Voltaire à Sherbrooke: l’histoire de la collection Lambert-David

En mai 2021, on m’a approchée pour procéder à la numérisation d’une collection d’archives pour le ‘projet Voltaire’. Malgré le nom très révélateur, j’étais loin de me douter qu’il s’agissait d’un ensemble de manuscrits voltairiens comprenant quelques documents ‘inédits’. C’est lorsque j’ai consulté la première série de correspondance et aperçu le sceau de Voltaire que j’ai réalisé la valeur archivistique exceptionnelle de cette collection ainsi que la chance incroyable que j’avais d’y avoir accès. Le fait est que j’habite dans la ville de Sherbrooke au Québec, très loin du lieu où a résidé Voltaire. La première question me venant à l’esprit est: comment ces documents sont-ils arrivés jusqu’ici? Je me suis entretenue avec le propriétaire de la collection, le professeur Peter Southam de l’Université de Sherbrooke, pour en apprendre davantage sur l’histoire de la collection.

Sonia Blouin: Bonjour Pr. Southam, j’aimerais bien comprendre comment des manuscrits voltairiens sont-ils arrivés au Québec. Autrement dit, qui a assemblé la collection et comment est-elle parvenue jusqu’à vous?

P.S.: La collection a été assemblée par quatre générations de la famille de ma mère, Jacqueline Lambert-David, propriétaire du château de Ferney de 1848 à 1999. Mais pour comprendre l’origine de la collection, il faut remonter un peu plus loin…

Voltaire est décédé à Paris dans l’hôtel particulier de son proche ami, le marquis de Villette. Ce dernier a subséquemment acquis de Madame Denis la propriété de Ferney, château de Voltaire. Il avait conservé le cœur de Voltaire et le déposa dans un sanctuaire faisant partie d’une sorte de petit musée à la mémoire du philosophe qu’il avait aménagé dans le ‘Grand Salon’ et dans la chambre de Voltaire, au rez-de-chaussée du château. Depuis ce temps, le château est demeuré un lieu de mémoire visité par le public de façon régulière. Le marquis de Villette ne reste pas propriétaire du domaine très longtemps, mais ceux qui lui ont succédé à ce titre ont tenu à maintenir la tradition commémorative qu’il avait inaugurée. Le comte Jacques-Louis de Budé, qui acquit les lieux en 1785 et qui demeura propriétaire jusqu’à sa mort en 1844, a continué cette tradition en laissant le public visiter l’endroit pendant 60 ans. Durant les premières années de sa résidence à Ferney, ce dernier était en contact permanent avec l’ancien secrétaire de Voltaire, Jean-Louis Wagnière, qui fut élu à la mairie de Ferney en 1792 et qui résida au village jusqu’à sa mort en 1802. Wagnière avait gardé un grand nombre de manuscrits de son ancien maître. Comme plusieurs de ces manuscrits étaient clairement d’intérêt local, mettant en scène des personnages du pays de Gex encore vivants à cette époque, il n’est pas étonnant que Budé s’y soit intéressé. Un exemple serait la correspondance entre Voltaire et Louis Gaspard Fabry, subdélégué de l’intendant de Bourgogne et maire de Gex, concernant la terre de Ferney et plus généralement les affaires du pays de Gex. Par la suite, comme il était coutume quand un domaine changeait de mains que des papiers ayant trait à la propriété soient transférés en même temps, c’est probablement ainsi que mon ancêtre Claude-Marie David est entré en possession de certains manuscrits voltairiens lorsqu’il acheta le château de la succession de Jacques-Louis de Budé en 1848.

Lettre de Voltaire à Louis Gaspard Fabry, f.2v (D8607).

La collection d’archives voltairiennes fut par la suite développée par la fille et le gendre de Claude-Marie David, soit Hortense David et son mari le sculpteur Emile Lambert. En 1884, par l’entremise du libraire et archiviste-paléographe Etienne Charavay, ils ont acquis une quantité de correspondances de Voltaire appartenant à la collection du chimiste, industriel et grand collectionneur d’autographes, Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut (1797-1881). Il n’est pas sans rapport, qu’Emile Lambert travaillait à cette époque sur la statue ‘Voltaire à vingt-cinq ans’, une statue qui sera inaugurée en 1887 dans la cour d’honneur de la mairie du 9e arrondissement, à Paris. Le couple fit également l’acquisition de plusieurs autres manuscrits voltairiens datant d’avant et d’après l’établissement de Voltaire à Ferney.

De ma connaissance, mes grands-parents Pierre et Suzanne Lambert-David, qui se sont occupés de la collection après le décès d’Hortense en 1916, n’y ont pas ajouté de façon significative. La collection est demeurée non inventoriée, et dans un état plutôt désordonné jusqu’à ce que ma mère, Jacqueline Lambert-David, la prenne en charge à son tour au moment du décès de ma grand-mère en 1968. Jacqueline était passionnée de Voltaire et de l’histoire de Ferney. Elle était aussi une proche amie de certaines descendantes de Jacques-Louis de Budé. C’est par cette connexion qu’elle a acquis, dans les années 1950, un intéressant ensemble de manuscrits concernant un différend entre l’horloger Ambroise Decroze et le curé de Moëns, Phillip Ancien, auquel Voltaire s’était mêlé. Jacqueline avait épousé un Canadien pendant la Guerre et Ottawa est demeuré son principal lieu de résidence par la suite. Puisqu’elle ne passait pas plus qu’un mois ou deux par année à Ferney, la collection a petit à petit pris le chemin du Canada à mesure qu’elle entreprit de l’organiser, de l’étudier et de l’inventorier. Quelques années avant son décès en 1998, elle m’avait demandé de l’aider à assurer la conservation de la collection. C’est donc au cours des années 1990 que j’ai pris le relais et apporté la collection chez moi près de la ville de Sherbrooke au Québec.

