Death of the author? Translation and the potential loss of authorship in Voltaire’s Commentaire historique

Voltaire’s autobiographical work, Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. Avec les pièces originales et les preuves (1776), is a text that challenges our understanding of the nascent autobiographical form at the end of Ancien Régime France. The text itself is divided into three sections: a prose part recounting Voltaire’s life; a collection of letters that cover an array of topics; and a poem, Sésostris. Unlike the intimate je in Rousseau’s Confessions, Voltaire’s piece is written in the third person: the narrative je and Voltaire are distinct. This stylistic peculiarity problematizes the question of whether or not Voltaire truly is the author; scholars such as I. O. Wade and Raymonde Morizot have, in fact, suggested that Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, was the author of this work, whereas Nicholas Cronk, in his critical introduction to the Commentaire, proves that Voltaire was in fact the author. While these debates are understandably centered on the French edition of the text, I believe that a consideration of translations of this work may help us to understand the fact that there was not a fixed contemporary understanding of Voltaire’s work. The 1777 London translation, published a year before Voltaire’s death in 1778, may do just that. Despite the fact that eighteenth-century translators regularly took creative liberties in their work (for example, the English translator indicates that the poetry in the prose part is translated such that the reader will be entertained, and thus is not translated literally), I believe that the translation in the London edition highlights a degree of uncertainty around the nature of the original Commentaire historique.

Title page of the 1777 English translation.

The translation of the title is radical: Historical Memoirs of the Author of the Henriade. With some Original Pieces. To which are added Genuine Letters of Mr. de Voltaire. Taken from his Minutes. Translated from the French. The text itself undergoes a slight generic change, from the historical commentary to the memoir. The notion of ‘proof’, present in the original title, is implied here in the idea of ‘genuine’ letters, taken from Voltaire’s own minutes, which are the principal type of proof given, clarifying the ambiguous pièces originales et les preuves of the French title. It is through this substitution that we better understand what ‘proof’ means. The inclusion of the term ‘minutes’ may also be used to underscore a degree of authenticity, perhaps referencing the fact that the letters were transcribed in a way that was common near the end of Voltaire’s life: Voltaire dictated the letters, and Wagnière transcribed them. From his hand or from his mouth, the words are originally Voltaire’s. Conversely, the distance between the author and the subject of the memoirs is accentuated through the double reference to Voltaire, once implicitly, once explicitly. Lastly, the English title is perhaps inspired by the final sentence of the prose section of the Commentaire historique, translated directly as: ‘We shall now give some genuine letters of Mr. de Voltaire, from his own minutes, which are at present in our hands, and shall only publish such as we imagine may be of general utility.’ This distance, present in the text, is moved to the forefront through its inclusion in the title.

These paratextual oddities are further highlighted by the inclusion of an Advertisement that is not present in the French edition. The translator writes: ‘No character in the literary world is so universally known, nor has [sic] the works of any writer of any age been sought after with such avidity as the writing of him who is the subject of the following Memoirs.’ This introductory sentence raises a question about the perceived vagueness of the authorship. Why include this advertisement if the work is understood to be autobiographical? Perhaps the London editors are making the claim that Voltaire is in fact not the author, but rather simply the subject; perhaps they still consider that Voltaire is the author but are striving to enhance radically the distance between the author and the autobiographical subject.

Beginning of the ‘Advertisement’ in the English translation.

The beginning of the French edition of the Commentaire begins thus:

‘Je tâcherai, dans ces Commentaires sur un homme de lettres, de ne rien dire que d’un peu utile aux lettres; et surtout de ne rien avancer que sur des papiers originaux. Nous ne ferons aucun usage ni des satires, ni des panégyriques presque innombrables, qui ne seront pas appuyés sur des faits authentiques.’

The French, here, sees a movement from the je to the nous. The English, however, begins:

‘In these Memoirs, the subject of which is a literary man, we shall endeavour to avoid every thing which may not in some degree tend to the advantage of letters, and particularly make it our care to advance nothing, except on the authority of original papers. No use shall be made of the almost innumerable satires and panegyrics which have been published, unless they are found to be supported by facts properly authenticated.’

While the first-person plural ‘we’ is present in both the French and English editions, the English translator relies on it almost exclusively, removing the author – the first person singular, the je, ‘I’ – almost entirely from the text. In fact, apart from instances where the first person pronoun ‘I’ appears within a letter, the English translator seems to use it only a handful of times, sometimes directly, such as in the case, ‘Although I think nothing is more insipid than the details of infancy…’ (p. 2), and sometimes simply to turn a phrase, ‘The fanaticism of Nonotte was so great, that in I don’t know what, philosophical, anti-philosophical, religious Dictionary…’ (p. 147). Largely, however, the French je becomes the English we: ‘J’ai entendu dire’ becomes ‘But we have heard’; while ‘J’étais en 1732 à la première représentation de Zaïre…’, ‘We were present at the first representation of Zara…’ (p.13). While the je of the French allows for the insertion of a narratorial intimacy, where the je is both a witness to the events of Voltaire’s life and functions as the closest thing there is to autobiographical intimacy provided in this work, the we in the English removes any presence of a singular, autobiographical intimacy.

I would like to posit that the London translation of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique embodies contemporaneous uncertainty around the authorship of Voltaire’s autobiography. When the English edition was published in 1777, Voltaire was still alive. Are the changes thus simply superficial, ludic gestures on the part of a translator who was seeking to carry on Voltaire’s autobiographical game? Or do they lend themselves to a new understanding about how the English translators understood the authorship of the Commentaire? Regardless, the London edition complicates our understanding about the perceived authorship of the Commentaire historique following its publication near the end of Voltaire’s life.

– Ryan Brown, PhD student, University of Chicago

The race competition

An old photograph of the former home of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Belles Lettres, and Arts at Bordeaux. It was located on the fashionable Avenue du Tourny.

On January 15, 2019, I received an unexpected phone call from Henry Louis Gates Jr. I had never met the famous Harvard professor, but he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book with him on a curious essay competition organized by Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739. The winning of these ‘prize puzzles’, as they were called in eighteenth-century English, had often transformed people’s careers. The most famous example of this is, of course, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who submitted his famous essays on ‘the sciences and the arts’ and the ‘origins of inequality’ to two such contests.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours qui a remporté le prix à l’Académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette question proposée par la même académie: si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs. Par un citoyen de Genève (Genève, 1750/1751).

Bordeaux’s 1741 competition was quite pointed: it focused on the source or causes of black skin and hair. This was actually one of the biggest ‘anthropological’ questions of the day, linked as it was to the larger question of how all of humankind’s varieties – they were not yet called races – came into being, and how they related to each other, or not.

Explanations related to Black skin had been circulating for twenty-five centuries before the Bordeaux contest. But the 1741 competition was the first time that a scientific institution invited Europe’s best thinkers to envision an entire sub-species of humans in terms of separate genealogies and separate categories. It is hard, now, not to marvel at the audacity of this French provincial Academy.

The first page of essay number 2, as submitted by its author.

