in the coffin of the Guerre de 1741 may well have been the reversal of alliances in 1755 which transposed Austria, the adversary of 1745, into France’s new ally. At a stroke the Guerre was relegated to the status of a redundant curiosity. Voltaire had missed the boat.

The Collection complète des œuvres de Voltaire of 1756 contains truncated versions of the text up to the battle of Fontenoy. Subsequent editions were augmented by further pared-down chapters until the whole was subsumed into the Précis du siècle de Louis XV in 1768 (OCV, vols. 29A and 29B).

Thus it was that the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 was never published as a complete text in Voltaire’s lifetime. Nineteenth-century editors of his complete works, starting from Beuchot, found the strands of the Guerre and Précis hard to unravel. This is understandable but they undoubtedly missed a trick. (The OCV edition is able to use shading to highlight the passages from the Guerre that are carried forward into the Précis.)

The Guerre de 1741 is fully deserving of its place in Voltaire’s complete works. It is more than a historical narrative; it is a picture of Voltaire at work and revealing of the pains he took. It also shows that for the ci-devant historiographer writing about his own time was not as easy as all that – not easy at all in fact.

Janet Godden

Exploring Voltaire’s letters: between close and distant readings

La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe

‘La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe.’

A stamp produced by the French post office in 1998 celebrates the art of letter-writing by depicting Voltaire writing letters with both hands. It’s true that Voltaire wrote a lot of letters – over 15,000 are known, and more turn up all the time – but even so it’s not altogether clear that an ambidextrous letter-writer is someone we entirely want to trust. Voltaire’s correspondence is full of difficulties and traps, and faced by such a huge corpus, it is hard to know where to start. Without question, the Besterman ‘definitive’ edition (1968-77), digitised in Electronic Enlightenment, has had a major impact on Enlightenment scholarship: historians and literary critics make frequent use of these letters, but usually in an instrumental way, adducing a single passage in a letter as evidence in support of a date or an interpretation.

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020)

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020).

Voltaire’s letters can be notoriously ‘unreliable’, however, and they really need to be read and interpreted – like all his texts – as literary performances. Few critics have attempted to examine the corpus of the correspondence in its entirety and to understand it as a literary whole. In our new book, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings, we have experimented with a range of digital humanities methods, to explore to what extent they might help us identify new interpretative approaches to this extraordinary correspondence. The size of the corpus seems intimidating to the critic, but it is precisely this that makes these texts a perfect test-case for digital experimentation: we can ask questions that we would simply not have been able to ask before.

For example, we looked at the way Voltaire signs off his letters – and were surprised to find that only 13% of the letters are actually signed ‘Voltaire’; while over a third of the letters are signed with a single letter, ‘V’. Then Voltaire is hugely inventive in the way he plays with the rules of epistolary rhetoric, posing as a marmot to the duc de Choiseul. And if you want to know why in a letter (D18683) to D’Alembert he signs off ‘Miaou’, the answer is to be found in a fable by La Fontaine…

We studied Voltaire as a neologist. Critics have usually described Voltaire as an arch-classicist adhering rigorously to the norms of seventeenth-century French classicism. True, yet at the same time he is hugely energetic in coining new words, an aspect of his literary style that has been insufficiently studied. Here, corpus analysis tools, coupled with available lexicographical digital resources, allow us to consider Voltaire’s aesthetic of lexical innovation. In so doing, we can test the hypothesis that Voltaire uses the correspondence as a laboratory in which he can experiment with new formulations, ideas, and words – some of which then pass into his other works. We identified 30 words first coined by Voltaire in his letters, and another 36 words first used in his other works, many of which are then reused in the correspondence. Emmanuel Macron has encouraged the description of himself as a ‘président jupitérien’, so it’s good to discover that ‘jupitérien’ is one of the words first coined by Voltaire.

Voltaire letter

A letter in Voltaire’s hand, sent from the city of Colmar to François Louis Defresnay (D5612, dated 1753/1754).

A reader of Voltaire’s letters cannot fail to be struck by the frequency of his literary quotations. We explore this phenomenon through the use of sequence alignment algorithms – similar to those used in bioinformatics to sequence genetic data – to identify similar or shared passages. Using the ARTFL-Frantext database of French literature as a comparison dataset, we attempt a detailed quantification and description of French literary quotations contained in Voltaire’s correspondence. These citations, taken together, give us a more comprehensive understanding of Voltaire’s literary culture, and provide invaluable insights into his rhetoric of intertextuality. No surprise that he quotes most often the authors of ‘le siècle de Louis XIV’, though it was a surprise to find that Les Plaideurs is the Racine play most frequently cited. And who expected to find two quotations from poems by Fontenelle (neither of them identified in the Besterman edition)?! Quotations in Latin also abound in Voltaire’s letters, many of these drawn, predictably enough, from the famous poets he would have memorised at school, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid – but we also identified quotations, hitherto unidentified, from lesser poets, such as a passage from Manilius’ Astronomica. By examining as a group the correspondents who receive Latin quotations, and assigning to them social and intellectual categories established by colleagues working at Stanford, we were able to establish clear networks of Latin usage throughout the correspondence, and confirm a hunch about the gendered aspect of quotation in Latin: Voltaire uses Latin only to his élite correspondents, and even then, with notably rare exceptions such as Emilie Du Châtelet, only to men.

The woman on the left, a trainee pilot in the Brazilian air force, is an unwitting beneficiary of Voltaire’s bravura use of Latin quotation. The motto of the Air Force Academy is a stirring (if slightly macho) Latin quotation: ‘Macte animo, generose puer, sic itur ad astra’ (Congratulations, noble boy, this is the way to the stars). The quotation is one that Voltaire uses repeatedly in some dozen letters, and it is found later, for example in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. On closer investigation it turns out that this piece of Latin is an amalgam of quotations from Virgil and Statius – in effect, a piece of pure Voltairean invention.

In the end, Voltaire’s correspondence is undoubtedly one of his greatest literary masterpieces – but it is arguably one that only becomes fully legible through the use of digital resources and methods. Our intention with this book was to affirm the simple postulate that digital collections – whether comprised of letters, literary works, or historical documents – can, and should, enable multiple reading strategies and interpretative points of entry; both close and distant readings. As such, digital resources should continue to offer inroads to traditional critical practices while at the same time opening up new, unexplored avenues that take full advantage of the affordances of the digital. Not only can digital humanities methods help us ask traditional literary-critical questions in new ways – benefitting from economies of both scale and speed – but, as we show in the book, they can also generate new research questions from historical content; providing interpretive frameworks that would have been impossible in a pre-digital world.

The size and complexity of Voltaire’s correspondence make it an almost ideal corpus for testing the two dominant modes of (digital) literary analysis: on the one hand, ‘distant’ approaches to the corpus as a whole and its relationship to a larger literary culture; on the other, fine-grained analyses of individual letters and passages that serve to contextualise the particular in terms of the general, and vice versa. The core question at the heart of the book is thus one that remains largely untreated in the wider world: how can we use digital ‘reading’ methods – both close and distant – to explore and better understand a literary object as complex and multifaceted as Voltaire’s correspondence?

– Nicholas Cronk & Glenn Roe, Co-directors of the Voltaire Lab at the VF

Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings will be published in print and online at the end of October. The online version is available free of charge for two weeks to personal and institutional subscribers.

The forces of reproduction. Meta/physics and insect sex in eighteenth-century entomology

In the early modern era, popular opinion on insect reproduction was largely based on the Aristotelian concept of ‘spontaneous generation’. Yet, in the seventeenth century, natural historians began to challenge this longstanding concept, which held that insects came into being out of mud, manure and other decaying matter. This theory was eventually discarded fully in the eighteenth century when a growing number of naturalists argued that copulation and functioning reproductive organs were indeed necessary for the creation of new insect life.

Insecto-theologia title page

Insecto-theologia (1738), title page.

