The ‘Rights of Man’: Our debt to the Enlightenment?

Barely a week passes without some news story, from somewhere around the globe, involving human rights – most often, sadly, a story of their violation. But how far back does the story of human rights itself go? How deeply rooted in history is the idea that human beings have rights that they can assert against state and other forms of power?

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This is not a question a single book can answer. But Vincenzo Ferrone’s new book The Enlightenment and the Rights of Man goes further than most. It tells the story how, in Western Europe, the notion of the rights of human beings grew and took root, from beginnings in the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The starting point is natural law theory. This itself has foundations in antiquity and medieval thought. But it was in the seventeenth century, with figures such as Grotius and Pufendorf, that it was elaborated into a fully worked-out body of thought. The rights of individuals were in fact not one of its primary concerns. But in allowing for a source of law that lay beyond the limits of existing or ‘positive’ law, it made room for an idea of individual rights that pre-dated and could claim priority over the law of the state. It was this idea that later thinkers such as Locke, Barbeyrac, Rousseau, and Filangieri could take up and develop. What was needed, finally, was for talented popularizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Mirabeau, and Schiller to spread the gospel of the rights of man to public opinion at large – which, as Ferrone shows, they did with gusto, and with considerable success. Through their efforts, the rights of man were entrenched in public discourse, becoming a political cause in the process.

This of course is not to say that the political programme of the rights of man has ever been universally accepted. On the contrary, it has been contested, and has suffered numerous setbacks. Ferrone indeed closes his book with the story of one such defeat.

It concerns the short-lived order of the Illuminati, an offshoot of freemasonry. Committed to radical political aims, it was founded in 1776 and banned in 1784. The fear of its influence, exaggerated for propagandistic purposes by its enemies, led to repressive measures in a number of jurisdictions, both Catholic and Protestant. The excesses of the French Revolution after 1792 did the rest to discredit claims to individual human rights in large parts of Europe. The revival of the idea, in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, lies beyond the scope of the book.

For Ferrone himself the cause of human rights, as formulated in and by the Enlightenment, is far from spent. In a time when many have queried the legacy of the Enlightenment, he delivers a passionate defence of its central claims. But whatever side of the argument you are on, you will find in his book a narrative that gives ample food for thought. The case for the illumination provided by intellectual history is rarely made as forcefully as it is here.

– Kevin Hilliard


The typesetting challenges of OCV84

The Voltaire Foundation asked our typesetter, Tom Garland, of Academic & Technical Typesetting, to write about the recent challenge of setting volume 84, which contained several tricky layouts and graphical elements.

The challenge from a typesetting perspective with the volume was how to capture Voltaire’s original hand-drawn markings and then incorporate them into a complex page layout where their required positioning could very likely clash with sidenotes, line numbers, variant notes or footnotes.

Voltaire’s original markings, taken from photographs from original manuscripts, were quite faint and grey. This meant that there was no possibility of simply scanning the images and using the scans in a typeset page.

These marginal and textual markings fell into two categories, each causing its own problems.

Firstly, all pages with these markings were scanned and then separated into their relevant elements. With the marginal notes, an industry standard vector-based drawing package was used. Each individual scan of a page containing a marginal mark was imported into a template, where a freehand pen ‘tool’ was used to draw around the outline of Voltaire’s mark and then given an appropriate width to match the thickness of the original marking.

The textual markings, which often covered the manuscript width or encircled a word or number of words, caused a somewhat different problem. Again, a freehand tool was used, this time to encompass the required word or section of text. A ‘clipping mask’ was created, which effectively isolated the required markings, and made the background transparent. This allowed our typesetting system to import the image without blocking out any of the printed text (see the illustrations for p.215 and 250, below).

Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.84, p.215

Page 215.

Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.84, p.250

Page 250.

The publishing software used to typeset volume 84 was Arbortext Print Publisher (Unicode). A template for importing the text and images was created, which would normally allow for all different styles and types of articles found in an OCV publication. The template would automatically create line numbers and display the current line number value at intervals of five lines. These would be displayed in the left margin of right-hand pages and in the right margin of left-hand pages. Sidenotes would be positioned in the opposite side margin to the line numbers.

