VF networking at 2014/15 academic conferences

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

In March I visited Colonial Williamsburg where I was ‘personning’ the bookstand at the annual ASECS.

I stayed at the Cedars B&B (rather than the plush conference hotel), and as usual I enjoyed meeting existing ‘friends of the VF family’ (those who already know of and have collaborated with us) and making new VF friends.

A visit to historic Jamestown

A visit to historic Jamestown

Over 900 academics attended to give papers on panels, network, and browse the book display – mostly to capture information for their libraries to order as well as make some individual purchases. Also to do some 18C tourism! My own tourism treat was a visit to the Jamestown settlement.

Other members of the VF team are also out and about this Spring/Summer.

In May, our MHRA Research Associate Nick Treuherz is giving a paper at the Virtue and Enlightenment conference at Reid Hall, University of Kent, Paris, and Nicholas Cronk is the co-organiser of an ITEM study day on Enlightenment manuscripts at the IEA.

In June, we always attend the Journées Voltaire organised by the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes (SEV), this year on the theme of Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?

In July, part of the final volume in the Correspondence of Mme de Graffigny is the subject of David Smith’s talk at the Graffigny colloquium at the Château de Lunéville, called the Versailles of Lorraine.

The Château de Lunéville

The Château de Lunéville

Also Lyn Roberts will be attending the Society for the Study of French History conference in Durham on the theme of History and the senses.

Looking ahead to 2015

The annual BSECS conference in January at St Hugh’s College, Oxford is on the theme of Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions.

The VF co-funds an annual travel prize.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

The Voltaire Foundation’s stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

Many of us will be attending the next ISECS conference in July in Rotterdam on the theme of Opening Markets, Trade and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century. Founded by Theodore Besterman (who also founded the VF), this will be the 50th anniversary conference (and then for 2019 the ISECS conference returns to Scotland, where it started).

Will you be at any of these events? If so, please do get in touch via the comments or by emailing email@voltaire.ox.ac.uk – as always we’d love to hear from you!


The trouble with money: crashes, recoinage and war in the Enlightenment

The problem of money has never been far from people’s minds. In the Enlightenment the issue took on new importance as a result of a series of famous crises.
The best known are two runaway moments of financial speculation that ended in disaster, the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21, and the spectacular collapse in 1720 of Mississippi Company stock. An earlier incident, the Recoinage Crisis of 1696-98, had even more impact in terms of the monetary principles formulated as a result of it. Under conditions of a severely deteriorated silver currency (caused by illegal clipping), England was obligated to recoin all of its circulating medium, no easy feat in the midst of the Nine Years’ War with France when England’s armies and allies abroad required a steady diet of remittances. The question was whether to devalue the currency during the recoinage or to maintain the existing standard, with John Locke and Isaac Newton taking opposing positions on the matter. All these episodes invited new reflection on different kinds of credit and financial instruments, the role of banks, and a consideration of how to sustain and expand the money supply.

As I and a team of contributors explore in the recently published Money and political economy in the Enlightenment, what makes this period so remarkable is the way it witnesses not only the evolution of a financial system but also the entrance of leading philosophers into the debate over how to understand this new political and economic reality. John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume and Adam Smith all made major contributions, but they were not alone in taking on the intellectual challenges posed by an era of innovation.

Folio broadside of 1720 about the South Sea Bubble and the collapse of financial speculation

Folio broadside of 1720 about the South Sea Bubble and the collapse of financial speculation

One area of contention has been whether republican thinkers were able to accommodate the new commercial reality, given their traditional attachment to land as the key determinant of political power. In fact, important figures such as John Toland and Robert Molesworth had plenty to say in favour of mercantile sources of wealth. They also engaged in risky investments of their own, including the South Sea Company, with predictably unfortunate results. Later in the century, the republican period in France presented a different philosophical dilemma – how to reconcile inequalities associated with commercial society with an egalitarian political premise.

The Mississippi Copmpany share price, 1718-1722 (source: François R. Velde, 'Government equity and money: John Law's system in 1720 France', Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper No. 2003-31)

The Mississippi Company share price, 1718-1722 (source: François R. Velde, ‘Government equity and money: John Law’s system in 1720 France’, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper No. 2003-31)

Enlightenment authorities inherited and reshaped older assumptions but they did not arrive at an agreement on key issues surrounding money form, credit and the role of the state. Their views thus challenge the tendency to read the Enlightenment as a period of consensus, and for that matter how we periodise it.

When Charles Mackay reviewed the two great financial shocks of the eighteenth century – the crashes in value of the South Sea and Mississippi Companies – in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), he traced the potential for events of this kind to human social psychology, but he also, implicitly, signalled our capacity to transcend them. Today, if we have learned nothing else from the crisis that began in 2008, we have recognised our own ability to invent economic calamities in new forms, around ongoing patterns of expanding credit and investment. The Enlightenment’s legacy was to comment on these issues at the highest level philosophically. Whether our own experience will emulate these contributions with intellectual monuments of our own remains to be seen.

–Daniel Carey, National University of Ireland, Galway

A vote of confidence in Louis XVI? Voltaire’s Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares

It isn’t always possible to know what prompted Voltaire to write a particular text. The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares appear to be the response from one armchair traveller and great China admirer, Voltaire (or his young Benedictine alter ego), to another armchair traveller and China detractor, Cornelius de Pauw, author of Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (Berlin, 1773). However, Voltaire had finished reading the Recherches by September 1774 (D19110), over a year before we have any hint that he has started work on the Lettres chinoises.