Long story short, Skip Gates (as he is known in more informal settings) and I spent months figuring out just how to contextualize the contest. In addition to a substantial introduction, we decided that we would add a history of race timeline. He came up with a great title for the book: Who’s Black and Why? A hidden chapter from the eighteenth-century invention of race (Belknap/Harvard, 2022).

The resulting book dives deeply into this strange contest: its strange result (which I will not reveal here), the academy members themselves, as well as the history of the Port city of Bordeaux, whose slave-trading vessels ultimately carried 150,000 enslaved Africans to the New World. Slavery is, of course, the unstated link between the contest and the fascination with African skin.

To a certain extent one might say this book is slice of history, a microhistory of how race came about. Yet Who’s Black and Why? is also a macrohistory because the essays from the contest – they came from as far as Germany, Sweden, and Ireland – might also be seen as a European focus group, or a core sample of what Europeans thought about what was considered humankind’s most ‘extreme variety’, dark-skinned Africans.

Regarding the contest itself, the Academy of Sciences was primarily interested in naturalistic (not religious) explanations for blackness. And they received many ‘physical’ explanations, most of them pseudoscientific absurdities. One contestant maintained that blackness came from the vapours that emanated from the skin; another that the power of a pregnant mother’s imagination had imprinted a dark colour on her child and its descendants; a third claimed that blackness was passed on from person to person through darkened sperm; a fourth that the stifling heat and humidity of the Torrid Zone stained the skin and clouded the humours. Present in these essays, however, were also the three major tendencies that became the foundation for the new idea of race that was taking shape during the Enlightenment.

Herman Moll, geographer; Thomas and John Bowles, publishers: Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements …  Atlas minor (London, 1729). The French slave port of Gorée appears in the upper left section of the map. By the time the Bordeaux slave trade had begun to rise, the entire west coast of Africa had been colonized by European powers.

The first was that of genealogy. Nearly a decade before Buffon published his own theory of degeneration in the third volume of his Histoire naturelle (1749), one of the thinkers posited that an original prototype human race moved around the globe and morphed into humankind’s many varieties as a result of climate and different types of food.

The second tendency is the rise of anatomical theories related to the source of blackness. This was best exemplified by the only contestant who ultimately published his essay after the contest: a surgeon named Pierre Barrère, who had been a surgeon on a plantation in Guiana. Barrère’s so-called findings – he maintained that his studies demonstrated that Africans had black blood and bile – were republished throughout Europe, in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and even cited by Thomas Jefferson.

Title page of Pierre Barrère, Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, de la qualité de leurs cheveux, et de la dégénération de l’un et de l’autre, par M.*** docteur en médecine de l’université de Perpignan (Paris, P.-G. Simon, 1741) (public domain, digitised by Google).

And there was a third tendency in the essays as well. In addition to the aforementioned genealogical and anatomical theories, some essays revealed a classificatory impulse, a desire to break humankind down into discrete sub-species or races. Twenty-five years later, thinkers including Blumenbach and Kant would bring human taxonomies to a new level, providing the essential infrastructure for organizing centuries of xenophobia into trenchant categories.

Who’s Black and Why? is designed to be helpful for both researchers and students. To that end we have also created an extensive timeline of the history of race We hope that this, and the book itself, will be a gateway into a curious moment in Enlightenment-era history, one where science was actively claiming jurisdiction over the human species.

Andrew S. Curran, William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, Wesleyan University

300 years after Kangxi

Pedro Luengo’s Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is the April volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book reinterprets Beijing during the eighteenth century, revealing a new chapter in the global history of architecture. In this blog post, Pedro Luengo discusses the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations after the death of Qing emperor Kangxi and the new approach to cosmopolitanism developed in response to eighteenth-century global modernity.

China’s relations with the rest of world is a vital issue for our times. International relationships are deeply connected to notions of the perceived Other, which in turn can be shaped by personal experiences, powerful propaganda and historical events. To better understand China’s approach to foreign relations in the present, it can be useful to look to its past.

Portrait of the emperor Kangxi at age 32 by Caspar Luiken (1698).

The death of the Qing emperor Kangxi on 20 December 1722 marked the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations. First with Kangxi’s successor, emperor Yongzheng, at the helm, followed by emperor Qianlong from 1735, the Qing dynasty developed different ways of dealing with eighteenth-century global modernity. Ethnically Manchu while governing a Han society, they proposed a new approach to cosmopolitanism. As part of a Chinese cosmovision, the emperor was placed at the centre of the globalised world, governing both their territories and beyond. While previous scholarship has tended to examine the role of European missionaries and the exchange of artistic traditions among the local elite, Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing: Building Qing Enlightenments aims to explain how these Qing emperors defined an image of globalisation in eighteenth-century Beijing.

More specifically, the book begins by reviewing the most recent approaches to court history in order to provide an analysis of specific building complexes. Yuánmíng Yuán is treated here not as a Chinese garden with exotic buildings based on European forms but as a vast architectural project that showcases Asian and European influences as well as Chinese styles. Indeed, references to French, Italian, Persian, and southeast Asian architecture can all be identified.

From Catholic churches to Russian monasteries to mosques, the second set of buildings under consideration provide a means to examine the Qing emperors’ support for religious tolerance during the period. This particular aspect of globalisation spread among both the elite and rural populations with engravings and paintings providing evidence of this cosmopolitan view, including in artworks found to adorn opera stages and shrines.

Green Wutong Tree Academy from Forty scenes of Yuanming Yuan commisioned by the Qianlong emperor in 1744 (BnF).

Analysed using new historical sources and the latest digital technology, these buildings help to provide a more accurate image of Beijing as an important global centre during the eighteenth century. This also allows for comparisons to be drawn between other contemporary cities, such as Istanbul, Paris, and Rome among many others. Knowledge of how the issue of multiculturalism was dealt with by these societies may help others to address similar challenges in the present. In addition, it might prompt renewed conservation efforts to help preserve or restore these historical sites. Yuánmíng Yuán is currently preserved as ruins after the destruction wrought by British and French soldiers in the nineteenth-century, while the churches, monasteries, and mosques examined mostly disappeared during the current century. The paintings found at rural sites are, themselves, at high risk. Curiously, the typical Chinese approach to heritage and its preservation insists on community value at the expense of other aspects such as material authenticity. In this way, the ruins of Yuánmíng Yuán are explained today as the consequence of European barbary, and not so much noted as a prime example of the Chinese contribution to the international history of multilateralism. Notwithstanding its terrible attack, the monument might therefore be better used to highlight and reinforce the potentially positive role that China can play as the world navigates its current tensions and challenges.

Pedro Luengo (Universidad de Sevilla)

Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This article first appeared in the Liverpool University Press Blog.

Les Antiquités dépaysées

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme’s Les Antiquités dépaysées is the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is the first on the geopolitics of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century. In this blog post Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme discuss this new publication and how the volume came to exist.

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of conferences, books and articles that have rethought antiquarian knowledge in a global context in art history, history of material culture, and the history of knowledge. They were mainly based on the idea of the long – even deep – history of Antiquity and on a comparative approach between cultures of collecting. There were also perspectives on the history of Antiquity more rooted in the colonial world or addressing global Renaissance. In all these cases, the aim was to break with the disciplinary genealogies of modern archaeology in order to recapture the early modern period.

