Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a Voltaire fan?

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France (Amsterdam, 1773) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre returned to France in 1771 following an unhappy posting to Mauritius. In Paris he made new acquaintances, D’Alembert, Julie de Lespinasse, Condorcet and, most significantly in the eyes of posterity, he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This intimacy has ossified critical opinion as it was D’Alembert who aided the publication of his first book, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773) by a printer whom Voltaire termed ‘l’enchanteur Merlin’. Drafted in part in the Indian Ocean, the work was published anonymously with a permission tacite as it criticized French colonial practices. In it Bernardin claimed that his travel writing was innovative as Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon and Rousseau had not provided a model. He demonstrated his extensive reading by asserting: ‘Je sais bon gré à M. de Voltaire d’avoir traité de barbares ceux qui éventrent un chien vivant pour nous montrer les veines lactées’ (a reference to the article ‘Bêtes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Like Voltaire, Bernardin was educated by the Jesuits. He too liked citing Latin authors, particularly Virgil, and also frequently quoted from memory. He stated that D’Alembert had suggested that he compose histories and claimed that he had read Voltaire’s historical writings. He shared the patriarch’s alarm at d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and wrote against it. Despite a staunch belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical and loathed superstition. Like Voltaire, he mocked fears about a comet in 1773, telling Mme Necker: ‘On attend ici la comette pour demain; il y a des églises dont les confessionaux ne désemplissent pas; le peuple est fort inquiet de sçavoir si la terre sera brûlée ou noyée’ (Electronic Enlightenment, BSP_0244). He too was intrigued  by the possibility of ‘éléphants’ (i.e. mammoths) in Siberia. The Revolution saw him produce short works advocating tolerance and social harmony.

Invitation à la Concorde, pour la Fête de la Confédération, du 14 juillet 1792 (Gazette Drouot).

His Invitation à la concorde (1792) appeared in print and as a poster. It proclaims that discord will destroy France but Catholics, Protestants and Jews will thrive ‘autour de l’autel de la patrie’ where ‘chaque religion deviendra citoyenne’. He composed contes in a manner reminiscent of Voltaire. The Café de Surate (1792), depicting often religious prejudices, may have been inspired by a chapter in Zadig, ‘Le Souper’. He read his fictional Voyage en Silésie, with its message of reconciling quarrelsome multinational travellers, in his capacity as professeur de morale républicaine to instituteurs at the Ecole normale in 1795. In the foreword to the first printed edition, he asserted that ‘Mon but était d’inspirer aux hommes, qui sont les mêmes quant au fond, de la tolérance pour les opinions diverses.’

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage en Silésie (Paris, 1807) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin returned to a controversy treated by Voltaire in Lettre XI of the Lettres philosophiques, inoculation. In the Harmonies de la nature (begun in the 1790s), he writes: ‘On a longtemps agité la question, si l’inoculation était utile. J’observerai ici que Jean-Jacques n’a pas osé la décider dans son Emile.’ While acknowledging risks, Bernardin is decisive: ‘Il me semble […] que pour détruire tant d’intérêts particuliers qui s’opposent à l’intérêt général on devrait faire inoculer à la fois tous les enfants […] l’inoculation contribuerait à resserrer entre eux les liens de la fraternité.’ Despite his antipathy to the scientific establishment and, unlike Voltaire, opposed to Newtonian ideas of attraction, Bernardin is generally in favour of scientific advances.

Voltaire loved publishing texts anonymously or with fictional authors. Bernardin, after the Voyage, demanded his name on the title page. Yet, in a text not printed in his lifetime which I am editing for his Œuvres complètes (Garnier), the Fragment sur la théorie de l’univers, he too adopted a ludic pretence. The narrator, a ship’s pilote, recounts Bernardin’s views to a passenger without naming him. All he will reveal is that: ‘Le système dont je vais vous entretenir est d’un Français.’ Subsequently he speaks of ‘l’auteur de la nouvelle théorie’, ‘mon auteur’, ‘Notre auteur’.

Simon Davies, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: colonial traveller, Enlightenment reformer, celebrity writer, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2021).

Bernardin often omits the sources of his references. In a manuscript that I am also editing for his Œuvres complètes, he writes ‘Un de nos poètes a dit: “Dieu mit la fièvre en nos climats et le remède en Amérique.” C’est une pensée de bel esprit.’ The line had appeared in a poem to Frederick the Great (OCV, t.32A, p.412) and in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, t.41, p.394). Bernardin probably found it in the latter as it is mentioned in the Harmonies de la nature.

While Bernardin sympathised with ‘l’infortuné Jean-Jacques’ and knew that his public renown benefited from that association, he believed that sociability was natural. He thought that reform was needed, hence his acceptance of appointments at the Jardin du roi (where he championed initiatives), the Ecole normale and the Institut. He disliked Voltaire’s relations with crowned heads (although he had met Catherine the Great, praised her in his Voyage ‘porté par tout le vent des philosophes qui étaient dans sa faveur’), but was far more sociable than his clichéd reputation. To label him as simply a disciple of Rousseau is misleading. He owed as much to Voltaire as to Rousseau and he supplies an even-handed comparison in his Parallèle de Voltaire et de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrity in the Ancien Régime and the Revolution and the accessibility of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment make him an excellent point of reference for questions still raised about the role and impact of the so-called philosophes in scholarly publications and recently at the Enlightenment Workshops in Oxford. In sum, Bernardin reacted to the challenges of his age and responded in his own distinctive fashion.

– Simon Davies

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