Fragment 48a was by far the most complex to typeset. This contained in excess of forty hand-drawn images, most of which were to be positioned within the left- or right-hand margin, or even within a sidenote. The typesetting package will automatically generate sidenotes, placing them alongside the position where they are referenced, e.g. <?”||SideNote”,3><mn id=48>. However, in Fragment 48a, both the hand-drawn images and sidenotes were required in both the left- and right-hand margins of a page. This made page make-up particularly difficult as there were numerous occasions where either the hand-drawn images or sidenotes would clash with automatically generated line numbers or text. There were also occasions (see page 238, illustration below) where the sidenote was required to move further to the left of its normal position to allow for an image to appear between the sidenote and the main text. A manual command <?tpr=6pt> (add a 6-point space to the right-hand margin) was added at the start of the sidenote to separate it from the hand-drawn image to prevent them clashing with one another.

Complete Works of Voltaire, vol.84, p.238

Page 238.

In summary, the object for any typesetter is to add as much automation into a template as possible to save time and ensure consistency throughout a publication. OCV volume 84 presented a challenge where it was necessary to add manual commands to override some of the template’s automation to position some images and sidenotes that did not conform to the usual OCV style.

The OCV volumes vary considerably from other typesetting projects we undertake. One striking difference from other books is the many different types of footnotes that appear within an OCV volume. There may be notes from the original text, textual variants and editorial footnotes that will be positioned, in that order, at the foot of the page where they belong. There might also be side notes appearing in the opposite margin to line numbers. To make things even more complicated, the call for a footnote might well appear in one of the other footnote types (see OCV 84, fragment 48a). This can result in difficulty placing footnotes at the bottom of the page where the corresponding note calls appear.

The challenges of typesetting OCV vary greatly from one volume to the next. Some volumes conform to the usual layout, whereas others have chapters that are typeset in a unique style (e.g. OCV 84, Fragment 46b). These chapters can result in additional production time due to the typesetting template requiring changes in order to display the material in the required format.

– Tom Garland

International Women’s Day: ten books by eighteenth-century women you may not have read

Through no fault of their own, many brilliant eighteenth-century women have fallen into obscurity, either because their work was little-valued in their own time or because, although they were popular among their contemporaries, subsequent scholarship has done little to shine a light on their œuvre. It is therefore sometimes a little difficult to know where to start when seeking to diversify our reading habits, and we risk missing out on some brilliant and crucial works. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here are ten books by women you may not have read.

Isabelle de Charrière

Isabelle Agneta van Tuyll van Serooskerken (Belle de Zuylen), the future Madame de Charrière, by Maurice Quentin La Tour (1766).

Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie, Isabelle de Charrière (1784)
This epistolary, written by Dutch/Swiss Enlightenment writer Isabelle de Charrière, explores the tensions between reason and sensibility. This series of poignant letters tell the story of a young woman struggling with a cold, stern husband and the seeming impossibility of happiness within a marriage.

An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, Jane Collier (1753)
The first work of English novelist Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting is a satirical conduct book, and includes advice for ‘teasing and mortifying’ a wide range of society, including lovers, parents, servants, and spouses. Other works of Collier’s include The Cry, written with Sarah Fielding, and a recently discovered commonplace-book.

Les Conversations d’Emilie, Louise d’Epinay (1774)
A response to Rousseauian ideas on education, this text represents a key moment in the development of 18th-century pedagogical thought. It takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her daughter, and emphasises the importance of not only the moral formation of girls, but also a well-rounded scientific and classical education.
For a critical edition of Les Conversations d’Emilie, edited by Rosena Davison, see here.

Die Honigmonathe, Caroline Auguste Fischer (1802)
This epistolary, written by German novelist Caroline Auguste Fischer, was published anonymously in response to Wilhelmine Karoline von Wobeser’s 1795 bestseller Elisa, oder das Weib wie es seyn sollte, which glorified the ideal of a selfless, obedient wife, and was much-praised by Fischer’s ex-husband. It tells the story of two close friends: Julie, who is trapped in a marriage of convenience with an increasingly selfish and unstable husband, and Wilhelmine, an ‘Amazon’ who frequently condemns the institution of marriage and seeks to rescue her friend from this unfortunate fate.