Through microscopic observation and ‘experimental’ methods, scholars studied insect behaviour and reproductive cycles, and thereby altered understandings of sexual activity beyond the insect world. As many users of these techniques discovered reproductive organs and observed female and male insects actually engaging ‘in the act’, ‘spontaneous generation’ slowly vanished as an explanation for how ‘creepy crawlies’ came into the world. The recent work of Mary Terrall, Matthew Cobb, Erik Jorink, Brian Ogilvie, Marc Ratcliff and Thomas Ruhland among others has shown how the discussion on spontaneous generation is part and parcel of a more general history of observation in the emergent sciences.

Title page of the French edition

Title page of the French edition (1752).

Not surprisingly for scholars of the early modern world, theologians were an important group of actors in these processes (see Blair and von Greyerz). As is widely acknowledged, insects played an important role in physico-theology – or natural theology – and other religious texts around 1700. This has been studied comprehensively in the German context most recently by Anne-Charlott Trepp and Brian Ogilvie (both in Blair and von Greyerz, above). One central text in both authors’ work is Friedrich Christian Lesser’s Insecto-theologia from 1738. The text received widespread attention in the German-speaking lands, prompting a second edition in 1742. In the same year a French edition appeared with remarks by Pierre Lyonnet. This was then translated into Italian in 1751. Building on Trepp’s and Ogilvie’s œuvre, I will add a further perspective on natural theology, insects and science in the Enlightenment by focusing on how mating practices were described and reproductive organs depicted. The additional analysis of notions of force/power (Kraft) within these texts will further explain how the physical (in all senses of the word) was so important for the metaphysics of Enlightenment natural theology.

Lesser based his book to a great extent on Dutch scholars, like Jan Swammerdam, and used Baconian ‘new science’ for his argument for design – to use a slightly anachronistic term. As Anne-Charlott Trepp has shown, physico-theology replaced some of the dominant eschatological arguments of the seventeenth century with a new concern to prove God’s omnipotence and benevolence by looking at natural objects and finding order in nature. Jorink asserts that Swammerdam ‘was primarily guided by a prioris of a philosophical and theological kind’. One of these was that everything in nature, including the generation of insects, obeys God’s laws.

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece.

As with many of his fellow theologians in the eighteenth century, the study of the natural world became central to Lesser’s everyday life. The frontispiece clearly shows a naturalist at work in the familiar setting of the home.

It also already contains the important ‘maxima in minimis’ argument. He was of course certain that God’s power can be seen in the smallest worms as in the largest elephants. However, Lesser was convinced that this notion had not yet been sufficiently recognised among his fellow scholars in the republic of letters. Here he referred to the contemporary emphasis on physical experimentation in the creation of new knowledge, but made an interesting point regarding the social life of knowledge. According to him the above-mentioned attention deficit was not so contemptible in ‘people with untrained senses’ (‘Leute von ungeübten Sinnen’) but certainly scholars should not shy away from learned attention to the minuscule.

Friedrich Christian Lesser

Engraving of Friedrich Christian Lesser with an inscription by Johann Eustachius Goldhagen. (National Library of Denmark)

Lesser explicitly spoke of the creator’s ‘artistry’ in generating insects, such that even the smallest worm is made with such unattainable art that even the finest artist could not imitate it (Lesser, p.2), thereby echoing his Dutch predecessors and explicitly referring to William Derham in the corresponding footnote. Not surprisingly for a German author, the erudition is in the footnotes. He of course acknowledged previous work in his footnotes, and indeed most of the pages of the introduction are bibliographical references. Lesser’s description of Swammerdam’s scholarly practices are of special importance here because Lesser saw these as instrumental in the processes of knowledge formation. He went out himself to catch insects, collecting and nourishing them carefully. He constantly observed them, investigated their anatomy and had all their parts illustrated by an artist (p.27).

As in other realms of natural history, book learning and practical experience went hand in hand. Interestingly Lesser also specifically mentioned instruments and collections as the main tools of research in his introduction to Insecto-theologia. All these aspects are of course no surprise to historians of early modern science, but why did Lesser focus on generation to connect religion and natural history?

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee. (Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International, CC BY 4.0)

Lesser took his inspiration from scripture and literally the beginning of the creation myth. Referring to Genesis, Lesser claimed: ‘The almighty being that created insects through his almighty word, has given them the power through ordinary procreation to multiply and reproduce the species’ (p.37). In the following paragraph, he also recounted the ‘generationem aequivocam’ theory but refuted it clearly by confirming that the notion of insects generating from decaying matter was only formed because the ancient philosophers had not observed nature with enough attention to detail and so had not realised that insects did lay small eggs in such things as manure, flesh, etc. Modern philosophers (‘Neue Welt-Weise’) however had observed things with sharper eyes. He then described his predecessors’ observations in great detail, starting with Francesco Redi who conducted experiments in the 1660s. Revisiting Redi’s work, Emily C. Parke has recently shown that seventeenth-century ‘spontaneous generation’ was ‘not a single theory but rather a landscape of possible views’. This is also clearly visible in Lesser’s text. Accordingly, it exhibits the range of arguments and refutations in a variety of ways. Next to observation was reason of course spiced with long-standing conventions like the important ‘chain of being’ assumption. For Lesser it would be ‘against all reason’ if plants, which are on a lower scale than animals, could bring forth insects.

Clearly, not only observation but also tradition, especially classical authors and scripture itself, was proof that the sexual act was indeed necessary. Returning to Genesis, Lesser maintained that God had given every living organism the power (Kraft) to procreate and this was true for insects too: ‘that this almighty word was extended to the insects’ procreation through insemination, as in all other animals’ (Lesser, p.41). The power/force (Kraft) metaphor recurs persistently in Lesser’s work and certainly has some connection to the important concept of force in Newtonian physics, connecting early modern natural history to natural philosophy or physics.

Combining this with observation again, Lesser stressed that one can see the ‘proper body-parts for siring and giving birth’ in insects as well as the eggs from which they spring. He described the basics of animal mating in a distinct chapter on proliferation and started this with a definition on how procreation works. Lesser clearly favoured the sperm over the egg. He also compared insects to human beings and other animals and described the two practices of mating he knew about: either insects mated belly to belly or from behind. But as the observation of insect copulation was one of the main problems in eighteenth-century entomology, as Mary Terrall has recently shown, it is not surprising that Lesser did speak at lengths about eggs when writing about what was actually observed: the generation of insects from ova.

He provides lots of details, and describes male and female organs thus: ‘The male member can be found mostly at the rump but sometimes also on the abdomen. They also have their rod and testicles. The size of those vary according to the size of the insects themselves. The vulva on the female insect is rough in order to prevent chafing of this tender element during intercourse. Ordinarily it is placed at the rump but sometimes also at the upper parts of the abdomen’ (p.268-69). Lesser’s detailed description of genitalia is astounding not only because of the religious nature of his text, but also because 65 years later one of the most important entomologists of the later eighteenth century rejected any attention to genitalia in natural history. In 1803 Johann Christian Fabricius – often called the Linnaeus of insects – wrote an important article in one of the earliest specialised entomology journals (‘Vertheidigung des fabricischen Systems’, Magazin für Insektenkunde 2 (1803), p.1-13).

Addressing his critics, he explained why his taxonomic system that was based on the mouthparts of insects was the best despite its flaws. First, genitalia are often too small to observe properly and second, echoing Linnaeus, he argued that inquiry into genitals was abominable and displeasing (‘Genitalium disquisitio abominabilis displicet’, Fabricius, p.5). This may come as a surprise to historians of eighteenth-century botany who are fully aware that Linnaeus based his plant taxonomy on the reproductive organs of plants. It is very difficult to ascertain why both Linnaeus and Fabricius made this statement, but one explanation might be a differentiation between flora and fauna where the morphology of the former was different enough from human reproductive organs. And although anthropomorphism was popular in botany and Linnaeus’s sexual system was severely criticised precisely for its attention to reproduction, non-human animals seem to have been more closely connected to a discussion of human sexuality.

