The triumph of truth

In my work on the digital Voltaire iconography database, I frequently stumble across portraits of Voltaire which are particularly unexpected, funny, or have an interesting story to them. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Triumph of Truth, which hangs in Marischal College, Aberdeen, is a personal favourite.

The Triumph of Truth is a portrait of James Beattie (1735–1803), a Scottish poet, philosopher, and Professor of Moral Philosophy. The book under his left arm, entitled ‘Truth’, and the title of the painting both refer to the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, which Beattie published in 1770. It was well received, earning Beattie both a royal pension and an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Oxford.

James Beattie, by Joshua Reynolds

Dr James Beattie (1735-1803), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (University of Aberdeen)

Although Beattie is rather splendid in his new doctoral robes, what draws our eye is the glowing Angel of Truth striking down three grotesque, dishevelled figures in the background. It is a powerful image and strong statement; Beattie’s thought becomes a superhuman, heavenly force, striking down the enemies of truth and faith. But who are these three villains? Beattie claimed they represented Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly – and yet, the central figure of the three seems too familiar to be mere allegory. His chin and arms may be a little strong, but his sharp eyes and wry smirk hint at his true identity. On 22 February 1774 Reynolds wrote to Beattie, explaining:

‘there is only a figure covering his face with his hands which they may call Hume, or anybody else; it is true it has a tolerable broad back. As for Voltaire, I intended he should be one of the group.’

It is, then, Voltaire who is being struck down by the angel. This comes as no real surprise; Beattie’s Essay on Truth was heavily critical of both Hume and Voltaire, writing of Voltaire:

‘He has dwindled from a genius of no common magnitude into a paltry book-maker; and now thinks he does great and terrible things, by retailing the crude and long exploded notions of the freethinkers of the last age […] as nothing but the monstrous maw of an illiterate infidel can either digest or endure.’

Beattie was criticised during his career for ad hominem attacks of his opponents; Reynolds’ rather unflattering depictions of Voltaire and Hume with his ‘broad back’ are extensions of that. Beattie’s most unflattering portrait of Voltaire, however, is not to be found on canvas, but in a manuscript.

In the late 1760s, Beattie wrote The Castle of Scepticism, a prose allegory against Voltaire and Hume. Although not published in Beattie’s lifetime, it was circulated privately among British men and women of letters. It is a dream narrative; Beattie falls asleep while reading ‘one of the volumes of Mr Hume’s excellent Essays’ and enters a place known as The Land of Truth. Here he meets a series of increasingly silly and arrogant characters (among them ‘the Earl of Sneer’ and ‘lord viscount Bigwords’, who can be identified as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Viscount Bolingbroke respectively), who sacrifice Common Sense at the Temples of Ignorance, Self-Conceit, Fashion, Licentiousness, Ambition, and Hypothesis, and blindly follow the ‘Great Oracle’ (Hume) and ‘the Orator’ (Voltaire).

Beattie’s Voltaire is ‘a lean little old man, with his face screwed into a strange sarcastic grin’. He does not make the best first impression:

‘“Sir,” replied he, his eye glistening with inexpressible rage and disdain, “my name is Voltaire – you must have heard of me, I suppose; blockhead as you are, you must have heard of the greatest genius that ever appeared upon earth.”’

Despite this overwhelming braggadocio, Beattie’s Voltaire is surrounded by an army of followers, clamouring to hear what he has to say. He recites Candide to the waiting crowd:

‘Here he began a very tedious tale, where it seemed hard to determine, whether obscenity or blasphemy, whether absurd fiction or bad composition, was most prevalent. The audience laughed often, and the speaker almost continually.’

Beattie, unimpressed, soon leaves Voltaire and continues his journey; despite being waylaid by various unsavoury types, not least of all a blunderbuss-wielding Thomas Hobbes, he eventually makes it back to the waking world unscathed.

Beattie’s portrait of Voltaire is, much like Reynolds’, exaggerated and grotesque – yet it is all the more recognisable for it, even (or perhaps particularly) to Voltaire’s supporters. Beattie’s condemnation of Voltaire as an arrogant man, laughing at his own jokes, although critical, may still draw a smile from those who enjoy his work; a keen reader of Candide can certainly imagine a playful author chuckling to himself as he heaps increasingly implausible miseries upon his characters. His lean frame, glistening eyes and sarcastic grin are also instantly recognisable to both supporters and critics; even in his youth, Voltaire describes himself as ‘maigre, long, sec et décharné’ (summer 1716, D37), while Bernstorff’s impression of an older Voltaire is almost identical to Beattie’s: ‘La vivacité de ses yeux et son souris [sic] malin m’ont frappé’ (24 April 1755, D6253).