S.B.: Ce récit démontre bien que votre famille avait un intérêt pour l’histoire de Voltaire et de Ferney…

P.S.: A part le fait d’habiter sa maison, une autre condition explique le vif intérêt de ma famille pour Voltaire. Pour comprendre, il faut se rappeler que le dernier combat de la vie du philosophe, mené à partir de 1770 jusqu’à sa mort en 1778, fut sa lutte pour l’émancipation des serfs du Jura. Le servage avait disparu partout ailleurs en France sauf dans le Jura, où les ‘hommes plantes’, comme Voltaire les appelait, sont demeurés sujets au droit de mainmorte jusqu’à la Révolution. Or Claude-Marie David ainsi que sa femme Hélène Bavoux sont nés de familles de paysans mainmortables du Haut-Jura et leur révérence pour la mémoire de Voltaire est en grande mesure attribuable à cet héritage.

Claude-Marie David, fils d’un paysan horloger réputé illettré, est né en 1799 dans le village de Lajoux, situé en haute montagne à seulement 35 km de Ferney. Dès l’âge de seize ans, il rejoint ses frères ainés travaillant à Genève dans l’horlogerie. Installé à Paris comme marchand lapidaire à partir de 1828, il pressent le grand essor de la production de montres qui nécessite la production de millions de contre-pivots en rubis. En prévision de cette nouvelle demande, il entreprit, en 1840, dans son village natal de Lajoux, la construction de la première usine lapidaire du Jura, dédiée à la production de pierres horlogères. Huit ans plus tard, sa vénération pour Voltaire a certainement compté dans sa décision d’acheter le château de Ferney. En juin 1854, il acheta de la famille de Budé les meubles, tableaux et effets mobiliers qui, du temps de Voltaire, garnissaient sa chambre et son salon, et il ouvrit ces pièces à la visite. A l’occasion du centenaire de la mort du philosophe, il fit ériger à ses frais le buste de Voltaire, d’après Jean-Antoine Houdon, sur la fontaine de la place principale du village, suscitant une polémique entre milieux ecclésiastiques et anticléricaux. En 1890, la même polémique fit rage quand Emile Lambert a offert ‘Le Patriarche de Ferney’ à la commune de Ferney. Cette statue en bronze qui trône aujourd’hui devant la mairie, fait pendant à la statue ‘Voltaire à vingt-cinq ans’, inaugurée trois ans plus tôt dans le 9e arrondissement de Paris. Au fond, il allait de soi qu’une famille aussi attachée à Voltaire s’intéresse à collectionner ses manuscrits.

S.B.: Depuis quand vous êtes-vous plus particulièrement penché sur les documents?

P.S.: Les documents sont en ma possession depuis les années 1990, mais à l’époque j’étais trop occupé pour y prêter attention. Je ne m’y suis penché que relativement récemment, car j’avais l’impression que tout ce que cette collection contenait d’intéressant avait déjà été publié. En effet, dans les années 1950, mes grands-parents avaient ouvert leur collection de manuscrits voltairiens à Theodore Besterman, le principal spécialiste de Voltaire de l’époque, qui dirigeait l’Institut et Musée Voltaire à Genève. Quand je me suis mis à examiner la collection plus attentivement, je me suis rendu compte que Besterman n’avait certainement pas tout vu. Par exemple, à la page 171 du volume XCIX de la première édition de son Voltaire’s Correspondance (Institut et Musée Voltaire, Les Délices, 1964),Besterman identifie 65 manuscrits appartenant au ‘défunt’ Pierre Lambert (mon grand-père est mort en 1961 à l’âge de 98 ans) alors que j’ai moi-même inventorié 119 lettres de Voltaire ou adressées à lui. Comment expliquer cette disparité?

Avant de répondre à cette question, il est important de souligner qu’une importante partie de ce que nous connaissons de la correspondance de Voltaire est fondée, non pas sur des originaux, mais sur des copies d’originaux. Je ne suis pas suffisamment spécialiste pour distinguer avec certitude les uns des autres, mais je sais que les copies sont particulièrement importantes quand les originaux ont disparu. Il me semble donc que Besterman aurait dû noter l’existence de lettres de la correspondance de Voltaire même s’il s’agissait de copies. Mon hypothèse concernant la disparité entre l’inventaire de Besterman et le mien est que mes grands-parents ne lui auraient tout simplement pas tout montré.

S.B.: Pouvez-vous nous parler de vos découvertes? Que retrouve-t-on dans la collection?

P.S.: La collection comprend d’abord de la correspondance (119 lettres) et 48 poèmes: certains de Voltaire et certains sur Voltaire ou satirisantce dernier. La collection comprend aussi deux ensembles de manuscrits voltairiens particulièrement intéressants. Premièrement, des manuscrits de divers passages de son Histoire de la guerre de 1741, totalisant 169 pages. Pour des raisons d’Etat, à l’exception de quelques extraits dans son Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ce livre ne fut pas publié de son vivant.

Le Temple de l’amitié, f.1.

Un deuxième ensemble particulièrement intéressant est le dossier que ma mère avait acquis de la famille de Budé, dans les années 1950, concernant la campagne menée par Voltaire en 1761 réclamant justice pour l’horloger Ambroise Decroze dont le fils avait été sauvagement battu par les hommes de main de Philippe Ancien, curé de Moëns (un village avoisinant Ferney). Cette ‘affaire’, en dépit de son rayonnement purement local, est particulièrement intéressante, car elle annonce le Voltaire de l’affaire Calas, précurseur de l’intellectuel moderne. Enfin, la collection regroupe une diversité d’autres manuscrits. On y trouve, entre autres, un manuscrit de 243 pages, Extrait des œuvres de Voltaire, de Jean-Pierre Lebreton.

