The Voltaire Foundation blog: a collaborative resource for all 18th-century enthusiasts

The Voltaire Foundation blog recently marked its sixth anniversary, having clocked up some 250 posts since it was launched in April 2013 with the help of our former colleague Claire Trévien.

In its six years’ existence so far the VF blog has attracted dozens of collaborators from a great variety of countries and backgrounds, from seasoned academics and authors to budding scholars. Thanks to all who have contributed, we have managed to build up a resource which beautifully reflects the extraordinary scope and vitality of eighteenth-century scholarship.

As the Siècle des Lumières offers endlessly fertile ground for thinking about our past, present and future, we have have cast our minds back to its trail blazers, reflected on the lessons it holds for our monde comme il va (or comme il ne va pas, as the case may be), drawn parallels, identified points of convergence, measured progress, and tackled the technical, the musical, the quirky, the intimate and the unexpected, among many other areas.

Our blog is also a way of charting significant milestones in the life of our own institution, notably the completion of groundbreaking subseries such as the Essai sur les mœurs and the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, or the correspondences of Madame de Graffigny and Pierre Bayle. It also allows us to celebrate valued partnerships and long-standing friendships with other institutions such as the CELLF in Paris, the Musée Voltaire in Geneva, or the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

Looking ahead to the future, we are increasingly turning our attention to the revolutionary potential offered by digital humanities as a whole, and our Voltaire Lab in particular.

Current events are a constant reminder that reflection on the Enlightenment values that have shaped our world is more needed than ever. We would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to all contributors, and invite everyone to share this collaborative resource as widely as possible, and to get in touch with their own suggestions.

– Georges Pilard

PS: Watch this space for a piece about insect sex in the 18th century coming up soon, a subject once again not completely unrelated to modern concerns!



D’Argenson’s Considérations

Enlightenment political theory has received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years as intellectual historians and political theorists have mined the riches of eighteenth-century ideas about human rightsthe self, or international law. Surprisingly little of this work, however, has been devoted to the so-called Early Enlightenment, the decades before the eruption of the high Enlightenment at mid-century with the publication of seminal works such as Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) or Diderot and d’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie (1751-). Yet, this time was rich with the fermentation of ideas that would make their mark later in the century.

One of the key texts of the early Enlightenment, penned by René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757), which circulated clandestinely in manuscript for decades before its posthumous publication as the Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France in 1764, mounted a scathing indictment of the Old Regime social and political order, championed equality as a central moral and political value, and argued for extending democracy within the monarchy. Originally titled ‘Jusqu’où la démocratie peut être admise dans le gouvernement monarchique’ and composed primarily in the 1730s, d’Argenson’s treatise called for the redistribution of land, improving the material circumstances of the peasantry, and establishing municipal magistrates with substantial autonomy. With the establishment of his system, d’Argenson wrote, ‘the kingdom would change face’. Indeed, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, upon reading the manuscript, wrote to d’Argenson that he ‘appears a bit more partial to democracy than to monarchy’, while the fermier général Dupin wrote to d’Argenson that there was an ‘immense distance […] between our current situation and what you propose’. This is the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s treatise, based on four different manuscripts held in archives and libraries in France, and presented here with a selection of d’Argenson’s other political writings that have never been published.

D’Argenson is probably best known to posterity as a chronicler of his time thanks to his widely cited nine-volume Journal et mémoires, one of the most important existing sources on the politics of the 1730s to 1750s, as a member of the short-lived Club de l’Entresol, and for his Notices sur les œuvres de théâtre published in 1966. Among the philosophes, d’Argenson was known, as d’Alembert wrote in the dedication to one of his books, for his ‘breadth of knowledge’, ‘love of the common good’, and for being a ‘philosophe in your sentiments’. His true intellectual passion was ‘the principles of the true science of humanity, those of morality and politics’, as le Beau stated in the eulogy given to the Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres upon d’Argenson’s death.

The depth of d’Argenson’s critique of the social and political order is perhaps more surprising given his status as the scion of a powerful political family. His father was the powerful lieutenant general of police under Louis XIV and then Keeper of the Seals during the Regency, his brother Minister of War, and he himself served a brief tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs during the War of Austrian Succession. Rousseau commented when citing d’Argenson’s manuscript in the Social Contract, published two years before the Considérations: ‘I have not been able to deny myself the pleasure of occasionally quoting from this manuscript, although it is unknown to the public, in order to honor the memory of a good and illustrious man, who kept even in the Ministry the heart of a good citizen, and views on the government of his country that were sane and right.’ This critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations brings to light for the first time those views and, in an introductory essay, situates them within d’Argenson’s full political philosophy and the political and intellectual context of his time.

– Andrew Jainchill, Queen’s University (Canada)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Andrew Jainchill is the editor of the May Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume, D’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement, a critical edition, with other political texts, which utilises rare manuscripts and previously unstudied archival sources to produce the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations.

