Le 14 juillet: « Liberté, égalité, fraternité » et les valeurs voltairiennes

« Tel est le fanatisme: c’est un monstre sans cœur, sans yeux et sans oreilles. Il ose se dire le fils de la religion, il se cache sous sa robe, et dès qu’on veut le réprimer, il crie, ‘Au secours on égorge ma mère.’ »

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tome 70A (2015), p.142-43)

NC1

Hommage aux victimes à Nice

We all at the Voltaire Foundation express heartfelt solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, following the brutal and tragic events in Nice, committed on ‘Bastille Day’, a day of national celebration of Republican values.

NC3

« Translation de Voltaire au Panthéon français » (1791)

These Republican values are also European values, inextricable from the legacy of Voltaire. In July 1791, Voltaire’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon, in what is remembered as one of the Revolution’s greatest public ceremonies. The hearse made its way first to the Place de la Bastille, and the crowd watched as the coffin was placed on a highly symbolic pile of rubble, the stones of the Bastille prison which had been torn down in 1789. Next day, the procession that wound its way to the Panthéon included a model of the hated Bastille, Houdon’s statue of Voltaire seated, and all seventy volumes of the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s complete works. On the coffin was an inscription reclaiming Voltaire as a hero of the Revolution:

« Il vengea Calas, La Barre, Sirven et Monbailli. Poète, philosophe, historien, il a fait prendre un grand essor à l’esprit humain, et nous a préparés à être libres. »

‘He avenged Calas, La Barre, Sirven and Monbailli. Poet, philosopher, historian, he made the human mind soar and prepared us to be free.’

– Nicholas Cronk

NC2

« Ordre du cortège pour la translation des mânes de Voltaire le lundi 11 juillet 1791 »

 

NC4

Un taxi londonien

 

NC5

The London Eye, le 15 juillet 2016

Digitizing Raynal (and Diderot): New Digital Editions of the Histoire des deux Indes

A collaborative digital research project

On the heels of Cecil Courtney and Jenny Mander’s recent publication, Raynal’s ‘Histoire des deux Indes’ colonialism, networks and global exchange (OSE, 2015), I am pleased to announce a new international research project aimed at further exploring Raynal’s monumental work and its impact on Enlightenment thought. Thanks to the generous support of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota, the Centre for Digital Humanities Research at the Australian National University, Stanford University Libraries, and The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago, we have recently completed the digitization and text encoding (in TEI-XML) of the three primary editions of the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes. These editions – the first edition of 1770, the second of 1774, and the 1780 third edition – were those that Raynal himself oversaw during his lifetime.

Our digital editions are based on high quality PDFs provided by the BNF’s Gallica online library (1770 and 1780 editions) and the Bodleian’s Oxford Google Books Project (1774 edition). A preliminary search interface has been built using the ARTFL Project’s PhiloLogic software and can be accessed here: Raynal search form. Users can query one or all of the above editions, which represent the first publicly available full-text digital edition(s) of the Histoire des deux Indes. In the coming months we will release a new version of the database running on ARTFL’s state-of-the-art PhiloLogic4 system, along with a preliminary ‘intertextual interface’ that will aim to incorporate the text of the three separate editions into one reading interface.

Roe1-2

Title page and frontispiece of the 1780 edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (Gallica).

Diderot, Hornoy, and the 1780 edition

What is perhaps most exciting about these new digital resources is the inclusion of a unique 1780 edition of the Histoire des deux Indes recently made available by the BNF. Acquired at public auction in March 2015, this particular edition had been conserved since the late 18th century in the private library of Alexandre Marie Dompierre d’Hornoy (1742-1828). A lawyer at the Parlement de Paris and great-nephew of Voltaire – he in fact inherited Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s infamous nude statue of Voltaire upon his great-uncle’s death – Hornoy corresponded with many of the philosophes, Diderot included. His copy of the Histoire contains pencil marks in the margins of some passages, an unremarkable fact, perhaps, were it not for a note written by Hornoy just above a three-page insert at the beginning of the first tome. The handwritten tables included in the insert list all the sections marked in pencil over the four volumes of text: ‘mourceaux qui sont de M. Diderot’, Hornoy writes, ‘marqués en crayon par Mme de Vandeul’. Madame de Vandeul was, of course, Diderot’s daughter.

