Une réflexion d’Helvétius, à propos des récents événements qui ont ensanglanté la France et le monde

Dans son livre De l’esprit paru en 1758, Helvétius s’efforce de montrer, au chapitre 25 du discours III, que la force des passions est proportionnelle à la grandeur des récompenses qu’on leur propose pour objet. Pour prouver la vérité de ce rapport, il cite d’abord l’exemple des conquistadors espagnols et des flibustiers, «échauffés de la soif de l’or», puis passe aux anciens Germains, «animés de l’espoir d’une récompense imaginaire, mais la plus grande de toutes, lorsque la crédulité la réalise», et enfin aux Sarrasins qui, persuadés par Mahomet «que le Très-Haut leur a livré la terre, qu’il fera marcher devant eux la terreur et la désolation», se lancent avec ferveur dans le jihad:

«Frappés de ces récits, les Sarrasins prêtent aux discours de Mahomet une oreille d’autant plus crédule, qu’il leur fait des descriptions plus voluptueuses du séjour céleste destiné aux hommes vaillants. Intéressés par les plaisirs des sens à l’existence de ces beaux lieux, je les vois, échauffés de la plus vive croyance et soupirant sans cesse après les houris, fondre avec fureur sur leurs ennemis. Guerriers, s’écrie dans le combat un de leurs généraux, nommé Ikrimah, je les vois ces belles filles aux yeux noirs; elles sont quatre-vingt. Si l’une d’elles apparaissait sur la terre, tous les rois descendraient de leur trône pour la suivre. Mais, que vois-je? C’en est une qui s’avance; elle a un cothurne d’or pour chaussure; d’une main elle tient un mouchoir de soie verte, et de l’autre une coupe de topaze; elle me fait signe de la tête, en me disant: Venez ici, mon bien-aimé… Attendez-moi, divine houri; je me précipite dans les bataillons infidèles, je donne, je reçois la mort et vous rejoins.

Tant que les yeux crédules des Sarrasins virent aussi distinctement les houris, la passion des conquêtes, proportionnée en eux à la grandeur des récompenses qu’ils attendaient, les anima d’un courage supérieur à celui qu’inspire l’amour de la patrie: aussi produisit-il de plus grands effets, et les vit-on, en moins d’un siècle, soumettre plus de nations que les Romains n’en avaient subjugué en six cents ans.

Aussi les Grecs, supérieurs aux Arabes, en nombre, en discipline, en armures et en machines de guerre, fuyaient-ils devant eux, comme des colombes à la vue de l’épervier. Toutes les nations liguées ne leur auraient alors opposé que d’impuissantes barrières.

Bataille de Poitiers

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732, par Charles de Steuben (1830s).

Pour leur résister, il eût fallu armer les chrétiens du même esprit dont la loi de Mahomet animait les musulmans; promettre le Ciel et la palme du martyre, comme saint Bernard la promit du temps des croisades, à tout guerrier qui mourrait en combattant les infidèles: proposition que l’empereur Nicéphore fit aux évêques assemblés, qui, moins habiles que saint Bernard, la rejetèrent d’une commune voix. Ils ne s’aperçurent point que ce refus décourageait les Grecs, favorisait l’extinction du christianisme et les progrès des Sarrasins, auxquels on ne pouvait opposer que la digue d’un zèle égal à leur fanatisme. Ces évêques continuèrent donc d’attribuer aux crimes de la nation les calamités qui désolaient l’Empire, et dont un œil éclairé eût cherché et découvert la cause dans l’aveuglement de ces mêmes prélats, qui, dans de pareilles conjonctures, pouvaient être regardés comme les verges dont le Ciel se servait pour frapper l’Empire, et comme la plaie dont il l’affligeait.

Helvetius

Charles Adrien Helvétius, par Louis Michel van Loo, 1755.

