Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: a new translation

A preface on Voltaire and Islam by Malise Ruthven

Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, translated by Hanna Burton (Sacramento, 2013).

Until recently, it was generally considered that Islam, the youngest of the great world religions, was born ‘not amidst the mystery which cradles the origin of other religions, but rather in the full light of history’, as Ernest Renan, the French scholar of Middle East civilizations, put it in 1883. Most textbooks and popular biographies still take Renan’s line: Islam originated among the tribal Arabs of the Hijaz (the coastal region of western Arabia that includes both Mecca and Medina) who heeded the divine messages transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad as contained in the holy text of the Quran.

The traditional view of Muhammad’s life, conveyed by the vast majority of biographies, runs as follows. Muhammad began preaching around 510 CE in his native Mecca, the site of an ancient shrine to which Arabs made regular pilgrimages. His attacks on the local gods brought him into conflict with the city’s rulers, and in 622 CE, he and his band of followers migrated to the neighbouring settlement of Yathrib – later known as Medina, the Prophet’s ‘city’ – where he formed an alliance with local tribes, three of which adhered to Jewish rites. After a series of raids and battles (to which there are allusions in the Quran but no descriptions), he overcame the Meccan polytheists and restored the shrine at Mecca to the true worship of the God of Abraham. The recalcitrant Jews who refused to accept his message were expelled from Medina – and in one instance massacred for allegedly treacherous dealings with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies.

Illustrations de Description de l’Univers contenant les différents systèmes du Monde, les cartes générales et particulières de la géographie ancienne et moderne, etc., text by Alain Manesson Mallet (Paris, 1683) (Bibliothèque nartionale de France).

Modern scholars, taking their view from more than a century of biblical criticism, have begun to cast doubt on the traditional narrative. The first written accounts of Muhammad’s life were forged out of a vast body of stories known as Hadiths (‘traditions’ or reports), passed down orally by the generations that followed him. The earliest biography, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833 CE, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who is thought to have lived between 707 and 767 CE. By that time the Muslim armies had long defeated the Persian Empire, wrested control of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt from the heirs of Constantine and Justinian, and established a fragile imperium that stretched from Iberia to the Indus Valley. The Arabian prophet, whose exemplary life and preaching are supposed to have inspired this remarkable series of conquests was already famous, and his biography came fully supplied with the supernatural tropes – angelic visitations and miracles – that adorn the lives of holy persons in almost every human culture.

There are clearly problems with this biography to which modern scholars are drawing increasing attention. The dating of the first written narrative to at least a century after Muhammad’s putative death in 632 CE may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most Bible scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written up to four decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. The story of Jesus contained in the synoptic gospels has long been subjected to the rigors of formal criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about the life and personality of Jesus, as distinct from the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus. Despite its greater antiquity, the Christian narrative appears to have had a shorter oral transmission time than its Muslim counterpart. Furthermore, while there are allusions to Jesus in the writings of Josephus and Pliny that provide some cross-referencing for the events described in the Gospels, the Muslim accounts have no such historical anchoring: they are almost entirely ‘insider narratives’ composed in the spirit of piety. Some verses from the Quran, including references to Muhammad, are inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dating from 692 CE. Yet even these have been questioned as sources for the life of Muhammad. The word ‘muhammad’, written in Arabic script without an initial capital letter, can be treated as a passive participle meaning ‘the praised one’. At least one scholar, drawing on numismatic and archaeological evidence, suggests that the inscriptions actually refer to Jesus.

