A plurality of inhabited worlds: life on other planets from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Galileo with his telescope in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. Wood engraving (Wellcome Collection).

During the Early Modern period, the learned community widely believed in the existence of anthropomorphic extra-terrestrials (Brake, 2006). Nevertheless, scholars disagreed on pretty much every other aspect of the topic, from the form that such extra-terrestrial societies might take, to their natural laws, languages, fauna and flora, theological status, forms of worship and governments. This blogpost explores this little-known dimension of Early Modern culture, and its evolution from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.

The wider question of how the Western world transitioned within a century from a view where the existence of extra-terrestrial life was the norm to a contemporary one where life on Earth is possibly an exception has been the focus of renewed historical discussion in the last thirty years. This transition has been attributed to the joint advancement of astronomical knowledge and Western secularisation, which meant that traditional arguments about the plurality of inhabited worlds started to lose ground at the end of the Enlightenment period. This is not to say however that such ideas disappeared completely: contemporary historians such as Gabriel McKee have shown the enduring, influential presence of religion within contemporary science fiction (McKee, 2007). More broadly, beyond the field of history, the natural sciences have seen the apparition of exciting disciplines such as exobiology, while the growing interdisciplinary field of space humanities allows intellectual history, history of science, theology and literature to provide longue durée insights into those debates.

William Derham, Astro-theology, or a demonstration of the being and attributes of God from a survey of the heavens (London, 1715) (Heritage Auctions).

From the late Renaissance to the Enlightenment period, the debate about life on other planets was commonly known as the plurality of worlds. A sub-discipline of theology even emerged to deal specifically with the religious implications of the debate: the English bishop William Derham called it ‘Astro-theology’. The Early Modern taste for the plurality of worlds stemmed from the period’s renewed engagement with classical literature on the subject. Harking back to the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata, travelogues to the moon had been common since Antiquity. According to Mark Brake, extra-terrestrial life was widely believed amongst the early Greek philosophers, particularly Epicureans. In Early Modern times ‘Every important cosmology of the seventeenth century and later holds Copernicanism, and pluralism, as a fundamental notion’ (Brake, 2006). This consensus was based on four main arguments.

The four main points of consensus within the plurality of worlds debate were concerned with arguments of teleology, plenitude, probability, and anthropomorphism. The argument of teleology was derived from Aristotelian scholasticism and postulated that the function of a world is to shelter life. Since the universe is filled with worlds, therefore these worlds must be filled with life.

The second argument of plenitude derived from the first: if the function of a world was indeed to shelter life, then God would most likely populate all the planets of the universe with life, as a universe filled with lifeless worlds would have no function.

The third argument of probability is the most familiar to us today: although Early Modern scholars clashed vividly about whether the universe was finite, indefinite (René Descartes) or infinite (Giordano Bruno, Henry More), most agreed that the universe contained so many worlds that the idea of life being present on only one planet verged on the absurd.

The argument of anthropomorphism finally discussed the forms that extra-terrestrial life would take. Strikingly, no one in the Early Modern period seemed to believe that extra-terrestrials could have a non-human form – although disagreements about size, height, skin colour, savagery and gait were common. This was largely because of the dominant Christian framework which held that God had made man in his image (Genesis 1:27), a consideration generally present in other Abrahamic religions, such as Islam and Judaism (Goushey, 2022).

Let us not be naive however: although natural philosophers might have agreed on basic arguments of teleology, plenitude, probability and anthropomorphism to support the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life, they still disagreed on pretty much everything else. Philip Almond summed it well by underlining that it was a debate in which, on its religious side, ‘only the most theologically brave ventured to go’ (Almond, 2006). On one hand, scholars like Johannes Kepler, Christian Huygens, Isaac Newton and Emanuel Swedenborg did see life on other planets as more than compatible with Christianity: for them it was yet another proof of the existence of God. Yet the theological issues it raised for Christianity were numerous: Giordano Bruno got burned for various reasons, including the wider arguments he inferred from his belief in the plurality of worlds. Major disagreements amongst the learned included whether anthropomorphic extra-terrestrials belonged to the Adamic race or to another variety of human (polygenesis); had there been a primordial couple on every planet? Had God incarnated himself under human form on other worlds as well? Or was there only one Messiah for the whole universe? If so, how could the Gentiles from outer space ever be saved? Would they ever go to heaven, or hell? If so, would it even be the same heaven as Earthlings?

Engraving by Bernard Picart for the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) in Œuvres diverses de Monsieur de Fontenelle, 3 vol. (La Haye, Gosse et Neaulme, 1728-1729), vol.1, between pages 148 and 149 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Because of these tensions, David Dunér has argued that a large consensus on extra-terrestrial life only fully emerged in the eighteenth century, as the question of life on other planets became claimed by physico-theologists, while in earlier periods it was a more divisive theological issue, as exemplified by the case of Giordano Bruno (Dunér, 2016). However, the possibility of an earlier widely held belief from the late Renaissance onwards might still be regarded as a possibility. Why? Because the plurality of worlds debate extended beyond astronomical and theological debates into a popular literary, satirical and philosophical genre derived from the classical tradition of Lucian of Samosata. This included works such as Kepler’s Somnium (1608), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638), Athanasius Kircher’s Itinerarium ecstaticum (1656), Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune (1657), Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686). These works show that popular belief in extra-terrestrial life found a widespread readership beyond specialist scientific or theological circles during the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the topic became commonly discussed in the salons as a pleasant thought-experiment linked to travel literature, natural law or soul-body debates — Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) discussed the two debates in the same story.

Finally, many travelogues to the moon and other planets, from Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolaii Klimi (1741) to Swedenborg’s De telluribus in mundo nostro solari (1758) exhibited common features with descriptions of indigenous people present in travel literature. This highlights the wider similarities between discussions of life on distant planets and life in distant lands, where the plurality of worlds served as an extension of Early Modern travelogues to reflect critically upon Western society.

Vincent Roy-Di Piazza

Readers interested in learning more about the history of the plurality of worlds can read Vincent Roy-Di Piazza’s open access article in the Annals of Science (2020).

Andrei Turgenev, aspiring Romantic hero

Andrei Zorin, The Emergence of a hero: a tale of Romantic love in Russia around 1800 (Oxford University Press, 2023), translated by Leo Shtutin.

The Emergence of a hero: a tale of Romantic love in Russia around 1800 discusses the history of Russian emotional culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – an epoch when the court, masonic lodges, and literature were competing for the monopoly on the feelings that an educated and Europeanised Russian was supposed to interiorise and reproduce. Major cultural shifts often manifest themselves in the lives of individuals possessed of a particular sensitivity to the tectonic tremors of their age. Andrei Turgenev (1781–1803) was one of the first Romantic figures in Russian culture, the author of a confessional diary never published in full and a gifted poet.

Turgenev’s identity crystallised during a period when court culture was still a predominant force. Artificially sequestered from its influence during his adolescence and early manhood by dint of his upbringing in a masonic milieu, he was nonetheless exposed to it in the theatre and through interactions with peers. Though he did fall under its spell, he never fully internalised its symbolic models of feeling. His father, an eminent Moscow freemason, taught his son implacable self-exactingness and the habit of subjecting his inner life to careful scrutiny. Equally, however, young Turgenev was disaffected by the order’s institutional discipline and focus on esoteric knowledge.