Roe3

Handwritten insert of the 1780 edition (Gallica)

The existence of such an annotated volume of the Histoire was posited in the 19th century, notably by Joseph Marie Quérard in his Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (5 vols., 1845-1856). Quérard claimed that there supposedly existed a copy of the 1780 edition on which Diderot himself had marked in pencil all the passages that belonged to him [1]. According to Quérard, this copy became the property of Madame de Vandeul shortly after Diderot’s death. Whether or not the copy acquired by the BNF is the same as that owned by Vandeul we cannot say for sure, but Herbert Dieckmann, in his inventory of the ‘fonds Vandeul’, also mentions the hypothetical existence of a copy of the in-4o edition (e.g. 1780) that was purportedly annotated by hand, but that had since been lost [2].

Some preliminary experiments

While consensus as to the validity of Hornoy’s assertion that the marked sections are in fact those authored by Diderot will most likely take years to accrue, we can begin, using the new digital edition, to ask some basic questions as to the authorship claims indicated in the text. Thanks to extensive markup in TEI-XML notation, sections purportedly belonging to Diderot are clearly indicated, and perhaps more importantly, can be extracted as one test corpus. Using some basic statistical measures drawn from authorship attribution studies, or Stylometry, we can begin to think about how the ‘Diderot’ sections may, or may not, differ stylistically – i.e. in terms of comparative word usage over the most common words, an established metric of ‘authorship’ in stylometry and forensic linguistics – from the rest of the text.

Roe4

Page from 1780 edition with ‘Diderot’ section marked in pencil (Gallica)

Working with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle (Australia), and in particular with their Intelligent Archive software for stylistic and statistical text analysis, we extracted the top 200 words for each ‘author’ (e.g. those drawn from sections putatively by Diderot, and the remaining ‘Raynal’ sections). As a result, we were left with 4 ‘Diderot’ tomes (containing all of the text marked in pencil) and 4 ‘Raynal’ tomes (containing the remainder), representing their unique word lists over the entire edition. For a first preliminary test, we ran a cluster analysis on the 8 tomes to see if they would cluster together or separately:

Roe5

Cluster analysis of ‘Diderot’ tomes vs. ‘Raynal’ tomes, based on top 200 word lists

Cluster analysis works by separating (or clustering) the most similar texts first and the most distinct last, in this case into 2 branches. A division like the one above, clearly separated into two distinct ‘trees’ is a very clear indication that the texts in each of the two branches are highly likely to be those of two different authors.

Principal component analysis (PCA) provides another method of examining our corpora. PCA is a procedure for identifying a smaller number of uncorrelated variables, called ‘principal components’, from a large set of data. The goal of PCA is to explain the maximum amount of variance with the fewest number of principal components. In our case, it is a technique that allows for the first two principal components of our two sets of texts, i.e. their word variance, to be plotted on a bi-axial or two-dimensional graph. One of these plots (using the 100 most frequent words of the full text) with both text corpora divided into 10,000 word blocks, is shown below.

Roe6

Principal component analysis using 10,000 word blocks and 100 most frequent words

The disparity in size of our two test corpora meant that while there were 68 text sections for Raynal (in green), there were only 14 for Diderot (in blue). Nonetheless, the separation between the two authorial sets is almost complete, with just two of the Diderot sections located in the outer fringes of the Raynal set. Since the word variables underlying this plot were the 100 most frequent words of the whole text, this is a convincing stylistic division, one that suggests a strong distinction in terms of authorship signal between the two sets.

In order to account for the size discrepancy between the two corpora, we ran another PCA test but this time we increased the number of Diderot sections by segmenting his text into 5,000 word blocks and running these against the previous Raynal 10,000-word sections. This plot is shown below:

Roe7

Principal component analysis on 5,000 word blocks (Diderot) and Raynal, using 100 most frequent words

Here we see the same sort of authorial/stylistic separation as we saw above, but this time (with the Diderot sections halved in size) the distinction is even stronger, as there is only one section located within the Raynal set of entries, indicating an even greater likelihood that the sections marked in pencil were written by a different author than the rest of the 1780 edition.