The text of the Quran, the ‘discourse’ or ‘recitation’ that is said to contain the exact words dictated by God to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, is supposed to have been fixed by Uthman (R. 644-656), the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad’s worldly power. It may have provided some clues to Muhammad’s biography – but they are only clues. The text is not arranged chronologically, and its style is highly allusive and elliptical. There are few extended narratives: the Quran’s auditors were evidently familiar with the materials in its discourses. There are references to stories contained in the Hebrew Bible and the Midrash (biblical commentaries), allusions to the Jesus narratives in the Gospels, including Gnostic versions expurgated from the official canon, and stories about Arabian prophets and sages who do not feature in the Judeo-Christian repertoire. The earliest Muslim exegetes – many of whom were Persian converts to Islam and far removed culturally from Muhammad’s supposed Bedouin milieu in western Arabia – were inspired to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography in order to understand the holy text, in particular, allusions to events in the Prophet’s life or ‘occasions of revelation’. There is a sense in which the Quran’s textual history conforms to Muslim piety: far from Muhammad being its ‘author’, the Quran, as the unmediated Word of God, is in a literary-historical sense the ‘author’ of Muhammad.

Scholars who have examined Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Hebrew sources alongside the earliest Arabic texts of the Quran and the hadiths have advanced a variety of alternatives to the conventional narrative. The American linguist John Wansbrough, who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, suggested that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts surrounding Mecca and Medina, arose much further north in a sectarian milieu of Christians and Judaized Arabs in the lands of the Fertile Crescent. More recently, in Muhammad and the Believers (2010), Fred Donner, doyen of American Islamic scholars, has argued that Islam began in the same region as part of an ecumenical movement of monotheists living in the daily expectation of End Times.  This revisionist view has recently been given a more popular currency by a British classical author, Tom Holland, in his book In the shadow of the sword (2012).

Following in Wansbrough’s wake, Holland suggests that Islam was born, not in the deserts of Arabia, but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars – the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. Muhammad’s Qurayshite enemies may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the traditional biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who ‘laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable’, knowing full well what he was about.

The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians, and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations – long entrenched in the region’s culture – that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to this view, the purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its by now well-established iconic moral authority.

None of the revisionist discourse, which has been strongly contested by some scholars working on the earliest manuscript sources, would have been known to Voltaire. As a religious iconoclast he would, no doubt, have relished the debate that has recently opened up over Islamic origins. As a dramatist, however, he explicitly rejected any requirement for historical accuracy. As Hannah Burton points out in the introduction to her elegant prose translation, the character of Mahomet is a fiction created for dramatic effect, not an attempt to portray a real historical actor. ‘Where would Virgil and Homer be if people had bothered them about the details?’ Voltaire asks. The same question is currently being asked of Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose skeletal remains were recently discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. Shakespeare’s murderous villain, crook-backed and leering, dragging his misshapen body round the historical stage, bears little relationship to the somewhat prudish devotee of St Anthony the Hermit, patron of those who struggle against the sins of the flesh, who is documented in the historical record. Just as Shakespeare’s character was invented to appease the Tudors who had defeated Richard on the field of Bosworth, Voltaire’s Mahomet was invented to annoy the religious.

Mahomet (Bruxelles, 1742).

The great philosophe was clearly familiar with the more positive details of the Prophet’s life as contained in the ‘Preliminary discourse’ attached to Sale’s English translation of the Quran (1734), and in two French biographies of Muhammad, Henri de Boulainvilliers’s La Vie de Mahomed (1730), and Jean Gagnier’s La Vie de Mahomet traduite et compilée de l’Alcoran (1732). As a passionate anti-cleric, however, he simply plundered these sources and distorted them for his wider purpose, which was to attack the hypocritical religiosity he saw as underpinning France’s ancien régime. Richard Holmes quotes from one of his many ill-tempered diatribes against priests of every denomination who ‘rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God’ (‘Transubstantiation’, in Dictionnaire philosophique). The intellectual forebear of such ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire viewed Muhammad initially through anti-Christian and, specifically, anti-Catholic spectacles.