Our viewpoint in this book was slightly different: we questioned the idea that antiquarian curiosity was an anthropological invariant, and we also wanted to interrogate further the shift from antiquarianism to archaeology that occurred during the Enlightenment. We come from two different but complementary backgrounds: Charlotte Guichard comes from art history and has done a lot of work on collecting, expertise and the world of objects, and Stéphane Van Damme comes from the history of science and has taken an interest in urban antiquities. This volume is therefore the result of a series of meetings that took place in Paris that aimed to pool the approaches of a new generation of historians and art historians who belong to different historiographical fields and who have been sensitized to the question of the circulation of antiques in the eighteenth century in worlds and spaces as different as the Mughal Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, the Spanish empires in New Spain, or the antiquarian culture in the young Republic of the United States.

Our problem is anchored in a connected history and we chose to focus on the devices of encounter that constitute moments of testing and appraising of these artefacts. Circulation is not an inert framework but a phase of transformation, translation and adaptation that played a role in giving a new identity to these artefacts. We have therefore always paid attention to the actors, the mediations that made these circulations possible or, on the contrary, hindered them. Less than structural comparison, the connection and circulation between these worlds required agreements on the nature of these objects and their interpretations. The history of knowledge mobilized here is part of the material turn to account for this intense work of qualification, as the ontologies of objects and artefacts are not fixed but constantly discussed and negotiated. The global dimension does not invite us to focus solely on the analysis of the processes of globalization of a material culture of Antiquity, but rather to show the diversity of the collecting enterprises and the variety of local contexts in which they were embedded.

By studying antiquarian knowledge in context, the book aims to give an archipelagic representation of the antiquarian world rather than the plenary vision that has become established, and which gives a false image of these exchanges. In the eighteenth century there were indeed high places and metropolitan cities where these meetings took place: Paris, London, Philadelphia, Constantinople, Beijing, Delhi, Mexico. The collective work therefore consisted in mapping these exchanges. While the paradigm of international trade was established in eighteenth-century European societies, the flow of antique objects was not homogeneous. Antiquarian curiosity was not unanimously shared, and enthusiasm was often tempered. This book reveals, on the contrary, the indifference or the obstacles in this pursuit. In so doing, our collective investigation aims to re-politicize the exchanges, highlight the conflicts and power relations, and even the economy of predation that surrounded these circulations of Antiquity in the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme (Ecole normale supérieure)

Les Antiquités dépaysées: Histoire globale de la culture antiquaire au siècle des Lumières is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in March 2022.

The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire … complete!

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.

Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.

Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.

GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.

AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.

Gillian Pink and Alison Oliver.

GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.

AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.

GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.

AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.

GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!

AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!

GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.

AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

First blogged in: The Oxford Polyglot 2021-22, Issue 2, Hilary term 2022.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s surprising ‘cosmopolites’

Reading the recent blog, ‘Voltaire, the Lettre sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism’ I was reminded that Bernardin de Saint-Pierre employed ‘cosmopolite’ as an adjective. I had always assumed that the term was utilised exclusively as a noun – for instance, we read early on in ‘Livre I’ of Rousseau’s Emile: ‘Défiez-vous de ces cosmopolites qui vont chercher dans leurs livres des devoirs qu’ils dédaignent de remplir autour d’eux.’ As the general editor of Bernardin’s Harmonies de la Nature (Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.4, Paris, Classiques Garnier, forthcoming), I came across this adjectival usage on several occasions, moreover describing the natural world. Bernardin’s monumental work in nine ‘Livres’ was probably begun in 1790 and then recast in several versions for the next fifteen to twenty years without being published in its author’s lifetime. In ‘Livre I’ we read regarding plants (the italics are mine):

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, engraving by Etienne Frédéric Lignon (1818).

‘Le blé a des harmonies avec la terre par ses racines, divisées par filaments, qui en y pompent leur nourriture. Elles ne sont ni longues ni nombreuses mais elles y adhèrent si fortement qu’on ne peut les enlever sans emporter une portion du sol ni rompre la paille à cause de sa dureté. Voilà sans doute les raisons qui obligent les laboureurs de le scier plutôt que de l’arracher. Ces rapports terrestres lui sont communs avec beaucoup d’autres végétaux, mais ce qu’il a de particulier, c’est qu’il n’y a aucune partie du globe où ne puisse croître quelqu’une de ses espèces, depuis le riz du Gange jusqu’à l’orge de la Finlande. Il est cosmopolite comme l’homme […].’

In the same ‘Livre’ one finds:

‘Les plantes cosmopolites croissent en général le long des grands chemins. Ce sont des espèces d’hospices que la nature y a établis pour les animaux domestiques voyageurs.’

Birds are endowed with this capacity in ‘Livre II’:

‘L’organisation des volatiles, leur instinct et leurs vols, peuvent se rapporter à une infinité de besoins de la vie sociale. Ils peuvent servir à découvrir les propriétés des végétaux, à annoncer l’arrivée des orages, le changement des saisons, et les îles qui sont hors de la vue des navigateurs. Les volatiles sont les premiers habitants des terres, de tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le leur est seul cosmopolite.’

The utility of floating vegetation is illustrated in ‘Livre III’:

‘Ces végétations flottantes forment quelquefois des tribus si nombreuses, qu’elles arrêtent la course des vaisseaux: telles sont celles de la Floride. D’autres semblent poser des limites stables et tracer des lignes de démarcation sur les plaines liquides de la mer: elles peuvent déterminer les bornes des diverses puissances maritimes, et donner aux navigateurs des points plus sûrs que leurs longitudes estimées. D’autres font comme eux le tour du globe, et circulent d’un pôle à l’autre avec l’océan. C’est peut-être parmi ces espèces voyageuses et cosmopolites, que de malheureux marins, naufragés sur un écueil, peuvent choisir des trajectiles propres à annoncer leur infortune sur tous les rivages.’

‘Livre IX’ offers a further example:

‘Tels sont les principaux genres physiques qui se subdivisent en moraux, les uns vivant fraternellement comme les moineaux. Tous se divisent en deux sexes. Quelques-uns vivent conjugalement comme les tourterelles, d’autres maternellement ainsi que les abeilles qui travaillent en familles sous le gouvernement d’une mère. Des familles les unes se rassemblent en tribus ainsi que les castors, quelques tribus se réunissent en nations telles que plusieurs espèces de poissons. Enfin d’autres sont cosmopolites et vivent pour ainsi dire sphériquement en parcourant le globe. Telles sont les espèces voyageuses comme les hirondelles.’

