Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

Voltaire’s afterlife is complex, his reputation changing with successive regimes. The French Revolution looked back to him as a heroic precursor of its struggle, and in 1791 his remains were brought back to Paris and with great ceremony placed in the Panthéon. For much of the nineteenth century the name of Voltaire was synonymous with anticlericalism, and the philosophe was widely, if implausibly, seen as an Antichrist. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair Voltaire’s reputation as a crusader for tolerance was re-emphasised, and in the latter years of the Third Republic, under the influence of the Sorbonne literary historian Gustave Lanson, Voltaire became a fixture of the republican school and university curriculum. The latter half of the twentieth century has taken a more nuanced approach to Voltaire’s religious views, especially in the wake of René Pomeau’s La Religion de Voltaire (first published in 1954), which stresses the depth of Voltaire’s deist convictions.

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). Image: BnF.

Voltaire’s legacy in the wider world is ubiquitous. His name has become a byword for tolerance, justice and the power of reason whenever fanaticism, tyranny and superstition rear their ugly heads. Famously, portraits of him spontaneously appeared on the walls of the French capital in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in 2015. Several years before the attack, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Philippe Val, had published a book entitled Reviens, Voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!, and philosopher André Glucksmann’s last book, published in 2014 (one year before he died), is called Voltaire contre-attaque.

Voltaire is undoubtedly the most widely quoted of all French writers past and present. Everyone is familiar with his ‘il faut cultiver son jardin’, ‘le meilleur des mondes possibles’, and ‘si Dieu [which can be replaced with anything deemed to be of value, no matter how trivial] n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’. These three quotations happen to be genuine and traceable; interestingly, however, we at the Voltaire Foundation often receive queries from scholars and members of the public alike asking about the provenance of various Voltaire quotes which, after diligent research, turn out to be apocryphal. It is as if witty and wise pronouncements in search of an author were routinely attributed to him by default.

Paris, January 2015.

Ironically, what must be the most famous and oft-repeated quotation by Voltaire does not appear anywhere in his writings or his correspondence. Elizabeth Knowles picks up the story:

“A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ’

“In De l’esprit (‘On the Mind’), published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

“‘What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. “On the Mind” became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. “What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’

“(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)” [1]

We will end this short blog article on this culinary note. Readers who are curious about the origin of this particular quote are invited to consult Lettres à Son Altesse Monseigneur le prince de *** (letter 7) or the article ‘Athéisme’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

[1] Excerpt reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55. By permission of Oxford University Press.


Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).

Fausser le climat pour mieux s’exprimer? Stratégies de discours dans la philosophie politique de la Renaissance aux Lumières

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573).

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573). Courtesy of giuseppe-arcimboldo.org (CC by 4.0).

Pour expliquer l’hypothèse de lecture de mon livre, Les Climats du pouvoir: rhétorique et politique chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, je voudrais me référer à la blague suivante, tirée d’un article du Dictionnaire de Trévoux:

‘Le froid, dans le figuré, est une métaphore établie; mais il ne faut point qu’elle passe les bornes: & l’Italien qui disoit à son retour de Pologne, que les personnes de ce pays-là étoient si froides, que leur conversation l’avoit enrhumé, outrait la métaphore.’ (‘Froid’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux)

Durant l’Ancien Régime, la popularité des discours climatologiques et déterministes tenait non seulement aux effets de science qu’ils apportaient à la conversation mais à leur flexibilité rhétorique. C’est pourquoi il faut noter la sagesse de l’article ‘Froid’ du Dictionnaire de Trévoux qui ironise sur la facilité des corrélations à laquelle la logique déterministe peut trop souvent donner lieu. Entre la température et le tempérament, le potentiel rhétorique des associations fait voir un glissement métaphorique qu’on peut aisément exagérer ou dissimuler à des fins multiples. Dans mon livre, qui porte sur les appropriations politiques du climat, le but n’est pas nécessairement de faire rire. Mais on retrouve le même écart créatif à l’égard de cette théorie prétendument scientifique.

C’est un ludisme qui échappe parfois aux analyses, surtout en raison du passé controversé des théories des climats. Celles-ci ne méritent souvent que des explications historiques et épistémologiques. On considère souvent le discours comme une erreur de l’époque, comme si son ‘primitivisme’ ou manque de rigueur scientifique neutralisait quelque peu sa charge ethnocentrique. D’où la tendance à expliquer les différentes versions de la théorie en bloc, en fonction d’une épistémè qui n’est plus la nôtre, mais qui entrent dans une généalogie de nos origines et de nos progrès scientifiques. Ainsi, Bodin croyait à la théorie des climats à cause des influences de la cosmologie; Montaigne et La Mothe Le Vayer y recouraient grâce à l’ouverture chorographique (géographie axée sur la description) fournie par les récits de voyage et ainsi de suite. Toutefois, de telles lectures désamorcent le déterminisme climatique et le neutralisent par l’explication. Ainsi, en soumettant le discours à des déterminismes épistémologiques, on risque de passer sous silence les logiques internes du discours, c’est-à-dire leur créativité propre.

C’est ici que je voudrais dégager l’ironie des théories des climats. Chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, les théories des climats s’avèrent conscientes d’elles-mêmes ainsi que des erreurs géographiques qu’elles véhiculent. Autrement dit, les discours des climats ne sont pas nécessairement une chasse gardée pour les historiens de la science. Dans le cas des appropriations politiques, ils peuvent jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la structure argumentative de l’ouvrage et inviter à des usages métaphoriques. Mon livre propose une lecture en profondeur de ces arguments, tant sur la forme que sur le fond, les reliant aux grandes théories politiques de la période: la souveraineté, le constitutionnalisme et le républicanisme. J’avance que l’usage créatif du discours climatique révèle différents niveaux de lecture et différents types de lecteurs.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (anonymous portrait, 1728). Public domain.

Pour revenir à la blague du Trévoux, il faut cependant convenir que, contrairement à la voix narrative qui annonce l’humour du ‘rhume’, les corrélations température-tempérament des déterminismes climatiques tendent à estomper leurs marques énonciatives. La tentative est de confiner à une vérité scientifique. La dimension rhétorique se dissimule derrière l’observation empirique. De là, le discours se réclame d’une vérité physique, des observations avérées par la connaissance géographique, pour objectiver une position scientifique, que mon étude explique, de différentes manières, comme un homme de paille. C’est ce voile de la ‘scientificité’ qui abrite une stratégie détournée ou ‘ésotérique’ (Leo Strauss) de représenter le pouvoir. Moins des ‘caractères’ sociologiques ou des indices de la diversité humaine, les climats cachent une philosophie du pouvoir. Une grande partie de mes analyses expliquent le pourquoi de cette dissimulation que les théories de Strauss – mais aussi l’héritage des miroirs des princes – aident à structurer. Pour les modèles gouvernementaux et absolutistes de l’Ancien Régime, le discours climatique sera envisagé en tant qu’un idiome destiné aux législateurs, qui imite le manque de transparence de leur pouvoir, c’est-à-dire les arcana imperii, afin de mieux les influencer.

– Richard Spavin