Madame de Graffigny

Presumed portrait of Madame de Graffigny, by Louis Toqué.

Lettres d’une Péruvienne, Françoise de Graffigny (1747)
One of Graffigny’s most successful works, Lettres d’une Péruvienne is told from the perspective of Zilia, a young Incan princess who is taken from her home by Spanish conquistadors and eventually finds herself living in France. Zilia is an engaging narrator, and her outsider insight into and critique of eighteenth-century Paris, as well as her suspenseful life of displacement, love, and independence, make for a highly engaging read.
For a critical edition of the Lettres d’une Péruvienne, edited by Jonathan Mallinson, see here. Graffigny’s fascinating correspondence is also well worth a read!

The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, Charlotte Lennox (1752)
This satirical novel tells the story of the life and loves of Arabella, an English noblewoman with a lively imagination, strong sensibility, and a love of French romance novels. After the death of her father, her expectation that life will imitate literature gets her into no end of trouble, and her adventures are at points laugh-out-loud funny, even for a twenty-first-century reader.

Histoire du Marquis de Cressy, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1758)
Although less well-known now, the work of French actress and novelist Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni reached a wide audience in her own time; she is even mentioned in the correspondence of Goethe. L’Histoire du Marquis de Cressy is not, as the title suggests, focussed on the life of the rakish Marquis, but instead on the tragic consequences that his deceptive and libertine behaviour has on the women in his life.

Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, Sophie von La Roche (1771)
The first known German-language novel to be written by a woman, this epistolary tells the story of the virtuous Sophie von Sternheim, daughter of a colonel and an English aristocrat, and her experiences in the English court. After the death of her parents she faces interfering relatives, unwelcome suitors, and royal scandals, but she stays true to her values and in the end gets the happy ending she always wished for.

Florentin, Dorothea von Schlegel (1801)
Dorothea von Schlegel, daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, wife of Friedrich von Schlegel, and aunt to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, published Florentin in 1801. The novel follows the travels of Florentin, an Italian aristocrat, and through his relationships and the relationships of those around him explores issues of desire, gender, and marriage.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773).

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley (1773)
Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery at a young age. She was subsequently bought by the Wheatley family, a merchant family from Boston, who named her after the ship on which she was forcibly brought to America, The Phillis. This collection of thirty-nine poems is rich and varied, as well as being a deeply important part of American history; it was the first ever work to be published by an African-American.

Of course, this is a very limited (and subjective!) list of suggestions. If you’d like to expand on any of the works listed here, or have other works you’d like to suggest, please comment below or contact us about writing a blog post – we’re always looking for more contributors!

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

L’âme de Voltaire dans tous ses états: l’édition critique de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697)

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697).

En 1733, la première version de la Lettre sur Locke est écartée par Voltaire des Lettres sur les Anglais à cause de ses audaces quasi-matérialistes qui risquent d’entraîner la censure de l’ensemble du recueil. Une nouvelle version sensiblement remaniée et édulcorée est finalement publiée en tant que lettre 13 de l’ouvrage. Mais Voltaire reprend la version d’origine en 1736 et développe la comparaison entre l’homme et l’animal, en allant bien au-delà des allusions prudentes de Locke dans son Essai sur l’entendement humain (1690): de la possibilité d’une “matière pensante”, le pas est glissant vers l’affirmation d’un lien essentiel entre l’“organisation” des corps et leurs propriétés cognitives. La Lettre lui échappe alors et connaît une circulation manuscrite et de nombreuses éditions au cours du dix-huitième siècle.

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557.