Unknown artist, portrait of Andrei Turgenev, Vienna, 1802 (Wikipedia Commons).

Instead, he imbibed the emotional patterns developed in early Romantic literature: the works of Rousseau, Sterne, and the authors of Sturm und Drang especially shaped his inner world. The models of feeling he found in his favourite books were for him not so much aesthetic or cultural but rather ones of destiny and life choices. He felt the need to emulate his exemplars not only in terms of his literary output, but also – and far more significantly – in terms of his own personality. His dream was to become a great writer, but he had no doubt that writing in the manner of Rousseau, Goethe, and Schiller would only become possible once he could feel in the manner of Saint-Preux, Werther, and Karl Moor.

As was appropriate for a Romantic hero, Turgenev tried to apply these emotional patterns first and foremost in love – first in his teenage infatuation with famous singer and actress Elizaveta Sandunova; then his hopeless love to Anna Sokovnina who was engaged with his brother Alexander; then in equally hopeless and torturous relations with her sister Ekaterina who fell in love with him; and finally in his affair with a married baroness. Unable to disentangle himself from the web of these relations and deeply dissatisfied with himself, he died at the age of 22. Some circumstances of his enigmatic death suspiciously resemble Wertherian suicide.

Turgenev underwent the same process as the entire early Romantic culture he had assimilated, a culture that transitioned from the cult of enthusiasm, sincerity, and ardour, to a poetry of disillusion and loss, a poetry that railed bitterly against the misconceptions of youth. The emotional matrices supplied by the culture of the eighteenth century could not accommodate the experiences that Turgenev underwent in the opening years of the nineteenth, and he found himself at a loss for how to feel, and at a loss, therefore, for how to live. In the final months of his short life, he committed to his diary a despairing confession:

The grave of Andrei Turgenev at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg (photo by the author).

‘If only I did not exist in this world! If only my heart were not replete with these passions, which give me no peace, and with this ambition, which I am powerless to subdue; if only I were more enterprising […] I conjure visions of the past, yet I did not inhabit it either! I dreamed of the impossible, despised the present and its tedium, and my soul was in a stupor. What shall awaken it? It exists, at present, in a state now of impatient restless expectancy, now of despondency and inaction.’

Having not immersed himself in Chateaubriand, Constant and Byron, he could not understand that the discrepancy between his imagination and reality, his soul’s vacillation between ‘stupor’ and ‘restless expectancy’, was symptomatic not of his failure as an individual but of the advent of a new cultural epoch with a far more flexible emotional regime – one which could accommodate such phenomena as abrupt swings from far-reaching ambition and fervid passion to apathy and inaction; romantic relationships predicated on varying degrees of personal involvedness; sensations of guilt vis-à-vis ‘simple and innocent souls’; disdainful pleasure derived from worldly diversions; and much more besides.

Turgenev soon found the principles and models he cherished too narrow for his individuality. He experimented not so much in his literary work as in his life but was not able to achieve the breakthrough. Who knows what resources he lacked to instigate a potentially redemptive turnaround – time, experience, self-confidence, independence of mind, literary talent? He lived on the cutting edge. And it was on the cutting edge that he died.

– Andrei Zorin

Another Enlightenment, beyond the postmodern myths

Zadig finds Astarté again in Voltaire’s Babylonian romance (1750?), textile print, Paris (BnF, Département des estampes, TB-324-PET FOL).

Many of us educated in the humanities in the 1990s and 2000s came to intellectual consciousness having been taught that ‘the Enlightenment’ was something not far short of a dirty word. Whether it was Adorno and Horkheimer’s denunciation of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ as radiating ‘disaster triumphant’ in the totalitarian states, Michel Foucault’s denunciation of the disciplinary powers undergirding modern states’ supposed advocacy of rights and liberties, or Martin Heidegger’s depiction of the modern age as characterised by nihilistic ‘will to will’ looking back to Descartes’s cogito …, all these authorities presented the European ‘Enlightenment’ as a sort of nightmare, from which we needed to reawaken.

As Dennis Rasmussen has masterfully documented, a host of charges are laid at the feet of the Enlightenment in this broadly ‘postmodernist’ orbit. Generously ecumenical, the anti-Enlightenment consensus takes in proponents of positions we might otherwise suppose to be deeply opposed. They converge in claims that ‘the Enlightenment’ overvalued human reason, reducing the richness of human experience and ‘difference’; that its ‘project’ is or was dangerously utopian, seeking to force the wonderful roundness of human reality into the soulless squares of theoretical and socio-political systems; that ‘it’ was single-mindedly Eurocentric, giving direction and vehemence to Western colonialism; and that all of ‘the Enlighteners’, often individually unnamed, were ‘to a man’ patriarchal, closed both to women’s rights and abilities, and to the feminine more widely, including the ludic and literary, as well as the affective components of human existence.

I probably don’t need to convince readers of this blog that there was something awry in these visions of a putatively singular ‘Enlightenment’. This ‘something’ becomes clear almost as soon as we begin to test these criticisms against texts by leading figures of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. For, when we look, what period in Western thought had seen a closer, proto-postmodern rapprochement between philosophy and literature, and such a profusion of literary play, than the France of 1720–1790, excepting perhaps the Silver Age in Rome? In what period had forms of philosophical scepticism and critique played a greater role in challenging the uncontested, overly ambitious rational claims of metaphysicians and theologians? And in what period, above all, was coming to terms with what the postmodernists call ‘cultural difference’ more a primary concern than in the French Enlightenment, from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to Abbé Raynal’s The History of the Two Indies?

Matthew Sharpe, The Other Enlightenment: self-estrangement, race, and gender (Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

Yet, when the postmodern criticisms of the Enlightenment were taught, rarely was any attempt made to square the damning allegations about it against the primary texts of the philosophes. Indeed, often ‘the Enlightenment’ as a more specific period of intellectual ferment and debate was subsumed silently within wider, totalising criticisms of ‘modernity’ or ‘liberalism’, with the philosophes unmentioned, or relegated to minor footnotes. Even when the Enlightenment was defended, if it was defended at all, the defence was assigned to Jürgen Habermas, whose recovery of a ‘philosophical discourse of modernity’ nevertheless shares with the postmodernist critics a more or less complete overlooking of all Enlightenment-era thinkers preceding Immanuel Kant.

The Other Enlightenment: self-estrangement, race, and gender is my attempt, as a philosopher and social theorist, to push back against the popular discrediting, and academic sidelining, of the texts of the French Enlightenment. I also want to show why doing this pushing back matters in a period where increasingly politics is divided along tribal, identitarian lines. Working in the lineage of Dennis Rasmussen’s The Pragmatic Enlightenment and Genevieve Lloyd’s Enlightenment Shadows, this little book sets out to challenge the broadly ‘postmodern’ myths about the over-rationalistic, heartless, Eurocentric Enlightenment. After revisiting the foundational critical work of Francis Bacon on the idols of the mind, John Locke on the conduct of the understanding, and the critical scepticism of Pierre Bayle, the ensuing chapters then each examine more closely specific, classic Enlightenment texts.

The image used to illustrate the cover of the 2011 Belin Gallimard edition of Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville is a ‘View of a part of the village of Motavae, Tahiti’, from Louis Isidore Duperrey’s Voyage autour du monde sur la corvette La Coquille (Paris, 1826) (National Library of New Zealand).

Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, I argue, sets up what becomes a key motif of Enlightenment philosophising, the practice of self-estrangement: that is, relearning to look at what ‘we’ do, and usually take for granted, from the perspective of others, like the Persians Usbek and Rica. This practice, which allows us to resee ourselves – as well as to consider the perspectives of others whom we might characteristically overlook or prejudicially stereotype – then runs like a red thread through texts like Voltaire’s Micromégas (where the other becomes a benign giant from the planet Sirius); Diderot’s Letter on the blind, where it is people-born-blind who provide the critical mirror to the sighted; and Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, where the others are the Tahitians, from the Moses-like Elder who ringingly denounces European imperialism near the start, to the more diminutive but no less discerning, Orou.

The Other Enlightenment is a book which aims, like many Enlightenment texts, to span different audiences in different disciplines. For many specialists on the Enlightenment, much of what the text examines will hence not be novel. What I hope is more novel, and more impactful, given the state of wider debates about the Enlightenment, is that the book shows, by textual analyses, the spuriousness of many of today’s more popular claims about the Enlightenment.

– Matthew Sharpe (Deakin University, Australia)

Determinism and Enlightenment: the collaboration of Diderot and d’Holbach – new book out now!

Determinism and Enlightenment: the collaboration of Diderot and d’Holbach (Oxford, 2023) by Ruggero Sciuto.

Ruggero Sciuto’s Determinism and Enlightenment: the collaboration of Diderot and d’Holbach is the April volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book examines the theory of determinism jointly put forward by Diderot and dHolbach to better understand their philosophy as well as their position relative both to one another and to the so-called Radical Enlightenment. In this blog post, Ruggero Sciuto provides a short introduction to the main issues discussed in the volume. 

They were born ten years apart, one in Langres, Haute-Marne, in 1713, the other in Edesheim, Rhineland-Palatinate, in 1723. A four-hour car ride today; in all respects a much more significant distance by eighteenth-century standards. They ended up buried one next to the other, in a small chapel in the Parisian church of Saint-Roch. Despite occasional squabbles and misunderstandings, Denis Diderot and Baron Paul Thiry d’Holbach, two of the most brilliant minds of their century, were very close collaborators. It is not just that Diderot read some of d’Holbach’s works before publication – that he washed the baron’s ‘dirty rags’, as Diderot himself put it. It is not just that both writers collaborated on such iconic, monumental texts of early-modern Europe as the Encyclopédie and the Histoire des deux Indes. Day after day, in Paris or at d’Holbach’s country house in Sucy-en-Brie (the now destroyed château du Grandval), our two authors engaged in lively discussions that informed their atheist, materialist, and deterministic philosophical views.

Château du Grand-Val, d’Holbach’s country house, before its destruction in the twentieth century (Wikimedia Commons).

‘Comme Jacques et son maître, Diderot et d’Holbach ne peuvent pas aller l’un sans l’autre’, wrote Yves Benot in 1981.[1] Of course, the one is not the other. And yet scholars have perhaps insisted more than necessary on their alterity. Dogmatic is arguably the adjective that is most commonly associated with d’Holbach.[2] And sure enough, in his rejection of superstition and religious fanaticism, the baron is often as dogmatic and intransigent as some of the clerics against whom he so vehemently fulminates. When it comes to philosophy, too, d’Holbach may easily come across as dogmatic: seemingly blinded by his systematic aspirations, he appears to proceed at full speed and to disregard any objections as nonsensical. And yet two points ought to be made. First: the formidable machine that is d’Holbach’s style is specifically designed to convince, even mesmerise the reader and conceal any hesitations and underlying inconsistencies.[3] Second: the apparent rigidity of his thinking is in no way indicative of a simple understanding of reality. If, as beautifully argued by Pierre Saint-Amand, Diderot is indeed a penseur de la complexité, the same can and should be said of d’Holbach.[4]

The situation with Diderot is symmetrical. Many recent studies (I am thinking primarily of books and articles by Jean-Claude Bourdin, Colas Duflo, Gerhardt Stenger, Marian Hobson, Marx Wartofsky, Timo Kaitaro, Caroline Warman, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) have finally rectified the old interpretation, most famously expressed by Yvon Belaval and Robert Loyalty Cru, according to which Diderot would be too disconnected, inconsistent, and unoriginal a philosopher truly to deserve a place in the pantheon of Philosophy proper. And yet, because of the complexity of his works, in particular because of the light, playful tone that he adopts in many of them, the inner consistency of Diderot’s thought – its ‘secret unity’, as Francis Pruner would have it – still remains too often ignored.[5]

Adopting a comparative, to an extent synthetic, methodology that is fundamentally in keeping with Diderot’s ‘analogy-seeking mode of thought’, my new book unveils precisely some hidden similarities between Diderot’s and d’Holbach’s ideas.[6] It does so by looking specifically at the theory of determinism that, I argue, the two philosophers jointly put forward, a theory that seeks to combine a fairly traditional form of causal determinism based on a strong interpretation of causation as necessitation with a nascent nomological determinism with laws of nature at its core.

This theory, I suggest, draws on a number of different sources, including many Christian ones, manipulating and reinterpreting them to create a harmonious new whole. It addresses many criticisms that were commonly levelled against determinism, takes shape in response to external philosophical stimuli – most notably the publication of Hume’s works, with their famous, yet not unequivocal reinterpretation of the notion of causation –, and bears the marks of a resolute attempt to reconcile the often-contrasted notions of necessity and becoming, offering new and articulate responses to questions that are still very much debated today.

In as much as it brings to light Diderot’s and d’Holbach’s links with the Christian philosophical tradition, this book also problematises the two philosophers’ atheism, further questioning the notion that the so-called ‘Radical Enlightenment’ can be taken to represent a complete break with ‘the old’. Perhaps counterintuitively, at the same time as it brings Diderot and d’Holbach closer to one another, my book takes the two philosophers farther away from Jonathan Israel’s ‘Radical Enlightenment’. It is not that I question Diderot’s and d’Holbach’s radicalism. Quite the contrary: as I write this blog I am starting to work on a new monograph project tracing the reception of d’Holbach’s political ideas in Revolutionary France! Indeed, I share Israel’s belief that the Radical Enlightenment (or eighteenth-century culture more broadly) may hold the key to countering some of the most dangerous threats that our modern democracies have to face: fundamentalism and intellectual apathy. And yet, if it does so, it is not because of its supposedly fully coherent rationalist and uncompromising philosophy. It is because of its malleability and openness to dialogue.

Diderot and d’Holbach’s philosophical dialogue is part and parcel of a much broader conversation that joins together a wide array of Enlightenment thinkers. For, as noted by Dorinda Outram and Antoine Lilti, the Enlightenment is best characterised as a series of debates around key themes and concepts, rather than as a single movement with a well-defined intellectual agenda.[7] The set of keywords related to causation that lie at the heart of my book – cause, reason, necessity, machine, law, freedom – are frequently noted and even celebrated in isolation as slogans of Enlightenment. But considering them as interlinked concepts that thinkers used to formulate dynamic ideas about how the world works can refresh and transform our views of Enlightenment thought. Unveiling this hidden language can help us, I believe, to grasp better than ever before the why and the how of Enlightenment philosophy and literature.

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] Yves Benot, Diderot: de l’athéisme à l’anticolonialisme (Paris, 1981), p.44.