Again, insects are used for understanding human behaviour. Apparently Linnaeus’s ‘nosce te ipsum’ had put humans firmly in the animal kingdom. Of course this was further developed in the nineteenth century. We know that the Victorians were obsessed with sex – as was the Enlightenment. In 1820 Johannes Jacob Hegetschweiler could publish a dissertation in Zurich that was concerned with insect genitalia (‘Dissertatio inauguralis zootomica de insectorum genitalibus’). Hence Fabricius’s dictum about genitals being abominable did not hold for long. Genitals are indeed one of the important characteristics of differentiating between insect species today.

Dominik Hünniger, Universität Hamburg

Dominik is author of the chapter ‘Inveterate travellers and travelling invertebrates’, in the edited volume Interspecies Interactions: Animals and Humans between the Middle Ages and Modernity’, ed. Sarah Cockram and Andrew Wells (Routledge, 2017).

Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

“Combining profound linguistic sophistication with enviable literary style, Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman, two of today’s most esteemed scholars of Russian literature, have produced the definitive translation of Radishchev’s classic revolutionary cri de cœur.” – Douglas Smith, author of Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs

‘Each person is born into this world the equal of any other.’

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790).

This line opens a speech in the court trial of a family of serfs who killed their master in self-defence. This line and other statements about inequality, human rights, and social justice, are of crucial importance in Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790). These ideas make this travelogue both a work ahead of its time in Russia, published seventy years before the Great Reforms of the 1860s, and a work that is completely contemporary to its time because the ideals expressed by Radishchev’s narrators are consistent with progressive movements of the 1790s. An experienced civil servant, Radishchev could have written out his positions on agrarian reform and serfdom in a treatise or a formal report. Instead he chose to cast his radical critique in the form of a journey. He published this work on a hand-press with dire personal consequences, facing first arrest and then exile. What may have been explosive then – and what is most relevant now – was not Radishchev’s policies on serfdom (he offered none in this work) but rather the arguments for human rights he espouses.

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC)

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC).

The eighteenth century was a great age of journeys, real and fictional. Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed. While the Enlightenment generally promoted moral universals, it also relativized social practices, and by experiencing reality first-hand, travellers commented anthropologically on variations of ways of life near and far; dietary practices, marriage arrangements, sexual taboos, and human rights were thrown in the spotlight, indications of local customs that showed differences and consistencies in the application of universal human tendencies. The pioneering work in travel as comparative social science was Montesquieu’s Persian letters (Lettres persanes, 1721), and many later journeys dressed up philosophical enquiry as adventure. The Supplement to the Journey of Bougainville (Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, 1796), a masterpiece by Denis Diderot, considers the state of nature in which eighteenth-century Tahitians lived as a society. Polygamous family structures were naturally communist in property sharing, while colonization by outsiders wrought disease and poverty on the native population. Captain James Cook may have been a hero as an explorer, but from another standpoint his settlers had brought destruction. Similar in its use of travel as a vehicle for social critique was Guillaume Thomas Raynal’s A Philosophical and political history of the Two Indies (Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, 1770). A tale of travels full of tirades against colonial exploitation, unfair trade practices, and slave rebellions in the East Indies, South America, and elsewhere, the book was banned in France in 1779 and burned by France’s public executioner. Raynal escaped arrest by going first to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia and then to St Petersburg where Catherine the Great offered him a warm reception. Raynal’s book was one that Radishchev had in his library and from which he quoted.

Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed

Alexander Radishchev

Alexander Radishchev (unknown painter).

In his travelogue Radishchev followed the example of other distinguished European writers in representing the societal ills and governance issues besetting his country; he uses a mixed form that combines novelistic stories, treatise-like speeches, and allegories in a way that is both specific and universal, realistic and abstract, targeting troubles that existed in one place but could happen in any society. This is the tradition in which Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg should be read. His journey follows a real postal route, with grumpy stationmasters and insufficient postal horses lending verisimilitude. His hero offers an outsider’s perspective on local practices and, like Diderot’s naturalist in Tahiti, he is particularly fascinated by the treatment of women, arranged marriages, sexual exploitation, and the ravages of venereal disease. And in the manner of Laurence Sterne (as well as of Nikolai Karamzin, whose work Radishchev may have read), Radishchev’s hero is brimming with virtue and tears. A readiness to weep may look quaint now, but in eighteenth-century literary symbolism, weeping was proof of a human capacity for empathy. Empathy, for the most important social theorists of the period such as Lord Kames and Adam Smith, is the bedrock of natural justice that societies must try to encode in law if they are to prevent discord and rebellion fomented by colonial and internal exploitation.

Yet what was Radishchev’s motivation to write this work? Russia had undergone multiple reforms during Catherine the Great’s long reign. In 1790, however, Catherine was seen, rightly or wrongly, as aged and more vulnerable to court factions and intrigues. Furthermore, there had been no progress on the question of serfdom just as the French Revolution inspired popular movements on a massive scale across Europe and the globe. Under some individual landholders, the plight of the serfs had improved. But for the vast majority of serfs (and we are talking about more than 90 per cent of the Russian Empire’s population), economic hardship was constant and unalleviated, exacerbated by other societal woes such as forced conscription and sexual exploitation – all topics that come up in this work.

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin
(1776-77, Hermitage).

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary. But this is contestable. Instead, the Journey’s radicalism might be better understood again in the context of its time. Unlike Captain Cook or Josiah Banks, for example, Radishchev did not write about scientific or exploratory journeys. (His letters from Siberia, however, show how observant he was about local flora and fauna.) His work places him closer to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Raynal’s Philosophical and political history in taking a human rights-based perspective, and how Russian serfs are presented as equal members of society is one of the most striking positions adopted in the Journey. Peasants’ lives matter not just out of economic efficiency but because of natural justice, an argument made in the speech of a nobleman who justifies acts of violence as self-defence in the aforementioned trial of the two serfs.

In these lines, at a time when questions of economic equality and race are making headlines across the United States and around the world, one can see the relevance of Radishchev’s work to our present moment, especially in translation. The speech below uses a familiar vocabulary, one that reflects the Enlightenment values enshrined in other contemporary documents such as the American Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights:

“Man considered, therefore, outside society is a being dependent on nobody else for his own deeds. But he puts a limit on these, consents not to subordinate himself to his own will alone, and becomes obedient to the commands of other human beings, in a word becomes a citizen. For the sake of what cause does he restrain his desires? For what purpose does he set a power over himself? Unlimited in the exercise of his willpower, why does he limit it through obedience? – For his own sake, – says reason. – For his own sake, – says an inner voice. – For his own sake, – says wise legislation. It follows that where it is not in his interest to be a citizen there is no citizen. It follows, therefore, that whoever wants to deprive him of the advantage of being a citizen is his enemy. He seeks in the law defense and retribution against his enemy. If the law either does not have the power to defend him or does not wish to do so, or lacks the power to help him immediately in his present woe, then the citizen uses his natural right of defense, preservation, welfare. For the citizen, insofar as he has become a citizen, does not cease to be a person whose first duty, stemming from his organism, is preservation, defense, welfare.”

– Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman

The text of this contribution first appeared in the Columbia University Press blog in September 2020.

L’Essai sur les mœurs: une lecture personnelle

L’Essai sur les mœurs est en grande partie un recensement de la souffrance infligée par la cruauté humaine sous toutes ses formes (nous dirions aujourd’hui le sadisme), et de la quête de liberté au moins sous certaines formes. Véritable tour de force de synthèse, atteignant à la perfection du langage, il s’agit d’un ouvrage dérangeant qui fait voir un homme révolté devant l’Histoire telle qu’il la présente. Voltaire s’en est pris à l’Histoire comme il a l’habitude de s’en prendre à la Bible. Sa virtuosité en impose, mais cette histoire du monde et l’analyse du devenir historique qui en découle génèrent autant de perplexité chez le lecteur qu’elles ne l’éclairent, et ce pour plusieurs raisons, dont les moindres ne sont pas la partialité de l’auteur et sa conception atemporelle de l’Histoire. L’Essai sur les mœurs, fascinant par ses méandres, est sans doute l’œuvre de Voltaire la plus complexe du point de vue du sens qui saurait être attribué à l’ensemble.