Notre édition critique a exigé une véritable enquête de détective selon plusieurs pistes ouvertes par les “nouvelles à la main” qui annoncent au mois de juin 1736 la diffusion d’une version inédite de la Lettre sur Locke. Toutes ces pistes ont conduit à un recueil de manuscrits clandestins conservé à l’Arsenal, qui s’est révélé être la source de toutes les copies manuscrites connues et des très nombreuses éditions publiées au cours du dix-huitième siècle. Chemin faisant, il s’agissait de démasquer les ennemis de Voltaire et leurs complices – une bande de “usual suspects” – qui ont œuvré à la diffusion de la Lettre et d’autres écrits audacieux de Voltaire. On découvre ainsi au bout de l’enquête une stratégie concertée de comploteurs qui exploitent un aspect des compositions de Voltaire qui le rend vulnérable: son irréligion. Voltaire a beau tempêter, multipliant les dénégations et les désaveux; il porte plainte, il fait lancer des enquêtes, des perquisitions, des saisies, des arrestations et des interrogatoires; imprimeurs, libraires, colporteurs, pamphlétistes, journalistes, auteurs petits et grands, et un violoniste de l’opéra, tous y passent, mais rien n’y fait: dans l’ombre, les autorités de l’Etat veillent au grain et assurent l’impunité aux coupables.

Alexis Piron.

Alexis Piron, gravure de Nicolas Le Mir d’après un tableau de Nicolas Bernard Michel Lépicié, dans Œuvres choisies (Paris, Duchesne, 1773).

Nos recherches révèlent une série d’initiatives malveillantes de la part des ennemis de Voltaire, Alexis Piron en tête: il est jaloux des succès de Voltaire et indigné de la désinvolture méprisante que le poète-philosophe affiche à son égard. Or, Piron fréquente Moncrif à la Société du Bout du Banc; il obtient une copie de la Lettre clandestine et la fait publier par son complice “calotin”, le journaliste La Varenne. La Marre, le protégé de Voltaire, est déjà entré dans le complot : dès 1735, il collabore avec Moncrif dans la publication d’un Recueil du cosmopolite (1735) comportant la première édition – ignorée jusqu’ici – de l’Epître à Uranie. Ce recueil fait partie d’une véritable campagne de publication des écrits compromettants de Voltaire, comme le révèle le conte anti-voltairien de Piron intitulé La Malle-Bosse, publié pour la première fois dans les Mémoires de l’Académie des colporteurs (1748) et de nouveau dans les Voltariana (1749).

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, portrait attribué à Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

Notre enquête fondée sur les ornements typographiques a permis d’identifier les principaux coupables: Prault fils, d’abord, qui recueille tout écrit compromettant qui sort de la plume de Voltaire; Simon fils, ensuite, qui se cache derrière le pseudonyme de “Pierre Poppy” et publie en 1738 la première édition française de la Lettre sur Locke. Quelques années plus tard, ce même Simon fils – imprimeur officiel de l’archevêque de Paris – publie, avec l’ornement caractéristique de la “tête de philosophe ébouriffé”, les Pensées philosophiques de Diderot et l’Essai sur lorigine des connaissances humaines de Condillac. Les ennemis de Voltaire publient ainsi les œuvres scandaleuses de Voltaire dans l’intention de le compromettre auprès des autorités en mettant en évidence ses convictions anti-chrétiennes. Maurepas n’attend qu’un tel prétexte pour le faire condamner.

Page de titre de l’édition publiée chez Pierre Poppy en 1744.

Autre piste qui impose, elle aussi, une révision de la biographie voltairienne: la Lettre de Voltaire est connue à la cour du prince royal Frédéric (futur roi Frédéric II) à Rheinsberg, malgré l’étroite surveillance dont celui-ci fait l’objet de la part du “diable” Manteuffel, qui défend l’autorité de la philosophie de Wolff, conçue comme indispensable à l’Etat de Brandebourg à la fois comme philosophie politique de la souveraineté et comme philosophie religieuse de l’immatérialité et de l’immortalité de l’âme. La diffusion de la Lettre au Brandebourg s’explique par une indiscrétion de Thiriot, le fidèle ami et secrétaire de Voltaire, qui se fait valoir auprès du futur roi Frédéric II de Prusse en lui envoyant la Lettre clandestine de Voltaire au mois de juin 1736, bien avant que Voltaire ne décide de le faire à son tour au mois de novembre: cet envoi par Thiriot entraîne, par l’intermédiaire du marquis de La Chétardie, la conversion philosophique du prince, qui rejette désormais l’autorité de Manteuffel et le système de Wolff. Il s’avère que la diffusion secrète de la Lettre sur Locke provoque la “conversion” philosophique du prince royal, la disgrâce de Manteuffel ainsi que la rupture définitive entre l’Aufklärung wolffienne et les Lumières voltairiennes.