[2] See, however, Alan Charles Kors’ extremely interesting recent article on ‘Holbach’s Skepticism’, in L. Nicolì (ed.), The Great Protector of wits. Baron d’Holbach and his time (Leiden, 2022), p.21–38.

[3] For more on d’Holbach’s style see Alain Sandrier’s masterful Le Style philosophique du baron d’Holbach: conditions et contraintes du prosélytisme athée en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 2004).

[4] Pierre Saint-Amand, Diderot: le labyrinthe de la relation (Paris, 1984).

[5] Francis Pruner, L’Unité secrète de ‘Jacques le fataliste’ (Paris, 1970).

[6] Lester G. Crocker, Diderot’s chaotic order: approach to synthesis (Princeton, NJ, 1974), p.4.

[7] Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2019) and Antoine Lilti, L’Héritage des Lumières: ambivalences de la modernité (Paris, 2019).

Recto and verso: playing cards in France before 1789

By the late eighteenth century, master card-makers in France were churning out more than seven million decks of cards a year. Playing cards, new and used, were an everyday presence in the households of the rich and poor, in the city as well as in the countryside. Voltaire used them to invite visitors to attend private theatricals at Ferney, or to send private notes to his female and male correspondents.[1] Rousseau kept them in his pockets during his solitary walks, pulling them out to record reveries that later found their way into his published work. Diderot complained about the appearance of eighteenth-century face cards, noting that it was surprising how poorly they were drawn given the generally good taste of the French in visual matters.[2] These philosophes were not the only ones who took note of playing cards, but their attention to both sides of these ephemeral pieces of paper points to a material and aesthetic sensibility lost today. In eighteenth-century France, the fronts of playing cards were carefully regulated by the royal government, which sought to extract excise revenue for state coffers. The backs of cards, mostly blank in France until the 1820s, offered up empty white spaces to be filled with information, notes, and serious and frivolous forms of communication. Playing cards were much more than gaming accessories in France during the Enlightenment.

Revolutionary woodblock for printing outlines of face cards (Musée Gadagne, Lyon, Inventaire n°222) and imprint taken from a woodblock by tax collectors for verification purposes (Archives municipales, Lyon, HH 28 bis).

Beginning in 1701, the royal government insisted that the design of face cards conform to a standard pattern; examples sporting unauthorised face card designs betrayed the fact that their manufacturers had not paid a stamp tax to the crown. Woodblocks similar to the one reproduced here were kept in the tax collector’s office. Card-makers would bring their specially manufactured card stock to the taxman’s bureau to imprint the outlines of these face cards. They would then return to their shops and colour in the outlines using stencils and paint. Imprints taken from woodblocks by tax collectors were used for verification purposes when inspecting cards found in shops, residences, and gambling establishments. Cards that did not conform to the official design were labelled ‘fraudulent’, and fines assessed. This process of standardisation provided card-makers with little opportunity or motivation to improve the visual appearance of their cards, resulting in misshapen figures on face cards. A king and queen of hearts printed in Lyon in the period exemplify the problem. The figures on these cards have crossed eyes, strangely shaped crowns, and disproportionate bodies. Shop workers have applied colour carelessly to the outlines impressed from the woodblock. No wonder Diderot expressed dismay!

King and queen of hearts printed in Lyon (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France, RESERVE BOITE ECU-KH-167 (4, 113)).

While royal taxation practices led master card-makers to produce bizarrely designed and poorly executed face cards, the king’s subjects nevertheless saved these cards when they were too worn for gaming purposes, flipping them over to repurpose their blank backsides. Paper was scarce and expensive, leading the French to reuse the cards for bureaucratic, commercial, domestic, and reflective purposes. The first library card catalogues were recorded on the backs of playing cards; over 200,000 examples can still be consulted in the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris. Law clerks reused them as file labels for court cases. Shop keepers and businessmen printed their calling cards on the backs, and the army used them as ration cards. Domestics used them to compile laundry lists, and salon-goers enjoyed flirtatious games based on provocative sayings printed on the reverse sides.


Clockwise from top left: calling card, ration card, other playing card and laundry list, all printed or written on the back of playing cards (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France, RESERVE BOITE ECU-KH-167 (7, 210); RESERVE BOITE ECU-KH-167 (3, 105); RESERVE BOITE ECU-KH-167 (5, 153); RESERVE BOITE ECU-KH-202 (12)).

While the Neuchâtel University Library conserves 27 cards with scribbles made by Rousseau during his al fresco wanderings, the Geneva Library houses a cache of 35,000 playing cards annotated by the eighteenth-century physicist Georges-Louis Lesage, who used them to record scientific observations as well as tortured investigations into his own psyche. The backs of these cards, along with many other examples that survive in libraries and archives in France and elsewhere today, provide flashes of insight into lives that are mostly unknown centuries later.

The contrast, therefore, between the fronts and the backs of eighteenth-century French playing cards tells a story about government regulation and everyday life before the Revolution. The recto sides speak to us of significant intervention in the production and consumption of playing cards. To extract revenue from this increasingly popular commercial good, the state regulated manufacture in ways that could not have escaped observant card players. The verso sides, recycled when too worn for gaming purposes, bear witness to both mundane concerns and deeper reflections beyond the purview of the state. These ephemeral scraps of paper manage to combine testimony of privileges claimed by the crown with surprisingly varied perspectives on the material lives and private thoughts of the king’s subjects. They allow the historian to shuffle her deck of historical themes, perhaps coming up with new insights in the same way that Old Regime card players hoped to stumble into profit at the card table.

Jeffrey S. Ravel

Readers interested in learning more about the history of playing cards in France between roughly 1650 and 1850 may wish to visit this bilingual web site: https://frenchplayingcards.mit.edu/.

[1] Nicholas Cronk, ‘Voltaire et l’art du texto’, Littéraire: Pour Alain Viala, ed. M. Roussillon, S. Guyot, D. Glynn and M.-M. Fragonard, 2 vol. (Arras, 2018), vol.2, p.243-59.

[2] Denis Diderot, ‘Cartes (Jeux)’, L’Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences, et des métiers (Paris, Libraires associés, 1751), vol.2, p.715.

The private life of Voltaire and Marie-Louise Denis: the stuff of (epistolary) fiction

Voltaire’s private life is still something of a puzzle: he invested so much energy in creating his public image that it is hard to know who there is behind the mask, or masks. There are biographies of Voltaire aplenty – but could we write a biography of François-Marie Arouet? Voltaire’s immensely rich correspondence might seem like a way of discovering the elusive ‘real’ person, but that can prove illusory: on closer inspection, the correspondence, just like all his other writings, turns out to be a vast laboratory of performances. There are, however, just a few exceptions.

We know tantalisingly little about his private life with Emilie Du Châtelet. The abbé de Voisenon tells us that she treasured the letters she had received from Voltaire and kept them bound in eight quarto volumes. Frustratingly, these seem not to have survived, and she quite possibly destroyed them before her death – surely the single greatest loss from this iconic epistolary corpus. In the case of Voltaire’s relationship with Marie-Louise Denis, on the other hand, significant numbers of genuinely personal letters have survived, though many remained in private hands until the twentieth century, and there may yet be more to be discovered. Voltaire’s relationship with his niece is therefore the most significant attachment of his life for which we have reliable documentation.

The dust jacket of Nancy Mitford’s 1957 Voltaire in Love, designed by Cecil Beaton.