Les quatre générations qui ont contribué au développement de cette collection cherchaient en priorité à rassembler des documents concernant Ferney et le pays de Gex. Par exemple, la correspondance suivie avec le subdélégué de l’intendant de Bourgogne, Louis Caspar Fabry – le représentant du pouvoir royal dans le Pays de Gex – traitant de projets d’assèchement des marais et de modernisation des pratiques agricoles. C’est le cas aussi des lettres aux marquis d’Ossun et autres représentants de la France à l’étranger qui avaient pour objet de mousser la vente des montres fabriquées à Ferney, dans la nouvelle manufacture ouverte par l’initiative de Voltaire.

Bon nombre de manuscrits traitent, par ailleurs, des années précédant l’installation de Voltaire à Ferney: les années passées à Cirey chez la marquise Du Châtelet et les relations entre Voltaire et Frédéric II de Prusse, y compris sa querelle avec le joaillier Abraham Hersch qui avait tant agacé Frédéric, et le fameux épisode de Francfort.

Quand je me suis rendu compte de l’intérêt de cette collection, j’ai compris qu’il fallait qu’elle soit mise à la disposition de la communauté scientifique et du public en général. Pour savoir comment procéder, j’ai contacté la personne que je voyais comme la plus apte à me conseiller, soit le directeur de la Voltaire Foundation d’Oxford, Nicholas Cronk. C’est comme cela que notre projet a vu le jour.

S.B.: Maintenant que les documents sont numérisés, quelles sont les prochaines étapes?
Extrait des œuvres de Voltaire par Lebreton.

P.S.: Grâce à votre travail de numérisation à haut niveau de résolution, la Voltaire Foundation (VF) détient maintenant ce qu’il lui faut pour éventuellement mettre la collection en ligne. D’après ce que je comprends, la VF est sur le point de compléter la publication de l’édition critique de l’ensemble de l’œuvre de Voltaire. Elle envisageait déjà, comme prochaine étape, la mise en ligne de manuscrits. La collection Lambert-David arrive donc, de façon providentielle, comme une sorte de projet-pilote. Il restera maintenant à Gillian Pink et à l’équipe de la VF d’entreprendre la lourde tâche de classification et de corrélation entre le contenu de cette collection et le corpus voltairien déjà connu. Finiront-ils par mettre l’ensemble de la collection en ligne ou seulement certaines parties? Il faudra que j’attende l’aboutissement du projet avant de décider définitivement de la suite.

Entre-temps, je travaille avec des collègues de l’Université de Sherbrooke à monter une exposition, prévue pour les premiers mois de 2022 au Centre d’Archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine à Sherbrooke, mettant en lumière cette collection et explorant l’influence de Voltaire au Québec et au Canada français. Ce dernier thème m’intéresse tout particulièrement et j’envisage en conséquence de laisser la collection à un centre d’archives du Québec. Je suis sûr que ma mère, qui a organisé les conférences ‘Demi-heure française’ à Ottawa dans les années 1960, serait en accord.

 – Sonia Blouin

Further work on English pamphlets that coopt ‘a Persian’ for political polemics

There is an almost unlimited potential for further work in the area of influences from Persia in the Enlightenment, an area that is explored in our very recent volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Persia and the Enlightenment (2021). Each chapter can be considered a pointer in the direction of further research. For example, my chapter, ‘George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian’, reviews a number of English texts purporting to be written by ‘a Persian Traveller’. These texts started appearing in response to George Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian in England, to his friend at Ispahan (1735), and are best understood in the context of an intense political fight between Prime Minister Robert Walpole and his opposition. I did not mention one such text, the anonymous Remarks of a Persian traveller on the principal courts of Europe with a dissertation upon that of England, the nation in general, and the Prime Minister. Written originally in the Persian language, and now translated into English and French (London: John Hughs, 1736), which I will discuss here.

[Anon.], Remarks of a Persian traveller, title page of the third edition (London, 1735).

As customary at the time, it insisted that the text, presented as a single letter, was written in Persian by a traveller named Ismael to his friend Ibrahim. The introduction declares that the translator expects to translate other writings by Ismael, particularly a narrative on ‘the History of that Hero of Asia, Thamas Kouli Kan’ (p.5). The author reports from visiting a coffee house in London: ‘I heard most of them celebrate the Praises of our invincible Kouli Kan, in a manner which convinced me that his Reputation was in as high esteem in England, as in Persia it self’ (p.21).

In fact, in 1741, The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, Sovereign of Persia, was printed in London.* It was a translation of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire de Thamas Kouli-Kan Sophi de Perse, which was first printed in 1740 (Amsterdam: Arkstee & Merkus). One interesting distinction of Remarks of a Persian traveller is that it presents the purported letter from Ismael to Ibrahim in French and English simultaneously, leading to the speculation that it could have been written by the translator of Jean-Antoine Du Cerceau’s Histoire.

Remarks of a Persian traveller is in a distinct way different from the other Persian letters mentioned in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment. Although as a single letter it is short, a substantial part of it is dedicated to Ismael’s observations while in the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Denmark, Prussia, Holland, and France, before turning its attention to England. The author, who appears to be knowledgeable about current European affairs, is particularly fond of the Russian and French regimes. Meanwhile, he describes the Ottomans as prejudiced and violent, and their political system as ‘tyrannical, and bloody’ (p.9).

The Complete History of Thamas Kouli Kan, frontispiece of the second edition, London, 1746.