C’est donc une histoire doublement secrète que révèle l’édition de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke. C’est grâce à ces trahisons et à cette circulation clandestine que la Lettre de Voltaire a pu jouer son rôle – avec les réflexions de Guillaume Lamy, de Bayle, de Collins et de Toland – dans l’émergence de la pensée matérialiste au cœur des Lumières françaises.

– Antony McKenna et Gianluca Mori


Gillian Pink at the Voltaire Foundation: thirteen years and counting

As we approach the completion of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, I sat down with team co-ordinator Gillian Pink to find out more about how joining the editorial team led to becoming a researcher in her own right.

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus

Gillian Pink and Birgit Mikus.

You are one of the research editors working on the critical edition, a huge task. How did you come to work for the VF? Did you start editing OCV immediately?

I came to the VF almost by accident. I was studying for an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University and Clare Fletcher, who was responsible for work placements on the MA, also did marketing here. She took one look at my CV – which at that point included work on a critical edition of an eighteenth-century sequel to Candide – and said ‘I think I know someone who would be very interested in this CV!’ That person turned out to be Janet Godden.

I arrived at 99 Banbury Road one afternoon in January 2007 for what I think I expected to be an interview, and was put to work straight away collating variants for Le Pyrrhonisme de l’histoire [since published in OCV, vol.67]. The rest, as they say… I did work briefly on Electronic Enlightenment before I started my full time employment on OCV in the autumn of that year, so an early introduction to digital editing, checking instances of words using non-Latin alphabets, as well as certain types of metadata.

So you have been at the VF for thirteen years – how many volumes have you worked on? Do you have a favourite text or volume?

Oh my! How many volumes… Taking a quick look at the shelves… twenty-five, perhaps, depending on your definition of ‘worked on’, and there are still a few more to go too. I don’t know if I have a single all-time favourite, but many favourites, which tend to be the ones I’ve contributed to as an author, rather than only as an in-house editor.

Questions sur l'Encyclopédie

The complete set of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie on the VF bookshelf.

One of my favourite Voltaire texts, I suppose, would have to be the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, a glorious collection of mostly short articles summing up his thoughts on just about every topic under the sun as he approached the end of his life. I had some involvement with all of the eight volumes that make up the set in OCV, was lead in-house editor on six of those and annotated articles in four. Last year, along with the general editors Nicholas Cronk and Christiane Mervaud, we published a version of this text for a wider readership with Robert Laffont. But I also love the very humorous poem ‘Le Pauvre Diable’ that I edited in volume 51A, and of course the notebook fragments just published in the latest volume, 84, and the marginalia in volumes 136-145 are close to my heart and research interests as well…

Tell me more about the marginalia, please! What is your research interest in them?

If you had told me when I first joined the VF that a few years down the line I’d have completed a D.Phil. and become an expert on Voltaire’s marginalia, I’d have found it quite hard to believe. As you may know, the project of publishing Voltaire’s marginal notes was begun by colleagues in St Petersburg at the National Library of Russia, but after the Berlin wall came down, their publisher, Akademie Verlag, went through a period of upheaval and the project stalled. The VF picked it up and incorporated it (quite rightly) into OCV.

But the lady in St Petersburg who had been writing all the editorial notes had sadly died before she got to the final volume, so it was suggested that I might like to take this on as a doctoral project. In the end, I did a more typical thesis, while the annotation ended up being a separate project. Until then, while the marginalia had been studied to some degree, by far most of the articles published looked at Voltaire as a reader of a particular author. There was no proper study at that point looking at the marginalia as an ensemble, as a genre, looking for patterns in what we present as a corpus, although of course it wasn’t conceived as a corpus by Voltaire at all – rather like his correspondence in that way. And I was lucky to have an excellent supervisor in Nicholas [Cronk]. The result of all this was my book, Voltaire à l’ouvrage (Voltaire at work), which came out – nearly two years ago already!