The number of known letters to Marie-Louise Denis has grown considerably over the last century. First, around a hundred letters, dating from between 1745 and 1754, came to light in the late 1930s, with the publication of the Lettres d’Alsace à sa nièce Madame Denis, edited by Georges Jean-Aubry. Already in the eighteenth century there was speculation about the exact nature of Voltaire’s relationship with his niece – were they lovers? All such lingering doubts were dispelled decisively in the 1950s, when the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York acquired some 140 letters from Voltaire to his niece, mostly dating from between 1744 and 1747. It has to be said that Voltaire’s love letters do not rank among his most subtle achievements – he sometimes writes in Italian in an attempt to relieve their tawdry banality – but they certainly leave us in no doubt about the physical nature of their relationship. Theodore Besterman published these letters in 1957, in a book beautifully produced by the Librairie Plon in Paris: the Lettres d’amour de Voltaire à sa nièce bear the surprising dedication ‘à Nancy Mitford’. In fact, Besterman had been discussing this new find of letters with Nancy Mitford over several years: she immediately sensed the fictional potential of this love triangle (Voltaire’s sexual relationship with Denis began before the death of Du Châtelet in 1749) and set to work to write up the scoop of this newly revealed ménage à trois manqué. Modern funding bodies like to encourage academics to explore ways of enhancing the outreach and impact of their scholarly discoveries, but no-one has ever done it better than Theodore Besterman. His scholarly Lettres d’amour appeared in the same year, 1957, as Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love: the title was suggested to her by Evelyn Waugh, and the book was published in London by Hamish Hamilton, with a dust jacket designed by Cecil Beaton (now a collectable item in itself). Nancy Mitford’s work understandably garnered more reviews than Besterman’s, and a French translation of Voltaire in Love, Voltaire amoureux, appeared in 1959.

Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis (1737-1744), ed. Nicholas Cronk, Frédéric Deloffre, Nicolas Fréry and Jacqueline Hellegouard’h (Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2023).

Now another significant collection of letters from Voltaire to his niece has surfaced, 127 autograph letters, hitherto unknown, written between 1737 and 1744. They were acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1994 and have just appeared in an edition published by Classiques Garnier. These letters were arranged, with posterity in mind, by Marie-Louise Denis herself: she grouped them into various folders or chemises, which bear writing in her hand, and often proposed dates for the letters which were undated. The coherence of this collection is obvious: it spans the duration of her marriage to Nicolas-Charles Denis. In October 1737, Marie-Louise Mignot lost her father and became an orphan (her mother, Voltaire’s beloved elder sister Catherine, had died many years earlier). In the first letter of this collection, Voltaire sent his condolences to his niece, and advised her not to retire to a convent. Assuming willingly his role as the young woman’s protector, Voltaire set about finding her a suitable husband, and Marie-Louise quickly showed her mettle by rejecting her uncle’s choice and finding a husband of her own, the army officer Denis, whom she married in 1738. The young couple made their home in Lille, and Voltaire wrote to them both, frequently and with evident affection. Many new insights into their private life emerge from these letters, including information about Marie-Louise’s musical talents: see Nicolas Fréry’s recent blogpost here, ‘La nièce musicienne : Marie-Louise Denis et la boîte de Pandore’.

Portrait of Marie-Louise Denis, oil, attributed to François-Hubert Drouais, c.1737 (present whereabouts unknown).

Besterman’s Lettres d’amour has as a frontispiece the beautiful oil portrait of the young Marie-Louise, then attributed to Van Loo, and now thought to be the work of Drouais (the sitter was only identified in 1921). It appears to date from around 1737, so when she is 25 years of age, just before her marriage in February 1738: perhaps the portrait was commissioned by her husband-to-be? In the new edition of Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis, we produce a related image (p.52), a pastel portrait from the same period, more intimate in style, but clearly composed after the model of the oil painting. This pastel, which is in the collections of the Musée d’art et d’histoire of Geneva, was long thought to depict Charlotte de Constant, but Renée Loche has shown that the sitter is in fact Marie-Louise Denis, and that it was drawn by Marie-Louise’s younger sister, Marie-Elisabeth Dompierre de Fontaine, probably around 1737–1738. Voltaire is known to have admired her work, and this is the portrait that he would have had before him when he wrote the letters in this new volume: like the letters, it possesses a particular quality of intimacy.

Portrait of Marie-Louise Denis, pastel, by Marie-Elisabeth Dompierre de Fontaine, c.1737, MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève. Gift of Marc-Samuel Constant de Rebecque, 1830.

After a sudden illness, M. Denis died prematurely in April 1744, and the collection closes with Voltaire writing another letter of condolence to his niece: ‘Adieu, du courage, de la philosophie. La vie est un songe, et un songe triste, mais vivez pour vos amis et pour moi qui vous aime tendrement’ (p.288). The dramatic irony here is evident, for as readers of Nancy Mitford, we know only too well how their relationship will develop. We can all now read the letters to Marie-Louise when she was a young wife, and if we want, we can try to search them for clues about the future. But perhaps it needs a novelist to do real justice to this material. Voltaire’s private life is the stuff of fiction, and possibly of epistolary fiction (think what he will do later with Paméla). Just as Nancy Mitford gave fictional shape to the truth of Besterman’s discoveries, we now need a novelist who can find the deeper truth in Voltaire’s relations with his favourite niece and her husband.

– Nicholas Cronk

The Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis (1737-1744): Voltaire et sa chère nièce, edited by Nicholas Cronk, Frédéric Deloffre, Nicolas Fréry and Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, have just been published (Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2023).

Selected letters of Catherine the Great translated into Korean

Selected letters of Catherine the Great to Voltaire and others have recently been translated into Korean by Minchul Kim and Seungeun Lee and published by Itta.

While browsing through Electronic Enlightenment one day, I stumbled upon letters to Voltaire written by my soon-to-be queen of letter-writers, Catherine the Great. Seated on a precarious throne, the Tsarina had dreams she wanted to see realised. These she explained and advertised to Voltaire, in the hope of enlisting him in mobilising Western European public opinion in Russia’s favour. She considered herself to be surrounded by enemies: Pugachev, the nobility, the clergy, the Ottoman Empire, and after Voltaire’s death, the French revolutionary republicans. To her delight, Voltaire was happy to be her ally in her war against the Turks as well as against what they both regarded as feudal backwardness and religious fanaticism in Russia.

To the Korean public I wanted to relay the desires and anxieties of an aspiring philosopher-empress, who believed herself to be carrying the torch of Peter the Great against all odds. On her shoulders pressed heavily the burden of ruling a gigantic empire between Europe, China, and the Ottomans. I enlisted a student of the Nakaz, Seungeun Lee, as co-translator and approached an outstanding mid-sized publisher in Seoul with experience in both academic and trade books, Itta, which was already producing a book series of correspondences. The Spinozist Hyunwoo Kim, head of Itta, sat down with us, and the three of us started to pick out letters for translation. The decision was made after a long discussion to leave out the Tsarina’s correspondence with Grigory Potemkin and other Russian politicians, for two reasons. On the one hand, we liked to believe that there might be a future occasion for publishing them in a separate volume. On the other hand, more significantly, we wanted to shed light on a variety of aspects of the relationship that Catherine was trying to establish between the republic of letters and her court. We ended up selecting 46 letters in French written by Catherine to Voltaire (38), D’Alembert (4), Mme Geoffrin (2), Falconet (1), and Frederick II (1), accompanied by one of Voltaire’s letters to D’Alembert.