Prof. Catriona Seth, ‘Girls with Books. Reading, Contagion and Acquired Immunity in Eighteenth-Century Fiction’: The Inaugural Lecture of the eighth Oxford Marshal Foch Professor

Prof. Catriona Seth, outside the Taylorian Institution, Oxford. Photograph: Henrike Lähnemann.

On 9 May, Oxford’s eighth Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature gave her inaugural lecture to a packed hall at the Taylorian Institute. As she noted in her introductory remarks, the date is significant: 9 May is Europe day, commemorating the 1950 Schuman Declaration. What is also significant is that the eighth Marshal Foch Professor is the first to deliver her lecture at all: Catriona Seth is the first woman to hold the professorship.

Fellow of the British Academy, Member of the Académie Royale de Belgique, President of the Société Française d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, and Member of the Franco-British Council, Seth’s accolades testify to the respect for her research across Europe, and reflect her European academic career (which has included posts in the UK, France and Germany). She has published monographs on eighteenth-century French poets, on the history of smallpox, and on Marie-Antoinette; she has established the Pléiade editions of Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Germaine de Staël’s novels and De la littérature; she has published on the gothic novel, on women’s writing, on book illustration, and on the history of childhood, not to mention her article, with Katherine Astbury, on Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s boxer shorts…[1] Beyond the headline undergarment, the latter is actually about a woman’s correspondence: that of Bernardin’s sister, Catherine. Indeed, much of Seth’s research to date has uncovered – and helped restore to the canon – the neglected history of what women read and wrote during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the title of her lecture hinted, among many other things, Seth’s work has changed our understanding of the history of ‘girls with books’.

We were introduced to many such girls over the course of the hour: from Rousseau’s Julie and the women who devoured her story, to Laclos’s Merteuil who herself devoured La Nouvelle Héloïse (as well as every man, woman and child who crossed her path). Seth discussed less well-known women, too, showing that they were not only readers of novels, but often their champion and their raison d’être. Her analysis of Bougeant’s Voyage merveilleux du prince Fan-Férédin dans la Romancie (1735), for instance, highlighted that without women, this novel would not have existed. It was Prince Fan-Férédin’s mother who introduced him to novels and set off his travels in ‘la Romancie’, and without Bougeant’s female dedicatee, Madame C** B**, for whom he claimed to have written the novel, there would have been no text at all.

Weaving together some of the strands of her research, Seth merged close reading with cultural history, medical humanities, and the visual arts. Her argument centred on a metaphor and an analogy, both of which bridged the fields of medicine and literature. The metaphor (that reading the body is a metaphor for reading texts), and the analogy (that as inoculation can protect the body, so book-based instruction can protect the mind), are central to the two most famous eighteenth-century French epistolary novels: La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both of these novels suggest that reading books in the right way can provide you with what Seth calls a ‘textually transmitted immunity’, to protect you from irksome textually transmitted diseases such as a romantic imagination or, worse, libertinage. The prophylactic needed is not a barrier, but an inoculation.

Gravelot (illustrator) and Mire (engraver), ‘L’Inoculation de l’amour’ (La Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761), Bryn Mawr Collections, accessed 12 May 2019.

Rousseau shows us this in La Nouvelle Héloïse. Wolmar attempts to cure Julie and Saint-Preux of their love for one another, for example, but never quite succeeds. As Julie contracts smallpox, recovers, but is scarred for life, so she manages to get over her love for Saint-Preux, but will always bear its scars; the physical trace of the disease – like the trace of her love for Saint-Preux – remains. Building on the argument of scholars such as, of course, Jean Starobinski, Seth explained that this is how Rousseau expected the novel to function: as a literary inoculation that infects readers with a carefully administered dose of morally harmful material, in order to protect them from greater, worldly hazards.[2] Since French society was rife with moral sickness, Rousseau believed, the only way to stem the contagion was to inoculate girls with books. However, the remedy was not fool-proof. Inoculation produced side effects, as Seth touched upon with reference to the work of Claude Labrosse on contemporary readers’ reactions to La Nouvelle Héloïse.[3] In their letters to Rousseau and their pilgrimages to the shores of Lake Geneva, Seth suggested that readers were not content with having received their treatment: they now wanted to see the doctor.

Side-effects were not the only problem; some readers signally failed to acquire immunity. Merteuil may have read and admired La Nouvelle Héloïse, as well as bundles of other people’s letters, but she failed to learn the lesson that her own letters could also be read in a way that her outward appearance could not… at least initially. The famous autobiographical letter 81, and letter 85 recounting her entrapment of Prévan, eventually uncover the true Merteuil behind her carefully constructed façade. In the end, Merteuil is not only publicly disgraced, but is also irremediably scarred by smallpox. Her punishment for failing to learn her lesson about the nature of texts, therefore, is to have her body finally betray her soul. Whether she likes it or not, everyone can now read her like a book. Seth argues that by leaving Merteuil vulnerable to smallpox (at a time when inoculation was becoming recognised as a cure), Laclos uses her as an illustration of what happens if one is not ‘inoculated’, by one’s reading, against the ills of society.