These same features – bright eyes, wry smile, a biting sense of humour – seem to crop up again in both written and visual portraits of Voltaire, not just in the flattering, even reverent works of the likes of La Tour and Pigalle, but in the satirising depictions of critics like Reynolds, Beattie, and Gillray. It is this that makes Beattie and Reynolds’ depictions of Voltaire, like many critical portraits of Voltaire, so interesting and so familiar; these recurring traits of intelligence, sarcasm, and sharp wit, acknowledged by Voltairophiles and Voltairophobes alike, begin to hint at a consistent thread of character and of physiognomy which can be identified across the depth and breadth of his iconography.

Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

(Josie is a research assistant in the Digital Enlightenment. She is currently building on existing research by Professor Samuel Taylor (St Andrews) to create a digital Voltaire iconography database.)

That unfortunate movement

Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges, pioneer of women’s rights, here pictured handing Marie-Antoinette a copy of her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. Engraving by Desrais and Frussotte, c. 1790. (BnF/Gallica)

The French Revolution: A very short introduction was one of the earliest titles to be commissioned in what has become a very successful series – the nearest equivalent in English to the celebrated Que Sais-je? volumes published by Presses Universitaires de France. It appeared in 2001 and has enjoyed very healthy sales, both in English and in translation into a number of other languages. For this reason alone, after half a generation of new research a second edition to bring readers up to date seemed increasingly overdue. The problem with any new edition is how much to change, short of rewriting the whole thing. A lot of new research, though impeccably scholarly, is at a level of detail impossible to reproduce in a short volume, although some can be silently incorporated. A revised bibliography can point in the direction of more. But the most updating that a very short introduction can do is to indicate some overall trends.

The first edition, written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989, was able to conclude and neatly culminate with the great debates among historians and others which that occasion provoked, and which were still echoing when the new millennium began. Historiographical discussions since then have been far less acrimonious and more nebulous. While the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the so-called ‘popular movement’ of the sans-culottes has faded, the Revolution has increasingly been studied as a symptom of deep cultural changes. Feminist scholarship has brought extensive reappraisal of the role of women, and the failure of overwhelmingly male revolutionaries (and historians!) to give them their due.

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence. Artist unknown, c.1796-1799. (BnF/Gallica)

There has also been renewed interest in links with other contemporary revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and above all with the overthrow of black slavery in the former French colony which became Haiti. These changed perspectives are introduced and appraised in the concluding historiographical chapter. With a largely English-speaking readership in mind, the first edition also gave plenty of space to the supposed contrast between a violent, unstable France and a peaceful, evolutionary England. The second edition expands on that perception with more on the clash between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. Recent years have brought curious echoes of this in the debate over Brexit, reminding us that issues first raised by the French Revolution can still resonate.

And whereas a prime function of an introduction is to impart accurate and reliable knowledge, another is to dispel misinformation. Nothing is more difficult. The world will always want to remember that Marie-Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake’ – even though she didn’t, as I emphasise in the book’s very opening pages.

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

The world is also in danger of remembering that in 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the French Revolution had been. I invoked this myself in the preface to the first edition. But in the intervening years it has emerged that Zhou was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. The second edition makes this clear. Whether it will stop people invoking the old version is perhaps too early to say.

– William Doyle

(‘That unfortunate movement’ – from act I of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, speech by Lady Bracknell.)

‘Depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours’ – mission accomplished

