The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.

Leibniz: before and after Pangloss

Writing in 1751, Voltaire celebrated and yearned for the vibrancy of the previous decades when Europe had seemingly experienced an intellectual renaissance. This golden age, the ‘Age of Louis XIV’, as he came to term it in his eponymous historical work (the Siècle de Louis XIV), had surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the various discoveries and institutions it had helped foster in the sciences and the arts. These, unlike political matters, would stand the test of time and forever attest to the capacities of human reason.

During this period, Voltaire wrote, ‘the human mind made the greatest progress’ [1], ‘[acquiring] throughout Europe greater lights than in all the ages that preceded it’, mainly through the tireless and often anonymous labours of several geniuses who, spread across Europe, ‘[had] enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it’. This ‘Republic of Letters’ had gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, oblivious to the religious and political schisms that had torn it apart: ‘The arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic […] the truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the band of this great society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent’.

Even though this network’s influence had considerably waned in Voltaire’s time, it had subsisted over the years bringing comfort to mankind over the ‘evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world’.

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

Ironically enough for the future author of Candide (1759) and creator of the infamous character Dr Pangloss, it was none other than the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe’, who had animated the universal network of communication that underpinned the intellectual revolution that had taken place decades earlier. Indeed, through Leibniz’s intervention, ‘there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period’.

Already as a young man, steadily expanding his network of correspondents, Leibniz prided himself on having entered into literary commerce with many of the most learned scholars in Europe. In a letter of August 1671 to Peter Lambeck, historian and librarian at the Imperial Court in Vienna, he highlights the wide geographical distribution of his network, listing the most notable names according to country – Athanasius Kircher and Francesco de Lana in Italy, Otto von Guericke and Hermann Conring in Germany, the royal librarian Pierre de Carcavi, Louis Ferrand, and others in France, Henry Oldenburg and John Wallis in England, Johann Georg Graevius and Lambert van Velthuysen in the Low Countries, and so on.

Leibniz chose his correspondents purposefully. By establishing an epistolary commerce with the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1670, at an early stage in his career, Leibniz sought entry into the leading scientific institution of his day. Moreover, he was successful in this enterprise, producing within a year a new physical hypothesis dealing with many of the concerns of the London virtuosi at the time.

In the case of Antoine Arnauld, he sought to subject his philosophical ideas to the scrutiny and criticism of one of France’s most astute thinkers who was also a leading Catholic theologian. Since Leibniz was, alongside his various other projects, seeking to bring about Christian reconciliation, he was additionally able to test the acceptability of his irenic theses to the Roman Catholic Church through his discourse with Arnauld.

As with Arnauld, Leibniz first met the scholar Simon Foucher during his momentous stay in Paris from 1672 to 1676. He valued the sagacity Foucher had displayed in his opposition to Malebranche’s philosophy and used the medium of their correspondence to air some of his own fundamental metaphysical ideas. Foucher for his part kept Leibniz, now living in provincial Hanover, abreast of intellectual news from Paris and in particular of members of his French circle of friends – scholars such as the churchman Pierre Daniel Huet, the editor of the Journal des savants, Jean Gallois, and Melchisédech Thévenot, an important figure in the foundation of the Académie royale des Sciences.

Already in his new physical hypothesis, Leibniz had declared the improvement of the human condition to be ‘the sole aim of philosophy’. His groundbreaking work in diverse fields such as mathematics (where alongside Newton he was the inventor of the calculus), logic, engineering, geology, and the biological sciences, and his promotion of the need for scientific academies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St Petersburg in which theoretical investigations could be combined with practical considerations, all fall within the overall compass of improving life. The Berlin Academy bears to this day the Leibnizian motto ‘Theoria cum praxi’.

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

While Voltaire’s scathing criticism of his philosophy, particularly the doctrine put forward in the Théodicée that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, appeared difficult to answer against the backdrop of natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), much of Leibniz’s scientific and technological thought has been of tremendous prescience and significance – although sometimes only identified as such comparatively recently. His work on a calculating machine based on the binary system anticipated our modern day computers, his ideas on insurance and fiscal policy were designed to ensure a greater degree of protection and justice for the population, mathematical papers on determinants and combinatorics were years ahead of their time. And as his extensive surviving papers and letters are steadily edited in the critical Academy Edition, more wonders of this nature are expected.