Depicted as an impostor and a lecherous villain, Voltaire’s Mahomet is singularly lacking in redeeming features. Far from having the qualities that grace the heroes of classical tragedy, he appears as a scheming, ambitious, and wicked tyrant, an impostor motivated by lust. The remorse he exhibits at the end of the play – added, it has been suggested, for ‘public edification – is, in Ahmad Gunny’s view, ‘at best a passing impression and not a permanent trait of character’. Some critics have seen Mahomet as being more of a tract than a play – an attack on religion generally, and in particular the fatalism that Voltaire and many of his contemporaries associated with Islam. Discerning critics saw it as a coded attack on the Catholic Church, cleverly disguised as a polemic against its principal religious enemy. Lord Chesterfield thought that under the guise of Muhammad, Voltaire was really attacking Christ, and was surprised that this was not noticed at the time of its first performance in Lille (1741). Chesterfield met a good Catholic there ‘whose zeal surpassed his insight, who was extremely edified by the way in which this imposter and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’ (‘dont le zèle surpassait la pénétration, qui était extrêmement édifié de la manière dont cet imposteur et ennemi du Christianisme était depeint’). One can easily imagine Voltaire smiling with his tight-lipped grin of ‘a maimed monkey’ (un singe estropié), as he himself described it. How satisfying to have stimulated a bigoted response from a play whose original title page reads Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète, tragédie.

Voltaire’s attack on fanaticism in Mahomet may have been pitched at the supposed enemy of Christianity, but there was a more immediate polemical purpose in his distortion of the Muhammad story. In his life of the Prophet, Boulainvilliers follows Ibn Hisham and subsequent chroniclers, including the Syrian Abu al-Fida al-Hamawi (1273-1331), from whom Boulainvilliers drew his narrative, who relates that Abu Sufyan, leader of the Qurayshites, inspired by the Prophet’s magnanimity, eventually converts to Islam. In Voltaire’s play, however, the Abu Sufyan character (who is called Zopire, possibly after a Persian who features in Herodotus’s Histories as helping Darius trick his way into Babylon) is murdered for failing to embrace Islam. Voltaire’s treatment not only blackens Muhammad’s character, but sabotages the image of the charismatic visionary who defeated his enemies by force of the Quran’s eloquence as much as by his prowess in battle. A similar purpose is evident from his treatment of Palmira, who resists Mahomet’s advances and kills herself rather than succumbing to them. The model for Palmira in Muhammad’s biography is Zainab bint Jahsh, ex-wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, whom Muhammad married – correctly, in accordance with Islamic practice – after she had been divorced from her husband. Instead of embracing the more sympathetic image of Muhammad depicted by Boulainvilliers and Sale, Voltaire defaults to an older vision of Islam as a ‘religion preached by the sword and violence without any element of persuasion’. Doubtless it was this wholly negative depiction of the Prophet that secured papal approval for the play by Benedict XIV – an anti-Jansenist pope who would have seen the attack on Muhammad as a critique of the influential Jansenist party in France. A leading figure of this puritanical Catholic movement was the procurator Joly de Fleury, who was responsible for withdrawing the play after its successful Paris debut in 1742.

Voltaire, however, was far from being uniformly hostile to Islam. In a private letter to Frederick of Prussia he acknowledged that he had made Muhammad worse than he was: ‘Mahomet did not exactly weave the type of treason that forms the subject of this tragedy’ (‘Mahomet n’a pas tramé précisément l’espèce de trahison qui fait le sujet de cette tragédie’ D2386). His earlier play Zaïre, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, presents the Muslim religion more pragmatically. The heroine Zaïre, whose husband, the sultan Orosmane, tragically mistakes her encounter with her lost brother, a Christian, for sexual infidelity, offers a rather more tolerant view:

‘My heart doesn’t know itself … Custom and law moulded my earliest years to the happy Muslim religion. I see only too clearly: the training that we are given as children shapes our feelings, our mores, our belief. On the banks of the Ganges, I would have been a slave to false gods; in Paris, a Christian; in this place, a Muslim.’

Zaïre (Paris, 1733).