Seth closed by highlighting the present-day stakes of her argument, with a reference to Boko Haram’s abduction of over 250 school girls from their secondary school in Nigeria in April 2014. Citing New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof (a peer from Seth’s years as an undergraduate at Magdalen College), Seth reminded us that still today, girls’ education is perceived as a threat by certain extremist groups because of its ability to transform society. The socially transformative potential of education is precisely what made it the site of countless disputes during the eighteenth century and, as Seth showed, these disputes show no sign of abating. Borrowing Kristof’s words, she noted, ‘the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.’[4] The new Marshal Foch Professor thus concluded with a health warning, or rather a call to arms: ‘reading can seriously damage your ignorance’.

– Gemma Tidman

[1] For a list of Seth’s major publications, see her faculty profile. For the latter article, see Katherine Astbury and Catriona Seth, ‘Unblocking Enlightenment Loos, Bernardin’s Boxer Shorts and Other Day-to-Day Practicalities in Eighteenth-Century Normandy: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Catherine de Saint-Pierre’s Networks’, Nottingham French Studies, 54.2 (2015), 210–23.

[2] Starobinski, Le Remède dans le mal: critique et légitimation de l’artifice à l’âge des Lumières (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).

[3] Labrosse, Lire au XVIIIe siècle: La Nouvelle Héloïse et ses lecteurs (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1985).

[4] Nicholas Kristof, ‘Honoring the Missing Schoolgirls’, The New York Times (7 May 2014).

The best Voltaire books – recommended by Nicholas Cronk

Interview by Charles J. Styles.

The eighteenth-century philosopher wielded his powers of ridicule and witticism against religious fanatics – but always championed free speech and religious toleration. He was also a historian, scientist, poet, playwright, and political activist. Nicholas Cronk, General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, gives a detailed look at the polymathic philosophe.

He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, but assumed the title ‘Voltaire’ some twenty years later. Who was Voltaire?

Voltaire is the most famous of the Enlightenment thinkers. Not necessarily the most radical or the most extreme philosophe, but certainly the one with the highest profile. In French, we speak of the seventeenth century as the ‘Century of Louis XIV’ (an expression that Voltaire himself put into circulation). But we refer to the eighteenth century as the ‘Century of Voltaire’. He’s remembered nowadays as the author of the short comic novel Candide, but he wrote a vast amount over a very long lifetime. He was born in the last days of the seventeenth century and died at the age of 84, just a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution.

His first play is accepted by the Comédie-Française at the age of 24—so he becomes an instant star. And what is this first play? It’s about Oedipus killing his father. Now, Voltaire never really liked his own father, François Arouet—he was a lawyer at court. When this play is published, it’s the first time the name ‘Voltaire’ is printed on a title page. So, his first big literary triumph is when he abandons his father’s name and invents a new name for himself. You don’t have to be a Freudian to think there’s something going on there.

There are various theories about the name Voltaire chose for himself. The most obvious is that it is an anagram of ‘Arouet le jeune’ (‘Arouet the Younger’). It works like this: AROUET L(e) J(eune). You have to remember that in the 18th-century French alphabet, as in Latin, ‘I’ and ‘J’ along with ‘U’ and ‘V’ were interchangeable. So, replacing those letters, you get ‘AROVET L I’, or VOLTAIRE.

Now, this is plausible. Other theories say the name evokes a property his parents owned. Personally, I think the name ‘Voltaire’ is hugely evocative: voler means to fly, and volter means to leap about, making him sound like some character out of commedia dell’arte, leaping around the stage.

So, when we talk about ‘Voltaire’, we take for granted a name he invented. You might say it is one of his earliest and most successful fictions. And we are all complicit in his invention. It’s an odd fact, but it seems impossible to imagine writing a book about ‘François-Marie Arouet’. In time, ‘Voltaire’ becomes pretty much a brand name. He’s famous already when he’s quite young, but after the 1760s, he’s more than famous; he’s a superstar. For the last two decades of his life, he’s a huge European celebrity. He’s arguably the first.

I say ‘arguably’ because Rousseau could be a contender. Voltaire and Rousseau are the first real European literary celebrities. They are celebrities in the sense that they sell; their names sell books. Voltaire is a true celebrity in the sense that everyone has heard of him, even if they haven’t read him. That two-syllable name became very powerful. If he had stayed ‘Arouet’, it wouldn’t have had the same punch to it.

You are General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, which spans some 200 volumes. From epic poetry to historical treatises and philosophical tales, the breadth of Voltaire’s literary output is astonishing. Can you give a sense of how widely he wrote?

Continue reading the original post and see all five of Nicholas Cronk’s recommendations at Five Books: the best books on everything.