Annotation in scholarly editions and research

It has been, alas, almost exactly a year since our last face-to-face Besterman Workshop at 99 Banbury Road. Of course, webinars allow more people to join, and to do so, most importantly, from the comfort of their homes, where they can sit comfortably and set their thermostats to the temperature that suits them best. The advent of the Zoom/Teams era, however, has brought with it a number of unfortunate consequences: discussions are not as lively as they used to be, asking a follow-up question is nearly impossible, and so are chats with friends and colleagues, before, during, or after the talk. Worst of all, we no longer get a chance to eat our beloved Leibniz or Belgian biscuits – but those, to be fair, had already become something of a rarity towards the beginning of 2018. Anyway: those of you who did attend our last face-to-face Besterman Workshops may remember this gloomy and cumbersome poster of mine hanging from the mantelpiece.

This poster was presented at a conference in Wuppertal, Germany, at the end of February 2019: ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research: Function – Differentiation – Systematization’. Organised by Julia Nantke (Universität Hamburg) and Frederik Schlupkothen (Bergische Universität Wuppertal), this two-day bilingual Anglo-German colloquium was a wonderful occasion to reflect on the age-old human habit of glossing, commenting, and generally interfering with other people’s work.

Alongside some theoretical papers (to mention but one, Willard McCarty’s brilliant keynote lecture on annotation as a knowledge-producing practice), the symposium featured several more practice-oriented talks that would have certainly been of interest to many of our Digital Humanities followers: some focused on how best to structure and visualise annotation in digital scholarly editions; others raised the question as to how to annotate audio-visual materials; and yet others investigated the extent to which annotation can be automated.

Some of the papers given at the ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research’ conference can now be read in a volume published last year (yes, in 2020!) by De Gruyter and available in print as well as an Open Access eBook.

My own contribution to the volume (which you can find here, should you want to read it) presents what I think might be an efficient and user-friendly three-level annotation system, the ‘reversible annotation system’, which I developed while working on Digital d’Holbach, a born-digital scholarly edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s complete works. On this model, I argue, a single set of notes can be so structured as to cater to very different audiences, meaning that the edition can hope simultaneously to be user-friendly and cost-efficient. Should you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please do not hesitate to let me know!

Ruggero Sciuto, University of Oxford

Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Houdon’s bust of Voltaire still dominates the entrance hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, and last week Voltaire was being quoted on Capitol Hill. In the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Trump, Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin, the House impeachment manager, quoted Thomas Paine on tyranny, and then Voltaire on why people commit atrocities: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

His speech was widely praised, and the quotation of Voltaire evidently struck a chord, being quickly picked up on social media – here is an extract from his speech.

The French ‘original’ of this quotation is easy enough to find on the web: ‘Ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités.’

The quotation has been much tweeted in France, including by the actor Fabrice Luchini in 2017, and a quick search of the web reveals that the quotation can be purchased, in English at least, and with varying wording, on tote bags and bumper stickers, a sure sign that it enjoys popular approval and recognition.

Congressman Jamie Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin.

However a Voltaire specialist writing in the Genevan newpaper Le Temps in 2015 pours cold water on this merchandise, describing the quotation in question as nothing more than a ‘hoax’.

It is perfectly true that the sentence as it stands cannot be found in Voltaire. Tout Voltaire is helpful here. In the whole of Voltaire’s writings we find 117 occurrences of ‘atrocité(s)’ and 311 instances of ‘absurdité(s)’ – these are clearly favoured Voltairean terms – but there is no instance of the two terms appearing in the plural in the same sentence. So where does this quotation come from?

A clue lies in the fact that the quotation is more often found on the web in English than in French, and is most frequently cited in the USA. As Walter Olson has previously suggested, in a blog from the Cato Institute in Washington DC, this quotation seems to derive from Norman Torrey (1894-1980), a distinguished American Voltaire scholar who did pioneering work investigating Voltaire’s library in what was then Leningrad. In his book Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and modern democracy (New York, 1960), he produces an anthology of eighteenth-century extracts, all chosen to resonate with our modern notions of liberal democracy, including this passage from Voltaire (p.277-78, the emphasis in bold is mine):

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag.

‘Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life.

‘In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.’