These are obviously very rudimentary experiments, but they nonetheless indicate several promising future avenues of exploration. Moving forward, we intend to apply a full suite of computational and stylistic approaches to the 1780 edition and its predecessors, including sequence alignment tools developed by ARTFL, text collation software, and the MEDITE system developed by the labex OBVIL at the Sorbonne for computational genetic criticism. All of these approaches will allow us to explore the textual evolution of the Histoire from 1770 to 1780 in an unprecedented manner, as well as its relationship to other Enlightenment texts and text collections such as Electronic Enlightenment, TOUT Voltaire, and the Encyclopédie.

– Glenn Roe

*I would especially like to thank Alexis Antonia and the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Newcastle for their generous help with the above stylistic analyses.

[1] See Michèle Duchet, Diderot et l’Histoire des deux Indes ou l’écriture fragmentaire, Paris, Nizet, 1978, p. 22.

[2] Herbert Dieckmann, Inventaire du fonds Vandeul et inédits de Diderot, Genève, Droz, 1951.

Voltaire and the La Barre affair

250 years ago, on 1 July 1766, the young François-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre was executed in Abbeville, Picardy, having been charged with blasphemy in the summer of 1765. The first reference to La Barre in Voltaire’s correspondence is in a letter of 16 June 1766 to his great-nephew, Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Voltaire then returned to La Barre’s execution in many letters and works: the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre of 1766 and Le Cri du sang innocent of 1775 are entirely devoted to the La Barre affair.

This year’s Journées Voltaire took place in Paris on 17-18 June. Entitled ‘Autour de l’affaire La Barre’, they were organised by Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet (Université Lyon 2), in collaboration with the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes, the Centre d’Etude de la Langue et des Littératures Françaises (CELLF), and the Association Le Chevalier de La Barre.

JV_2016

Over the two days of the conference, attendees followed the gradual process that transformed La Barre from the victim of a dubious trial into a symbol of anti-clericalism, and the affair that ensued from a mere historical event into a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense.

The conference opened with a marvellously clear exposition of the trial’s proceedings by Eric Wenzel (Université d’Avignon). Eric Wenzel argued strongly that, if we except the fact that the question préalable was used in order to extort a confession, La Barre’s trial was actually conducted in accordance with the laws of Ancien Régime France. This begged the important question of what is right and what is – instead – legal.

Subsequent presentations focused on the role that Voltaire played in transforming La Barre into a symbol of anti-clericalism. Russell Goulbourne (King’s College, London) observed that Voltaire pursued this aim by dramatising the La Barre affair and by insistently describing La Barre himself as the hero of a tragedy: ‘M. le chevalier de la Barre est mort en héros. Sa fermeté noble et simple dans une si grande jeunesse m’arrache encore des larmes’ (to Jacques Marie Bertrand Gaillard d’Etallonde, 26 May 1767), and on multiple occasions comparing him to the hero of Corneille’s Polyeucte. The term ‘catastrophe’, with its connotations of tragedy, also appears in Voltaire’s discussion of the events at Abbeville (e.g. to Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, 6 February 1771).

The tragic register, however, is not the only one Voltaire used when referring to La Barre’s execution. Two of the papers were concerned with how Voltaire’s response to the La Barre affair changed over time: Christiane Mervaud (Université de Rouen) demonstrated this evolution with reference to the article ‘Justice’ of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, whereas Alain Sager focused mainly on Voltaire’s correspondence. The correspondence was also at the core of Laetitia Saintes’s (Université Catholique de Louvain) paper, which showed, in the context of letters dealing with the La Barre affair, how Voltaire modulated his tone according to addressee. New documents recently discovered in St Petersburg by Jack Iverson (Whitman College) will certainly cast new light on the reasons behind Voltaire’s re-writings of the La Barre affair.

Beyond the variations that Voltaire introduced into the retelling of events and his accusations of unfairness, the fact remains that his focus on the events at Abbeville succeeded impressively in magnifying their resonance. This is all the more important if one considers the utter indifference with which the Parisian public had originally received the news of La Barre’s execution. Voltaire himself complained about it in a letter to de Chabanon: ‘on va à l’opéra comique le jour qu’on brûle le chevalier de la Barre’ (7 August 1769).