Another trigger might have been the assemblée générale du clergé that was held in Paris for much of 1775. Voltaire billed his Lettres chinoises – published early in 1776, once the clergy was safely home again – as ‘insolent’,[1] and indeed they argue for the anteriority and superiority of Eastern philosophies and religions over Judaeo-Christianity.

I just wonder whether the Lettres chinoises may also partly have been written as a sort of vote of confidence in Louis XVI. Nowhere is the king mentioned explicitly. It is only in a private letter to D’Alembert, quoted below, or in the unpublished Edits de sa majesté Louis XVI (1776), that Louis XVI and Chinese emperors are clearly linked in Voltaire’s mind. Yet might the Lettres chinoises’s undiluted admiration for Eastern rulers seem to validate some of the controversial decisions that the king faced in the first two years of his reign?

Qianlong (1711-1799) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Qianlong (1711-1799)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In September 1774, Louis XVI had signed an edict penned by his controller-general, Turgot, bringing about free trade in grain. The edict was contentious enough (though Voltaire thoroughly approved), but its explanatory preface was also criticised on the grounds that a king should not have to justify his rulings. Though the Lettres chinoises do not mention this edict, or the following six that coincided with their publication, they lavish praise on the current Chinese emperor, Qianlong, for communicating with his people: ‘How did [Qianlong] have a heart good enough to give such lessons to a hundred and fifty million men?’; ‘Here is an emperor more powerful than Augustus, more revered, busier; who only writes for the instruction and the happiness of humankind’.[2]

Writing to Frederick the Great on 3 October 1775, D’Alembert complained that the clergy assembled in Paris was attempting to persuade Louis XVI to renew edicts against the Protestants.[3] On 6 November, Voltaire noted in code to D’Alembert: ‘They say that the bonzes [i.e. the French clergy] have recently wanted to harm the disciples of Confucius [the Protestants], and that the young emperor Kangxi [Louis XVI] has calmed everything down with a wisdom beyond his years’.[4]

Kangxi (1654-1722) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Kangxi (1654-1722)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In the Lettres chinoises, the Chinese emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng are both held up as models of rationality in their dealings with religious troublemakers. Kangxi’s message to the Jesuits at his court is quoted approvingly:

‘The emperor is surprised to see you so stubbornly attached to your ideas. Why concern yourselves with a world that you are not yet in? Enjoy the here and now. Your attentions make no odds to your god. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’[5]

Voltaire similarly approves of Yongzheng’s ‘admirable speech’ expelling the Jesuits in 1724:

‘What would you say if I sent a troupe of bonzes and lamas to your country to preach their dogmas there: – bad dogmas are those which under the pretext of teaching virtue, sow discord and revolt: you want all Chinese to become Christian, I know; then what will we become? The subjects of your kings.’[6]

Yongzheng (1678-1735) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng (1678-1735)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng apparently gave the departing Jesuits money and supplies, as well as escorts to protect them against the fury of the people. The Lettres chinoises do not mention the persecution of the Jesuits, claiming instead that ‘there was no dragonnade’ (a reference to seventeenth-century persecution of French Protestants).[7]

The Lettres chinoises may serve more than one purpose: they reassert Voltaire’s idealised view of China against Cornelius de Pauw, they make Judaeo-Christian religions look small alongside ancient Eastern religions, and perhaps they also implicitly lend their support to a king whose actions seem to parallel those of great Chinese emperors.

  • The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares have just been published in volume 77B, Œuvres de 1775-1776, of the Complete Works of Voltaire.
  • Voltaire had to make do with being an armchair traveller to China, India and Tartary. Travel, real and imagined, is the theme of this year’s Journées Voltaire, ‘Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?’, which take place on 13 and 14 June 2014 in Paris, at the Sorbonne.
  • There is no doubt that the East, especially the Far East, was in demand when Voltaire wrote his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares. Currently on display at Versailles are precious Chinese objects collected by French royals throughout the eighteenth century: ‘La Chine à Versailles, art et diplomatie au dix-huitième siècle’ is on until 26 October 2014.



[1] ‘Puisque vous me répondez de M. de Sartines, je vais donc lui adresser les insolentes Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares’ (20 March 1776, to d’Argental, D20010).

[2] ‘Comment a-t-il eu un cœur assez bon pour donner de telles leçons à cent cinquante millions d’hommes […]? […] Voici un empereur plus puissant qu’Auguste, plus révéré, plus occupé; qui n’écrit que pour l’instruction et pour le bonheur du genre humain’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.116-17).

[3] ‘Quant aux prêtres, qui sont actuellement assemblés comme ils le sont par malheur tous les cinq ans, et qui dans cette assemblée se dévorent et se déchirent entre eux, ils partent de là pour aller à Versailles conjurer le roi de renouveler les édits atroces et absurdes qui ordonnent la persécution des protestants’ (Œuvres de Frédéric le Grand, 30 vol., Berlin, 1846-1856, vol.25, p.31: http://friedrich.uni-trier.de/de/oeuvres/25/31/text/).

[4] ‘On dit que des bonzes ont voulu depuis peu faire du mal aux disciples de Confucius, et que le jeune empereur Kan-hi a tout apaisé avec une sagesse au dessus de son âge’ (D19729).

[5] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.157).

[6] ‘Que diriez-vous si j’envoyais une troupe de bonzes et de lamas dans votre pays pour y prêcher leurs dogmes: – les mauvais dogmes sont ceux qui sous prétexte d’enseigner la vertu, soufflent la discorde et la révolte: vous voulez que tous les Chinois se fassent chrétiens, je le sais bien; alors que deviendrons-nous? les sujets de vos rois’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).

[7] ‘Il n’y eut point de dragonnade’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).