The author of Remarks of a Persian is also relatively familiar with Persia. His choice for the purported Persian author of the letter, Ismael, is much more realistic as the name for a Persian in the eighteenth century than Montesquieu’s Usbek or Lyttelton’s Selim. His reference to Meszat, ‘A Town in the Province of Corassan, whither the Persians go in Pilgrimage’, denotes Mashhad in Khorasan, where the tomb of the eighth Shia Imam, Reza, is a main destination for pilgrims. He knows of Tahmasb Qoli Khan (later Nader Shah) who, as chapter four of Persia and the Enlightenment discusses, was a controversial figure in Europe. The author of Remarks of a Persian has a positive view of Nader referring to him as the ‘Invincible Thamas Kouli Kan [who] so happily governs our Country, and makes it his chief care with great Discernment and justice, to reward true Merit’ (p.9). The author’s remark about the Russians ‘being at all times friends [of the Persians]’, in conjunction with his reference to Shah Abbas III (p.9), is perhaps based on his up-to date information about the 1735 treaty of Ganja that established a counter-Ottoman alliance between Peter I of Russia and Nader, who at the time was Abbas III’s regent.

Particularly relevant to my chapter of Persia and Enlightenment is the author’s assessment of Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian. To begin with, he refutes the authenticity of Lyttelton’s claim that the book was a collection of letters originally written by a Persian, arguing that it was ‘easily perceived, that the Name the Author had taken, was only a Mask which he made use of to cover his Designs’. He continues, ‘I found nothing in those Letters which savour’d of the true Genius of a Persian’ (p.23). The author of Remarks of a Persian accuses Lyttelton of attempting to disturb ‘the Publick Peace’, and claims that Lyttelton has ‘taken’ his ideas from Henry St. John Bolingbroke’s Dissertation upon Parties (p.23).

Frontispiece to Walpole’s A Dissertation upon Parties: in several letters to Caleb D’Anvers, Esq. (London, 1735).

The author is overt about his affection for Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The Prime Minister is described as an eloquent speaker, whose ‘harangues full of Force and Beauty, always filled with such Measures as might render his Country formidable to her Enemies, and serviceable to her Allies’. The author compliments Walpole’s ability to expand trade and keep Great Britain out of war (p.27-30). In fact, the letter ends not by Ismael saying farewell to his friend, but praising Walpole as a great man ‘who by the strength of his mighty Genius, alike admired abroad and at home, has acquired the Confidence of his Master, and is become not only the Glory of his Nation, but is also consider’d as one of those who contributes the most to the many Blessings She at this Day enjoys’ (p.32). Remarks of a Persian traveller further supports the assertion made in my chapter of Persia and the Enlightenment that Lyttelton’s Letters from a Persian had a wide reception in England, and because of its extensive influence, the author’s opponents felt obliged to attack it immediately after its publication. It also indicates that in eighteenth-century England, the Persian letter genre had turned into a popular and effective instrument of propaganda, widely utilized in the intense political rivalries surrounding Robert Walpole’s long ministry.

* The 1741 edition is mentioned in Catalogue of the printed books in the library of the Society of Writers to H.M. Signet in Scotland (Edinburgh: Neill and Company, 1762), p. 555. A second edition was published in 1742 (London: J. Brindley).

Cyrus Masroori (California State University, San Marcos)

A version of this blog was published in the Liverpool University Press blog in September 2021.

Cyrus Masroori is one of the editors of Persia and the Enlightenment, the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, along with co-editors Whitney Mannies and John Christian Laursen. The series is published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Candide revealed – a Voltairean oddity

Candide was published in 1759; 232 years later…

Perhaps no other work of literature from the eighteenth century has entered popular culture to the extent achieved by Voltaire’s Candide. After a shaky start in 1956 Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, swept the world. Numerous other derivative works have appeared, but none quite so odd as Candide revealed, an erotic fantasy comic version which started publication in 1991 by Eros Comix, an imprint of Fantagraphics, Seattle, the publisher of an enormous range of comic strips and graphic novels, some highly sexual. Candide revealed, ‘The Candide they were embarrassed to show you’ (‘They’ is undefined) is perhaps the most literary of their productions but by no means the most raunchy. There have been other fully illustrated ‘graphic novel’ versions of Candide, but this one is different, in that the text is completely rewritten in an American rough demotic. In traditional comic style, the ‘goodies’ are blond and beautiful in the WASP way, and the ‘baddies’ are ugly and dark. The work nevertheless follows Voltaire’s story very closely, though in a much condensed form and emphasising the erotic and violent episodes, compressing most of the events of the first nine chapters into 89 images, but with frequent allusion to the key phrase of ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ and other Panglossian sentiments.

The opening spread of Candide revealed.

The authors of the work are not easy to identify with any certainty. The script is attributed to Link Yaco, who may be Lincoln Yaco whose name appears on some other publications from the same source, but about whom little else is known. The drawings are attributed to a certain ‘Simon DeBeaver’, whose echo of a famous French feminist cannot be accidental. The cover colour is attributed to ‘Freesia Bunzoff’, perhaps an elegant reference to the illustration of Candide attempting to sleep in a ploughed field under falling snow. Three volumes of Candide revealed were advertised, but only number one can be found, on the last page of which readers are encouraged to save up to buy the continuation.

The final spread of volume 1 of Candide revealed.

I am grateful to an anonymous member of the staff of Fantagraphics for informing me that no evidence exists that the other two numbers were ever published. Perhaps the work fell between two stools, being too erudite but not sufficiently erotic for their core readership. A sole image from the intended next number confirms the planned publication.

A taster for the unpublished continuation.