Since then I played a leading role in bringing out a final volume of Voltaire’s marginalia in OCV, based on an even more disparate corpus, which is to say those books and manuscripts that for various reasons are not part of his library in St Petersburg, and so were not part of the original Russian project. While I still find marginalia fascinating for the direct insights they provide into readers’ responses to books (although they can’t always be taken completely at face value), I’m now extending this interest to reading notes in a broader sense, and Voltaire’s notebooks are a wonderfully challenging mix of reading notes, ideas of various sorts, and jottings that probably reflected snippets that he gleaned from oral sources.

We all know that the paper publication of OCV is nearing its completion this year. Do you have a new project lined up, for example regarding Voltaire’s notebooks you mentioned?

You’re quite right to ask. I do have several research ideas concerning the notebooks. I can’t go into too much detail because a couple of them need to be finalised with publishers and/or other colleagues, but I think there is much to be done in this area.

I’ll be talking about the notebooks at the annual ‘Journées Voltaire’ conference at the Sorbonne in June. I think the notebooks can be perceived as a bit ‘scary’, in part because of the wide variety of topics and the considerable lack of order within them, but also the fact that they were amongst the first volumes published in OCV. In those days scholarly practices didn’t demand the fuller sort of annotation that we tend to provide for readers nowadays, so Besterman’s notes are quite laconic and his perspective perhaps isn’t quite the one we would adopt these days either. For me, as someone whose approach tends to be based on material bibliography, I find it really helpful and revealing to look at the original manuscripts. Often, physical characteristics will strongly suggest – for example from the colour of the ink, the margins, the spacing – which sections were written at the same time, and so give a sense of which bits belong together or not. This is an area in which I hope our future digital edition of Voltaire’s complete works may build on the print and add real value, as there would be an opportunity to supplement the print transcription with digitised images.

Of course, the really interesting question to me is how Voltaire used his notebooks and other loose papers, how they were generated, and how they fed into his more public writings. I think there are still discoveries to be made in this area, and I’m lucky to be able to work with a great network of colleagues, from friends based in Voltaire’s library in St Petersburg, to digital humanities scholars at the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago, and research groups interested in textual genetics and the extract as a genre at ITEM [in Paris] and the IZEA [Halle, Germany]. So the future is full of exciting possibilities.

Birgit Mikus with Gillian Pink

Hacking Voltaire

The Voltaire Foundation’s first ever Hackathon took place on Friday 24th January 2020, as part of a generous John Fell Fund grant. It was held in the suitably historic St Luke’s Chapel in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, a now deconsecrated chapel which once formed part of the Radcliffe Infirmary. The event was attended by over twenty students and researchers from a range of disciplines and institutions, including a large contingent of our colleagues from the Sorbonne. We were also joined by a number of specialist advisers, and of course our judges: Nicholas Cronk (Voltaire Foundation), Marian Hobson (Queen Mary), Glenn Roe (Sorbonne), and Kathryn Eccles (OII).

For the uninitiated, a hackathon (or, in French, ‘un hackathon’), is an event which brings together a large group of people to engage in collaborative digital projects. In the case of the Voltaire Hackathon, participants were asked to bring together their expertise and passion for the written word to conceive and realise projects drawn from an almost intimidatingly broad corpus: the collected works and correspondence of Voltaire, as found in TOUT Voltaire and Electronic Enlightenment, which were made available both as plain text and TEI-XML files. Armed with this corpus, participants in teams of three to five would compete for the ultimate prize: a small 3D-printed bust of the man himself.

Voltaire or bust! The winners’ trophy.

Voltaire or bust! The winners’ trophy.

Following a warm welcome from Nicholas Cronk and an introduction to the dataset from Glenn Roe, participants were given time to mix, mingle, and form their teams under the guidance of Kathryn Eccles. Each individual brought to the team their own strengths and skillset, with each group trying to find a balance of Voltaire specialists, French speakers, and digital specialists. Once teams had formed, participants set about the challenging task of finding just one project among the vast corpus of Voltaire’s literary and personal output – a project which needed to be at a working prototype stage within the six or so hours allotted to complete it. Some groups had clearly arrived with a concept already in mind, while others played around with a few ideas before settling on one point of focus. The room was soon abuzz with discussion and excited planning, in French, English, and the odd smattering of Franglais.