Voltaire’s subsequent essay, De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet (1748), maintains his view that Muhammad was an impostor who exploited beliefs in the supernatural while having no such supernatural help himself. In this respect, he regarded Islam as inferior to the Chinese religion because – unlike Muhammad –  Confucius depended neither on revelation, nor on lies, nor on the sword for his teachings, but only on reason. However, in disputing the claim that Muhammad was illiterate – a theme he took up in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les mœurs – Voltaire also makes some positive comments about the founder of Islam:

‘How can one imagine that a man who had been a merchant, poet, legislator and sovereign was unable to write his name? If his book is unsuitable for our times and for ourselves, it was truly good for his contemporaries. His religion was even better. We should recognise that he virtually rescued the whole of Asia from idolatry. He taught the unity of God and forcefully denounced anyone claiming that God has partners. He banned the usurious exploitation of strangers, and enjoined the giving of alms. Prayer is an absolute requirement; acceptance of eternal decrees animates all. It is hardly surprising that a religion so simple and wise, taught by a man who was always victorious in the field took power in much of the world. In actuality the Muslims made as many converts by the word as by the sword, including Indians and many Negroes. Even the Turkish conquerors submitted themselves to Islam’ (OCV, vol.20B, p.335).

Voltaire’s articles in the Mercure de France in 1745 proceed on similar lines. In one of them he disposes of the myth that the Muslim conquerors of Spain were wild monsters whose only superiority lay in force. While acknowledging the cruelty that always accompanies conquests, he points out that the Moors were not without humanity, and that in all their provinces they tolerated Christians. Despite the asymmetrical Islamic approach towards mixed marriages (whereby a Christian man would be executed for marrying a Muslim woman unless he converted to Islam), the Muslims were merciful conquerors, leaving the vanquished their property, laws, and religion. Hence, Spaniards who had hitherto followed Catholicism were not reluctant to leave it, becoming Mozarabs instead of Visigoths. Turning his attention eastward, he likewise commends the Turks for their tolerance. Whereas no Christian nation allows the Turks to build a mosque on its soil, the Turks allow the Greeks to have their churches in lands under their control, and he commends the way that, in their European domains, they have retained ‘Asian’ traditions, such as building caravanserais for travellers, or schools and hospitals attached to mosques.

In his excursion into early Islamic history in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire commends the Caliph Umar for allowing Jews and Christians full liberty of conscience following the capture of Jerusalem. Interestingly, in discussing the succession to Muhammad he takes the Shi‘ite view: that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his Caliph, or successor. As Voltaire’s knowledge of Islam deepened, he clearly became better disposed towards the faith. In the Essai, for example, he dwells on the contrasting historical trajectories of Christianity and Islam. From being a religion initially spread by arms, Islam became increasingly tolerant, whereas Christianity, after starting out from a ‘meek and humble’ stance, became ever more barbaric and intolerant. The contrast is underlined in the Examen de Milord Bolingbroke (1766), where it is Christianity that fails the test of reason. Belief in an all-powerful God, says Voltaire, is the only Muslim dogma: without the coda proclaimed in the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) that Muhammad is rasul Allah (the Messenger of God), Islam could have been every bit as ‘pure and beautiful’ as the Chinese religion. There is an implicit endorsement of this view in the final chapters of Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide (1762). After their bizarre and traumatic adventures in Europe and Latin America, it is in Muslim Turkey that Candide and his companions find the peace of mind where they may ‘cultivate their garden’.

Malise Ruthven

Note: Since there is virtually no connection between Voltaire’s ‘Mahomet’ and the prophet of Islamic tradition, I have adopted Voltaire’s spelling when referring to this character and used the conventional spelling ‘Muhammad’ when referring to the Prophet.

Previously published at https://litwinbooks.com/voltaires-fanaticism-or-mahomet-the-prophet-preface/, where references to the citations may be found.

9 Thermidor Year II: the best-documented day in the French Revolution?

La Prise de la Bastille (1789), by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the centre is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789).

Was 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) the most copiously documented day of action in the French Revolution? It saw the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre, most high-profile member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year ruled through terror – and is one of the pivotal days of action (or journées) around which the Revolution developed. The most influential journée in terms of French national history was 14 July 1789, which saw the storming of the Bastille and which is conventionally viewed as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Another day, 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), witnessed the coup d’état by which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and effectively ended the Revolution. The overthrow of Louis XVI and the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the 9 Thermidor journée mark the third and fourth journées which structure the revolution in most historical narratives.