Two papers at the conference therefore focused on how Voltaire’s writings prompted other intellectuals to engage with La Barre’s execution. Stéphanie Gehanne-Gavoty (Université Paris-Sorbonne) drew the audience’s attention to Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s treatment of the La Barre affair in the Correspondance littéraire. Linda Gil (Université Paris-Sorbonne) focused on Condorcet’s treatment, in the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works, of the texts concerning La Barre, which fell into a newly created section,‘Politique et législation’, as well as on Condorcet’s own preface to that section.

As asserted by Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois; Association Le Chevalier de La Barre) in an enlightening paper, it was precisely by triggering such responses in the French intellectual elites that Voltaire succeeded in making a universal symbol out of the chevalier La Barre and a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense out of his execution. Thus, Coutel claimed, Voltaire’s reaction to La Barre’s death plainly testifies to the fact that humanity can progress even in the darkest times. As Voltaire put it in a letter of 26 September 1766 to the marquise d’Epinay, ‘le petit nombre de sages répandus dans Paris peut faire beaucoup de bien en s’élevant contre certaines atrocités, et en ramenant les hommes à la douceur et à la vertu’.

– Ruggero Sciuto

Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

The Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes across the Channel: Swift and Voltaire

OSE-2016-06-50pc

Our book Ancients and Moderns in Europe: comparative perspectives is a collection of chapters covering three centuries of European quarrels over the legacy of classical Greece and Rome. With such a broad range of reference, it is inevitable that some key players in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes have lost the leading roles they played in earlier accounts. Voltaire, the tutelary spirit of ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’, is a case in point. His article on ‘Anciens et Modernes’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie is mentioned only once in the volume, in Ourida Mostefai’s essay on Rousseau’s critique of modernity (p.243-56), yet it is the clearest testimony we have of the Enlightenment’s conflicted sense of the quarrel as both inconsequential and absolutely unignorable. Let us therefore examine his article in more detail.

Voltaire

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, detail

In ‘Anciens et Modernes’ Voltaire is himself guilty of certain omissions. Of the great voices of the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, Voltaire gives Fontenelle a good hearing, while Sir William Temple gets rough handling for his hatred of his century (‘Il possédait de grandes connaissances: un préjugé suffit pour gâter tout ce mérite’ [1]). Voltaire clearly saw the quarrel as a pan-European phenomenon, something that happened as much between Fontenelle and Temple as between Fontenelle and Boileau, or Temple and William Wotton. The comparative perspectives taken in Ancients and Moderns in Europe fit well with this vision of the dispute.

It is, furthermore, curious that Voltaire left Jonathan Swift, the author of ‘The Battel of the Books’, out of his article on the quarrel. There is, of course, abundant evidence of how largely Swift loomed in Voltaire’s literary imagination. On several occasions Voltaire called him ‘le Rabelais d’Angleterre’ (Voltaire to Nicolas Claude Thieriot, 13 February 1727), and always gave Swift the advantage in the comparison. Swift represented a particularly powerful, if not unambiguous manifestation of the qualities that Voltaire most admired in the British: ‘que j’aime la hardiesse anglaise!’, he wrote to the Marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759, thinking of the range of Swift’s satire, ‘que j’aime les gens qui disent ce qu’ils pensent!’. Why would Voltaire miss the opportunity to bring this most hardy of authors into the most celebrated of early-modern literary tussles?

Tale_of_a_Tub

The answer, perhaps, is that Voltaire knew Swift’s writing too well to mistake him for a quarreler. What Swift did was to adjudicate controversies, loudly and with much bias, from the sideline. In the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ [2] that Voltaire kept in 1726-28, the years of his residence in London and of his acquaintance with Swift and his circle, there is an entry in English with the Swiftian title ‘A Tale of a Tub’. In commonwealths and free countries, notes Voltaire, traders of all religions are welcome to argue with one another’s religion, so long as they continue otherwise to deal with one another ‘with trust and peace; like good players who after having humour’d their parts and fought against one another upon the stage, spend the rest of their time drinking together’ [3].