I wondered whether this extended use could be found elsewhere. The search facility of Electronic Enlightenment offered an excellent resource. It registered 29 occurences. Voltaire writes towards the end of a letter to Frederick II, c.15 July 1742: ‘Mais j’ay essuyé une des plus illustres tracasseries de ce monde. Mais je suis si bon cosmopolite, que je me réjouiray de tout.’ On 29 April 1752 he chides La Condamine: ‘mon cher cosmopolite, ne me croyez pas assez ignare pour ne pas savoir où est Cartagene; j’y envoie tous les ans plus d’un vaisseau, ou du moins je suis au nombre de ceux qui y en envoient […].’ Moultou told Rousseau on 13 October 1762: ‘R[oustan] n’a pas compris vôtre dernier chap. du Contrat social, au moins il ne l’a pas compris come moy. Quand vous dites que le Xanisme est contraire a l’esprit social, il me semble que cette assertion revient a celle cy, que la bienveillance se relâche en s’etendant, & que le Xanisme nous fesant envisager touts les homes come nos fréres, nous empêche de mettre une grande difference entre eux, et nos concitoyens. De la le Systéme du Xanisme est plus favorable a la société universelle des homes qu’aux societés particuliéres: le Xen est plus cosmopolite que patriote.’

However it is the abbé Morellet who appears the greatest fan of the term ‘cosmopolite’. He tells David Garrick on 21 April 1765: ‘N’ai je pas fait là un petit sacrifice à l’utilité publique qui merite de la part des amis du genre humain quelque reconnoissance. Je dis de la part du genre humain car je ne crains pas de vous avoüer que ce n’est pas pour mon pays que je travaille. On ne profitera pas de longtemps de ce que je pourrai avoir dit de bon dans ce pays cy et on ne m’en saura peut-etre pas grand gré. Mais je suis cosmopolite et si je puis en développant les principes d’une science aussi vaste et j’ose dire assés inconnue jusqu’à present etre utile à quelque nation que ce soit[,] fut elle notre ennemie[,] je me croirai bien payé de mes travaux.’ He tells Pietro Verri in a missive composed between 14 and 15 March 1767: ‘Dites moi, Monsieur le Comte, si vos occupations et celles de M. le Comte Carli vous empêchent d’écrire sur ces objets intéressans. Devenus des hommes d’état, vous ferez les meilleures choses du monde dans votre Milanois, cela est bien. Mais je suis cosmopoliteet je voudrois bien que vous travaillassiez un peu pour le genre humain.’

He further champions the idea of being ‘cosmopolite’ in letters of 4 September 1775 and c.30 December 1777 to the 1st marquess of Lansdowne and on 30 October 1785 to Benjamin Franklin. The term is not found in Bernardin’s own letters but exists in a communication to him dated c. October 1789. The correspondent is a fellow Norman and a fervent admirer, Mme Le Pesant de Boisguilbert. She is now an émigrée in Margate: ‘il n’est point de bonheur pour moi sachant La France agiteé de troubles et de divisions et travaillant elle même a sa ruine. personne pour mon malheur n’est moins cosmopolite que moi; je tiens fortement à ma patrie […].’ Here the word has clearly negative connotations unlike the resonances in the other quoted letters.

Evidently ‘cosmopolite’ has no linkage with the non-human world in the above quotations. I wondered therefore whether the seemingly new usage might be found in contemporary reference books. The word was clearly in circulation in the early decades of the eighteenth century with its ‘citizen of the world’meaning. Yet it is absent from the 1694, 1718 and 1740 editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. It appears however as a noun in the 1762 version: ‘Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie. Un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.’ The 1798 edition is arguably more positive: ‘Citoyen du monde. Il se dit de celui qui n’adopte pas de patrie. Un cosmoplite regarde l’univers comme sa patrie.’ (The 1835 edition follows similar lines.) The Encyclopédie article in volume 4 of the 1751 edition offers: ‘COSMOPOLITAIN, ou COSMOPOLITE, (Gram. & Philosoph.) On se sert quelquefois de ce nom en plaisantant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui n’est étranger nulle part.’ In volume 2 of its edition in 1771 the Dictionnaire de Trévoux suggests: ‘Cosmopolitain, aine. On dit quelquefois ce mot en badinant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui nulle part n’est étranger […].’ The abbé Féraud supplies nothing new in his Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787): ‘Cosmopolite, Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie; citoyen de l’univers. “Il se fait honneur d’être cosmopolite, mais un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.”’

The first reference that I have encountered which records Bernardin’s practice is in the Dictionnaire Littré (1873-1877). Its entry begins with the customary definition: ‘Celui qui se considère comme citoyen de l’univers’ but suggests also ‘celui qui vit tantôt dans un pays tantôt dans un autre; qui adopte facilement les usages des divers pays. C’est un cosmopolite.’ It goes on to list: ‘Adjectivement. Un philosophe cosmopolite. Une existence cosmopolite. “De tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le genre des insectes est seul cosmopolite”, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Harm. liv. II, Anim.’ Bernardin’s is the only source cited although the quotation is slightly incorrect as it should be ‘volatiles’ and not ‘insectes’ (see the quotation from ‘Livre II’ above). Could Bernardin thus be the initiator of this adjectival extension of ‘cosmopolite’ to the non-human world? Intriguingly the old but still valuable study of changes in the French language by Ferdinand Gohin in the final decades of the eighteenth century would seem to support that possibility. In a section entitled ‘On applique aux choses ce qui ne se disait que des personnes’ he provides an entry for ‘cosmopolite’: ‘B. de St-P., Et., II. 383; […]. – Ibid, I, 71 […].’* The reference is not to the Harmonies de la Nature but to the Etudes de la Nature (first published in 1784).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Etudes de la Nature, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

I have omitted above Gohin’s quotations from Bernardin (in the square brackets) for clarity. I shall quote the second one first: ‘[La nature] a donné aux plantes qui lui [à l’homme] sont les plus utiles, de croître dans tous les climats; les plantes domestiques, depuis le chou jusqu’au blé, sont les seules qui, comme l’homme, soient cosmopolites’ (Etudes de la Nature, ed. Colas Duflo, Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.3, Paris, 2019, p.131). Bernardin believed in a divinely ordered universe which is governed by providence where everything was primarily geared to the benefit of ‘le genre humain’. The other quotation (which I cite at greater length) could be considered as very revealing: ‘C’est dans cette famille, si j’ose dire cosmopolite, que la nature a placé le principal aliment de l’homme; car les blés, dont tant de peuples subsistent, ne sont que des espèces de graminées. Il n’y a point de terre où il ne puisse croître quelques espèces de graminées’ (ibid., p.700). It is the insertion of the phrase ‘si j’ose dire cosmopolite’ which is telling. It surely implies that Bernardin recognises that he is not following standard usage and that his readers may disapprove of such linguistic licence.