There are numerous accounts all of these individual days, for each was a kind of ‘lightbulb moment’ that stayed in the minds of participants. But in writing my book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 hours in Revolutionary Paris, I gained a strong impression that the ‘best-documented’ accolade must go to 9 Thermidor. After 18 Brumaire only the heroic Napoleonic narrative was allowed and censorship closed down on discordant stories. There was much to celebrate after 14 July 1789 and 10 August but celebration was not investigation. And what marks 9 Thermidor off from all others is that the day was followed by extraordinarily detailed attempts to recapture exactly what had happened in all parts of the city.

The Execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794, artist unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Réserve QB-370 (48)-FT 4).

The reason for this was the determination of government to root out and to punish those individuals within the State, in public life and across the city who had supported Robespierre. Actions might relate to events over the previous two years of terror, but the litmus test of what began to be called ‘Robespierrism’ was invariably what individuals actually did on the day of 9 Thermidor. The city government, the Commune, had tried to mobilise Parisians to offer armed resistance to the national assembly in Robespierre’s cause. So the key question was, had an individual shown support for Robespierre and his supporters in the Paris Commune in their attempt to overthrow the government and purge the national assembly? Or did they remain loyal to the national assembly and the rule of law? Those found guilty of ‘Robespierrism’ could face expulsion from public life, imprisonment and even death at the guillotine.

Newspaper reports, political pamphlets and later memoirs invariably contain accounts of the day. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. A few days after the event, Paul Barras, the deputy whom the government charged with the security of the city on the night of 9 Thermidor, initiated a punctiliously thorough review of everything that had happened within each of the 48 Parisian sections on 8, 9 and 10 Thermidor.

Exit libertè a la Francois! – or – Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th. 1799, by James Gillray (1756-1815) (public domain).

‘Gather together all details’, he instructed sectional authorities. ‘A fact that seems minor may illuminate a suspicion or lead to the discovery of a useful truth. Inform me of all orders that you gave and all that you received; but above all, be precise on the dates and the hours; you will appreciate their importance.’

(‘Recueille donc tous les détails: un fait minutieux, en apparence, éclaire un soupçon, ou conduit à la découverte d’une vérité utile. Fais-moi part de tous les ordres que tu aurois donnés, de tous ceux que tu aurois reçus; mais surtout précise les heures et les dates: tu en sens toute l’importance.’ Archives nationales W 500, dossier 4. Note the Revolutionary ‘tutoiement’.)

This call engendered nearly two hundred micro-accounts of at least part of the day from vantage points all over the city containing millions of the called-for ‘details’. Many of the individual accounts were broken down for key periods of the day into quarter-hourly chunks.

Apprehension of Robespierre 27 July 1794, engraving by Michael Sloane (active 1796-1802) after a painting by G. P. Barbier (active 1792-1795) (Gallica digital library, public domain).

Besides this capital source, the Convention also set up a special official commission to make a report on the day, which was presented in the assembly exactly a year later. And finally, literally hundreds of individual police dossiers over the next year or so also provide similar micro-accounts of episodes and moments of the day as ordinary citizens were pressed to prove their loyalism.

Most of these extremely rich sources – never before tapped by historians in quite this way – are to be found in the French National Archives, particularly in series relating to policing and judicial affairs. Taken together, they allow us to see the city in close-up during these 24 hours through a mosaic of thousands of narrative micro-fragments, as its inhabitants confronted and grappled with a decision that would affect not only their own futures but also the future of the Revolution.

Studying these accounts, collating them and analysing them at the micro-level not only gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of a city at a pivotal moment in its history. It also allows us to present a new narrative of the day and a new analysis of what was at stake within it. What emerges – in a way that cuts against conventional narratives – is a profile of a moment at which Parisians took their political futures in their hands and overthrew Robespierre.