Having introduced themselves, established individual skillsets, and settled on a plan, teams set to work. By lunchtime, it was already clear that there were a wide range of interests represented: imagistic language in Voltaire’s poetry; mapping place in Candide’s journey and Voltaire’s correspondence; visualising the spread and reception of the Lettres Philosophiques in Voltaire’s correspondence; and analysing the presence of and response to the ideas of 17th-century philosophers within Voltaire’s œuvre. Each project presented its own unique challenges, not least of all the sheer size of the corpus available to each group, but over the course of the day, each project began to take a tangible shape.

Hacking away in St Luke’s Chapel.

Hacking away in St Luke’s Chapel.

At the end of the day, each team presented their work back to the judges and the other groups, explaining their concept, method, and the initial findings. The final products engaged not only with a wide range of works from the corpus, but also in a wide range of techniques, including building user interfaces for public engagement, and producing linguistic analysis, data visualisation, and geospatial analysis. All of the projects presented represented a huge amount of hard work, talent, and passion from the Hackathon participants, and it was exciting to get a sense of the huge potential in a digital approach to Voltaire and the Enlightenment more widely. However, there could only be one winner, and the much-coveted prize was award to Olle Hammarstrom, Maria Florutau, and Andrei Sorescu for their innovative work on Voltaire’s engagement with earlier philosophers.

The winning team: Maria Florutau, Olle Hammarstrom and Andrei Sorescu.

The winning team: Maria Florutau, Olle Hammarstrom and Andrei Sorescu.

However, without intending to sound trite, it was not the winning, but the taking part that counts. Although all of the participants would have been thrilled to win a tiny Voltaire of their very own, the day was a rewarding experience in and of itself, pushing all the attendees out of their comfort zones. For those with little experience in the digital humanities, it opened eyes to the techniques and insight available to them in the realm of computing, while those with little or no background in Voltaire were able to find a new interest; even in our internet age, it was evident from the smiles and laughter from participants that there is still a great deal of humour to be found in Voltaire’s work and correspondence. Overall, the day was a great success, both productive and enjoyable, and will, with a bit of luck, be repeated again in the not-so-distant future.

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Voltaire, quid de la mémoire contemporaine ?

S’il était encore parmi nous, il aurait 325 ans. Toutefois, si François-Marie Arouet dit Voltaire a marqué son temps, il continue de diviser longtemps après sa mort. La constitution du mythe Voltaire, commencée du vivant de l’écrivain, coïncida dès l’origine avec le mythe des Lumières, et se développa parallèlement à celui-ci. Les notions et valeurs qui lui furent associées devinrent au fil du temps des composantes à part entière de la pensée constitutionnelle française, du discours politique, et plus largement de l’idée de nation. Cette assimilation, qui ne se produisit pas sans déformation, correction ni critique, s’est effectuée par le détour de la littérature, au gré de différentes modalités de réemploi. Janvier 2015, date de l’attentat commis au siège de la rédaction du journal satirique Charlie-Hebdo, qui, dans ses combats, s’était revendiqué de la pensée de Voltaire, notamment sur le point, hautement sensible, de la liberté d’expression, marque le point de départ du retour à la lumière de Voltaire. Voltaire revient, plus contestataire, plus polémiste que jamais, et redevient le symbole de la défense de cette liberté d’expression, lui l’ami des souverains.

Discours social, journalistique et politique, la façon dont est convoquée la référence à la figure de Voltaire, à ses idées, à son œuvre, est plurielle. On l’aime ou au contraire, on le déteste, certains écrits faisant encore débat. A droite comme à gauche, chacun y va de sa formule « voltairienne », se l’appropriant au détour de contre-vérités et autres fantasmes, tout le monde ou presque aujourd’hui se revendique consciemment et bien souvent inconsciemment héritier de Voltaire. Une formule célèbre qu’on lui attribue à tort (aujourd’hui encore), est symptomatique selon moi du manque de lucidité et de connaissance à l’égard du patriarche de Ferney : « Je ne suis pas d’accord avec vous mais je me battrai jusqu’au bout pour que vous puissiez le dire ».