Those familiar with Bernardin’s works are well aware of his vast range of vocabulary. Unless possessing specialist knowledge, his early readers (and doubtless their twenty-first century successors) can only regard his terminology for flora and fauna in the lands of the Indian Ocean as exotic and evocative without comprehending their precise meaning. In common with his contemporary acquaintance, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, he championed the invigorating value of new words. Jean-Claude Bonnet claims that ‘Bernardin s’est révélé hardiment néologue.’** In ‘Livre IX’ of the Harmonies de la Nature Bernardin includes ‘propulsation’ three times, a word unknown to any dictionary, in effect a ‘barbarisme’. The final letter of his first publication, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773), states: ‘L’art de rendre la nature est si nouveau, que les termes même n’en sont pas inventés’ (ed. A. Gigan and V. Kapor, Œuvres complètes, t.2, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2019, p.854).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’île de France, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

Editors of his Œuvres complètes frequently fail to find words that he employs in eighteenth-century dictionaries. Indeed when they are found in nineteenth-century listings, examples of usage are often derived from Bernardin’s works, particularly the Harmonies de la Nature. With reference to ‘cosmopolite’ one can speculate that Bernardin adapted the positive implications of the term to an adjectival context to consider nature in a wider focus – its productions can be admired and consumed across the planet. People benefit from the presence and exchange of plants etc on a global scale just as they benefit from the sharing of ideas and experiences – we live in a joined-up world.

* Les transformations de la langue française pendant la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1903), p.302. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé in its entry for ‘cosmopolite’ suggests its first appearance as an ‘adj. bot.’ was in the Etudes de la Nature edition of 1784 and cites Gohin as its source. It defines its modern meaning as ‘Qui connaît une très large répartition géographique.’

** ‘Bernardin néologue à l’épreuve de l’océan Indien ou “l’art de rendre la nature”’, in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre et l’océan Indien, ed. Jean-Michel Racault, Chantale Meure and Angélique Gigan (Paris, 2011), p.405.

Simon Davies

Les Lumières à Sherbrooke (Québec): Une exposition de documents originaux et un colloque sur Voltaire

Dans le cadre d’une exposition sur Voltaire s’est tenu un colloque, ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec, histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, les 7 et 8 avril 2022. L’exposition intitulée ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, mettant en valeur la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine du 27 janvier au 23 juin 2022, représentait en effet le prétexte idéal pour réunir les chercheuses et les chercheurs autour d’enjeux philosophiques, politiques, artistiques, religieux et historiques, passés et présents. Nous présentons ici l’exposition, puis le colloque.

Une exposition exceptionnelle

L’exposition d’une sélection de manuscrits de la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David marque l’aboutissement de la première phase d’un projet mené conjointement par l’Université de Sherbrooke et la Voltaire Foundation de l’Université d’Oxford visant la numérisation et la mise en ligne de l’entièreté de cette collection de manuscrits voltairiens. La collection a été numérisée par les soins de la doctorante en histoire de l’Université de Sherbrooke Sonia Blouin. La Voltaire Foundation, de son côté, œuvre actuellement à la mise en ligne de la collection dans un avenir rapproché.

Cette collection fut en grande partie constituée entre 1848 et 1890 par les arrières-grands-parents et les grands-parents de Jacqueline Lambert-David, alors propriétaires du château de Ferney, l’ancienne demeure de Voltaire. Elle s’est considérablement enrichie dans les années 1950 par cette dernière grâce à de nouvelles acquisitions. Constituée surtout de copies de lettres, de poèmes et de manuscrits divers de Voltaire, la collection comprend notamment quelques inédits et 56 lettres autographes de Voltaire publiées entre 1953 et 1965 par Theodore Besterman dans la première édition de son Voltaire’s Correspondence.

Préparée par le Professeur Peter Southam, le Professeur Pierre Hébert et la commissaire invitée Chloë Southam, l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’ permet de découvrir une soixantaine de documents de la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, à laquelle s’ajoutent des écrits québécois sur Voltaire témoignant de son influence au Québec, de même que des périodiques ayant fait l’objet de censure en raison de leurs idées voltairiennes.

Deux journées de colloque pour cerner l’influence de Voltaire au Québec
Manuscrit type: affiche non datée de l’Epître à Uranie (photographie K. Boivin).

En 1945, l’historien Marcel Trudel signait un ouvrage qui fait date: L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada. Depuis ce temps, aucune étude d’envergure n’avait revisité cette question; tel était le but du colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, organisé par les professeurs Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke), Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) et Nicholas Dion (U. de Sherbrooke). Ces échanges ont pris place dans le cadre des 61e journées scientifiques de l’Association québécoise pour l’étude de l’imprimé (AQEI) les 7 et 8 avril 2022 au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine ainsi qu’au Séminaire de Sherbrooke.

Micheline Cambron, professeure émérite de l’Université de Montréal, a ouvert la première journée en abordant ‘L’Ingénu de Voltaire. Lieux communs et mise en récit d’une quête épistémologique’. Scrutant minutieusement les modalités d’énonciation des lieux communs, elle a montré que les idées farfelues présentées comme du ‘déjà su’ apportent peu au conte; en revanche, par leur accumulation, le lecteur est amené à être attentif au caractère fallacieux d’une prémisse. En somme, la leçon de L’Ingénu mettrait en cause l’indécision devant laquelle on est placé devant les lieux communs.

Dans une communication ayant pour titre ‘Les épigones québécois de Voltaire et leur influence sur le développement actuel d’une culture laïque francophone au Québec’, Jacques G. Ruelland a présenté le parcours intellectuel des quatre ‘philosophes’ québécois du XVIIIe siècle associés aux idées des Lumières: Fleury Mesplet, Pierre du Calvet, Valentin Jautard et Pierre de Sales Laterrière. Ruelland a mis en lumière l’anticléricalisme déiste de ces quatre figures qui ont multiplié les démêlés avec les autorités en promouvant la culture laïque à l’époque de la Révolution française.

La présentation suivante, de Sébastien Drouin (U. de Toronto), a abordé l’‘Antiphilosophie et antivoltairianisme chez Joseph-Octave Plessis et Ignace Bourget’. Drouin a couplé l’analyse du contenu des bibliothèques de Mgrs Plessis (liste inédite) et de Bourget avec des extraits des écrits de ceux-ci, afin de faire apparaître les racines antiphilosophiques et antivoltairianistes de l’ultramontanisme au XIXe siècle québécois.

Joël Castonguay-Bélanger (U. de la Colombie-Britannique) a quant à lui traqué ‘Le centenaire de Voltaire dans la presse canadienne’. Contrairement au constat de Marcel Trudel selon lequel l’événement de 1878 serait passé inaperçu, le centenaire a fait couler beaucoup d’encre à partir de 1876, polarisant le discours de la presse entre voltairianistes et antivoltairianistes.

Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (U. des Saarlandes, Allemagne), dans ‘Libéralisme radical, laïcité et héritage des Lumières au Québec à la fin du XIXe siècle – le rôle précurseur de Paul-Marc Sauvalle et d’Aristide Filiatreault, journalistes et intellectuels’, a révélé l’alliance improbable entre un journaliste distingué, orateur important et très présent dans les cercles sociaux (Sauvalle, 1857-1920) et un typographe effacé (Filiatreault, 1851-1913) qui animait des revues satiriques, en raison de leur goût commun pour la polémique. Tous deux ont fondé Canada-Revue, qualifiée de ‘journal huguenot’ par ses détracteurs – le clergé et la presse conservatrice – et censurée en 1892. D’après Lüsebrink, ce ‘libéralisme radical’ met cause la place dominante de l’Eglise dans la société québécoise en général et dans l’éducation en particulier (l’éducation au féminin est un combat corollaire).