Researching and writing the history of these 24 hours, I have often pondered whether there is another day in the whole Revolutionary decade when we can see what was  happening up close at such a moment of drama. Indeed we might even ask: was 9 Thermidor the best-documented day in the whole of the eighteenth century?

– Colin Jones, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London

Pierre Hadot, Voltaire, and the figure of the philosophe

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

Pierre Hadot is rightly known preeminently for his work on ancient philosophy, including dedicated studies (and translations) of Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius. In a series of celebrated studies after 1970, Hadot made the case that ancient philosophy needed to be understood as a specific ‘form of life’ in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense. To be a philosopher was to make an existential choice to live in a certain manner. This way of life, whether Stoic, Epicurean, or Platonic, was based upon a specific theoretical understanding of self, world, and language, but not reducible to it. It involved regimens of what Hadot calls ‘spiritual exercises’ like meditation on theoretical truths, premeditation of evils, the memento mori, codified practices of questioning and answering, and measures to moderate or remove negative emotions.

It is less well known that Hadot came to this assessment of ancient philosophy by way of a hermeneutic concern. He was struck by the distance between modern academic philosophy and ancient philosophical texts, with their different literary and rhetorical dimensions, digressions and genres (like dialogues and poems). Hadot was also taken by the way particular formulae, like ‘nature loves to hide’, or the ‘view from above’ on mortal affairs (see below), were repeated and varied in different philosophers and philosophical schools. Hadot’s substantive vision of ancient philosophy emerged as an attempt to give an adequate explanation of what social, ethical, political and intellectual conditions could explain these textual features.

In principle as in fact, then, this approach can be applied to modern as well as ancient philosophical writings, wherever these significantly vary from the 6-12,000-word papers, commentaries, and treatises we presently credit. In one of his public presentations, in fact, Hadot mentions the Enlightenment philosophers, as well as movements in ‘popular philosophy’, as examples of the survival of the ancient idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ in modern times. Hadot’s comment is significant in all sorts of ways, not least since Hadot never widely pursues it, although his last work is a book on Voltaire’s great admirer, Goethe. We know that the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, are rarely taught today in philosophy departments as philosophers. We can well surmise that the premier reason for this is that their philosophical outputs each involved, by our standards, solely literary outputs – dialogues, dramas, epistolary novels, dramas, poetry – as well as texts aiming less at theoretical discovery or innovation than popular dissemination and application of ideas – encyclopedia and dictionary entries, pamphlets, even novellas and short stories dramatizing philosophical ideas and debates.

Reading Voltaire and the other philosophes’ works with Hadot’s metaphilosophical ideas in view asks us to bracket our assumptions as to what they ‘should’ have been doing, and focus on trying to identify just what ‘philosophy’ meant for them in the eighteenth century, and as such what it might still mean on an expanded view. We will also, using such a method, come to see how much closer the philosophes’ senses of what they were doing, and the different aims and types of philosophical writing, were to those of the ancient philosophers whom Hadot studied in great depth.

Many Enlightenment scholars won’t be surprised, in one way, at this last idea. Peter Gay’s two volume series on the Enlightenment is only one of many dedicated texts which have recognized the scale of the debts Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and other lumières owed to ‘the ancients’ they generally revered. The lumières were attracted, at the level of ideas, to the moral uprightness and sound ethico-political principles of the ancient philosophical schools, which did not depend on revealed religion. They saw in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, but also (in Voltaire’s case) ancient China, living examples of worlds in which religious sectarianism and fanaticism had not threatened civil peace, and in which the highest artistic and intellectual creations had been fostered.

Nevertheless, there is also a second dimension to the philosophes’ admiration of the ancient philosophers: one reflecting their continued recognition of the ancient idea of philosophy as a choice of life. Montesquieu and Voltaire revered Cicero in particular, as a philosopher as well as a man of action who served his nation unto death. Voltaire and Diderot continually entertained comparisons between the Socrates of The Apology and their own fates as exiles and prisoners for the sake of their pursuits of wisdom. Diderot compares himself also, at different moments, to both Diogenes the Cynic and Aristippus the hedonist, as in his Regrets for my old dressing gown (Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre). When Voltaire lists those figures who alone have the right to preach good morals in the entry ‘Dogmes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique, the list includes Socrates, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as the Chinese sage Confucius.