Les succès étonnants des Sarrasins dépendaient tellement de la force de leurs passions, et la force de leurs passions des moyens dont on se servait pour les allumer en eux; que ces mêmes Arabes, ces guerriers si redoutables, devant lesquels la terre tremblait et les armées grecques fuyaient dispersées comme la poussière devant les aquilons, frémissaient eux-mêmes à l’aspect d’une secte de musulmans nommés les Safriens [Sufrites]. Échauffés, comme tous réformateurs, d’un orgueil plus féroce et d’une croyance plus ferme, ces sectaires voyaient, d’une vue plus distincte, les plaisirs célestes que l’espérance ne présentait aux autres musulmans que dans un lointain plus confus. Aussi ces furieux Safriens voulaient-ils purger la terre de ses erreurs, éclairer ou exterminer les nations, qui, disaient-ils, à leur aspect, devaient, frappées de terreur ou de lumière, se détacher de leurs préjugés ou de leurs opinions aussi promptement que la flèche se détache de l’arc dont elle est décochée.

Ce que je dis des Arabes et des Safriens peut s’appliquer à toutes les nations mues par le ressort des religions; c’est en ce genre l’égal degré de crédulité, qui, chez tous les peuples, produit l’équilibre de leur passion et de leur courage.»

– Gerhardt Stenger

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Voltaire, tolerance, solidarity (liberté, égalité, fraternité)

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

Paris, Boulevard Voltaire, 14 November 2015

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express warmest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, in the wake of the tragic and brutal events of 13 November.

André Glucksmann, who sadly died last week on 10 November, wrote his final book about Voltaire, Voltaire contre-attaque (Robert Laffont, 2014). Discussing Voltaire’s views on toleration, he quotes the conclusion of the article « Tolérance » in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

« Nous devons nous tolérer mutuellement parce que nous sommes tous faibles, inconséquents, sujets à la mutabilité, à l’erreur: un roseau couché par le vent dans la fange dira-t-il au roseau voisin couché dans un sens contraire, rampe à ma façon, misérable, ou je présenterai requête pour qu’on t’arrache et qu’on te brûle ? »

– Nicholas Cronk

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015

London, Tower Bridge, 14 November 2015

Responding to Louis XIV in the Oxfordshire landscape

On the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, and the publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV by the Voltaire Foundation, 2015 is a better year than most to search for the legacies and impacts of Louis’s reign closer to the Voltaire Foundation’s home on Banbury Road in Oxford.

Fortunately, responses to Louis XIV are writ large in the Oxfordshire countryside thanks to the gardening exploits of three military men in three different locations: Blenheim Palace, Rousham and Shotover Park. These men were united through shared personal, political and military connections forged during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

The largest, and most celebrated of these landscapes remains Blenheim Palace. The gift of a grateful nation to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, the house and landscape at Blenheim narrate his victory over Louis XIV in stone, paint and plaster. Over the kitchen and stable gate, the English lion savages the French cockerel, and over the centrepiece of the south front is a vast marble bust of Louis XIV, which came into the duke’s hands after the sack of Tournai in 1709. Some of this narrative decoration remains, whilst other aspects have fallen victim to the work of the great ‘improver’ Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who re-landscaped the surrounding parkland between 1764 and 1774, and who will celebrate his own tercentenary in 2016.

The greatest casualty was Marlborough’s military garden to the south of the palace. It covered around 70 acres and comprised a rectangular parterre the full width of the palace’s south front. The military garden was surrounded by a high stone wall with eight large bastions at the angles, each with a basin, and linked by a wide terraced curtain wall.

Blenheim’s buildings – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh – lay heavy on Voltaire’s heart. In letter 19 of Letters Concerning the English Nation, he observed:

“Sir John was a man of pleasure, and likewise a poet and an architect. The general opinion is that he is as sprightly in his writings as he is heavy in his buildings. ’Tis he who raised the famous castle of Blenheim, a ponderous and lasting monument of our unfortunate Battle of Hockstet. Were the apartments but as spacious as the walls are thick, this castle would be commodious enough.”

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul, by Peter Scheemakers, c.1743, Rousham.

As in battle, so with landscape, Marlborough led and his campaign staff followed. In 1704 James Dormer was wounded at the Battle of Blenheim as a lieutenant and captain of the 1st regiment of foot guards, before serving at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. By 1711 Dormer had become a brigadier-general. He employed Charles Bridgeman to draw up a plan for a new garden at his country seat, Rousham, in 1725, and employed William Kent from 1737 to his death in 1741.