Par la suite, Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) a présenté ‘Honoré Beaugrand (1846-1906) et l’émancipation maçonnique du Québec’. En 1873, Honoré Beaugrand rejoint la loge maçonnique King Philip à Fall River et déclare dans son journal son appartenance forte à la franc-maçonnerie. Beaugrand est le premier Canadien français à clamer haut et fort sa qualité de franc-maçon libéral. Ce libre-penseur participe notamment à la fondation de la loge montréalaise L’Emancipation (1895-1911), dont les valeurs sont issues des Lumières. Au Québec, l’absolue liberté de conscience qui fonde la franc-maçonnerie conduira aussi à l’émancipation graduelle de l’ultramontanisme, d’après Andrès.

Julien Vallières (Laboratoire d’analyse des discours et récits collectifs, U. McGill) a clos la journée en dépliant ‘L’influence de Rousseau au Canada [par] l’examen du discours de réception à Montréal (1900-1920)’. Vallières a souhaité vérifier de quelle manière le philosophe a influencé les acteurs de la vie culturelle au Québec. Entre autres, ses analyses révèlent que Rousseau est enseigné à l’Université Laval de Montréal dès 1901 ; qu’Etienne Parent s’inspire librement du penseur dans ‘Les rêveries d’un fumeur solitaire’ (1910) rédigées dans son journal de collège ; et que Les Confessions sont une lecture de jeunesse déterminante pour Claude-Henri Grignon, romancier et polémiste majeur des années 1930.

Lors de la seconde journée, les questions liées à la censure, à la laïcité et à la tolérance ont été au cœur des discussions. La première séance a eu pour point de départ l’écoute d’une émission de Radio-Collège diffusée en 1948. Dans ‘La vie et l’œuvre de Voltaire’, Raymond Tanghe s’entretient avec le révérend père Ernest Gagnon, jésuite, professeur à la Faculté des lettres de l’Université de Montréal, et Jean-Marie Laurence, professeur de littérature à l’Ecole normale de Montréal. Les deux invités condamnent l’épicurisme, l’égocentrisme et l’esprit étriqué de Voltaire, et ce, en s’appuyant vraisemblablement sur leur connaissance des morceaux choisis plutôt que des œuvres intégrales.

Marc André Bernier (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) a ensuite présenté la communication intitulée ‘Histoire-science et art du récit chez Marcel Trudel’. Son étude fine de L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada de Trudel a mis au jour certains paradoxes entre la démarche scientifique de l’historien et sa rhétorique, qui tient surtout de l’apologétique. Déterminé à mesurer le ‘volume du courant voltairien au Canada’, Trudel s’est donné pour mission d’établir des faits précis, ce qu’il peine à faire puisqu’une métaphore longuement filée de l’inondation tient lieu d’hypothèse de recherche. Autrement dit, la démarche scientifique de Trudel lui permet d’exposer sa thèse, tous les faits montrant que Voltaire a été ‘notre seul maître’, mais la conclusion reste étrangère à tous ces faits pour donner une explication apologétique: le Canada aurait été sauvé miraculeusement des ‘eaux’ voltairiennes par le clergé.

La communication suivante a permis justement d’éprouver cette hypothèse. Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke) a prononcé la communication ‘Une censure en crise: le Voltaire “post-Trudel”, 1945-1960’. Est-ce que le discours sur Voltaire peut être conçu comme une trace d’un signifié plus grand sur la censure dans ces années? Hébert a répondu à cette question grâce à un dépouillement systématique de la revue mensuelle Lectures et du quotidien Le Devoir durant les années 1945-1960. L’antivoltairianisme des années 1940 s’efface graduellement dans les pages du Devoir, contrairement à Lectures, revue catholique. A partir des années 1950, Voltaire occupe une place sans complexe dans les pages de ce journal plus indépendant. En quinze ans se serait opérée une fissuration notable, précédant l’effondrement complet du régime censorial clérical des lettres au Québec.

A la suite de Hébert, Charlène Deharbe et Hervé Guay (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) ont présenté une communication ayant pour titre ‘Voltaire sur les planches: l’adaptation théâtrale de Candide par Antoine Laprise’. S’intéressant à l’actualisation du roman voltairien par le Théâtre du sous-marin jaune à la fin de la décennie 1990, Deharbe et Guay ont montré que ce théâtre de marionnettes a permis une appropriation par le plus grand nombre d’une œuvre classique sur le mode ludique, un dialogue avec le non-spécialiste. Plus encore, cette lecture actualisante rendrait l’ironie plus tangible.

La dernière séance a tiré les fils de l’étoffe voltairienne jusqu’à nos jours. Nova Doyon (Cégep de Saint-Laurent) a abordé ‘La question de la liberté académique et des nouvelles sensibilités’. Comment présenter Candide au cégep (au Québec, une institution d’enseignement supérieur préuniversitaire) à l’heure des contraintes entourant la liberté académique? La conclusion ouverte de Doyon suggérait que Candide a encore beaucoup de choses à apprendre aux étudiantes et étudiants, mais qu’il est nécessaire d’être à l’écoute de leurs sensibilités. A cet égard, il est intéressant de noter que l’œuvre est suspecte aujourd’hui (esclavage, violences à caractère sexuel) pour des raisons bien différentes de jadis (anticléricalisme, libre pensée, pessimisme).

Le colloque s’est terminé par un regard d’ensemble d’Yvan Lamonde (U. McGill). Dans ‘La marche à la laïcité au Québec (1837-2022)’, Lamonde a montré que l’éducation a été un vecteur déterminant pour la laïcité au Québec depuis les Rébellions des Patriotes (1837-1838). En 1837, l’Eglise se met dans une position de médiation entre l’Eglise protestante et l’Etat (laïque). Le loyalisme du clergé est bénéfique à ce dernier, puisque les autorités britanniques placent l’éducation des francophones sous la responsabilité des confessions religieuses à partir de 1845. La suite de l’histoire consiste en une séparation progressive de l’Eglise et de l’Etat. Lamonde a retracé ainsi quelques jalons marquants de l’histoire de la laïcité jusqu’à nos jours, en suivant le fil rouge de l’éducation.

La liberté de pensée a été interrogée de diverses manières par la communauté scientifique rassemblée à Sherbrooke lors de ce colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’; l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, qui se tiendra jusqu’au 23 juin, invite à des réflexions semblables.

– Karol’Ann Boivin et Pierre Hébert

Voltaire, the Lettres sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism

Fougeret de Monbron, Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde, title page of the 1753 edition (BnF).

‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means’: so spoke Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing her party faithful at a conference in 2016, soon after the Brexit referendum. It was Diogenes the Cynic, two and a half millennia ago, who first styled himself a kosmou polites, a citizen of the world, and this Greek expression survives in many modern European languages. The term cosmopolite enters the French language in the sixteenth century, and still today it is often used, in a weak sense, to describe someone who is simply well travelled. Fougeret de Monbron, for example, in a book entitled Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde (1750), wrote about his travels in Europe: ‘L’univers est une espèce de livre dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.’