The collaboration was exciting. All three of us read French and English, and even at a master’s student level Seungeun possessed expertise in Russian language and history that was essential to the task. We consulted several editions including Alexandre Stroev’s from Non Lieu and Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s from Oxford World’s Classics. I must add that Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, along with Antoine Lilti’s Le Monde des salons and biographies of Catherine and Voltaire, was key to drafting the lengthy introduction for Korean readers. But most of all we ceaselessly returned to Electronic Enlightenment, even after the stage of initial translation, for annotations and links to related letters and people. All the way, Hyunwoo provided timely advice and firm support for the project.

Philippe de Lasalle’s woven portrait of Catherine (c.1771) of which a version still hangs in Voltaire’s château at Ferney (CC0 The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It was a truly collective enterprise, driven first by the Tsarina’s praise for the poet: ‘En bonne foi Monsieur je fais plus de cas de vos écrits, que de toutes les prouesses d’Alexandre, et vos lettres me font plus de plaisir que les courtoisies de ce prince ne m’en donneraient’ (22 August / 2 September 1765). With humility (and perhaps some hidden desire for compliment) she compared what she did to help Diderot and the deeds of the vengeur des Calas: ‘Ce n’est rien que de donner un peu à son prochain, de ce dont on a un grand superflu, mais c’est s’immortaliser que d’être l’avocat du genre humain, le défenseur de l’innocence opprimée. Ces deux causes vous attirent la vénération due à de tels miracles. Vous avez combattu les ennemis réunis des hommes, la superstition, le fanatisme, l’ignorance, la chicane, les mauvais juges, et la partie du pouvoir qui repose entre les mains des uns et des autres’ (9 July / 20 July 1766). But the three of us were also aware of Voltaire’s panegyric of his admirer, for whom he wrote seventeen days before his death: ‘Que votre majesté impériale pardonne au bavardage de votre ancien serviteur de Ferney qui pourtant ne radote pas quand il parle de son héroïne’ (13 May 1778). Behind the edition, from inception to publication, was this mutual admiration between Catherine and Voltaire, which will hopefully reach a wider public in Korea, showcasing what the republic of letters had to do with the reform politics of the Enlightenment.

– Minchul Kim (Research Fellow at Voltaire Foundation / Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Global Intellectual History Unit at Sungkyunkwan)

From the VF to Vif! A ‘lively’ book series comes to life again as an online collection

In the early 2000s, the Voltaire Foundation decided to create a paperback series in collaboration with the Sorbonne University Press. It was intended (as we said in our publicity materials at the time) ‘to make available the work of the Voltaire Foundation’s authors to the widest audience in an affordable, paperback format’. Since we are known as the ‘VF’, and we wanted our new series to be lively, we called it Vif – French for ‘lively, alert, or snappy’. Nine of the snappy volumes from the Vif series will now enjoy a second life, as part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE ebook collection – the digital edition of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

The Vif volumes being added to Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are of two types: critical scholarship and primary texts. Of the former, several are collections of essays, originally aimed at advanced students preparing for the agrégation in France or competency exams in the US. These books treat, respectively, Voltaire’s influential manifesto for religious toleration, the Traité sur la tolérance; Diderot’s innovative play Le Fils naturel; and Marivaux’s journalism and theatre.


There is also a scholarly monograph by James Fowler, Voicing Desire, addressing themes of family and sexuality in Diderot’s fiction. Finally, we include an important study of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique by Christiane Mervaud, who is the author of the authoritative critical edition of this work in the Complete works of Voltaire. An expanded version of introduction to that edition became this book and has remained the definitive study of the text.


The second set of books from the Vif being republished in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE are three works which are editions of eighteenth-century French texts. The first is an edition of short stories by the author Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1711–1780). Best remembered now for writing a version of The Beauty and the Beast (1756), she was a prolific writer, producing some 70 volumes. The anthology published here, entitled Contes et autres écrits, is the first comprehensive introduction to her work. The second, entitled Vivre libre et écrire, provides a series of extracts from novels written by women during the French Revolution. The Revolution brought a marked increase in the number of books attributed to women authors, but many of these works are immensely hard to find. This pioneering anthology makes a selection of them available for the first time, expertly introduced by Huguette Krief.

Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (Expositions BnF).

Perhaps the single most successful woman writer of the French eighteenth century is Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758), author of a best-selling novel, the Lettres d’une péruvienne, and of a play successfully performed at the Comédie-française, Cénie. Her life reads like a novel, and the best biography, English Showalter’s Françoise de Graffigny: her life and works (2004) can be consulted in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE. Graffigny’s greatest achievement is perhaps her magnificent correspondence, amounting to some 2,500 letters. The Voltaire Foundation has previously published a critical edition of her correspondence, edited by a team of scholars under the direction of J. A. Dainard. In praising this edition, Heidi Bostic wrote that the ‘Correspondence may well come to be regarded as the crown jewel of Graffigny’s œuvre. Her letters not only charm with their wit, insight, and style, but also document diverse aspects of eighteenth-century French culture and society’ (Eighteenth-century studies, 2008). Not everyone, sadly, has time to read all 15 volumes, so English Showalter produced a handy one-volume selection of the best of her letters, which is included here as well.

Françoise de Graffigny (Artnet).

These Vif volumes contain important scholarship about the French philosophes and make a crucial contribution to expanding our knowledge of women authors in the period. By integrating these volumes into Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, we are not only making this research more easily available; we are also enriching it by making it cross-searchable with the existing treasures of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment print series.

– Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

– Gregory Brown, General Editor for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Public happiness: when Italy joined the European Enlightenment

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità, printed in Livorno by Giuseppe Aubert in 1763. Aubert went on to publish three anonymous editions of Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and to republish Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie in French.

Robert Mauzi, who dedicated a landmark study to the idea of happiness in French literature and philosophy in the 18th century, did not hold back when he talked about the essays and treatises on happiness that flourished at that time: ‘Rien de sincère, rien de neuf, rien de chaleureux, rien où l’on sente l’âme. Toujours la même prédication prudente’ (Nothing sincere, nothing new, nothing heartfelt, nothing soulful. Always the same cautious preaching).[1] Fortunately, there is nothing of the sort in Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità (Meditations on happiness) a short text – no more than 29 pages – inaugurating a season of exceptional vitality in the history of Illuminismo when it was published towards the end of 1763.

Alongside the journal Il Caffè (1764–1766) and above all Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), these meditations constitute one of the manifestoes of what Voltaire termed the ‘École de Milan’.[2] The value of Verri’s work lies in its ability to combine a range of theories and motifs drawn from contemporary debates (Hutcheson, Locke, Helvétius, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, Rousseau, the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ and the early volumes of the Encyclopédie) in an expressive Italian language free of rhetorical flourishes. Verri aimed to integrate the Italian intellectual elite into the European Enlightenment, to guide the action of the Habsburg monarchy and to usher in a new era of reform for the peninsula, or at least for Lombardy under Austrian tutelage.

Title page of Pietro Verri’s Meditazioni sulla felicità annotated by Ferdinando Facchinei, printed in Venice by Antonio Zatta in 1765.