Page de titre de la première édition

Page de titre de la première édition.

Ce n’est sans doute pas là un enjeu essentiel, mais à la toute fin, au dernier chapitre (‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’), Voltaire s’interroge sur les leçons à tirer de ce vaste panorama des actions humaines qu’il a voulu présenter à travers les mœurs, un concept qui confère une unité sémantique à son travail mais dont la spécificité est difficile à cerner. Aurait-il perçu les camps de concentration nazis comme mœurs des Allemands? Voltaire a voulu éblouir avec ses obsessions; il a créé un vertige moral en contemplant l’hypocrisie des gens de pouvoir, et s’en repentira en cherchant à atténuer le tableau morbide des abominations commises au cours de l’histoire de l’humanité qu’il a peint en parallèle avec les plus grandes réalisations de l’esprit humain. Il adoucit – un peu tard – son agressivité habituelle (‘jamais on n’a vu aucune société religieuse, aucun rite institué dans la vue d’encourager les hommes aux vices. On s’est servi dans toute la terre de la religion pour faire le mal; mais elle est partout instituée pour porter au bien; et si le dogme apporte
 le fanatisme et la guerre, la morale inspire partout la concorde’, ch.197, p.330) et crée une ouverture vers un optimisme intellectuel (‘Quand une nation connaît les arts, quand elle n’est point subjuguée et transportée par les étrangers, elle sort aisément de ses ruines, et se rétablit toujours’, ch.197, p.334).

Son ambition initiale était claire. Il a expliqué sa frustration, et celle conjointe de Mme Du Châtelet, devant la lecture de l’Histoire à laquelle il avait accès: ‘nous avons jusqu’à présent dans la plupart de nos histoires universelles, traité les autres hommes comme s’ils n’existaient pas. La Grèce, les Romains se sont emparés de toute notre attention, et quand le célèbre Bossuet dit un mot des mahométans, il n’en parle que comme d’un déluge de barbares, cependant beaucoup de ces nations possédaient des arts utiles que nous tenons d’elles; leurs pays nous fournissent des commodités et des choses précieuses que la nature nous a refusées, et vêtus de leurs étoffes, nourris des productions de leurs terres, instruits par leurs inventions, amusés même par les jeux qui sont le fruit de leur industrie, nous ne sommes ni justes ni sages de les ignorer’ (‘Nouveau Plan d’une Histoire de l’esprit humain’, OCV, t.27, p.157). Il serait difficile de contester une telle affirmation. ‘Mon principal but avait été de suivre les révolutions de l’esprit humain dans celles des gouvernements. Je cherchais comment tant de méchants hommes conduits par de plus méchants princes ont pourtant à la longue établi des sociétés où les arts, les sciences, les vertus mêmes ont été cultivés’ (‘Lettre de M. de V*** à M. de ***, professeur en histoire’, OCV, t.27, p.179). C’est donc un univers moral qui le préoccupe; Voltaire n’est pas en quête d’exotisme.

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754, t.3. (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal)

L’Essai est l’histoire des pratiques humaines, non pas celle des idées, et c’est pourquoi il ne retiendra pas comme titre l’Histoire de l’esprit humain auquel il avait songé. Voltaire aurait pu intituler son ouvrage ‘Histoire de la condition humaine’, mais il ne l’a pas fait. Il utilise le terme une seule fois, au chapitre 155: ‘Ce gouvernement [de la Chine], quelque beau qu’il fut, était nécessairement infecté de grands abus attachés à la condition humaine’ (lignes 168-69). L’objet de sa recherche n’était pas tant de décrire les mœurs comme telles à travers l’histoire de l’humanité, que de créer une occasion pour en critiquer, à la lumière de sa propre échelle de valeurs, certaines d’entre elles qui choquaient sa sensibilité morale et esthétique – et critiquer sa propre société par la même occasion.

L’histoire universelle devient un monde peuplé de personnages réels travaillés par l’imagination de Voltaire qui entretient avec eux le même genre de rapport ambivalent qu’il entretient de façon chronique dans ses relations affectives d’amour ou d’amitié. Il a traité les faits historiques comme il traite ses relations personnelles: tout devient une affaire pratiquement personnelle, lui-même étant omniprésent dans son texte, d’où son originalité. Il tire les ficelles de l’Histoire et anime un théâtre de marionettes à son gré. Laurent Avezou, dans son article ‘Autour du Testament politique de Richelieu’ (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des chartes, t.162, 2004, p.421-53) a bien perçu cette tendance chez Voltaire (‘Le philosophe a transformé le Testament en affaire personnelle’, p.449) en dévoilant son ambivalence vis-à-vis certaines des grandes figures de l’histoire ‘qui transparaît dans son Essai sur les mœurs’ (p.448).

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson. (Arsenal,  MS 8. H. 2243; D5903)

Voltaire nous a tenu moralement en suspens, on pourrait presque dire en otages, parce que nous ne sommes pas à même de savoir exactement quel est le jugement qu’il porte sur une quantité d’événements et de phénomènes historiques, son attitude par rapport à la découverte du Nouveau Monde et ses conséquences, par exemple. Son admiration est suivie d’une désillusion qui prend sur lui le dessus, et son dégoût pour les atrocités commises l’emporte sur la considération des avantages ou désavantages au plan économique. L’exploitation et l’esclavage sont mentionnés, mais ne font pas l’objet d’un approfondissement: ‘Les Européens n’ont fait prêcher leur religion depuis le Chili jusqu’au Japon, que pour faire servir les hommes, comme des bêtes de somme, à leur insatiable avarice’ (OCV, t.26A, p.187-88); ‘Des milliers d’Américains servaient aux Espagnols de bêtes de somme’ (p.244). Pour une région différente, parlant des ‘nègres’ de la ‘côte de Guinée, à la côte d’Or, à celle d’Yvoire […] Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme’ (p.285). La révolte de Voltaire s’arrête à ce genre de remarques. Il faut peut-être placer ces commentaires (qui ne sont rien d’autre) en parallèle avec ceux-ci pour comprendre sa position: ‘le travail des mains ne s’accorde point avec le raisonnement, et le commun peuple en général n’use ni n’abuse guère de son esprit’ (p.66); ‘nous ne prétendons pas parler de la populace; elle doit être en tout pays uniquement occupée du travail des mains. L’esprit d’une nation réside toujours dans le petit nombre qui fait travailler le grand, qui le nourrit et le gouverne’ (p.321).

Son attitude face au cannibalisme aussi fait voir son ambivalence et la division de sa pensée: ‘La véritable barbarie est de donner la mort, et non de disputer un mort aux corbeaux ou aux vers’ (p.214); ‘Comment des peuples toujours séparés les uns des autres, ont-ils pu se réunir dans une si horrible coutume?’ (p.215). Ces points de vue ne sont pas mutuellement exclusifs, et c’est là un des traits qui fait la spécificité de l’Essai: la multiplicité des regards.

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756.