In the eighteenth century the term acquired greater ideological heft. The ethos of cosmopolitisme (a term first attested in the first half of the eighteenth century) characterises a mindset that was common to the European élite of the Enlightenment. Educated men and women of this period experienced a feeling of kinship with a broader humanity, that was separate from, and not in contradiction with, the patriotism they felt for their own countries. This cosmopolitan ethos is evident in a letter Voltaire wrote to César de Missy, then resident in London (D2648, 1 September 1742): ‘Je ne sais si le pays qui est devenu le vôtre est l’ennemi de celui que le hasard de la naissance a fait le mien, mais je sais bien que les esprits qui pensent comme vous sont de mon pays, et sont mes vrais amis.’

In his essay ‘Of goodness and goodness of nature’, Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘if a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows that he is a citizen of the world.’ In this perspective, cosmopolitanism is closely linked with the idea of civility. As Keith Thomas writes, in his recent book In Pursuit of Civility (2018): ‘The friendly reception of foreign visitors had been an essential test of civility since classical times. In the early modern period, it became increasingly important, with the growth of travel, the migration of religious refugees and the vast expansion of international trade.’

I came to reflect on this question recently when I was writing the introduction to the Lettres sur les Anglais for the Complete works of Voltaire. In the opening sentence of the book (in its French-language version), the narrator – who sounds suspiciously like Voltaire – presents himself to the reader as an ‘homme raisonnable’, curious to learn more about the Quakers. He calls on an eminent Quaker who has retired to a country house on the edge of London, and there follows a scene of high comedy. The Frenchman, who bows and waves his hat in deferential mode, is utterly confounded by the plainly dressed Quaker who refuses to bow and scrape, and addresses his French visitor with the familiar ‘thou’ (I quote here the original English-language version of the text): ‘He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, human air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head, which is made to cover it. Friend, he says to me, I perceive thou art a stranger…’

In the scene that follows, the French visitor is received with sincere hospitality, even though he finds it difficult at first to unlearn his French social manners: ‘I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one’s self at once from habits we have long been used to.’ After eating together, the two men fall into a discussion of religion. The Catholic visitor explains to his Quaker host that to be considered a true Christian he would need to be baptised, to which the Quaker objects that baptism is a ceremony inherited from Judaism, and that Christ himself never baptised his followers. The French narrator, who had begun by declaring his reasonableness, finds that he has no answer to the Quaker on this point of doctrine, but nor can he admit that he has lost the argument. ‘I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast’, he declares pompously, before quickly changing the subject.

The opening letter of the Lettres sur les Anglais has attracted much commentary. To begin with, it places the theme of religion front and centre, using a seemingly light and amusing dialogue to conduct what is in fact a brief but sophisticated consideration of the nature and foundation of Christian belief. In suggesting that different Christian traditions pick and choose between different parts of the Bible, Voltaire clearly hints at the superiority of a deistic form of belief that transcends the particular ceremonies of any one sect: ‘But art thou circumcised, added he [the Quaker]? I have not the honour to be so, says I. Well, friend, continues the Quaker, thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptised.’

The deist undercurrent of this opening encounter between Catholic and Quaker is self-evident, but in other respects this first letter poses challenges to the reader. At the start, we are naturally drawn into complicity with the self-styled reasonable narrator, faced as he is by the comic and eccentric figure of the Quaker who steadfastly refuses to remove his beaver fur hat. But as their discussion evolves, we come increasingly to admire the Quaker’s solid virtues, and the ‘reasonable’ narrator loses our confidence as he loses the argument with the Quaker. Our sympathy for the two actors in this scene is further complicated by an awareness that it might loosely be based on reality: the real-life Voltaire, when he was in London, did indeed pay a visit to a prominent Quaker, Andrew Pitt, who lived outside London, in Hampstead; as for the argument about the Biblical arguments in favour of baptism, Voltaire himself did engage in just such an argument in London, as is recounted by the young Quaker Edward Higginson who taught Voltaire English. This opening letter is a piece of fiction, of course, but it is a fiction inspired by Voltaire’s lived experience in London in the 1720s.

Voltaire’s magisterial use of irony contributes to – while also complicating – our pleasure in reading this opening letter. Erich Auerbach wrote some memorable pages on what he called Voltaire’s ‘searchlight technique’, his use of defamiliarisation (where bowing becomes ‘the custom of drawing one leg behind the other’) to make us rethink apparently familiar concepts. The comic defamiliarisation of acts of social intercourse such as bowing or raising a hat seems harmless and innocent enough; but in Voltaire’s hands the technique is treacherous, as he then immediately applies it to a discussion of religious ritual (baptism, circumcision). The deconstruction of these Christian practices is anything but harmless or innocent, and the unwitting readers who thought they were laughing at an eccentric English Quaker or an overly ceremonious French Catholic suddenly find themselves complicit in mocking Christian doctrine.

For years we have been taught to read Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais as a book ‘about the English’, but it is not only that, and it is perhaps not even mainly that. The opening juxtaposition of the Ancien Régime Catholic and the sober English Quaker is an object lesson in cultural difference, but it is also a demonstration of how those differences may be overcome: even while Voltaire has fun in pointing out what divides them, he also reminds us of what they have fundamentally in common: they share a meal together, in mutual respect and civility and, despite everything, they both identify as Christians. This lesson in tolerant understanding and exchange is a lesson for Voltaire’s readers, a lesson in how to read the book that they are just beginning, and more generally a lesson in how to lead their Enlightened lives. Civility and the ethic of cosmopolitanism are at the heart of this opening letter, and it is surely no coincidence that the word cosmopolitisme enters the French language at round about the time of the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais.

Title page of Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733).

Our new edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais reveals this text in a fresh light by emphasising also the European, we might say cosmopolitan, nature of its publication. For most of the twentieth century, following Lanson’s pioneering edition of the Lettres philosophiques in 1909, the Lettres were seen as a book about England, written for the French. This interpretation failed to take account of the crucial fact that an English translation of the work, Letters concerning the English nation, appeared in London in 1733, with Voltaire’s full knowledge, before the French language editions, published in London, Rouen and Paris in 1734. The new Oxford edition of the Lettres is the first to include the English text and to accord it its due importance. It is now clear that Voltaire wrote this text also for an Anglophone readership, and the Letters were a best-seller in Britain and Ireland throughout the eighteenth century. In its French-language version, this book was published in London as well as in France, and was then reprinted in the Low Countries and in Germany. Much attention has been paid to the high-profile censorship of the Lettres philosophiques in France in 1734 (and of course, censorship was always good for sales); far less attention has been paid to the fact that this book was quickly reprinted and read across Europe. With his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire wrote a book designed for a European élite, the first cosmopolitan classic of the Enlightenment.

Aaron Hill (National Portrait Gallery).

In his Reith Lectures of 2016, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talked about the ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture very often reflects misunderstandings about notions of identity: ‘If cosmopolitanism involves a simple recognition that our lives are interrelated in ways that transcend boundaries and that our human concerns must, too, it has brute reality on its side.’ That is an idea that the Enlightenment well understood and that Voltaire explores memorably in the Lettres sur les Anglais.