– Audrey Borowski and Philip Beeley

[1] All quotations are from the Siècle de Louis XIV, chapter 34, ‘Des Beaux-Arts en Europe du temps de Louis XIV’. Translations are from The Works of M. de Voltaire. Translated from the French, by T. Smollett, T. Francklin and others, 36 vol. (London, 1761-1765), vol.9 (1761), p.152-62.

Voltaire’s three birthdays and a feast day

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source:église%20saint%20andré%20des%20arts

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source: Gallica.

In November 1694, François-Marie Arouet, later to make his name as Voltaire, was christened at the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts in Paris – and there any certainty surrounding his earliest life ends.[1]

The official version, based on a now lost parish register, is that he was born the day before his christening, in Paris, to Marie-Marguerite and François Arouet. The dates of his birth and christening are usually given as 21 and 22 November 1694.[2] When the young François-Marie was arrested in May 1717 for writing verse against the regent, he stated that he was twenty-two, from Paris, and that his father was ‘payeur de M. de la chambre des comptes’.[3] Voltaire signed at least three official documents between 1749 and 1776 which give his date of birth as 21 November.[4]

An alternative story is that Voltaire was born nine months earlier, on 20 February 1694, at Châtenay outside Paris, the illegitimate son of Marie-Marguerite and a certain Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Voltaire had a clear preference for this less mundane version of events, except that he himself does not ever seem to have claimed to have been born anywhere but Paris. His letters to Antoine Deparcieux of 17 June 1768 or to his very close friend d’Argental of 18 May 1774 refer to Paris as the town where he was born. In his 1769 Epître à Boileau he states that he was born near the Palace of justice.[5] It was Condorcet, in his 1789 biography for the Kehl edition, who first named Châtenay as Voltaire’s place of birth. Voltaire’s earlier biographer, Duvernet, merely stated that he was not born in the parish of Saint-André-des-Arts. Whether or not Voltaire was born in Châtenay, where Arouet senior later bought a house, he certainly lived there in 1718 after leaving the Bastille and being banished from Paris, and it was here that he first signed a letter ‘Arouet de Voltaire’.

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source:

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source: Gallica.

The same building on Google maps. The words words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Source:,2.2793327,3a,60y,163.07h,84.58t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skRIGFHN1JFI9tqw7n9kq-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

The same building today. The words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Visit Châtenay with Google maps.

Very little is known about Voltaire’s putative father. Rochebrune is described as a ‘chansonnier’ (song-writer), socialising around 1710 with the literati of the day.[6] Voltaire refers to himself as ‘Rochebrune’s bastard’ in a 1744 letter to his old friend the duc de Richelieu.[7] In the summer of 1753, when he was suffering from ‘dropsy’, he told his niece Mme Denis in two separate letters that he could remember Rochebrune in the same state, unable to even write a song, that Rochebrune died of dropsy and that he himself has reason to believe that he took after him.[8] A second-hand report of a conversation between Voltaire and his nieces in front of ‘one or two guests’ in 1756 has him asserting that D’Alembert must be Fontenelle’s son as surely as he himself is Rochebrune’s.[9] When his nieces protest, Voltaire retorts that ‘it did more honour to his mother that she had preferred a man of wit such as Roquebrune, a musketeer, officer and author’, to her husband, ‘who was a very ordinary man’.

Published in 1776, two years before Voltaire’s death, the autobiographical (though written in the third person) Commentaire historique does not touch upon his possible illegitimacy, but does give two possible dates of birth, without settling for either: ‘Some maintain that François de Voltaire was born on 20 February 1694; others that it was on 20 November that same year [i.e. a day earlier than generally assumed]. We have medals of him that bear both dates; he told me several times that when he was born no-one thought he would live; and that having been given a private emergency baptism, the ceremony of his baptism was deferred by several months’. In manuscript notes to various copies of the Commentaire historique, Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière claims to have seen an ‘extrait de baptême’ recording Voltaire’s birth on 20 November and his christening on 21 November.[10]

Waechter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source:,_France,_1770,_G._C._Waechter_-_National_Museum_of_Finland_-_DSC04062.JPG

Wächter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source: Wikimedia commons.