Swift by Jervas

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, detail

It is strange to see this Addisonian, cosmopolitan vision of modern Britain associated so closely with Swift. But the association happens consistently whenever Voltaire writes about him. It has long been understood that Zadig (1747) owes its high satirical relish for foolish disputes to Gulliver’s travels (which appeared in London in the same month as Voltaire himself), and particularly to the quarrel of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. As late as 1768 Voltaire returns in Pot-pourri to the world of ‘A Tale of a Tub’, and of hypocritical, energetic, and ultimately evanescent quarrels touched upon in that entry to the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’. Gulliver’s travels is so extremely funny, Voltaire told Nicolas Claude Thieriot in 1727, ‘par les imaginations singulières dont il est plein, par la légèreté de son stile, etc. quand il ne seroit pas d’ailleurs la satire du genre humain’. For Voltaire’s Swift, the disputes of his enemies are only ever a sideshow: his great quarrel, and the only one really worth having, is with the human animal itself.

– Paddy Bullard

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, 1968- ), vol.38 (2007), p.340.

[2] ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ in Voltaire’s Notebooks, ed. Theodore Besterman, Geneva, 1952, p.43.

[3] Ibid.

Never the twain shall meet: the correspondence of Pietro and Alessandro Verri (1766-1797)

Pietro_Verri

Pietro Verri, by Giuseppe Benaglia / Image Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan

When, in October 1766, Alessandro Verri left Milan to go to Paris with Cesare Beccaria at the invitation of André Morellet (the translator of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments) and of the encyclopédistes, he concluded an epistolary pact with his brother Pietro. Pietro, who was thirteen years Alessandro’s senior, remained in Lombardy and ensured the preservation of the correspondence by having the letters carefully and systematically copied into large in-folio registers.

After his trip to Paris and London, Alessandro settled in Rome in 1767 and he continued his correspondence with his brother until Pietro’s death in 1797. The time span it covers and its candid take on private and public matters make it the richest correspondence in eighteenth-century Italy. It extends over three decades, from the age of Reforms in Lombardy under the rule of Maria Theresa to the eve of the proclamation of the Roman republic in 1798, and encompasses the French Revolution, the invasions of Piedmont and Lombardy by General Bonaparte, and the creation of the Cisalpine republic.

At first, the brothers’ dialogue preserved the harmony that characterised the discussions held at the Accademia dei Pugni (the ‘Academy of Punches’), the learned society that they had founded in Milan in 1761, and which had been the incubator for two seminal works of the Lombard Enlightenment, namely Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and the Caffè periodical (1764-1766). Yet, the brothers’ apparent convergence of views in the first months of their correspondence could hardly conceal the fact that they were growing apart intellectually.

Pietro’s letters reveal his strong belief in intellectual passions as drivers of historical change, and in the necessity to work towards the happiness of the masses. Throughout his life he remained an ardent reformist and never gave up on his ambition to ‘electrify minds’ through his writings. [1]

Alessandro’s letters, by contrast, show his individualistic conception of happiness and his wariness of any developments that might upset society’s order and stability (free thought, popular passions), as well as his conviction that attempting to create and shape public opinion was a dangerous endeavour. His refusal to envision a society made up of free individuals – and above all a secular society – alienated him from the spirit of modernity that was emerging at the end of the century.

In 1782, a dispute cropped up between the brothers over the interpretation of Pope Pius VI’s trip to Vienna. The Pontiff had decided to take this unprecedented step to try and dissuade Emperor Joseph II from carrying out a series of religious reforms which would lead to the closure of a number of convents and monasteries, and to the abolition of regular religious orders. Pietro praised the Emperor, whom he saw as an enlightened monarch: ‘To make his people more virtuous, humane, industrious and felicitous, he’s declaring war on superstition, he inspires and commands tolerance, and leads the way towards a time when vice will be stripped of the treacherous veil which gives it the appearance of virtue.’ [2] As for Alessandro, he regarded the Pope’s failure as a humiliation inflicted on the Holy See, but expressed pride at the ‘veneration’ and ‘infinite demonstrations of respect’ displayed by Italian and Austrian crowds towards the Pope during his journey. Those who ‘claim[ed] that their pens commanded public opinion have been proven wrong’, he thought. [3]

Pietro strove to demonstrate that the political victory of the Emperor was a harbinger of religious regeneration, of the restoration of religion’s social import and public efficacy: ‘Religion is saved, evil is rooted out.’ Above all, he saw this as the outcome of the ‘enduring battle’ waged by a few superior, isolated but victorious minds, in favour of liberties and science. While he clung to Bayle’s belief that ‘no religious opinion is essential to civilian government’, [4] Alessandro, for his part, regarded religion as part of ‘the arcane foundations of the State […] essential to restrain human passions and refrain the multitude, as we have seen men become fierce and mad when the yoke is broken.’ [5]

