Human rights, story-ballet and insects: The Oxford Enlightenment programme for 2018-2019

Our 2018-2019 programme is spearheaded by events on human rights and the Enlightenment, a much-debated topic with contemporary implications. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, two emblematic documents took for granted the view that human beings were entitled to certain basic universal rights (albeit within clearly demarcated political communities). In August 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen began with a reference to ‘the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man’; while thirteen years earlier, the Founding Fathers of the nascent United States famously held ‘these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

In both cases reality on the ground did not match the universalist thrust of the celebratory Declarations. Moreover, eighteenth-century concepts of human rights should not be teleologically conflated with contemporary, post-war ideas and documents bearing similar titles (see, for example, Samuel Moyn’s account of the very recent history of present-day human rights). While trying to avoid such a distorting perspective, significant questions remain to be answered concerning, in the first place, the origins of the rights discourse so manifest in the American and French Declarations of the late eighteenth century; and, secondly, the intellectual genealogy of human rights from the Age of Revolutions onwards.

In our first event this year, the Besterman Lecture of the Voltaire Foundation on 15 November 2018, Keith Michael Baker of Stanford University – one of the foremost scholars of the French Revolution – will subject to close scrutiny different contexts and discussions of human rights in the early stages of the Revolution. The title of his lecture is ‘Writing Rights in 1789’. At the other end of the academic year, on 29 April 2019, Dan Edelstein (also of Stanford) will return to the origins of some of the basic notions at the heart of the Revolution in the inaugural George Rousseau Lecture, provisionally entitled ‘Liberty as Equality: Rousseau and Roman Constitutionalism’. The Lecture has been made possible by a generous gift from George Rousseau, a leading scholar of eighteenth-century culture, to Magdalen College (where the event will take place). The George Rousseau Lecture will be preceded by an afternoon colloquium (on the same day) on human rights and the Enlightenment, taking its cue from Dan Edelstein’s forthcoming book on the topic. We are delighted to welcome to Oxford for this discussion three major scholars of eighteenth-century political thought: Annelien de Dijn (Utrecht), Mark Philp (Warwick), and Céline Spector (Sorbonne, Paris).

Beyond this thematic focus, the Enlightenment Workshop returns in the second and third terms with a genuinely interdisciplinary programme on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European culture. Daniel Fulda, Director of the Enlightenment Research Centre at the University of Halle (IZEA), will show us how major Enlightenment ideas were represented visually. Emma Spary (Cambridge) will examine the relationship between humanism and eighteenth-century scholarship by focusing on botany and what she calls ‘the Enlightenment of ginseng’. Moving on from flora to fauna, Dominik Hünniger of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen will discuss the ways in which Enlightenment authors imagined and depicted the reproduction of insects. In papers on eighteenth-century British culture, Ros Ballaster (English, Oxford) will investigate the interface between theatre and the novel by focusing on Charlotte Lennox and Oliver Goldsmith, and Peter Sabor (McGill University, Montreal) will share with us some of the insights gained through his impressive editorial work on authors of the Burney family. In other sessions, Kate Tunstall (French, Oxford) will discuss representations of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Louis XV in 1757, and Julia Bührle (English, Oxford) will look at the links between eighteenth-century dance and literature in a session on the Enlightenment’s ‘story-ballet’. In the third term, Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile (co-director of the Research Center Sanssouci in Potsdam) will talk about eighteenth-century migration politics, while Maxine Berg (Warwick) will take us to one of the farthest reaches of the Enlightenment: Nootka Sound on the northwestern Pacific coast.

Last but not least, Richard Whatmore of the University of St Andrews will survey the activities of eighteenth-century Genevans in Ireland in a paper promisingly entitled ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans’. Professor Whatmore will accompany the rich menu of the Enlightenment Workshop with his series of six Carlyle Lectures on ‘The End of Enlightenment’. The dates and titles are available on the History Faculty website.

From eighteenth-century human rights and migration politics to the performance arts via ginseng and insects: we hope to provide something of interest to anyone who would like have a closer, unusual look at the European Enlightenment.

Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen)


Would Voltaire have made a good PhD supervisor? Voltaire mentors Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747), by Charles Amédée Colin.