The medals referred to must be the ones designed by Georg Christoph Wächter in 1769 and 1770. Interestingly, there is no mention in the correspondence of a wrong date of birth on the earlier medal (I am still searching for an example of it). The second version certainly gives Voltaire’s preferred date of 20 February 1694.

However, Voltaire did write at least seven letters between 1765 and 1768 bemoaning a print portrait that gave his date of birth as 20 November 1694. On 20 February 1765 he wrote to his friend Damilaville: ‘Today I am entering my seventy-second year, for I was born in 1694, on 20 February and not on 20 November as ill-informed commentators like to say’. He wrote in similar terms to to his former secretary Collini that same day and to the duc de Richelieu a week later. He repeated this claim to Damilaville on 10 May: ‘There is, they say, an engraving after the bust by Lemoine, that looked fairly like me a few years ago. It can be found at Joulin’s, quai de la Mégisserie; it is true that the print lies a bit; it has me being born on 20 November 1694 and I was born on 20 February’; and again on 20 February 1767. It was the duc de La Vallière’s turn the next day and D’Alembert on 23 March 1768. Unfortunately, as with the Wächter medals, I have been unable to find a version of this engraving giving Voltaire’s date of birth as 20 November 1694. Perhaps a kind reader will point me in the right direction…


‘François, Marie, Arouet, de Voltaire. Né a Paris le 21 Novembre 1694. Gravé par Aug. St Aubin d’après le buste fait par J. B. Lemoyne. Se vend à Paris Chez Joulain Quai de la Megisserie.’ Did an earlier version give the date 20 November?

On 1 January 1777, Voltaire was still railing against his official date of birth, this time to d’Argental: ‘Were it true according to a damned baptismal certificate that I was born in 1694 in November, you would still have to grant me that I am in my eighty-third year’.

Faced with such a profusion of dates, one could do worse than pick a completely different one on which to celebrate Voltaire. Nick Treuherz has already written on this blog about a short poem penned for Voltaire’s feast day, ‘la saint-François’, on 4 October 1767. The Correspondance littéraire described the celebrations: poems, plays, fireworks, dinner and a ball at which the patriarch reportedly danced until two in the morning.

– Alice

[1] This blog post is deeply indebted to the great biography Voltaire en son temps in which anyone interested in this subject can find further information.

[2] This date of birth is frequently accepted without question. See for example the OUP blog post on ‘Voltaire’s love letters’.

[3] See ‘Interrogatoire du sr Harrouet fils prisonnnier à la Bastille 21 may 1717’, published as an appendix to Theodore Besterman’s edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (

[4] ‘Voltaire buys annuities on the tobacco monopoly, 1749’ (; ‘Voltaire gives a power of attorney, September 1773’ (; and ‘Voltaire and Wagnière given certificats de vie, October-November 1776’ (

[5] ‘Dans la cour du palais, je naquis ton voisin’ (OCV, vol.70A, p.210).

[6] In the 1738 Vie de Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Rousseau: ‘Il y avait alors à Paris un café assez fameux, où s’assemblaient plusieurs amateurs des belles-lettres, des philosophes, des musiciens, des peintres, des poètes. M. de Fontenelle y venait quelquefois, M. de La Motte, M. Saurin, fameux géomètre, M. Danchet, poète assez méprisé, mais d’ailleurs homme de lettres et honnête homme, l’abbé Alazy, fils d’un fameux apothicaire, garçon fort savant, M. Boindin, procureur général des Trésoriers de France, M. de La Faye, capitaine aux gardes, de l’Académie des sciences; M. son frère, mort secrétaire du cabinet, homme délié et qui faisait de jolis vers, le sieur Roy, depuis chassé de l’Académie des inscriptions et du Châtelet, où il était conseiller, mais qui avait quelques talents pour les ballets, le sieur de Rochebrune, qui faisait des chansons; enfin plusieurs lettrés s’y rendaient tous les jours. Là, on examinait avec beaucoup de sévérité, et quelquefois avec des railleries fort amères, tous les ouvrages nouveaux. ¶On faisait des épigrammes, des chansons fort jolies. C’était une école d’esprit, dans laquelle il y avait un peu de licence’ (OCV, vol.18A, p.38-39).