Parodies of Candide started early. A. Owen Aldridge, in ‘The vindication of philosophical optimism in a pseudo-Confucian imitation of Voltaire’s Candide’, Asian and African Studies 6 (1997), p.117-25, describes L’Aventurier chinois, ostensibly published in Peking in 1773 (and sold by Mérigot le jeune of Paris). A complete account of pastiches, parodies, operettas and other derivatives is probably impossible to achieve, but some starts have been made. Works related to Candide are treated by Christopher Thacker in ‘Sons of Candide’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 58 (1967), p.1515-31, by J. Rustin in ‘Les “Suites” de Candide au XVIIIe siècle’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 90 (1972), p.1395-1416, and by J. Vercruysse in ‘Les enfants de Candide’ in Jean Macary (ed.), Essays on the Age of Enlightenment in Honor of Ira O. Wade (Geneva, 1977), p.369-76.

There are important studies of illustrated editions of Candide. See Peter Tucker, The Illustrated editions of Candide: the interpretation of a classic: an examination and checklist, with an introduction by Giles Barber ([Church Hanborough], The Previous Parrot Press, 1993). A copy may be seen, in part, here. (It is a limited edition of 185 numbered copies.) The University of Trier has a bibliography (though the illustrations are only accessible on campus). A more specialised investigation is Robert Vilain’s ‘Images of optimism? German illustrated editions of Voltaire’s Candide in the context of the First World War’, Oxford German Studies 37 (2008), p.223-52, which has striking illustrations, including those by Paul Klee. (Available online through academic institutions.)

Illustrated editions of Candide appeared very early. Voltaire disliked illustrations in his works, comparing himself modestly to Cicero, Virgil and Horace in a letter to his publisher Panckoucke concerning an edition (not of Candide) where he says: ‘Je crois que des estampes seraient fort inutiles. Ces colifichets n’ont jamais été admis dans les éditions de Cicéron, de Virgile et d’Horace. Il faut imiter ces grands hommes dans cette simplicité si on ne peut pas imiter leurs perfections’ (12 January 1778, D20980).

These illustrations often concentrated on the erotic, though more subtly than Simon DeBeaver. Two early versions of the monkey episode, by Charles Monnet (1732-1808) in the Bouillon, 1778, edition, and by Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) for a Renouard edition of the works in 1803, differ quite markedly in the nature of the suggested relationship between the women and the monkeys.

Left: Charles Monnet (1778). Right: Jean-Michel Moreau (1803).

This change in approach has been attributed to a hardening of attitudes to black men after the Haiti slave revolt by Mary L. Bellhouse in ‘Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers: representing black men in eighteenth-century French visual culture’, Political Theory 34 (2006), p.741-84 (available online through academic institutions). It is a pity we cannot know how Candide revealed would have treated this episode, and how it would now be viewed through the prism of critical race theory.

A not dissimilar contrast appears in two more modern illustrations of Cunégonde. In Norman Tealby’s account of the rape of Cunégonde by a Bulgarian soldier for an edition of Candide published in 1928 by John Lane The Bodley Head (London) and Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), the soldier, though fearsome, looks like a Gilbert and Sullivan character, and the fair victim seems almost placid. Cunégonde’s plight is very differently represented by Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949) in a Candide published in 1952 by Gibert Jeune, where the blackness of her assailant is emphasised. It is tempting to wonder if Mussolini’s domestically popular African adventures influenced the artist.

Left: Cunégonde by Norman Tealby (1928). Right: Cunégonde by Umberto Brunelleschi (1952).

Images of literary figures and their adventures are constantly changeable and remade for the times and tastes they serve.

– Martin Smith

From Cyclopaedia to Encyclopédie: experiments in machine translation and sequence alignment

Figure 1. Title page from the 1745 prospectus of the first Encyclopédie project. This page image is taken from ARTFL’s 18th Volume of the Encyclopédie.

It is well known that the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers began first as a modest translation project of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia in 1745. Over the next few years, Diderot and D’Alembert would replace the original editors and the project would be duly transformed from a simple translation into an effort to compile and organise the sum total of the world’s knowledge. Over the course of their editorial work, Diderot, and most notably D’Alembert, were not shy in incorporating these translations of the Cyclopaedia as filler for the Encyclopédie. Indeed, ‘ils ont laissé une bonne partie de ces articles presque inchangés, ou avec des modifications insignifiantes’ (Paolo Quintili, ‘D’Alembert “traduit” Chambers. Les articles de mécanique de la Cyclopædia à l’Encyclopédie’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21 (1996), p.75). The philosophes were nonetheless conscious of their debt to their English predecessor Chambers. His name appears some 1154 times in the text of the Encyclopédie and he is referenced as sole or contributing source to 1081 articles, where his name appears in italics at the end of a section or article. Given the scale of the two works under consideration, systematic evaluation of the extent of the philosophes’ use of Chambers has remained, even today, a daunting task. John Lough, in 1980, framed the problem nicely: ‘So far no one has had the patience to make a detailed study of the exact relationship between the text of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the work of Ephraim Chambers. This would no doubt require several years of arduous toil devoted to comparing the two works article by article’(‘The Encyclopédie and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia’, SVEC 185 (1980), p.221).

Recent developments in machine translation and sequence alignment now offer new possibilities for the systematic comparison of digital texts across languages. The following post outlines some recent experimental work in leveraging these new techniques in an effort to reduce the ‘arduous toil’ of textual comparison, giving some preliminary examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved, and providing some cursory observations on the advantages and limitations of such systems for automatic text analysis.