As with many early to mid-eighteenth-century landscapes, Rousham can be read on a variety of different levels. Peter Scheemakers’s statue of the Dying Gaul, for example, whilst a knowing reference to ancient Rome, may also nod towards Dormer’s own martial background.

Shotover House and Garden,

Shotover House and Garden, by George Bickham the Younger, 1750. The British Museum Collection online.

William Kent provides the link to Oxfordshire’s third military garden, created by General James Tyrrell at Shotover. Tyrrell, like Dormer, served under Marlborough during his European campaigns before serving as a Groom of the Bedchamber to George I between 1714 and 1727. It seems likely that Dormer and Tyrrell shared not just military experience but architects too. William Kent was employed to create two buildings for the west of the gardens within a wilderness setting.

Arguably the most famous of these ‘battle gardens’ was that created by Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-1767). Tristram’s uncle, Toby, is a veteran of the siege of Namur (1695) where he was wounded in the groin. Toby transforms his back garden into a mock citadel, full of artificial fortifications where he can re-enact every siege of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Somewhat ironically, it is Toby’s fictional garden, immune to the power of shifting fashions, that has endured to this day.

Oliver Cox, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

The Empire strikes back: Spain vs. France in the eighteenth-century encyclopedia

As a scholar of the ‘other’ enlightenments, i.e. those that were not located in England or France, but rather in Spain and Italy, I have been struck by the extent to which the eighteenth-century French rhetorical style controlled the reader’s view of the world. And as a scholar of eighteenth-century encyclopedias, most of which were written in French, I have been equally surprised by how the geographical articles written in these French-language compilations helped shape national identities, as seen not only from within, but also from without. Words are powerful weapons. Who can forget Metternich describing Italy in the nineteenth century as merely “a geographical expression”? Never had there been a more effective rallying cry for national unity.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography...: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography…: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

When armchair geographer Masson de Morvilliers penned, in 1783, the equally powerful judgment of the Spanish Empire in the form of the rhetorical question, ‘What do we owe Spain?’, its derogatory impact and dissemination dealt a painful blow to the Spanish intellectual class, which rallied against it en masse. But the reception of the insult hardly stopped there. Allies in Italy and Germany, who had also experienced the negative repercussions of the French whip of words in encyclopedic representations, joined forces with Spain. Virtually overnight, writers, journalists, reformers, and men of science and letters took up the call to verbal arms and composed their responses.

The most important of these rebuttals, the article ‘España’, has been reproduced in our volume Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, in Spanish (with English translation), together with Masson’s French provocation. Reading these articles side by side, I’m always struck by the measured energy of the Spanish translator-authors as they speak their own truth, in Spanish, to the hegemonic power of the French Enlightenment, which in the hands of Masson had branded the Empire as a site of ongoing black legend atrocities, inquisitional tyranny, and fanatical thinking. Against Masson’s defamation, the Spanish encyclopedists culled opposing examples from the virtually unknown cultural history of the Spanish Empire, and in doing so restored Spanish confidence.

Donato_scholar

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’), ca. 1652, by Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn).

In a world in which Spain and Latin America are so well known to us, it is sometimes hard to remember that knowledge about these places was scant and hardly circulated in the vast eighteenth-century encyclopedia market. There were very few books of travel literature devoted to Spain, as the grand tour had taken place in Italy, attracting primarily British and French tourists who wrote extensively about their experiences, albeit it in English and French. I am reminded of a recent article in The Guardian that discusses language use on the web: “Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others… Inequality in information and representation in different languages online can also affect how we understand places and even how we act in them”. This information inequality, the article claims, has the potential to reinforce colonial-era patterns of information production and representation.

I can’t help but think that the situation of encyclopedias, language, and representation in the eighteenth century is the mirror image of our internet- and content-driven world. It might also not be too far-fetched to think that Masson, with his quarrelsome rhetoric and uninformed Spain-bashing, in some ways mirrors todays Internet troll, who weaponizes historical and cultural sensibilities in order to disrupt the course of knowledge production.

OSE-2015-11-50pc

Indeed, who would have thought that eighteenth-century encyclopedism would be so contemporary?

– Clorinda Donato

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills.

See also:

From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansionKathleen Hardesty Doig. SVEC 2013:11, ISBN 978-0-7294-1077-9, 328 pages, 6 ills.