[7] ‘Je crains bien qu’en cherchant de l’esprit et des traits, / Le bâtard de Rochebrune / Ne fatigue et n’importune / Le successeur d’Armand et les esprits bien faits’ (Voltaire to the duc de Richelieu, 8 June 1744). Curiously, Richelieu seems also to have thought himself illegitimate. See Voltaire’s letter to Mme de Fontaine of 8 January 1756, and his letters to Richelieu of 10 October and 3 December 1769.

[8] Letters of 15 July 1753 and 11 August 1753. Twenty-five years later, at the end of his life, Voltaire was still describing dropsy as a family illness. See his letter to Théodore Trochin of 27 February 1778.

[9] Letter from Jean Louis Dupan to Suzanne Catherine Freudenreich of 15 August 1756.

[10] To be published in OCV, vol.78B.

Chance discoveries in French and Italian archives

Le président de Brosses

Le président de Brosses, buste par J. B. Lemoyne. Cliché © Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

Chance plays as much of a part in the discovery of new material as it does in history itself. This is certainly the case with the epistolary exchanges of two figures who were at the centre of the Republic of Letters, the president de Brosses and the abbé marquis Niccolini. Had it not been that one of my students happened to be a descendant of president de Brosses, this edition of his correspondence might never have seen the light of day.

In 1982-1984, when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris X Nanterre, Alec de Brosses came to see me about undertaking a Master’s thesis based on his family’s papers. At the start of his work on the president’s relations with the British geographer Alexander Dalrymple, Alec de Brosses had also photocopied for me letters written to the president by a friend, the abate Antonio Niccolini. Because their content covered travel, literature, politics, diplomacy, antiquity, philosophy and religion, these letters were, in themselves, well worthy of publication, but where were the president’s own letters to his Florentine friend? He had kept only a few copies.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Niccolini family still lived in Florence, and locating the president’s letters would become a matter of enlisting their support. During my period in Paris, I had met Emanuela Kretzulesco, the author of an excellent book on the dream of Polyphilus. Through Princess Kretzulesco, I had an introduction to the remarkable Marchesa Gilberte Serlupi Crescenzi in Florence, to whom I explained my quest. She knew the Niccolini family, and I was soon admitted to their extensive family archives. The lady of the house, who knew the archives well, soon found the president’s letters. She and I photocopied them together at a neighbouring café. I now had both sides of a truly fascinating and extensive correspondence that spanned over thirty years from 1740 to 1770. I could envisage editing and publishing them with my collaborator from the University of Pisa, Mireille Gille, whom I had met at the Florence ISECS Congress of 1979, and who was herself an expert on the form of the eighteenth-century letter.

The process would be a lengthy one and there were a number of amusing incidents over the following years. In Florence, where some other privately held papers were then in restauro, Mireille Gille and I were allowed to work on them at the restorer’s workshop to the sound of loud rock music. With a deep sigh, the restorer told me that Britain was a great country because there, archive restoration was treated as an academic discipline in which one could get a degree.

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

On another occasion, I was extremely fortunate to have Alec de Brosses with me because the archives were in a cubby-hole high up on the wall of a room, almost by the ceiling. Unlike me, he was able to leap up and pass the papers down. All these efforts and incidents were not in vain, and Mireille Gille and I are very pleased that the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini is now available to the public, with an extensive introduction and notes. We are left with a great sense of gratitude to all those who helped us to produce an edition of a truly enriching correspondence.

– John Rogister

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).