Ce que Voltaire voulait accomplir pour Mme Du Châtelet, l’a-t-il réellement fait? Sans doute pas. Voltaire n’est pas librement à l’écoute des phénomènes qu’il décrit. Il ne cherche pas à comprendre, mais à imposer un point de vue normatif et provocateur; il s’adonne davantage à une esthétique des civilisations qu’à une anthropologie. S’il n’y a pour lui qu’un seul univers moral, il n’éprouve pas le besoin d’en faire la démonstration. Il a juxtaposé l’abominable au sublime sans percevoir ce qui mène à l’un ou à l’autre. Et qui le pourrait? Mais il a été à même de rattacher la psychologie individuelle aux grands mouvements historiques. Sa pensée synthétique hallucinante et ses sarcasmes sont susceptibles d’intéresser particulièrement les jeunes générations et capables tout autant de les égarer. Il a dit beaucoup de choses vraies, et si sa vérité reste incomplète ce n’est qu’un encouragement à explorer de nouveau toute une série de perspectives sur le devenir historique. L’Essai sur les mœurs est autre chose qu’un objet de musée littéraire. Les problèmes sur lesquels Voltaire s’est penché resteront toujours actuels. La connaissance du passé et de la diversité culturelle telle que présentée par un observateur du siècle des Lumières hautement original qui nous instruit autant sur son siècle que sur le monde entier s’avérera toujours utile, surtout dans le monde monoculturel où nous vivons aujourd’hui.

Dominique Lussier

Lumières de Descartes. La première diffusion de la philosophie cartésienne dans le Royaume de Naples

Agatopisto Cromaziano, nom de plume de Appiano Buonafede, écrit dans son œuvre De l’histoire et de la nature de toute philosophie (Della istoria e della indole di ogni filosofia, 1788) que le ‘rétablissement philosophique cartésienne’ avait été un vrai obstacle épistémologique qui avait limité la diffusion de la science de Newton; en effet, pour Buonafede, la philosophie de Descartes était en Italie un mélange de quelques notions cartésiennes (les idées claires, les principes évidents) avec la philosophie de Galileo Galilei. Mais cette présentation de la philosophie de Renato (comme Giambattista Vico appelait Descartes) était fausse ou pour mieux dire elle voulait présenter une histoire de la philosophie italienne toute indépendante de la pensée de Descartes.

Giuseppe Valletta

Giuseppe Valletta (1636-1714), fondateur de l’Accademia degli investiganti.

Paolo Mattia Doria, Giambattista Vico et Giovanni Battista De Benedictis, entre autres, ont décrit Descartes comme un philosophe corrompu et épicurien, mais c’était seulement le premier impact d’une nouvelle philosophie sur une philosophie qui était en difficulté aprés la condamnation de Galilée. D’ailleurs, le rapprochement de Descartes et de l’atomisme antique est courant à l’époque, par exemple Pierre Bayle dans son Dictionnaire historique et critique, dans l’article ‘Démocrite’ écrit que ‘c’est encore Democrite qui a fourni aux Pyrrhoniens tout ce qu’ils ont dit contre le témoignage des sens; car outre qu’il avait accoutumé de dire que la Vérité était cachée au fond d’un puits, il soutenait qu’il n’y avait rien de réel que les atomes et le vide, et que tout le reste ne consistait qu’en opinion. C’est ce que les Cartésiens disent aujourd’hui touchant les qualités corporelles, la couleur, l’odeur, le son, le saveur, le chaud, le froid; ce ne sont, disent-ils, que des modifications de l’âme.’ Et comme pour Pierre Bayle, on peut se demander si Giuseppe Valletta, auteur d’une Lettre apologétique de défense de la philosophie moderne et de ses spécialistes (Lettera in difesa della moderna filosofia e de’ coltivatori di essa, 1791), a l’intention d’attirer l’attention sur les éléments de la physique atomiste – et pour Valletta la philosophie atomiste de Démocrite avait un origine Mosaïque – qu’on a cherché di christianiser en soulignant sur la foi chrétienne de Descartes, en opposition des théories impies, telles que le refus de l’immortalité de l’âme et l’éternité du monde, que Valletta assignait à la philosophie aristotélicienne.

Tommaso Cornelio

Tommaso Cornelio (1614-1684).

Mais pour bien comprendre la première diffusion de la pensée de Descartes, avant tout chose il faut souligner que c’est le philosophe Tommaso Cornelio qui, les derniers mois de l’année 1649, a fait connaître a Naples beaucoup des œuvres des philosophes étrangers, pas seulement Descartes, mais aussi Francis Bacon et Pierre Gassendi et d’autres encore. Et à Naples les textes de Descartes sont étudié dans le cadre d’une querelle anti-péripatéticien et anti-scholastique, qui explore d’un point de vue critique la philosophie de la nature de la Renaissance, en se référant sans intermédiaire aux théories de Kepler, de Galilée, Gassendi, Bacon et Descartes, mais aussi à des auctoritates anciennes tels que Démocrite et Lucrèce, Platon, Pythagore et Epicure. Mais il faut encore souligner que pour gagner contre l’opposition des aristotéliciens dans le Royaume de Naples, la philosophie de Descartes et de ses companions doit démontrer sa supériorité dans la médécine.

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica (Venetiis, F. Barba, 1663).

En effet les questions epistémologiques et scientifiques soulevées par la médecine engagent Tommaso Cornelio et ses amis de l’Accademia degli investiganti,  Leonardo Di Capua et Sebastiano Bartoli, et font gagner à l’Accademia une visibilité européenne dans l’an 1656, lorsque à Naples éclate une épidemie de peste. Cette pandémie marque un moment dramatique dans l’histoire de la ville: la médecine des savants fait l’expérience de son impuissance, tandis que la propagation devient irrésistible à cause de la paresse des autorités compétentes et l’ignorance des savants qui insistaient pour suivre les théories de Galien, contaminées avec des infiltrations astrologiques.

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli, 1656, par Micco Spadaro (Domenico Gargiulo) (c.1609-1610 – c.1675).

Et alors, Descartes n’est qu’un auteur, un philosophe, un savant, mais il se transforme en un symbole de la nouvelle philosophie, une nouvelle science que ne veut pas jurer sur les doctrines des anciens (nullius jurare in verba magistri) mais interroger la nature des choses. C’est la libertas philosophandi qui est le but des partisans de la philosophie cartésienne, c’est à dire de la philosophie moderne, et Giulia Belgioioso a suivi le parcours de Descartes à Naples en démontrant que ce n’est pas seulement la philosophie ou les œuvres de René Descartes mais aussi l’image différente du philosophe (La variata immagine di Descartes. Gli itinerari della metafisica tra Parigi e Napoli) qui est un emblème de la nouvelle science de la nature et, après l’épidémie du 1656, un modèle idéal pour les nouvelles recherches qui ont l’ambition de défaire l’émerveillement. Ettore Lojacono (Immagini di René Descartes nella cultura napoletana dal 1644 al 1755) écrit que cette ambition mêle la tradition aristotélicienne avec la pensée de Bacon et Descartes, selon lequel l’émerveillement est un motif de réflexion mais aussi le signe d’un état d’ignorance qui est dû surtout aux préjugés d’Aristote.

Leonardo Di Capua

Leonardo Di Capua (1617-1696).

Gaetano Tremigliozzi et Giacinto Gimma, dans une petite œuvre écrite pour défendre Carlo Musitano et la médecine moderne contre la médecine de Galien (Nuova Staffetta da Parnaso circa gli affari della Medicina pubblicata dal sig. Gaetano Tremigliozzi e dirizzata all’illustrissima Accademia degli Spensierati di Rossano, in Francfort, 1700) rapprochent Descartes et Hippocrate tels que partisans de la science médicale face aux partisans de Galien; modernité philosophique n’est pas seulement suivre la philosophie cartésienne ou baconienne mais, comme beaucoup des Novateurs, adopter une stratégie rhétorique qui a pour but d’isoler le philosophe péripatéticien et le médecin sectateur de Galien, en utilisant l’héritage de la philosophie de Démocrite, Epicure et Hippocrate.

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti (Naples, 1689), page de titre.