Verri defined happiness – a concept which had so far been confined, especially in Italy, to the field of moral philosophy or religion – as a political objective, a concrete model of economic development and a regulating principle of social relations. Happiness depends on the capacity of individuals to assimilate the principles of civic virtue: a happy man is an honest man who understands the correlation between the search for individual happiness and the demand for collective felicity, and who tends to satisfy his desires only within the limits imposed by civil and moral laws. Happiness also depends on the capacity of the state to guarantee the rights and freedom of each individual through the establishment of just legislation, and to curb the desire of the strong to dominate the weak, in accordance with the principles of the social contract. In a society that abides by the values of the social contract, the supreme aim of the ‘art of governing’ is therefore to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number (‘la maggiore felicità possibile divisa colla maggiore uguaglianza possibile’).[3] Here Verri resorts to Hutcheson’s famous aphorism, which Beccaria in turn took up in On Crimes and Punishments[4] – and whose long European circulation was traced in an important article by Robert Shackleton in 1972.[5]

A strong intellectual kinship and several direct textual echoes united Verri’s Meditations and Beccaria’s treatise, the two writers being close friends and collaborators. It was soon rumoured that both texts were by the same author! One of Beccaria’s most virulent opponents, the Venetian monk Ferdinando Facchinei, was convinced that the Meditations were a new production by that ‘socialist’ (he was the first to use the word in Italian to denigrate a supporter of contractualist theories) and published an annotated reprint of the work to decry it. Facchinei, who also perceived the echoes of utilitarian and materialist thought in both On Crimes and Punishments and the Meditations on happiness, fulminated against ‘the author of these two monstrous twins’, in which he saw ‘the Rousseau of Italy’.[6]

Title page of Pensées sur le bonheur, translated by Gabriel Mingard and printed in Yverdon by Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice in 1766.

The reception of the Meditations in French-speaking European countries was more benign. In 1765, D’Alembert wrote that he had found the ‘morceau sur Le Bonheur […] plein de raison et de vues philosophiques’ (piece on Happiness […] full of reason and philosophical views).[7] The Vaudois pastor Gabriel Mingard, one of the main contributors of the Yverdon Encyclopédie, published a French translation, Pensées sur le bonheur, in 1766. Pietro Verri’s text, in an elegant edition divided into chapters, enjoyed a second life thanks to this fairly wordy rendition of his spare prose, reaching a wider audience than the one it was initially intended for. But its reception, briefly helped by Beccaria’s growing fame, was soon overshadowed by the triumph of On Crimes and Punishments. Unlike Beccaria’s treatise, which has been widely read and commented on since its publication, from Voltaire to Foucault,[8] Pietro Verri’s text remained little known outside of Italy, and had not been republished in French since Mingard’s original translation. Yet his Meditations on happiness is a valuable document to reconstruct the intellectual genesis of On Crimes and Punishments and to measure Verri’s sensitivity to the words and themes that nourished the intellectual debate of the second half of the century, until the Revolution: humanity, friendship, equality.

Pietro Verri, Méditations sur le bonheur, texte traduit, présenté et annoté par Pierre Musitelli (Paris, Éditions Rue d’Ulm / Presses de l’École normale supérieure, 2023).

To his last legal battles in the Milanese Council, Verri’s political and intellectual career was dedicated to public happiness, which he deemed inseparable from the defence of freedom, rights and the dignity of citizens. However, Verri’s ambition to extend the possibility of happiness to all individuals remained, as it was for many of his contemporaries, counterbalanced by a form of caution as to the possibility for each individual to reach it, in a world deeply marked by inequalities, by the memory or the experience of military devastations, persecutions, massacres, epidemics and natural disasters – let us bear in mind the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Bronisław Baczko invited us to ‘embrace both the imperative and impatient demand of the Enlightenment to reduce the number and the intensity of the misfortunes suffered by humankind, and its anguished indignation at the persistence of evil, despite the progress of the intellect and the advancement of science and the arts. The irreducible gap between the promises of happiness and the inevitability of evil was measured by the Enlightenment’s obstinate search for the means to reduce it’.[9]

We are the heirs of the Enlightenment’s restlessness. Since the 18th century, our societies have been driven by an ideal of progress based largely on economic growth, industrial development and scientific and technical innovation. That faith is now being shaken by a highly unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources, by the worsening of conflicts, including in Europe, and by the destructive effects of climate change. How can the notion of happiness be founded or rebuilt in this new context? Verri’s Meditations outlined a number of principles for thought and action for us to ponder in order to stem the ‘inevitability of evil’. First of all, if happiness is not to be an empty word but a living constitutional principle, the state must be its custodian for each individual, through its public action; secondly, there is no lasting happiness other than ‘the happiness of the greatest number’, and any unequal society bears the seeds of its own disintegration; finally, there is no other place where we can build happiness than the one that we inhabit, and each one of us is invested with the duty of nurturing it. ‘Le paradis terrestre est où je suis’, wrote Voltaire in Le Mondain (1738 version). This paradise already seemed fragile to Enlightenment thinkers. The challenges of the 21st century invite us to meditate on that lesson from the past: to protect steadfastly both the right to happiness and the place where it can be achieved. 

– Pierre Musitelli (École normale supérieure de Paris / ITEM)

[1] R. Mauzi, L’Idée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle [1960] (Paris, 1965), p.9.

[2] According to Alessandro Verri writing to his brother Pietro from Paris on 13 March 1767, ‘Mons[ieur] Voltaire ha stampato o scritto o detto ad alcuno, non so poi come, che l’École de Milan fait des grands progrès. Così chiama la nostra compagnia’ (P. and A. Verri, Viaggio a Parigi e Londra, 1766-1767: carteggio di Pietro e Alessandro Verri, ed. Gianmarco Gaspari, Milan, 1980, p.361).

[3] P. Verri, Meditazioni sulla felicità (London [Livorno], 1763), p.750 and 751.

[4] ‘La massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero’ (Edizione nazionale delle opere di Cesare Beccaria, vol.I, ed. Gianni Francioni, Milan, 1984,p.23).

[5] R. Shackleton, ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number: the history of Bentham’s phrase’, SVEC, vol.90 (1972), p.1461–82.

[6] ‘Mi sembra che l’autore di cotesti due mostruosi gemelli, si sforzi di addivenire, e che sia realmente, il Rousseau dell’Italia’ ([F. Facchinei], Lettera di N. N. al riveritissimo signor A. Z. S. V., in Meditazioni sulla felicità. Con un avviso e con note critiche, [Venice], 1765, p.4).

[7] D’Alembert to Paolo Frisi, 9 July 1765, in C. Beccaria, Dei delitti e delle pene, ed. Franco Venturi (Turin, 1994), p.313.

[8] And has been the object of two recent important translations into French: C. Beccaria, Des délits et des peines, transl. Philippe Audegean (Lyon, 2009); Des délits et des peines, transl. Xavier Tabet and Alessandro Fontana (Paris, 2015).

[9] ‘Il nous faut, pour ce faire, embrasser conjointement, dans les Lumières, tant leur exigence, impérative et impatiente, de réduire dans leur nombre comme dans leur intensité les malheurs dont souffre le genre humain, que leur indignation angoissée devant la persistance du mal, malgré l’essor de l’esprit et les progrès des sciences et des arts. L’écart irréductible entre les promesses du bonheur et la fatalité du mal, les Lumières le mesurent à l’aune de leur quête obstinée des moyens censés le réduire’ (B. Baczko, Job, mon ami : promesses du bonheur et fatalité du mal, Paris, 1997, p.12–13).