If we look at Du Marsais’s famous entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Encyclopédie, again, we find a clear primacy of social and ethical attributes such as Hadot might lead us to expect, over this philosophe’s adherence to any theoretical system. This philosopher is a man of the world whose only deity is civil society, and who wishes to live and enjoy his experiences of this world as fully as possible. Indeed, when the philosopher’s approach to ideas is examined, what comes up for praise is his ability to assess evidence and testimony clearly and carefully, withholding his assent to ideas that are not yet clearly established. But this is an epistemic virtue which reflects old Stoic ideas of ‘non-precipitancy’, and of course, the entire lineage of the ancient sceptical tradition. It is a kind of lived practice of thinking, or what Hadot calls ‘logic as a spiritual exercise’, rather than any specific dogmatic commitment.

Of course, this is not to say improbably that the philosophes wholly reembraced the ancient ideal and practices of philosophy, without change, and that as such, Hadot’s work on the ancients could likewise be ‘transplanted’ into eighteenth-century studies sans phrase. Nevertheless, if we focus in the remainder of this blog on Voltaire, we can say that Hadot’s approach allows us to understand aspects of Voltaire’s work that other philosophical methodologies might sideline, and indeed highlights particular features that other approaches can pass over as insignificant or ‘wholly literary’.

Take Voltaire’s opening description of the task of the philosopher, in his own entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

‘Philosophe, amateur de la sagesse, c’est-à-dire, de la vérité. Tous les philosophes ont eu ce double caractère, il n’en est aucun dans l’antiquité qui n’ait donné des exemples de vertu aux hommes, et des leçons de vérités morales.’ (Philosopher, ‘lover of wisdom’, that is, ‘of truth’. All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one amongst the philosophers of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of moral truth.)

Here, the philosopher is someone who loves something, the truth, rather than necessarily knowing it. He is also someone who gives an example, by his own conduct and way of life, of ethical virtues to others. This surely sounds strange to us today, in a culture which hardly sees its philosophers as exemplars to be emulated by the young.

Elsewhere, like the Epicureans and Stoics in particular, Voltaire will also assign a therapeutic role to philosophy. Philosophical learning and reflection is a means to quell the passions that divide people, and which we see on such destructive display in all forms of fanaticism, theological or secular. No ancient philosopher, Voltaire argues, was ever a sectarian. And whilst several were exiled or killed for their stances, none urged or participated in lynchings, mobbings, or sundry persecutions of those with whom they disagreed. ‘Les sectes des philosophes étaient non seulement exemptes de cette peste [fanaticism]’ (The sects of [ancient] philosophers were not merely exempt from this plague), Voltaire writes, they were antidotes to it, which might cure the disease again today: ‘Car l’effet de la philosophie est de rendre l’âme tranquille, et le fanatisme est incompatible avec la tranquillité’ (for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquility are totally incompatible).

Zadig and Astarte (1782), engraved by J. R. Smith (1751-1812).

Another ancient literary-philosophical trope that recurs in Voltaire is the ‘view from above’. Philosophical reasoning resituates our own egoistic perspectives into a different, larger frame. And once we do this, we can overcome many of the interpersonal and personal issues which, viewed unphilosophically, can potentially overwhelm us. The formula repeats, as a theme for philosophical meditation, across Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic, and even Cynical texts (if we count Lucian of Samosata a Cynic).