A current work in progress at the Voltaire Foundation relates to one of Voltaire’s less-discussed friendships that ended all too soon due to a fatal illness. On 4 April 1743, Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, penned the philosophe an enthusiastic letter comparing the merits of France’s two most celebrated tragedians, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. The combination of strong opinions and well-placed flattery must have caught Voltaire’s attention, for he wrote back less than two weeks later. The 27-year-old Vauvenargues brazenly criticised Corneille’s declamatory style and lack of subtlety, arguing that ‘surtout Corneille paroît ignorer que les hommes se caractérisent souvent d’avantage par les choses qu’ils ne disent pas, que par celles qu’ils disent’. Never one to stand at the sidelines of a literary debate, Voltaire’s reply praised Vauvenargues for his good taste in preferring Racine while offering a judicious defence of Corneille, counting that ‘il y a des choses si sublimes dans Corneille au milieu de ses froids raisonnements, et même des choses si touchantes, qu’il doit être respecté avec ses défauts’ (15 April 1743). This began a lively exchange between the two men, as Vauvenargues iconoclastically refused to yield ground to Voltaire’s more balanced take on the playwright’s merits and flaws: ‘Monsieur, Je suis au désespoir que vous me forciez à respecter Corneille’ (22 April 1743).

As well as offering us an entertaining example of an eighteenth-century celebrity’s interactions with a fan, this exchange is important because, after befriending Voltaire, Vauvenargues began to see the philosophe as a mentor figure, asking him for advice on his own Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, which was supplemented by his Réflexions et maximes and published for the first time in 1746. Any PhD student can imagine the huge sigh of relief Vauvenargues must have let out when Voltaire wrote back on 15 February 1746 to say that he liked it even before he had finished reading it. The young author’s joy is palpable in his response to his mentor’s praise, thanking him for taking the time to provide suggestions and corrections for the work’s improvement (15 May 1746). Vauvenargues then substantially revised his text and published a second edition in 1747.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.79 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As part of our work on Voltaire’s marginalia, we are interested firstly in the kind of suggestions the philosophe made in the annotated copy he sent back to Vauvenargues, and secondly to what extent did the latter incorporate these suggestions into the revised version of his book. The work of cross-referencing the annotated first edition and the revised second edition revealed some interesting patterns. In the cases where the corrections are easy remedies, for example a different choice of wording or a quick clarificatory remark, Vauvenargues has mostly deferred to Voltaire’s wisdom and edited his manuscript accordingly. Things got trickier when Voltaire suggested structural changes or major additions, both things which Vauvenargues appeared more reluctant to carry out. This is most likely because the revisions were extremely time-sensitive, given that Vauvenargues was in ill-health and had to rush to edit and publish the second edition of his work before he died later that year at the age of thirty-one. It is perhaps for this reason that he did not find the time to develop a section on page 75 by which Voltaire has scribbled ‘cela merite plus de détail’.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.86 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As with any patterns, there are notable exceptions. More mystifying are instances such as on page 86 where Voltaire asks ‘pour quoy longue?’, seemingly questioning Vauvenargues’s choice of adjective. This should have been an easy fix for the marquis. In the second edition, however, Vauvenargues has edited this sentence but kept the very same adjective that Voltaire did not like: ‘L’étonnement une surprise longue & accablante; l’admiration une surprise pleine de respect.’ Similarly, one of the sassiest comments can be found on page 88 where Vauvenargues writes that ‘il y auroit là-dessus des réflexions à faire aussi nouvelles que curieuses’, to which Voltaire witheringly retorts ‘faites les donc’. Vauvenargues does indeed revise this passage in his second edition, but chooses not to elaborate on what these reflections might be, writing that he has ‘ni la volonté, ni le pouvoir’ to do so.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.88 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

Like any good supervisor, Voltaire does not hold back in his criticism of his student’s work: what is most striking is the sheer volume of corrections, additions and suggestions, some of which are more helpful than others. Sometimes he is perhaps a little harsh, accusing Vauvenargues of writing ‘mauvaise poésie’ on more than a couple of occasions. One of his most scathing comments comes towards the end of the list of maxims that forms the second part of the text. Vauvenargues makes the not-very-insightful remark that ‘quelque amour qu’on ait pour les grandes affaires, il y a peu de lectures si ennuyeuses & si fatiguantes que celles d’un Traité entre des Princes’, next to which his mentor has incredulously scribbled ‘c’est bien la peine d’imprimer cela?’ It’s safe to say that any PhD student would be horrified to have elicited such a remark from their supervisor!

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.364 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

But above all, Voltaire is a meticulous reader, picking up on ideas repeated from many pages back and highlighting the slightest inconsistency. Equally, neither does he shy away from complimenting Vauvenargues’s work when it is deserving: several sections receive a smattering of ‘bien’, ‘beau’, ‘fort’, ‘excellent’ and even a ‘fin et profond et juste’, which more than make up for the moments of criticism.

– Sam Bailey

Sam is a PhD student at the University of Durham and a frequent VF collaborator.

An earlier blog post on this same subject by Gillian Pink can be found here.