Les premières lumières de Descartes dans l’Italie du Sud étaient lumières d’un physician proche à la révolution scientifique mais elles sont surtout les lumières d’un philosophe qui n’est pas encore devenu le philosophe du Cogito. Et il faut attendre l’an 1755 pour la première traduction de Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice du Discours de la méthode (Dissertazione del sig. Renato Des Cartes sul metodo di ben condurre la sua ragione e di cercare la verità nelle scienze), traduction presque inconnue et sur laquelle a attiré l’attention Ettore Lojacono, et encore dans cette traduction la métaphysique de Descartes n’a pas la première place, face à la querelle sur l’âme des bêtes: à savoir, la diffusion de la philosophie de Descartes dans le Royaume de Naples a été surtout une réflexion sur la science et la médécine de la modernité.

Fabio A. Sulpizio

Discovering Voltaire and Rousseau in song

The Voltaire Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in Oxford next month, ‘Voltaire, Rousseau and the Enlightenment’ – nothing surprising about the title, but for the fact that this event will take place as part of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival (broadcast this year online).

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is of course famous for his interest in music, though not for song in particular; and Voltaire is famous for his complete indifference to music. So how did these two celebrated antagonists end up side by side in a song festival…?

In this portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that hangs at the Voltaire Foundation, we can discern on the left-hand side a sheet of manuscript music. This is not surprising: the philosophe not only wrote about music, he was the composer of a number of operas, the most successful of which, Le Devin du village, remains well-known today and has been often recorded. First performed before the French court at Fontainebleau in 1752, it enjoyed great success in London in 1762, in an English translation, The Cunning Man, by Charles Burney. The piece was performed again in London in January 1766, in the presence of Rousseau himself, just after he had arrived in the English capital as the guest of David Hume. The portrait of Rousseau was painted in England, quite possibly during his stay in this country (1766-67) or soon thereafter. So the sheet of music on the left might be a reference to the fact that at one point in his life Rousseau earned money by copying music; more likely, however, it is an allusion to Le Devin du village that was so popular among English audiences.

Far less well known are Rousseau’s songs. Unpublished in his lifetime, they were none the less an important part of his activities as a composer. Three years after his death there appeared a handsome volume, Les Consolations des misères de ma vie, ou recueil d’airs, romances et duos (Paris, 1781), bringing together the songs that Rousseau had left in manuscript – here is a copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The preface to the edition points out that Rousseau liked setting words from the best poets, and the authors of the verses set to music in this collection indeed include many prominent names, such as Metastasio and Petrarch. This song collection has been little studied, and we will hear some of Rousseau’s songs in this recital.

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770. (Yale Collection of Musical Instruments)

The one author you will not find in Rousseau’s song collection is the most famous French poet of the 18th century, Voltaire. In general terms, evidence for Voltaire’s interest in music is scanty – even unreliable. The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments contains a fine 18th-century harpsichord with images inside the lid of Emilie Du Châtelet and the Château de Cirey – an instrument that Voltaire must have listened to! Alas, a recent director of the collection has exposed the paintings inside the harpsichord as ‘fakes’, showing that they were added to the instrument at a later date to make it more valuable.

Voltaire may not have liked music, but he did collaborate with one of the greatest composers of the century. In the 1730s he had composed an opera libretto Samson for Rameau, but following objections from the censors the work was never performed, and the music is now lost. (See the critical edition of Samson by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.18C, 2008.) Their second period of collaboration was more successful. Despite the fact that Louis XV mistrusted him, Voltaire enjoyed a brief period of favour at court in 1745-1746. This was a good time to be a courtier at Versailles: the Dauphin Louis was to marry the Infanta of Spain, an alliance of huge dynastic importance for the Bourbons, and a three-act comédie-ballet was commissioned as part of the celebrations.

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles, in the presence of Louis XV, 1745. (Wikimedia commons)

Voltaire composed a libretto about a Spanish princess, La Princesse de Navarre, and Rameau composed the music. Then a few months later the maréchal de Saxe led French troops to victory against the British-led coalition at Fontenoy, and Voltaire and Rameau were back in business, this time with an opera, Le Temple de la gloire, celebrating the nature of kingship. (See the critical editions of these two works by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006.) Voltaire’s period of favour at Versailles was brief and ended unhappily, but the one positive outcome was his collaboration with Rameau on two major musical works for the court.

Given Voltaire’s extraordinary pre-eminence as a poet, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more musical settings of his verse. But, even in his brilliant light verse, Voltaire never indulges in the easy romantic gesture, and perhaps his concise and ironical voice does not easily lend itself to musical setting. There are exceptions, of course, such as the three salon pieces set to music by Jacques Chailley (1910-1999), in a collection Trois madrigaux galants (1982). And from Voltaire’s lifetime there is a fine song “Le dernier parti à prendre” by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, published in his Choix de chansons (1773). This magnificent publication, dedicated to Marie-Antoinette, is currently being edited in an ambitious digital format that will include all the music.

You can hear Laborde’s setting of Voltaire here.

Voltaire did write one poem that became an unexpected hit, a madrigal composed for Princess Ulrica when he was in Berlin in 1743. The poem, ‘A Mme la Princesse Ulrique de Prusse’, also known as ‘Songe’, is an example of Voltaire’s light verse at its most attractive and charming – so much so that it was reworked in German by Goethe, and in Russian by Pushkin:

Souvent un peu de vérité
Se mêle au plus grossier mensonge;
Cette nuit, dans l’erreur d’un songe,
Au rang des rois j’étois monté.
Je vous aimais, princesse, et j’osais vous le dire!
Les Dieux à mon réveil ne m’ont pas tout ôté:
Je n’ai perdu que mon empire.

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006, p.434-38)

The poem has become an anthology piece and was set in the 20th century by a member of “Les Six”, Germaine Tailleferre (Six Chansons françaises, 1929, op.41, no. 2). More interestingly, these verses were set to music at least twice in Voltaire’s lifetime, first by Antoine Légat de Furcy (c.1740-c.1790), and then again by Adrien Leemans (1741-1771), whose score (Le Songe, ariette nouvelle, Paris, Mme Bérault, 1769) you can find online.

It’s interesting that the setting by Légat de Furcy was first published in 1761 in a women’s magazine, the Journal des dames: eighteenth-century songs such as these were designed for performance by amateur musicians, often women, in a domestic setting – as we saw in a recent blog, music was an occupation for a lady of leisure in lockdown.

Eighteenth-century novels sometimes appeal to women readers precisely by including songs within the fiction – a famous example would be the engraved score in Richardson’s Clarissa, and there are many comparable examples in French novels of the period (discussed by Martin Wåhlberg in La Scène de musique dans le roman du XVIIIe siècle, 2015).

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695)

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695).

This all seems a far cry from the more ‘sophisticated’ songs usually performed at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Yet by a delightful quirk, it is in Russia that Voltaire’s “Dream” has acquired a permanent place in the song repertoire. Pushkin’s reworking of the Voltaire poem, “Snovidenie” (Dream), caught the attention of no fewer than four Russian composers, so we can compare the settings of the same poem by Cui, Arensky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Rousseau was the musician, not Voltaire. Yet it is Voltaire who has left the greater mark in the great song tradition of the nineteenth century.

We will have a unique opportunity to enjoy some of this little-heard music in the recital programme on 13 October 2020, 15:00-16:00, when I will be in discussion with the musicologist Suzanne Aspenden. The programme will be introduced from the Voltaire Foundation, and the recital will then continue in the magnificent Upper Library of The Queen’s College. This event will be streamed live and remain available online for two weeks: please do come and listen to Voltaire and Rousseau in song!

Charlotte La Thrope (soprano) | Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) | Natalie Burch (piano)

Tickets are available here.

This Oxford Lieder event is presented in association with TORCH, and with support from the Humanities Cultural Programme, the Voltaire Foundation, and The Queen’s College.