This passage comes from Questions on miracles, an important and intricate polemical work that has only been fully revealed recently, in the remarkable critical edition by Olivier Ferret and the late José-Michel Moureaux that appeared in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire in 2018.

Collection des lettres sur les miracles

Collection des lettres sur les miracles, title page (Neufchâtel [Genève], 1765).

The passage quoted above is from the eleventh letter – published as a separate pamphlet in 1765 – in what we now properly call Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Here is the French original (OCV, volume 60D, p.290-91; again, the emphasis in bold is mine):

‘Mais, Monsieur, en étant persuades par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c’est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie.

‘Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que ‘nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible, l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de mal faire, la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre cœur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.’

So the quotation that is now received usage seems to have been adapted from an English translation of Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles – and then promptly translated back into French. The position is summed up concisely but accurately in Oxford essential quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe (5th edition, OUP, 2017), which includes under ‘Voltaire’ this entry:

‘“Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust”, commonly quoted as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Questions sur les miracles, 1765).’

Don the Con

Voltaire, like all the philosophes, is preoccupied with prejudice, and fundamentally concerned with clarity of thinking and with the damage done when we think lazily. If we want to reduce injustice in the world, he tells us, then it is important not to give credit to things that are patently absurd. Voltaire had a genius for coining one-liners that sum up exactly an idea that needs to find expression at a particular moment.

So if the idea that ‘anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ has suddenly caught our attention, it must seem necessary to our present moment. And Voltaire understood better than anyone that well-turned phrases catch on and are repeated. A poster designed by Rick Frausto, currently advertised online, and entitled ‘Don the Con’, gives new life to the Voltaire quotation employed in Jamie Raskin’s speech.

Nicholas Cronk

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.

Voltaire in Korea

‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’ has just appeared in Korean, published by Humanitas. The author of the book, Nicholas Cronk, collaborated with his translator, the Enlightenment scholar Minchul Kim, to write this preface specially aimed at readers in South Korea.

‘The more I would like to extend my knowledge of history, the more I realise that it is necessarily limited. An Asiatic, an inhabitant of the vast country of China scarcely knows of our existence, and our Europe is for him what Korea and northern Japan are for us.’

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine (Paris, 1735). (Swaen)

So writes Voltaire in one of his notebooks. He had an enduring interest in non-European cultures, as the books in his scholarly library of 6000 books clearly testify. This led him to write one of his most ambitious works, his Essay on manners (in French, Essai sur les mœurs), which is a pioneering attempt to write a universal history. Before Voltaire, so-called universal histories, like that of Bossuet written in the late seventeenth century, tended to confine themselves to the history of Christian Europe, and Voltaire set out to write a history of all nations across the globe. Not only does he seek to describe the political and military history of all the world’s nations, he also aims to talk about their religious beliefs and their culture more generally; in particular, when he can find the information, their literature. He possessed a book called Description of China (in French, Description de la Chine), published in 1735 by the Jesuit Du Halde, a hugely popular work describing many aspects of Chinese culture; and it was here, in this huge compendium of information, that he uncovered the text of a thirteenth-century Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao (translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao).

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao, in Du Halde, Description de la Chine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire was so excited by this discovery that he used the play as the basis of his tragedy The Orphan of China (in French, L’Orphelin de la Chine), a tale of love, duty and final forgiveness set in the imperial palace in Beijing at the moment when Genghis Khan had invaded China. First performed at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1755, the play enjoyed an enormous success, and such was Voltaire’s fame as a writer that translations soon followed into other European languages: English (1756), Italian (1762), German (1763), Dutch (1765), Swedish (1777), Portuguese (1783), Spanish (1787), Danish (1815) and Polish (1836). Voltaire’s use on the stage of a thirteenth-century Chinese drama thus reached an enormously wide audience all across Europe, and the play was so successful that it had an influence on European culture even beyond the theatre. Voltaire was a French writer but he was never satisfied with a purely French readership, and even in his own lifetime he enjoyed celebrity status as a writer all across Europe.