Our two comparison datasets are the ARTFL Encyclopédie (v. 1117) and the recently digitised ARTFL edition of the 1741 Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (link). The 1741 edition was selected as it was one of the likely sources for the translation original project and we were able to work from high quality pages images provided by the University of Chicago Library (On the possible editions of the Cyclopaedia used by the encyclopédistes, see Irène Passeron, ‘Quelle(s) édition(s) de la Cyclopœdia les encyclopédistes ont-ils utilisée(s)?’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 40-41 (2006), p.287-92.) In a nutshell, our approach was to generate a machine translation of all of the Cyclopaedia articles into French and then use ARTFL’s Text-PAIR sequence alignement system to identify similar passages between this virtual French Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopédie, with the translation providing links back to the original English edition of the Chambers as well as links to the relevant passages in the Encyclopédie.

For the English to French machine translation of Chambers, we examined two of the most widely used resources in this domain, Google Translate and DeepL. Both systems provide useful Application Programming Interfaces [APIs] as part of their respective subscription services, and both provide translations based on cutting-edge neural network language models. We compared results from various samples and found, in general, that both systems worked reasonably well, given the complications of eighteenth-century vocabularies (in both English and French) and many uncommon and archaic terms (this may be the subject of a future post). While DeepL provided somewhat more satisfying translations from a reader’s perspective, we ultimately opted to use Google Translate for the ease of its API and its ability to parse the TEI encoding of our documents with little difficulty. The latter is of critical importance, since we wanted to keep the overall document structure of our dictionaries to allow for easy navigation between the versions.

Operationally, we segmented the text of the Cyclopaedia into short blocks, split at paragraph breaks, and sent them for automatic translation via the Google API, with a short delay between blocks. This worked relatively well, though the system would occasionally throw timeout or other errors, which required a query resend. You can inspect the translation results here – though this virtual French edition of the Chambers is not really meant for public consumption. Each article has a link at the bottom to the corresponding English version for the sake of comparison. It is important to note that the objective here is NOT to produce a good translation of the text or even one that might serve as the basis for a human edition. Rather, this machine-generated edition exists as a ‘pivot-text’ between the English Chambers and the French Encyclopédie, allowing for an automatic comparison of the two (or three) versions using a highly fault-tolerant sequence aligner designed to pick out commonalities in very noisy document spaces. (See Clovis Gladstone, Russ Horton, and Mark Olsen, ‘TextPAIR (Pairwise Alignment for Intertextual Relations)’, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago, 2008-2021, and, more specifically, Mark Olsen, Russell Horton and Glenn Roe, ‘Something borrowed: sequence alignment and the identification of similar passages in large text collections’, Digital Studies / Le Champ numérique 2.1 (2011).)

The next step was to establish workable parameters for the Text-PAIR alignment system. The challenge here was to find commonalities between the French translations created by eighteenth-century authors and translators and machine translations produced by a modern automatic translation system. Additionally, the editors and authors of the Encyclopédie were not necessary constrained to produce an exact translation of the text in question, but could and did, make significant modifications to the original in terms of length, style, and content. To address this challenge we ran a series of tests with different matching parameters such as n-gram construction (e.g., number of words that constitue an n-gram), minimum match lengths, maximum gaps between matches, and decreasing match requirements as a match length increased (what we call a ‘flex gap’) among others on a representative selection of 100 articles from the Encyclopédie where Chambers was identified as the possible source. It is important to note that even with the best parameters, which we adjusted to get favorable recall and precision results, we were only able to identify 81 of the 100 articles. (See comparison table. The primary parameters chosen were bigrams, stemmer=true, word len=3, maxgap=12, flexmatch=true, minmatchingngrams=5. Consult the TextPair documentation and configuration file for a description of these values.) Some articles, even where clearly affiliated, were missed by the aligner, due to the size of the articles (some are very small) and fundamental differences in the translation of the English. For example, the article ‘Compulseur’ is attributed by Mallet to Chambers, but the machine translation of ‘Compulsor’ is a rather more literal and direct translation of the English article than what is offered by Mallet. Further relaxing matching parameters could potentially find this example, but would increase the number of false positives, in effect drowning out the signal with increased noise.

All things considered, we were quite happy with the aligner’s performance given the complexity of the comparison task and the multiple potential variations between historical text and modern machine translations. To give an example of how fine-grained and at the same time highly flexible our matching parameters needed to be, see the below article ‘Gynaecocracy’, which is a fairly direct translation on a rather specialised subject, but that nonetheless matched on only 8 content words (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Comparisons of the article ‘Gynaecocracy’.

Other straightforward articles were however missed due to differences in the translation and sparse matching n-grams, see for example the small article on ‘Occult’ lines in geometry below, where the 6 matching words weren’t enough to constitute a match for the aligner (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Comparisons of the geometry article ‘Occult’.

Obviously this is a rather inexact science, reliant on an outside process of automatic translation and the ability to match a virtual text that in reality never existed. Nonetheless the 81% recall rate we attained on our sample corpus seemed more than sufficient for this experiment and allowed us to move forward towards a more general evaluation of the entirety of identified matches.

Once settled on the optimal parameters, we then Text-PAIR to generate both an alignment database, for interactive examination, and a set of static files. Both of these results formats are used for this project. The alignment database contains some 7304 aligned passage pairs. The system allows queries on metadata, such as author and article title as well as words or phrases found in the aligned passages. The system also uses faceted browsing to allow the user to summarize results by the various metadata (for more on this, see Note below). Each aligned passage is presented as a facing page representation and the user can toggle a display of all of the variations between the two aligned passages. As seen below, the variations between the texts can be extensive (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Text-PAIR interface showing differences in the article ‘Air’.

Text-PAIR also contextualises results back to the original document(s). For example, the following is the article ‘Almanach’ by D’Alembert, showing the aligned passage from Chambers in blue (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Article ‘Almanach’ with shared Chambers passages in blue.

In this instance, D’Alembert reused almost all of Chambers’ original article ‘Almanac’, with some minor variations, but does not to appear to have indicated the source of the first part of his article (page image).