Many readers picking up Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV for the first time might find it all too easy to put down again as not living up to its title. By only a stretched definition is the work a précis; it is not about a siècle; and only in a few places does it focus on Louis XV. But to put it down too quickly would be a mistake. There are many reasons why the Précis – published by the Voltaire Foundation in 3 volumes, the first of which (vol.29A) has just come out – deserves our attention. Here are some of them.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe (Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne), BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4. By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Foremost perhaps is the picture of Voltaire in action as a historian of modernity. We know from earlier writings that he thought the study of modern history important for the instruction of future generations. He also thought it essential for the historian to be both accurate and impartial, but then when it came to writing about his own day – events that he had witnessed himself or involved people he knew – he was not always able to put these ideals into practice. The need for impartiality may be behind the detachment with which Voltaire treats Louis XV, but elsewhere he frequently sails too close to the wind, particularly in the polemical chapters at the end of the work. Accuracy he strove for conscientiously, as he had done with the Essai and the Siècle, although sometimes within his own compass of taking the mean position of several authorities without naming any of them. He allows himself to embroider, but if he occasionally seems to invent it is probably in error or where strict accuracy needed to be set against readability, as pointed out by a correspondent of 1768: ‘Vous attachez tant par la magie de votre diction que l’on aime presque mieux s’égarer avec vous que s’instruire pesamment avec d’autres’ (vol.29A, p.140).

The Précis also has a remarkable history as the culmination of Voltaire’s plan, announced in 1742, to write a universal modern history and take it up to his own day. This was the launching pad for the Essai sur les mœurs. The nascent Siècle de Louis XIV, he said in 1745, was destined to ‘[entrer] dans ce grand ouvrage et doit le terminer’ (vol.29A, p.6, n.3). But as the following reign rolled on the distance between an end point of 1714 and continuing the history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’ became too great to be bridged. In 1768, in preparation for the new quarto edition of his Œuvres complètes, Voltaire uncoupled the Siècle from the Essai, reducing the subtitle to ‘jusqu’au règne de Louis XIII’, and using the chapters that carried his history beyond 1714 as the basis of the new Précis du siècle de Louis XV.

Voltaire thus uses the word précis not in the sense of an abridgement of a longer account, as might be expected of a detached published work, but of a summary of what he sees as the essentials of the age in a series of capsules. This enables him to pick and choose his material, pausing to give anecdote and detail in some places, particularly the early years when he himself was in Paris, passing rapidly over the middle years of the reign and dwelling again at length on aspects of the later years that attracted his attention as philosophe. Throughout his style is light, never flippant, and his sometimes provocative leaps, summaries or asides beckon the reader to further research.

As for ‘siècle’, Voltaire had felt from the outset that the achievements of France in the glorious era of the roi soleil should be defined not in terms of a reign, but as an ‘age’ or epoch. This is the sense in which the word is used again of the reign of Louis XV, although the king did not dominate his own reign and was noteworthy only in the wrong ways. For most of the book Louis XV himself stands silently to one side, but the events portrayed seem none the worse for that, highlighting the difference between his ‘siècle’ and that of his great-grandfather.

In 1768 Voltaire brings the Précis up to date with further chapters on more recent matters, and extends the themes of some of these into the self-contained Histoire du parlement de Paris. He closes the resulting gap between the early and later years of the reign of Louis XV by bringing in a précis in the more usual sense of the word. This was the first authorised appearance, albeit in shortened form, of Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741, undertaken in 1745 in his capacity of historiographe du roi, as an account of the ‘campagnes du roi’ in Flanders of 1744 and 1745. These campaigns covered years that showed the king at his best and France as victorious; they were soon extended both backwards and forwards to take in the whole war, but that is another story, to be read with the full text in volume 29C. Circumstances conspired against Voltaire’s intention to publish the Guerre de 1741 until he was settled in Geneva, by which time France was involved in another war and any thirst for details of the War of the Austrian Succession had long evaporated. By the mid 1760s, therefore, the Guerre was a work in search of a home, and the incipient Précis a work with a beginning and potential end but no middle. The solution was obvious.

Having difficulty keeping up? Unsurprising – the complexities defeated the Kehl editors as well as Beuchot and Moland, who omitted the original complete Guerre entirely. The Introduction in vol.29A of this edition analyses the sequence of the composition of both texts and the eventual assembly of the whole in 1768.

But Voltaire was unable to call it a day. Another edition of his complete works in 1775 saw him taking up his pen once more at the age of eighty to record the death of the king, who in the course of nature – and perhaps Voltaire’s original conception of this work – would have been expected to outlive Voltaire. And Voltaire was then spurred on to review the whole. Annotations preserved in a copy of the 1775 edition now in St Petersburg show the Précis to be among the most heavily corrected texts under revision at the time of Voltaire’s death, truly taking his modern history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’. Looking at the years since 1742 and the water that had flowed beneath Voltaire’s many bridges since then, his readers can only respond, Chapeau!

– Janet Godden