Yet Voltaire repeatedly has his characters, or his own narrative voice (as in the Traité sur la tolérance) step backwards or upwards, to describe humans as like ants, and our societies and battles like those of swarming insects. Hadot himself in his book on Goethe cites the moment when Zadig is separated from his beloved Astarte:

Zadig steer’d his Course by the Stars that shone over his Head. The Constellation of Orion, and the radiant Dog-star directed him towards the Pole of Canope. He reflected with Admiration on those immense Globes of Light, which appear’d to the naked Eye no more than little twinkling Lights; whereas the Earth he was then traversing, which, in Reality, is no more than an imperceptible Point in Nature, seem’d, according to the selfish Idea we generally entertain of it, something very immense, and very magnificent. He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes …’

Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.15 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The rightly most famous example of this is the effect produced by having the 24,000 foot giant Micromégas visit our little ‘anthill’, and converse with some of us ‘infinitely small’ humans. Echoing the ancient philosopher-satirist Lucian, Voltaire’s hero soon condemns with disgust the folly of human tribes engaging in bloody warfare for pieces of land no bigger than his heel, at the behest of authorities most of those killed and killing will never so much have met.

Voltaire uses a variation of the same ‘view from above’ Hadot identified as a recurrent ancient philosophical trope at the end of the education of the hapless, defeated would-be sage Memnon. In Memnon, it is an angel from Micromegas’s home planet, Sirius, who delivers the philosophical message:

Your fate will soon change,’ said the animal of the star. ‘It is true, you will never recover your eye, but, except that, you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.’ ‘Is it then impossible?’, asked Memnon. ‘As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy … There is a world indeed where all this is possible; but, in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees’.

Micromégas, engraving by G. Vidal, after Charles Monnet.

What we note here, however, is Voltaire’s specifically sceptical orientation, when it comes both to ancient philosophical thought, as well as to any too optimistic assessment of human perfectibility. Memnon in fact has begun by trying to make himself a sage exactly through practising Stoic spiritual exercises, like the disenchanting analysis of seductive appearances:

‘When I see a beautiful woman, I will say to myself: “These cheeks will one day grow wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become flabby and pendant, that head bald and palsied.” I have only to consider her at present in imagination, as she will afterwards appear; and certainly a fair face will never turn my head …’

It is this ambition towards self-perfection that provokes Voltairean fate, as episode by episode undermines his pretentions to complete virtue and wisdom. Another interesting episode in Voltaire of this kind is hence the short text Les Deux Consolés, in which ‘the great philosopher Citophile’ tries to comfort a bereaved women by regaling her with stories of other, more illustrious women who had suffered worse losses. Once more, the Voltairean furies (as it were) descend upon the philosopher-preacher:

‘Next day the philosopher lost his only son, and was entirely prostrated with grief. The lady caused a catalogue to be drawn up of all the kings who had lost their children, and carried it to the philosopher. He read it—found it very exact—and wept nevertheless. / Three months afterwards they chanced to renew their acquaintance, and were mutually surprised to find each other in such a gay and sprightly humor. To commemorate this event, they caused to be erected a beautiful statue to Time, with this inscription: “TO HIM WHO COMFORTS”.’

So, Voltaire was not simply an ‘ancient’, at least if we take ancient philosophy to have been universally committed to the possibility that a philosopher could ever become fully perfect or wise. He clearly worries that this aspiration looks too close to those which fire religious fanaticisms. Here as elsewhere, the ‘(non)sage’ of Cirey and Ferney is far closer to Michel de Montaigne – which also means, as we’ve indicated, to the ancient Sceptical heritage.

What reading Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophers with Hadot allows us to see, however, is how many of the questions and concerns of the ancient philosophers – including this concern with the possibility of anyone ever becoming a sage – are still amongst the philosophes. What will above all distinguish Voltaire or Diderot in particular from the ancients they emulated is the preeminence of specifically social and political concerns in their writings. Philosophers should aspire towards being ethical exemplars, and to use their writings to quell the passions which are the sources of avoidable human misery. But in doing so, they should recognize that many of these sources are sociopolitical in nature, and champion sociopolitical reforms. To write is therefore to act, for Voltaire – but not simply on oneself and one’s understandings. It is also to hope to enlighten the minds and sentiments of one’s contemporaries, with a view as if from above to future generations’ betterment.

– Matthew Sharpe

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.