Nicholas Cronk

From the mundane to the philosophical: topic-modelling Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence

Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence are two fascinating collections which have perhaps not received the amount of attention than they could have due to the nature of these texts. Written over five decades, these letters cover a wide range of topics, from the mundanity of everyday concerns to more elaborate subjects. Getting an overall picture of these correspondences is challenging for the simple reader. This is unfortunate since these correspondences not only constitute a window into the private lives of Voltaire and Rousseau, or show an unfiltered expression of their respective thoughts, but they are also an example of the eclecticism professed by the philosophes. Fortunately modern computational techniques can truly help in providing an overview of the content of these letters and hopefully recapture – in a somewhat organized fashion – this very eclecticism of the Lumières. Thanks to the collaboration between the Voltaire Foundation and the ARTFL Project, I will be briefly discussing how topic-modeling can be used to draw an overall picture of these correspondences, and show a couple of examples of the model built from the Voltaire letters.

The ARTFL Project has long been engaged in exploring 18th-century discourses using digital tools, and the thematic opacity of correspondences is an ideal use-case for topic-modelling. This particular algorithm was designed to generate clusters of closely related words (or topics) by analyzing all word co-occurrences in any given corpus. Because these topics are extracted from their source texts, they are understood to describe the contents of the corpus analyzed. We recently released a topic-modelling browser – called TopoLogic – which was designed to explore such clusters of co-occurring words, and ran a preliminary experiment against the French Revolutionary Collection, the results of which can be seen here. When we built the topic models for Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondences, we made sure to use the same parameters for both collections such that 40 topics (or discourses) were generated from each set of letters. We also only used those letters written by Voltaire on one side, and Rousseau on the other, hoping that we could perhaps make some comparisons between both models.

Let’s start with the Voltaire model, from which you can see the first 20 topics below:

As a first view into the topic model, the browser gives us the top 10 words for each topic, as well as their overall prevalence in the letters by Voltaire. From there we can further explore any topic, such as 16, which seems to map to Voltaire’s idea of the philosophe fighting against religious intolerance. By clicking on the topic however, we get an overview of how the topic is distributed in time, most important words in the topic, correlated topics, as well as documents where the topic is prominent (see figure below).

Let’s focus on several sections of this overview. We note below that the terms of philosophe and philosophie are weighted far more heavily than any other term, suggesting perhaps that all other words in this cluster may just constitute different characteristics of the philosophe in Voltaire’s eyes: religious concerns (prêtre, jésuite, religion, tolérance), attributes (honnête, sage), means of expression (article, livre).

All of these observations can of course be verified by exploring letters that feature topic 16 in a prominent way, which the browser does list. We can also see how the philosophe discourse evolves over the more than sixty years of Voltaire’s letters. Unsurprisingly, as his public involvement in religious affairs increases, the prevalence of such terms discussing his idea of the philosophe rises as well in his letters.

Among the discourses which tend to follow the same trend over time (see figure below), the cluster of terms related to justice (topic 5) stands out, once again showing that his public involvement is mirrored in his private correspondence. While these aspects are nothing really new, they provide for the prospective reader an easy way to find those letters that do discuss these topics.

Another interesting aspect of topic-modeling is that we can also examine the discursive make-up of any of Voltaire’s letters, and see if there are any other letters that share the same themes. Let’s examine Voltaire’s famous letter to Rousseau in which he mocks the citoyen de Genève’s position on the impact of literature in the second discourse (see figure below): ‘Les Lettres nourissent l’âme, la rectifient, la consolent’.

When we look at topical representation of this letter in the browser, we can note that the model found a number of different topics within this letter, which when combined do provide an overview of its contents. In it, Voltaire discusses – with much irony – his own experience as a writer (topic 33), which includes his role as historiographe du roi (topic 36), as well as the many controversies he was involved in (topic 10). He sarcastically laments the fact that he cannot afford to live with savages in a distant land (topic 25) because his health requires him to be treated by a doctor (topic 26 and 35). And as a whole, he defends the role of literature as a positive good for man (topic 0). Of course, one could argue that this topical structure is approximate, prone to discussion, and this is certainly true. However, this approximation is now available for all 15,000 letters, which then allows the computer to compare and group letters by this very topical structure. In this same document view, we can see documents which share a similar mixture of topics, such as a letter to Ivan Shuvalov from 1757 where Voltaire discusses his writing of history while displaying a very keen concern for the perception and impact of his writing, or another to D’Alembert where he complains about his bad health while stressing the importance of writing about useful things (‘il y avait cent choses utiles à dire qu’on n’a point dittes encore’).

One last aspect of the topic model is to examine the individual uses of words and the different contexts in which they are used. If we look at the uses of écrivain in the correspondences (see figure below), we can see how that its uses span across different types of discourses related to reason, the writing of history, or the public role of the writer. Looking at the actual word associations, we also note potentially interesting patterns. In the case of words that share similar topic distributions (used with a similar mix of discourses), a group of terms related to ignorance seems to dominate: fausseté, mensonge, ignorance, vérité, erreur, fable… This may allude to a sense of mission in Voltaire’s writings: to correct inaccuracies, to dispel lies, to reestablish the truth in the face of ignorance. Looking this time at words that tend to co-occur with écrivain, we get a very different picture, with terms that relate more to the activity of writing and the product of that writing. These two views on word associations do not contradict one another, but suggest different ways of thinking of the role of the écrivain as depicted in Voltaire’s letters.

To finish, let’s take a look at the topic model of Rousseau’s correspondence, and in particular how we can relate it to that of Voltaire. A quick overview of the first 20 topics in Rousseau’s letters reveals a similar – yet distinct – picture of the topical composition of his correspondence (see figure below).

Using the browser, we could track down Rousseau’s response to Voltaire’s criticism of the second discourse, and see if other letters discuss similar themes. This is all within the scope of this browser. For the sake of brevity however, and to show how topic models can be used to run comparative experiments, we wanted to focus on Rousseau’s usage of the word écrivain in order to see if and how it differed from what was suggested in the Voltaire model. As we can see below, Rousseau tends to use the term in similar contexts: the écrivain is invoked first and foremost as a conveyor of truth. But looking more closely at word associations, a distinctive pattern does emerge: such terms as lâche, haine, hypocrite, acharnement, or jalousie highlight a well-known trait of Rousseau, his paranoia in the face of his success as a writer. Clicking on any these words in the browser would allow a researcher to track down the individual uses of these terms as they relate to écrivain, and find those letters to discuss his persecution complex.

To conclude, we are well aware that any analysis provided here is purely built on the patterns derived from the topic models, and as such, remain unproven until verified by a close reading of the letters themselves. However, we hope to have shown how using a tool such as topic modeling can potentially provide new insights into the correspondences of Voltaire and Rousseau, or at the very least offer better guidance to scholars working on these two incredibly rich collections.

Clovis Gladstone

This article was first published in the Café Lumières blog in June 2020.

Clovis Gladstone’s Rousseau et le matérialisme appeared in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:8.

 

Digitising Candide

Candide

Candide, title page of edition 299L (see OCV, vol.48, p.88).

In what is arguably his most widely known work, Voltaire describes the extraordinary journey that his eponymous hero undertakes through geography and understanding, and for us digitising the novel is the first step on the long and – we hope and trust – exciting journey to digitise the whole of the complete works, the OCV. As such it has been a proof of concept, a baptism of reassuringly gentle fire, and a taste of things to come.

For a digital file that’s worth its bytes we need much more than just electronic words. We need a format that will encode structure and meaning so that people and – just as importantly – programs can understand the extra information we’re embedding into the file, and use it to help make readers’ and scholars’ use of the material richer and easier.

Thankfully many others have trodden a similar path. Since the 1980s countless digital humanities minds have contributed to the Text Encoding Initiative, simultaneously a sophisticated tag set for marking up scholarly material, and a community engaged in maintaining that model, supporting the people who use it, and improving it based on collective experience, wisdom, and usage. We had no need to invent a wheel – TEI is beautifully adapted for our journey. We used it to design a tailored model to suit the particular needs of the OCV and Digital d’Holbach. This is being applied for us by our supplier, Apex CoVantage, who are assembling a specialist team and developing automated tools to streamline the workflow, and using the first dozen volumes as tools to train both people and software. Candide was their introduction to this fascinating marriage of the Enlightenment and the computer.