Aaron Hill, The Tragedy of Zara, 2nd ed. (London, 1736) (image from

Voltaire’s cosmopolitan ambitions were certainly recognised in his lifetime, for example by Aaron Hill, the poet and dramatist who ran the Theatre Royal in London. He is remembered, among other things, as the author of Zara, an English rewriting of Zaïre, and by far the most successful English-language version of any Voltaire play in the eighteenth century. When Zara was first performed in London, Hill wrote to Voltaire as follows (D1082, 3 June 1736):

‘I found you born for no one country, by the embracing wideness of your sentiments; for, since you think for all mankind, all ages, and all languages, will claim the merit of your genius. Whatever narrowness there is in poets, there is none in poetry, at least, your poetry… What paints all manners, should delight all countries.’

– Nicholas Cronk

The problems with translating Voltaire two hundred and fifty years on

Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif in its German translation by Angelika Oppenheimer.

My translation of Voltaire’s first (1764) version of Dictionnaire philosophique portatif appeared in 2020 under the imprint of Reclam. Mine is the first complete translation of this version, previous translators having made their own selections from a text that had been expanded by Voltaire himself on several occasions. The chapters are not written in a severe academic style, but directly address the reader or take the form of dialogues. The book is designed to entertain the reader at the same time as informing him or her, and therein lies one reason for the problems it presents to a translator.

Although we still laugh for nearly the same reasons as people did 250 years ago, the objects of our mirth may have changed, and we have to understand that. If we do not understand the text we cannot be amused. Today we know a lot about science, but Voltaire himself was quite well informed. Despite the differences, in most cases we can understand what he means, and we can smile at the way he explains things. History is another matter. We know more than he did. There have been many archaeological excavations and new finds since he wrote his book, especially in Israel and the so-called Holy Land. Some of his explanations are therefore not clear to us unless we do some research.

Voltaire quotes people and theories from antiquity until his century on the basis of authorities that are largely unknown to us, but which were well known and often quoted in his own time. The most recent edition by the Voltaire Foundation thus contains many footnotes to enable us to understand Voltaire’s meanings. He very often quotes authors ironically in order to amuse his readers with their wrong explanations. But we often do not know these sources today. It is especially difficult when it comes to authors who had written for the Roman Catholic Church, because then he is not allowed to speak bluntly, to mention their real names or functions. His contemporaries knew who was meant by his description but we do not. Even historical events could be quoted and criticized only so long as the historical narrative accepted by the church authorities was not challenged. In general, Voltaire had to be very cautious with his criticism in matters concerning the Pope and the Vatican.

I might quote as an example the article ‘Chinese catechism’, where Voltaire says that the obsession with castrating young boys to serve kings as eunuchs seems to him a major affront to human nature (p.128). He has his king say that he accepts that cockerels are castrated to make them taste better, but that he has not yet known eunuchs to be put on the spit. Then the king continues: ‘The Dalai Lama has fifty of them to sing in his pagoda. I would like very much to know if the Chang-ti (their god) enjoys hearing the clear voices of these fifty geldings?’ When Voltaire wrote these words, his readers knew who was meant and what was really the subject of the conversation. Now, though, when I gave my translation to a really well-informed friend, she asked me what was meant.

Ludovico Magnasco receiving the new constitution for the choir from Pope Paul III in 1545 (Wikimedia).

French intellectuals in Voltaire’s time knew something about China and circumstances in Tibet, and about the Dalai Lama, and so they knew who was meant by Voltaire’s setting. It was of course the Pope, whose choir of 60 eunuchs existed until the end of the 19th century. Voltaire would have had reason to fear that the Pope would act against him. The book was banned by the French parliament on 9 March 1765, and copies of it were burned in Geneva and Bern. When, in a previous sentence, Voltaire speaks of kings who had seven hundred concubines and thousands of eunuchs to serve them, it is an ironic exaggeration and an allusion to Solomon, which might not be understood without a footnote. But this was what he was allowed to write. The reference to Solomon can be found in the footnotes of the French edition. Probably readers in Voltaire’s time had no problem. They had to know their Bible, and so could smile at Voltaire’s account.

Robert Estienne, Dictionarium latinogallicum (Paris, 1538) (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Another problem is that words have sometimes changed their meaning during the centuries since Voltaire, and without the Dictionnaires historiques et critiques, whose history begins with the Dictionarium latinogallicum of Robert Estienne (1538), I would have been lost. They enabled me to know what had been the real sense of the words as used by Voltaire. Words in the German language have also sometimes changed their sense. We can find the history in the dictionaries of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the Duden, although what I needed was not knowledge about the development of the German language. The first Dictionnaire l’Académie française was published in 1694, the year of Voltaire’s birth. Its fourth edition was published in 1762, two years before the publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and may have confirmed Voltaire in his own project: Enlightenment.

Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Paris, 1694) (BnF).

Some of the expressions used by Voltaire cannot be found before the edition of 1762. One of these is the plural of hell, ‘les enfers’, as the term for the ancient underworld. There was only one Jewish-Christian Hell, but several pagan kingdoms of the dead. These differed depending on where they had existed, whether in Egypt, in Babylon, or in Greece and Rome. The Europeans even had some knowledge of Chinese ideas about life after death. Some monks had been in China in the 17th century and had written about their experiences. The expression mostly used in German for the kingdom of the dead in antiquity was ‘Hades’, which in France was understood as the name of the god. It is the same with some other words with which we are not very familiar, and sometimes cannot find in our normal dictionary.

The Dictionnaires d’autrefois are highly informative about usage in former times. The many examples quoted from different writers in Voltaire’s time help us to strike the right note in translating him. I myself had sometimes failed to see where the irony of a comment lay because I knew the critical word only from another context. Perspectives may change with the passing of time, so that at first sight we do not see what is meant. Which brings me to one of Voltaire’s own themes. Some people and institutions have an interest in changes in the social perspective, and, in some ways, not so much has changed since Voltaire’s time. However, speech patterns were developed that drew people’s thoughts in particular directions. This was already beginning in Voltaire’s time, and Voltaire noticed and criticized it. His Pocket Philosophical Dictionary is designed to be thought-provoking, to bring us to a proper understanding as to who is attempting to exert influence and the ways such attempts may be made, so that we may become able to resist them. The book has occasionally borne the alternative title: Reason in alphabetical form (La Raison par alphabet, 2 vols, [Genève], 1769).

The Enlightenment philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac thought that it is only by knowing what we have been seeing wrongly that we can learn to do things better. The Pocket Philosophical Dictionary contains so much that we do not know any more: a look inside and we will become ‘enlightened’. It is for this very reason that I want Reason in alphabetical form to be read by as many people as possible.

– Angelika Oppenheimer

Endings and new beginnings: Voltaire’s seemingly infinite writings

Robert Darnton.

This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.

Œuvres compètes de Voltaire.

But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.

The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.

And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment

New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.

So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.

– Nicholas Cronk