Cette assertion provient en réalité de la plume de la biographe anglaise Evelyn Beatrice Hall dans The Friends of Voltaire, ouvrage publié en 1906 sous un pseudonyme. Et à bien y réfléchir, quiconque connaît un peu Voltaire, s’interrogerait sur la plausibilité qu’il ait un jour prononcé cette phrase. Voltaire en effet tenait beaucoup trop à sa condition pour risquer de la mettre véritablement en péril pour quiconque.

Comment alors comprendre qu’après les attentats parisiens des 7, 8 et 9 janvier 2015, commis contre le journal satirique Charlie Hebdo, on a vu fleurir dans les « marches républicaines » du 11 janvier, à l’instar du slogan « Je suis Charlie » affiché en signe de solidarité et de protestation par les manifestants, les panneaux « Voltaire est Charlie ». D’autant que j’avais eu le sentiment que ses textes n’attiraient plus grand monde, tout comme le périodique Charlie-Hebdo ne trouvait plus grâce aux yeux des lecteurs. Mais, paradoxe de notre époque, les ventes du Traité sur la tolérance se sont brusquement envolées à la suite des attentats, l’ouvrage paraissant de nouveau faire écho auprès du public. Dans le même temps, de nombreux articles de presse présentaient Voltaire comme ayant toujours été en première ligne du combat multiséculaire pour la tolérance et la liberté.

Connaissons-nous vraiment qui était Voltaire ? Connaissons-nous ses textes, le lisons-nous ?

Pour la conscience collective, surtout pour une certaine classe élitiste, Voltaire est l’avocat des libertés publiques, fervent défenseur de la laïcité, il est une figure de l’intellectuel libre et impertinent, digne représentant d’une époque – les Lumières – qui absorbe et articule des opinions qui, dans le passé, étaient en conflit. Cette époque portée par de nombreux individus, des philosophes, des écrivains, des mathématiciens, loin d’être d’accord entre eux mais engagés en de pénibles discussions, est une période de débat et de profonde remise en question de la société française mais également de l’Europe entière. Il serait la figure tutélaire de tous ceux qui refusent l’idée que des croyances deviennent meurtrières, que l’on proclame sa foi en Dieu une arme à la main, que la religion soit utilisée comme alibi pour légitimer des massacres et autres attentats, que le fanatisme menace et mine les valeurs de l’appartenance à l’Humanité.

Alors, je m’interroge: à quoi tient la force de cette figure aujourd’hui encore, surtout auprès des non-initiés. S’il est indéniable qu’il existe bel et bien une doctrine de tolérance chez Voltaire, il n’en demeure pas moins que nombre de ses écrits divisaient et continuent de diviser, ou encore ils sont tout simplement méconnus de la « populace », terme qu’il aimait employer comme l’atteste cette lettre à son ami Damilaville (1er avril 1766): « Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu ».

Alors qu’il s’agisse de partis ou de courants politiques, ou de sensibilités diverses, qui aujourd’hui se retrouve autour de cette figure des Lumières. Qui connaît Voltaire ?

La tolérance voltairienne, il faut l’avouer, était limitée à ses amis, ses relations opportunes et tous ceux dont il arrivait à s’accommoder. Pour les autres, et en particulier pour ceux qui ne pensaient pas comme lui, le traitement était tout autre: désinformation, calomnie, invective et manipulation. La fin justifiait les moyens, serais-je tenté de dire à propos de Voltaire. Serait-il vraiment ce héros de la tolérance, ce chantre de la liberté d’expression que l’imaginaire collectif français convoquerait aujourd’hui ? Si le recours aux auteurs des Lumières ne saurait résoudre la crise multisectorielle (religieuse et politique entre autres) que traverse la société française et bien d’autres en Europe depuis plusieurs années déjà, je m’autorise à penser que l’analyse de cette évolution à travers le prisme des Lumières et Voltaire, pourrait servir à apaiser un climat devenu délétère.

Alors Voltaire, homme de son temps ou du nôtre ? A vous de voir.

– Willy Soumaho Igoumou

Willy est doctorant à l’Université de Lorraine; l’intitulé de son sujet de thèse est De la promotion Voltaire (1980) à Charlie-Hebdo (2015) : présence de Voltaire dans la société et dans les textes (aire française et francophone).