The alignment database is a useful first pass to examine the results of the alignment process, but it is limited in at least two ways. It identifies each aligned passage, but does not merge multiple passages identified in in article pairs. Thus we find 5 shared passages between the articles ‘Constellation’. The interface also does not attempt to evaluate the alignments or identify passages that occur between different articles. For example, D’Alembert’s article ‘ATMOSPHERE’ indeed has a passage from Chambers’ article ‘Atmosphere’, but also many longer passages from the article ‘Generation’.

To accumulate results and to refine evaluation, we subsequently processed the raw Text-PAIR alignment data as found in the static output files. We developed an evaluation algorithm for each alignment, with parameters based on the length of the matching passages and the degree to which the headwords were close matches. This simple evaluation model eliminated a significant number of false positives, which we found were typically short text matches between articles with different headwords. The output of this algorithm resulted in two tables, one for matches that were likely to be valid and one that was less likely to be valid, based on our simple heuristics – see a selection of the ‘YES’ table below (fig. 6). We are, of course, making this distinction based on the comparison of the machine translated Chambers headwords and the headwords found in the Encyclopédie, so we expected that some valid matches would be identified as invalid.

Figure 6. Table of possible article borrowings.

The next phase of the project included the necessary step of human evaluation of the identified matches. While we were able to reduce the work involved significantly by generating a list of reasonably solid matches to be inspected, there is still no way to eliminate fully the ‘arduous toil’ of comparison referenced by Lough. More than 5000 potential matches were scrutinised, looking in essence for ‘false negatives’, i.e., matches that our evaluation algorithm classed as negative (based primarily on differences in headword translations) but that were in reality valid. The results of this work was then merged into in a single table of what we consider to be valid matches, a list that includes some 3700 Encyclopédie articles with at least one matching passage from the Cyclopaedia. These results will form the basis of a longer article that is currently in preparation.

Conclusions

In all, we found some 3778 articles in the Encyclopédie that upon evaluation seem highly similar in both content and structure to articles in the 1741 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. Whether or not these articles constitute real acts of historical translation is the subject for another, or several other, articles. There are simply too many outside factors at play, even in this rather straightforward comparison, to make blanket conclusions about the editorial practices of the encyclopédistes based on this limited experiment. What we can say, however, is that of the 1081 articles that include a ‘Chambers’ reference in the Encyclopédie, we only found 689 with at least one matching passage. Obviously this recall rate of 63.7% is well below the 81% we attained on our sample corpus, probably due to overfitting the matching algorithm to the sample, which warrants further investigation. But beyond testing this ground truth, we are also left with the rather astounding fact of 3089 articles with no reference to Chambers whatsoever, all of which seem, at first blush, to be at least somewhat related to their English predecessors.

The overall evaluation of these results remains ongoing, and the ‘arduous toil’ of traditional textual comparison continues apace, albeit guided somewhat by the machine’s heavy hand. Indeed, the use of machine translation as a bridge between documents to find similar passages, be they reuses, plagiarisms, etc., is, as we have attempted to show here, a workable approach for future research, although not without certain limitations. The Chambers–Encyclopédie task outlined above is fairly well constrained and historically bounded. More general applications of these same methods may well yield less useful results. These reservations notwithstanding, the fact that we were able to unearth many thousands of valid potential intertextual relationships between documents in different languages is a feat that even a few years ago might not have been possible. As large-scale language models become ever more sophisticated and historically aware, the dream of intertextual bridges between multilingual corpora may yet become a reality. (For more on ‘intertextual bridges’ in French, see our current NEH project.)

Note

The question of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is one such factor, as it is known that both Chambers and the encyclopédistes used it as a source for their own articles – so matches we find between the Chambers and Encyclopédie may indeed represent shared borrowings from the Trévoux and not a translation at all. Or, more interestingly, perhaps Chambers translated a Trévoux article from French to English, which a dutiful encyclopédiste then translated back to French for the Encyclopédie – in this case, which article is the ‘source’ and which the ‘translation’? For more on these particular aspects of dictionary-making, see our previous article ‘Plundering philosophers: identifying sources of the Encyclopédie’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing 13.1 (Spring 2010) and Marie Leca-Tsiomis’ response, ‘The use and abuse of the digital humanities in the history of ideas: how to study the Encyclopédie’, History of European ideas 39.4 (2013), p.467-76.

– Glenn Roe and Mark Olsen

Robert Darnton and Zhang Chi: a conversation

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Emeritus and University Librarian, Emeritus at Harvard University. He is well known as a leader in the field of cultural history and history of books. Darnton’s works have profoundly changed historians’ understanding of the world of print and communication in eighteenth-century France. On 17 March 2022, he will give a lecture in the Weston Library, Oxford. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

From 13-22 October 2019, being invited by Zhang Chi (associate professor in the History Department of Zhejiang University, China), Darnton visited Zhejiang University and gave three lectures. Our conversation began with a discussion of Darnton’s recollections of his academic career after nearly half a century of research of the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel.

Zhang Chi: You’ve been into the history of books ever since the 1970s. I suppose it was better to say that it selected you, than that you chose it. We all are familiar with that story: you got in touch with the library in Neuchâtel to get materials on Brissot, and then there were 50,000 letters. You dug into it the way a journalist would do with a murder case. As an American, why did you choose to study French history? What were things like in the field of the history of books when you first got in?

Robert Darnton: First, I would like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to address Chinese readers. During my recent visit to Zhejiang University I was greatly impressed not only by the hospitality I received but also by my hosts’ knowledge of Western history. I realized, too, how much I had to learn about the East. I hope this dialogue will contribute at least in a small way to communication between our two sides of the globe. I have grouped the questions together and omitted a few of them to make my answers more coherent.