After the French Revolution the epistolary dialogue between the two brothers evolved into overt antagonism, as clearly summed up by Pietro in March 1796: ‘You hate modern philosophers, who have demonstrated that vigorous passions trigger great actions, while I agree with them.’ [6] For Pietro, the 1790s were an exaltated time in an era of political frustration. While he had been disappointed by the reforms carried out by Joseph II in Lombardy, he was filled with enthusiasm for the ideals of liberty and equality proclaimed by the French National Assembly in 1789. However, he understood that the fear awakened by the French Revolution had dealt a lethal blow to the cause of the advancement of reason in Italy: ‘Now that we rightly consider that the dissemination of culture among the people sparked off the events in France, we regard the excess of thought, books, thinkers, advocates of all sorts of doctrines as highly suspicious and we cordially hate them all,’ he remarked in 1794, adding: ‘we live at a time when fierce ignorance is all the rage […]. Reason is losing ground everywhere in Europe.’ [7]

Alessandro_Verri

Alessandro Verri, by Pietro Beceni / Image Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan.

Alessandro agreed that the revolutionary crisis had been sparked off by the works of enlightened thinkers and he saw this as a vindication of the misgivings he had experienced during his visit to Parisian coteries in the winter of 1766. He was concerned about the way some of the propositions from d’Holbach’s Système de la nature were freely debated in Italy, and he accused the ‘assassin-philosophers’ of undermining the moral and religious principles underpinning civil society: ‘As long as this form of thinking is limited to a few silent men, human society won’t be affected: but as soon as alleged philosophers take their ideas to the streets and ramble freely, human passions will be unleashed, à la française.’ ‘The tyranny of the multitude, the emancipated mob is a monster that I dread much more than Tiberius,’ he added. [8]

By contrast, the strength in Pietro’s thinking – which was quite original in the intellectual landscape of late eighteenth-century Italy – was to distance himself from the anti-Jacobin zeal of the Lombard élite and to understand that the transition from ‘error’ to ‘enlightenment,’ from tyranny to liberty, could be effected by violent means. For Pietro Verri, the violence in France in 1792 and 1793 could be justified and productive as long as the people managed to put together a constitution. His views echoed those of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments, a work to which Pietro had contributed years earlier: ‘Whoever reflects on the various histories of nations, which after a certain lapse of time come to resemble each other in their main outlines, will repeatedly find a whole generation sacrificed to the happiness of succeeding generations in the hard-fought but necessary transition from the shadows of ignorance to the light of philosophy and, as a corollary, in the passage from tyranny to freedom.’ [9]

– Pierre Musitelli, École normale supérieure, Paris

[1] Carteggio di Pietro e Alessandro Verri, 12 vol. (Milan, 1910-1942), vol.10 (1939), p. 237 (my translation).

[2] 2 March 1782.

[3] 17 April 1782; 10 April 1782.

[4] 20 April 1782; 4 May 1782; 22 May 1793.

[5] 13 May 1793.

[6] 5 March 1796.

[7] 1 March 1794; 29 march 1794.

[8] 25 August 1794; 15 December 1792.

[9] C. Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments (Cambridge, 1995), p. 106-107.

Journey to the end of the river, with La Condamine

It is now official: according to an article recently published in Le Figaro, the highest point on Earth is… Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador. Although there are dozens – if not hundreds – of peaks that are considerably taller than Chimborazo when measured as elevations above sea level, the top of the Ecuadorian volcano is the point furthest away from the centre of the Earth (outranking Mount Everest by some 1,800 metres) due to the fact that our planet is not a perfect sphere: rotation has slightly flattened it at the poles and made it bulge at the Equator.

Although the exact measurement of Chimborazo (‘to the nearest centimetre’, says Le Figaro) was only made possible by state-of-the-art technology, the fact that our terrestrial globe is flatter at the extremities and plumper in the middle did not exactly come as news. Newton had figured it out mathematically long ago, and the experimental evidence was provided by the twin expeditions of Maupertuis in Lapland and of La Condamine in modern-day Ecuador (then Peru) from the mid-1730s to the mid-1740s.

