Strange skies: Voltaire’s physics

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons ever managed to; it made me realise that even the laws of gravity were a new discovery once.

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‘Figure des tourbillons de Descartes’, in Voltaire, La Henriade, divers autres poèmes etc. [Geneva, Cramer and Bardin], 1775, 37 vol., vol.26, facing p.355.

However, it was the way in which Descartes’ world was depicted that left a greater mark on me, through its apparent strangeness (although, had I heard about it in a physics classroom, no doubt it would seem as banal as gravity). In Voltaire’s portrayal, the emphasis is on movement, ‘tourbillons de matière subtile’,[1]  next to which our modern conception of gravity seems, if more accurate, somehow less dynamic. This theoretical universe is a crowded one, where light ‘existe dans l’air’ and the dominant forces are pushing ones; Newton’s is an elegant void, where movement is due to attraction.

After studying the letter, I wrote the poem below, inspired both by the painterly quality of Voltaire’s images, and the way in which reading it had offered me a new perspective on the way human knowledge changes. Letter XIV typifies a time very different from our era of specialization, where science and the humanities are carefully cordoned off from one another. Voltaire was spreading something that was, at that time, revolutionary, and it seems unlikely nowadays that a literary figure could be so fully involved with the cutting edge of science. I wanted to capture this sense of change, and the related fact that, while these competing explanations for the universe once ranked side by side, one has now been relegated to the status of image, while the other has become (relatively) unquestioned scientific fact.

Descartes thought the sky was made of spirals,
spangled whirlwind scrawls, a tide of starlight,
oily brushstrokes crowding in the midnight,
currents sweeping past the moon. His rival,
a Mr Newton, won; the Lumières jeered,
and though the sciences were an art those days,
the pictures Descartes saw were just a phase,
an early Van Gogh in the wrong career.

StarryNight_VanGogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.

– Rowan Lyster

(Poem first published in the ISIS magazine, Oxford)

[1] All quotes are from Letter XIV, Lettres philosophiques.

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Besterman’s commitment to the Eighteenth Century is still alive

Besterman

Theodore Besterman in the late 1940s

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end of the mantelpiece sits a white bust of Voltaire, and a picture of a stern-looking Rousseau hangs on the wall between them. Our meetings are thus presided over by this august trio.

I had heard the name Besterman in my academic publishing career before joining the Voltaire Foundation, because as a bibliographer, he gave his name to the Besterman/McColvin Awards for reference works (in both print and electronic forms). These are awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

Mantlepiece

The mantlepiece in the Besterman Room at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Tristram Besterman has just written a most informative personal memoir about his step-grandfather for the VF website. His account joins Giles Barber’s biography of Besterman as well as Haydn Mason’s history of the Voltaire Foundation.

One of Besterman’s many significant contributions to 18th-century scholarship was to found the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (or ISECS), the ‘umbrella’ organisation for all thirty national eighteenth-century societies worldwide. The VF still provides the secretariat functions for ISECS to this day.

ISECS holds an international congress every four years and the VF will of course be attending the next congress in July 2015 in Rotterdam. We hope to meet up with many of our colleagues, contributors and friends at our bookstand.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

There will be plenary lectures given by Dan Brewer and John Robertson (author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to the Enlightenment, due in September 2015). In 2019 the ISECS congress will be held at St Andrews, which was the location of the first congress, in 1967.

Besterman also started the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (in 1955), formerly known as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (or SVEC for short). After 60 years and over 500 books, it remains the leading series in the area of Enlightenment studies.

We are currently seeking to appoint a new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

The successful candidate would initially work alongside Professor Jonathan Mallinson who is standing down after 13 years. In 2016 he or she would take over as General Editor and be involved in appointing a deputy (who will be francophone if the General Editor is not, and vice versa).

Besterman’s legacy is still very much alive as demonstrated by the VF publications still rolling off the press – a new book in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series every month as well as six new volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire each year (the print edition is due for completion in 2018-2019). The VF’s blog gives an insight into the extended reach of our activities and some of our inner workings and musings – hence this blogpost.

– Clare

Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].

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The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri, http://pfef.free.fr/Index.htm)

 

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Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.

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Robert-François Damiens (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

 

The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.