La nièce musicienne : Marie-Louise Denis et la boîte de Pandore

Portrait de Marie-Louise Denis, vers 1737, par sa sœur Marie-Élisabeth de Dompierre de Fontaine (MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève. Don de Marc-Samuel Constant de Rebecque, 1830).

« Ma chère Canente veut-elle bien m’envoyer son monologue ? » (20 mars 1741, lettre 58). En assimilant, sur un ton badin, Marie-Louise Denis à la nymphe Canente, qui doit chez Ovide son nom à sa voix mélodieuse, Voltaire insiste sur ses qualités de musicienne. Car si les lettres inédites de Voltaire à sa « chère nièce », parues chez Classiques Garnier, éclairent d’un jour nouveau la figure de Marie-Louise Denis, c’est entre autres en contribuant à rendre justice à son talent artistique – de claveciniste, de chanteuse, voire de compositrice –, auquel Voltaire a fait appel pour une œuvre dont le destin fut tourmenté : son opéra Pandore. Le monologue en question est en effet une scène du troisième acte de Pandore dont Voltaire confie la mise en musique à sa nièce, non sans topos d’humilité : « voulez-vous en attendant vous amuser à faire de la bonne musique sur ces paroles médiocres de Pandore ? » (lettre 45). Que nous apprennent ces lettres jusqu’alors inconnues sur la collaboration de l’oncle et de la nièce, du dramaturge et de la musicienne, sur un sujet à la fois aussi rebattu et aussi investi pour Voltaire d’enjeux philosophiques que celui de la boîte de Pandore ?

Une version primitive du monologue de Pandore, « À peine j’ai goûté l’aurore de la vie », dans la lettre de Voltaire à Marie-Louise Denis du 20 août 1740 (Paris, BnF : NAF 27363, f.80r / Gallica). La musique que Marie-Louise Denis aurait composée n’est pas parvenue jusqu’à nous.

Parmi les compositeurs auxquels Voltaire songe lorsqu’il entreprend de « courtiser avec succès une fois dans sa vie la muse de l’Opéra » (D2180), le premier n’est autre que Rameau – avec lequel il entretient des relations complexes. Voltaire avait écouté en septembre 1739, deux mois avant sa création au Théâtre du Palais-Royal, la tragédie lyrique Dardanus, qu’il tenait pour un « chef-d’œuvre de Rameau » (lettre 24). Néanmoins, la collaboration tourne court et Voltaire confie le 18 octobre 1740 : « Rameau m’abandonne, il y a là quelque intrigue dont je m’embarrasse peu » (lettre 49). Entre-temps, c’est à sa nièce, âgée de vingt-huit ans, qu’il propose de mettre en musique le monologue de Pandore qui a pour incipit : « À peine j’ai goûté l’aurore de la vie ». La lettre du 20 août 1740 (lettre 45), dont nous reproduisons ici un extrait, comporte ainsi une première version du monologue d’autant plus instructive qu’elle diffère sensiblement de celle qui sera imprimée.

Or, Voltaire ne tarde pas à attendre de sa nièce davantage qu’un simple monologue : il l’encourage à adapter l’ensemble du second acte (lettre 67). Il en vient même à projeter de lui confier l’ensemble de l’opéra : « ma chère nièce, vous embellissez donc cette Pandore et votre monologue m’avait déjà donné très grande opinion de vous. Je ne désespère pas que vous ne fassiez tout l’opéra si votre second acte vous plaît » (lettre 68). Pourtant, ce projet qui aurait permis à l’oncle et à la nièce d’« avoir à eux deux la musique, les vers, la prose, l’algèbre » (ibid.) ne voit pas le jour. Quelques années plus tard, il est question que Louise Dupin (dont l’important ouvrage Sur les femmes vient d’être édité) « orne de quelques croches » cette Pandore, que Voltaire appelle parfois son Prométhée (D2698). Il faudra cependant attendre 1748 pour que la pièce soit imprimée, et elle ne sera, malgré de nombreuses tentatives jusque dans les derniers jours de Voltaire, jamais représentée. Comme le résume Raymond Trousson : « Pandore devait tourmenter Voltaire pendant près de quarante ans. Peu d’œuvres secondaires ont, assurément, à ce point préoccupé leur auteur » (OCV, t.18C, p.332).

Nicolas Régnier, Pandore, 1626 (CC0 Staatsgalerie Stuttgart).

Dans les lettres à Marie-Louise Denis dont on doit la redécouverte au travail pionnier de Frédéric Deloffre et Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, la figure de Pandore est prétexte à de nombreux mots d’esprit. Voltaire se plaît à gratifier sa nièce de l’apostrophe « ma chère Pandore » (lettre 68, lettre 80). Surtout, il multiplie les allusions badines au récit d’Hésiode, en inversant dispersion des biens et dispersion des maux : « tous les maux ne seront pas sortis de la boîte, et il en sera échappé des plaisirs si vous me faites mon monologue » (lettre 54) ; « bonjour ma petite Pandore, ce ne sont pas les maux qui sortent de votre boîte, mais mettez dans cette boîte-là l’espérance de nous revoir » (lettre 76). Enfin, Voltaire met spirituellement en balance les activités musicales de Marie-Louise Denis avec les cours d’algèbre qui lui sont au même moment dispensés : « ma chère enfant vous augmentez mon goût pour les arts et s’il se peut mon amitié pour vous en faisant de si belle musique, de la même main qui calcule des xx » (lettre 59). C’est qu’il s’agit, en creux, de comparaison entre Marie-Louise Denis et l’autre grande figure féminine de cette correspondance, « notre Minerve Mme du Châtelet » (lettre 4), femme de sciences – et elle-même bonne musicienne – sur laquelle ces lettres fournissent des détails biographiques nouveaux.

Est-ce à dire que Pandore n’est jamais que le prétexte à des plaisanteries galantes où l’on sent poindre, derrière la tendresse avunculaire, des sentiments d’une autre nature ? Ce serait en réalité oublier le rôle du mythe de Pandore dans la polémique anti-chrétienne de Voltaire. Car s’il se réfère volontiers à son opéra sous le titre de Prométhée, il le nomme aussi parfois Le Péché originel, et n’hésite pas à le présenter comme « un opéra philosophique qui devrait être joué devant Bayle et Diderot : il s’agit de l’origine du mal moral et du mal physique » (D12966). C’est que le mythe de Pandore vaut comme une alternative païenne au dogme du péché originel, et ce dès les Lettres philosophiques (vingt-cinquième lettre, §1), dont on trouve de discrets échos dans nos lettres à Marie-Louise Denis, lorsque Voltaire ironise sur Pascal (lettre 4) et célèbre Locke (lettre 7, lettre 12). Comme le souligne Béatrice Ferrier, « Pandore revêt un sens polémique au-delà du sens métaphysique ». Telles sont les raisons pour lesquelles Voltaire n’aura cessé de rouvrir et de refermer la boîte à musique de Pandore.

– Nicolas Fréry

Les Lettres inédites à Marie-Louise Denis (1737-1744) : Voltaire et sa chère nièce, éditées par Nicholas Cronk, Frédéric Deloffre, Nicolas Fréry et Jacqueline Hellegouarc’h, viennent de paraître chez Classiques Garnier.