Reading the story about Mount Chimborazo, and with one thing leading to another, I felt compelled to look up works by Charles Marie de La Condamine on the Internet, and I started reading his Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale […] lue à l’assemblée publique de l’Académie des Sciences le 28 avril 1745 on Archive.org. For, as well as measuring his arc of meridian in Ecuador in order to settle the question of the shape of the Earth once and for all, La Condamine was also the first scientist to explore, describe and map the Amazon basin and its intricate network of tributaries in detail. His Relation abrégée was published in 1745, the same year he came back to Paris (via Amsterdam, as he sailed back to Europe from the Dutch colony of Suriname), having left the port of La Rochelle bound for the Americas ten years before, in 1735.

Condamine_map

‘Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones’, in Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale, by Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, chez la veuve Pissot, 1745). Image gallica/BnF.

The sense of immediacy afforded by La Condamine’s account of his journey, committed to the page so soon after its completion, is enhanced by the quality of the reading experience one gets thanks to the remarkable clarity of the scans of the first edition of the book (Paris, Chez la veuve Pissot, 1745) on Archive.org. Perusing the original edition, the reader feels transported back in time and space into a new world, huge swathes of which were then still largely unknown to Europeans, a world where the existence of a tribe of real-life Amazons could not be entirely dismissed (even though La Condamine himself was highly sceptical) and where echoes of stories about a land of gold – El Dorado – still resonated.

The book contains descriptions of many strange and mysterious animals – including the coati and the manatee – as well as what is quite possibly the first description of rubber by a European (La Condamine introduced the substance to Europe): ‘la résine appelée Cahuchu (prononcez Cahout-chou) […] est aussi fort commune sur les bords du Marañon […] Quand elle est fraîche, on lui donne avec des moules la forme qu’on veut; elle est impénétrable à la pluie, mais ce qui la rend plus remarquable, c’est sa grande élasticité. On en fait des bouteilles qui ne sont pas fragiles, des bottes […]’ (p.78-79).

La Condamine’s account of the character of the native Americans he encountered would undoubtedly make it quite difficult for him to find a publisher were he to submit his manuscript today, and would probably get him expelled from most universities’ Anthropology departments: ‘j’ai cru reconnaître dans tous [les Indiens Américains] un même fond de caractère. L’insensibilité en fait la base. […] Elle naît sans doute du petit nombre de leurs idées […] pusillanimes et poltrons à l’excès si l’ivresse ne les transporte pas […] ennemis du travail […] incapables de prévoyance et de réflexion […] ils passent leur vie sans penser, et ils vieillissent sans sortir de l’enfance dont ils conservent tous les défauts’ (p.52-53).

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, he is not unaware of his own biases as an external observer: describing how Indians inhale a crushed plant’s powder as snuff through a Y-shaped reed that they insert into their nostrils, he writes ‘cette opération […] leur fait faire une grimace fort ridicule aux yeux d’un Européen, qui veut tout rapporter à ses usages’ (p.73-74).

And his own commentary on what he perceives as the unenviable condition of native American women (offered as a theory concerning the possible origin of the Amazons) reveals his humane and compassionate side: ‘Je me contenterais de faire remarquer qui si jamais il y a pu avoir des Amazones dans le monde, c’est en Amérique, où la vie errante des femmes qui suivent souvent leurs maris à la guerre, et qui n’en sont pas plus heureuses dans leur domestique, a dû leur faire naître l’idée et leur fournir des occasions fréquentes de se dérober au joug de leurs tyrans, en cherchant à se faire un établisssement où elles pussent vivre dans l’indépendance, et du moins n’être pas réduites à la condition d’esclaves et de bêtes de somme. Une pareille résolution prise et exécutée n’aurait rien de plus extraordinaire ni de plus difficile que tout ce qui arrive tous les jours dans toutes les colonies européennes d’Amérique, où il n’est que trop ordinaire que des esclaves maltraités ou mécontents fuient par troupes dans les bois, et quelquefois seuls’ (p.110-111).

Although a bit dry (ironically) when describing the drainage basin of the Amazon river, the sheer variety of the observations and reflections contained in this slim volume and the author’s superb style make it a compelling and rejuvenating read, a first-hand account of an endlessly fascinating world, full of mysteries and wonders, by one of the great explorers and scientists of his time.

– Georges Pilard