Korea is indeed mentioned in The Orphan of China, but most references to Korea in Voltaire’s writings are to be found, not surprisingly, in his historical works, especially in his universal history. In the opening chapter of the Essay on manners, he speaks of Korea as part of the vast Chinese (he means Mongol) empire, ‘at the eastern extremity of our globe’, and he describes the various conquests of Genghis Khan, including that of Korea. Voltaire is clearly frustrated by the lack of information available to him, and he freely admits that Korea is one of those countries that remains poorly known in Europe.

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1812). (Wikimedia Commons)

While Voltaire is always interested in learning more about such nations, he is also eager to point out that the countries of the Middle East, for example, have ‘many fables’ remarkably similar to those of the Europeans – by which, of course, he means the Christian Bible (a dig at the so-called singularity of the Catholic Church). Habits in different countries from the Dardanelles to the ends of Korea may be different, Voltaire writes, and yet the basic foundation of ethical thinking is the same in all nations. There are also traditions and habits in civil life common to all parts of the globe, he claims, so for example, on the first day of the year, in Japan as in France, relatives and friends offer each other gifts. Behind the superficial differences between nations, Voltaire wants to insist that man is fundamentally the same across the globe. He is particularly keen to argue this point with regard to religion: each culture has its own way of praising God, he believes, but fundamentally we all praise the same supreme being, who created the Universe and who teaches us goodness.

This is a view that is easy to criticize. Historians of religion will point to substantial differences between some of the world’s religions. Other critics accuse Voltaire of what Edward Said calls ‘Orientalism’, that is, the patronizing colonial gesture of measuring the cultures of the Middle East by the yardstick of Europe, rather than judging them at their own value. But to be fair to Voltaire (who in any case is writing before the European colonisation of the Middle East), the sources available to him were limited, and he does try to master what scant information there is. Moreover, he is always quite explicit about his aim, which is deliberately to identify the elements of humanity that are common to all cultures. Voltaire can be accused of being Euro-centric – he could hardly be anything else – but his fundamental wish is to describe the qualities and values common to all humanity. In 1760-1761 the Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith published The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, a collection of letters written by a fictional Chinese philosopher Lien Chi Altangi, who was supposedly living in London. The expression ‘a citizen of the world’ became current in Europe in the eighteenth century, and it would be no exaggeration to describe Voltaire as one of the first ‘citizens of the world’.

* * *

Notwithstanding Voltaire’s stature as the representative figure of European Enlightenment, and notably of its most popular version which demanded resistance to the fanaticism and dogmatism of established religions, Korean readers have so far not been treated well with books to introduce them to his world. There is only a small number of scholarly articles written in Korean by and for scholars of European studies: in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and political theory. As for books, overshadowed by the publishing success of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, Korean publications relating to Voltaire have been confined to translations of a small set of ‘canonical’ fictions and treatises: Candide, Oedipe, Zadig, Micromégas, Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and the Treatise on tolerance. Very recently there have been published a small number of works on Voltaire, almost exclusively concentrating on his thoughts about China and Confucianism, sometimes producing, from a wishful selection of quotes, a far-fetched argument about the place of ancient Chinese philosophy in European Enlightenment. Among all these books, the only ones that are frequently read are Candide and the Treatise on tolerance. There is not a single book published on Voltaire the man as a whole.

A study guide to Candide in Korean

A study guide to Candide in Korean.

This is a lamentable lacuna, one which must be filled first in order to let the public know that there had indeed been a huge hole. The reading public is hungry for a succinct yet authoritative account of the man himself. South Korea is emerging as one of the world’s most dynamic and robust democracies and has recently experienced a completely peaceful yet remarkably successful revolutionary movement: the Candle Revolution of 2016–2017. Accordingly, its public sphere, aided by all kinds of old and new media, is witnessing the birth of debates which are resistant to dogmatism of all sorts and open to considering new world-views. This is the world of Voltaire, the sceptic poet who often dared not hope too loudly as he put forth his optimistic accounts of a future rid of fanaticism and despotism, a future in which the people are politically liberal and culturally refined. This is a world of gradual perfectibility, a world that can be transformed for the better by human will, an optimism part strategic and part sincere that has not always been favoured but is clearly the dominant rising voice in South Korea today. This is the world of Voltaire, crooked and complex, but also moving, demanding, and liberating.

Nicholas Cronk and Minchul Kim