The structural tagging – for things like introductions and notes – will allow readers to see as much or as little detail and complexity as they wish, choosing between at one end of the scale just the edited version of Voltaire’s words, to at the other the full panoply of editorial introduction, notes, bibliographic citations, and textual variants, with a varying choice between the two extremes. It will also help readers navigate through and across the various parts of the volume, enabling their own particular journey.

Tagging for meaning – what we call the semantic tagging – is what will allow the dataset to communicate within itself, to other datasets, and also to humans. It’s what can help make search fully useful rather than just a literal echo of what a user types, and it can help a reader see a wider range of ‘next steps’ by making meaningful connections beyond those possible with just words and spaces. We tag people, places, dates, works, and institutions, and we’re also going to be developing a full set of metadata to accompany the datasets, as a rich and consistent layer describing the entire corpus in disciplined detail – we aim for this to be our contribution to the semantic web. We tag for primary and secondary content, and every piece of text has a language code associated with it so that if machine translation were applied to the data set we can choose which parts of an edition are translated (e.g. the introduction) and which are left in the original language (e.g. primary content quotes). Again, our work enables control and choice.

Part of the digital file of Candide

Part of the digital file of Candide, showing the end of the text of the novel.

Candide

The end of the novel in the Paris, Lambert, 1759 edition.

These two aspects turn a dataset into something akin to a machine (with the metadata as the auxiliary power unit), with multiple interlocking components that make it much easier for readers to summon or suppress the parts of the edition they need.

A machine needs precision in its gears and smoothness in its moving parts, and digitisation is revealing the odd snag and missing bolt where the tools we now have to analyse the workings were not available forty years ago. The exercise is therefore an opportunity to collate points we might wish to address in a revised edition (as well as revealing the occasional typographic error). But overall it’s gratifying how the abstract model we designed ahead of any full-scale digitisation has proved to be fit for purpose, and allows us to interrogate and improve the digital Candide by program, benefits which will increase exponentially as more volumes are added to the electronic corpus. The whole, we think, will be very much greater than the sum of its parts.

While the ultimate consumer of the digital files we’re creating will be human readers, the immediate consumers as intermediaries will be machines and processes, and even a cursory look at the ‘raw’ file of Candide shows you why. Character-for-character there is much more tagging than text, and for the eye simply to read the novel is near impossible; we keep tripping over indexing, line breaks, page breaks, emphasis, witness references … the list of tags is seemingly endless. What we see is ‘noise’ since we’re not programmed to filter one thing from another, but a program can be told to do exactly that, allowing any amount of filtering, cross-referencing, formatting, and even transformation to render the volume exactly as a reader requires. In order to ensure simplicity, but allow richness, and to enable choice, we have to make sure we start from complexity.

Digitisation and the accompanying process of metadata curation is all about preserving content, extending reach, and adding value. If we get this right, we should be laying the foundations for globally accessible tools of immense richness which will add to – and not detract from – the core material and scholarship on which it is all built. We have a responsibility to use the digital tools available to help as many people as possible find, read, and understand the extraordinary legacy of Voltaire and his contemporaries. Il faut cultiver nos données.

Dan Barker, dancan Ltd.

A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

Every project in the Complete Works of Voltaire corpus seems to have its own special features that make it not quite fit into the mould of what has gone before. Our team meetings ring to the sounds of editors wailing ‘But this is different !’ The principles that have served us well over the 50-year duration of the project have had to be agile and adaptable to cover the astonishing range of genres and styles covered by Voltaire.

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Histoire de la guerre de 1741, Amsterdam 1755 (left: Bnf, Paris; right: Bodley, Oxford)

Even by the standards of the Voltaire Foundation, though, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV presents a unique challenge because of its complex genesis. Much of the material in the chapters of the Précis which cover the War of the Austrian Succession was first written by Voltaire for his Histoire de la guerre de 1741, a project enthusiastically started when he was appointed as historiographe de France in the 1740s. He never published it himself (though it was published, supposedly unofficially, and at least twice, in 1755), but rewrote and integrated large parts of it in his ambitious universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs. Later, he separated the material on Louis XIV (to become the Siècle de Louis XIV) and Louis XV, and the Précis (which was by this time not really a précis) became a work in its own right in 1769, with later chapters added in the 1770s to take account of, amongst other things, the king’s unexpected death in 1774.

Essay sur l’histoire générale

Essay sur l’histoire générale, [Geneva], 1756 (Bodley, Oxford)

This genesis means that the collation and presentation of variants is different from what we usually do. Our usual process goes something like this:

  1. Select a work by Voltaire
  2. Assess the different editions and manuscripts of the work and choose the most appropriate base text (for example, the version that was last overseen by Voltaire, or sometimes the first edition, or else the edition that was most widely read during his lifetime).
  3. Collate significant textual variants from other editions and manuscripts against the base text and present them neatly at the foot of the page.

Sometimes (particularly for example in the theatrical corpus) the variant versions are too divergent from the base text to be presented on the same page, and so in such cases we would print whole scenes or sections as an appendix, with a reference on the relevant page of the base text to direct the reader to where this material could be found.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe. Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne (BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4). By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the case of the Guerre/Précis project, though, it was clear that we were dealing with not one but (at least) two separate works. The remit of the Précis is much wider than the War of the Austrian Succession, the primary focus of the Guerre. Not to mention what we might call the Essai sur les mœurs stage in the middle, where the titles are dispensed with but the material is reused and moved around to create a narrative that fits into the wider universal history.

We decided early on that the Guerre needed therefore to be treated as a separate text, and, for the first time in a collection of Voltaire’s complete works, it is published in full. This has avoided some horrendous complexities of page layout had we tried to show all the Guerre material as variants to the Précis, as well as the awkwardness of chopping it up into gobbets for appendices. Being able to read the Guerre in its entirety allows the reader a richer understanding of this little-known and underrated text as well as of how it fits into the context of the Précis project. It has also allowed us to separate the manuscripts relating to the composition of the Guerre from those which relate specifically to the Précis, and to present variants from these in the most appropriate context.

However, it has meant that the overlap between the material in the Guerre and that of the Précis has to be shown in other ways. We decided to adopt the method of lightly shading passages in the Guerre to show when there is textual overlap between that text and the later Précis text. This has had the great advantage of showing the reader at a glance the scale of the reuse of this material, as well as allowing us to concentrate in greater detail on the text that is unique to the Guerre. For the shaded sections, readers are referred to the annotation of the Précis, whereas the unique Guerre text is annotated in full in that volume. As Voltaire edited the text as he reused it, we have ignored small differences in phrasing for the purposes of this exercise (see image for example) – but it does sometimes throw into relief small amendments made during the reuse process, for example, deciding to name someone, or amending figures of battlefield casualties etc. in response to new information.

Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 / Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Above: Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ch.24, l.264-69. Below: Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ch.26, l.78-83.

This decision necessitated another choice: should we shade only the material that was used in our base text of the Précis (Voltaire’s revised 1775 edition, amended by him shortly before his death in anticipation of a new version of his complete works), or should we include all the material that was taken forward from the Guerre, through the Essai and early standalone Précis editions, even if it was subsequently deleted? After discussion with the general editors, it was decided in the end that in the Guerre it was important to distinguish between what Voltaire reused, and what was only ever used in the Guerre. This means that not all the highlighted text will be found in the base text of our edition of the Précis – much of it can be found instead in the variants. The critical thing is that all the shaded text is accounted for and commented on in our edition of the Précis (OCV, vols.29A and 29B).

The Histoire de la guerre de 1741, OCV, vol.29C, publishing in October 2020, completes the three-volume set of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, with volumes 29A and 29B published earlier in the year, the general editors being Janet Godden and James Hanrahan.

Alison Oliver