As I get older, I have an increasing appreciation of contingency. An epidemic unexpectedly breaks out in a remote city, and the world economy collapses. Events like the American invasion of Iraq have disastrous, unintended consequences. Individuals change the course of history – for better (Nelson Mandela) or worse (Donald Trump). History was not supposed to happen that way, according to the Annales School. When I took a deep dive into Annales history in the early 1970s, I absorbed a view of history as long-term structural change uncovered by statistics – ‘histoire sérielle’, as François Furet called it. Furet introduced me to the historians working with him on Livre et société in 1972. Rather than concentrating on great books by famous writers, they used statistical analysis to detect century-long trends. The Enlightenment appeared implicitly as part of a shift away from religious and toward secular subjects across many decades and on a gigantic scale. A new discipline, histoire du livre, promised to reveal general patterns of culture – profound tendencies comparable to what the Annalistes had discovered in studying economic, demographic, and social history.

It was a compelling project, and I thought I had something to contribute to it, because I had been working in the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel since 1965. I had been doing histoire du livre without knowing it, before the term existed. My research fitted in with that of the Furet group, because it concerned the kind of literature excluded from their sources: illegal books, which I could count and map, showing their diffusion throughout France during the two decades before the Revolution. The history of books has changed enormously since the 1970s, and looking back at it, one factor in my own experience confirms my sense of contingency. I strayed into the archives of the STN by following up a footnote, not to study book history but rather to write a biography of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who published his works in Neuchâtel. When I abandoned the biography and took up the history of books, I chose a fork in the road, and soon there was no going back. Of course, other factors influenced my decision. It was not a matter of chance.

In answering your question, I want to suggest something that I think has shaped many historians’ careers: opportunities that arise unexpectedly, options taken or rejected, unforeseen consequences, and fortuna. It was good fortune to come of age in the United States during the 1950s, when scholarships were plentiful, and to begin a career in the 1960s, when jobs were easily available. In fact, I have been downright lucky. Unlike my father, who fought in World War I and was killed in World War II, I never had to join the army. As to why I as an American should have been interested in France, a question I am often asked, my answer is that France is interesting, inexhaustably interesting, not only in itself (the cafés, the vineyards, the cathedals) but for its relevance to general questions: How do ideas ‘take’ in a social order? What is public opinion? Why do revolutions occur? Those questions bring me to others that you ask.

Zhang Chi: In What is history?, Edward Carr thought it good for history and sociology to learn from each other. While you belonged to another generation, who were concerned with the conversation between history and anthropology. Many years ago, over 20 years if I remember what you said right, you conducted a joint seminar on history and anthropology together with Clifford Geertz at Princeton University. In addition you have prefaced The Interpretation of cultures. Would you like to talk about this seminar? Why would you think history should be in conversation with anthropology? And on the other hand, what would other disciplines, anthropology, for instance, learn from history?

Robert Darnton: Like many historians, I have found inspiration in anthropology, sociology, and other academic disciplines. Yet I would like to point out a misconception about interdisciplinarity. Speaking for myself, at least, I don’t believe in rummaging around in the social sciences in order to come up with tools. With the exceptions of economics and demography, I don’t think social-science methods can be used to engineer historical research. In place of methodological prescriptions, I would invoke two remarks by historians I admire. Marc Bloch said (I am speaking from memory and may get the words slightly wrong): ‘The historian is like the ogre of the fairy tale; where he smells man, he finds his prey.’ And my friend and colleague, the late Carl Schorske, used to say: ‘Man is a meaning-making animal.’

I think the need for meaning is as fundamental for humans as food and drink. By that I don’t mean to imply that ordinary people think like philosophers. As Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, they express ideas and feelings by combining concrete things in their thoughts. Some things in certain cultures are peculiarly good to think with (the French says it better: ‘choses bonnes à penser’). Anthropologists have come up with famous examples – Mary Douglas’s pangolin, Victor Turner’s milk tree, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s witchcraft-substance. The power of such thinkable things consists in the way they are woven into rituals and fit into general patterns of culture. Anthropology can help a historian understand cultural patterns, but it does not provide instruments that will unlock symbolic systems. There is nothing instrumental or mechanical about it. It is exegetic, interpretive, hermeneutical, but it is not arbitrary. Symbolic worlds really exist. In fact, they constitute reality. However, historians, like anthropologists, can get them wrong – and fail to get them adequately right, just as we do when we cannot make ourselves understood in a foreign language. In the seminar I taught with Clifford Geertz, we tried to help the students understand that the interpretation of culture requires rigor, evidence, and conceptual clarity. We had no tool kit to offer, but we were able to orient discussions around a basic problem: what made life meaningful for other people in other times and places.

I fear that I am sounding avuncular, a danger that increases with age. Perhaps it would be better if I gave an example of a sociological concept that I recently found helpful. In The Presentation of Self in everyday life, the sociologist Erving Goffman argues that interpersonal relations can be understood as a form of theatricality. We assume roles and act in conformity with implicit scripts. When I first read the book, I took away from it little more than the notion of role playing, a fairly obvious thought that Goffman works over with a great deal of wit. In rereading it, I understood a more challenging idea: when we assume the roles of audience and actors – for example, in placing an order with a waiter for a meal or in registering with an official to get a driver’s license – we define a situation; we accept a mutual understanding of what is going on. While reading reports of incidents in Paris during the so-called prerevolution of 1787-1788, I found a surprising tendency for contemporary observers to use theatrical metaphors. The Assembly of Notables, for example, was described as a ‘troupe de comédiens’. As I accumulated information, I realized the constant references to acting in roles was a way of construing events – what Goffman calls ‘defining the situation’ or determining ‘what is going on’. As the Parisians understood it, the fundamental situation in 1787-1788 was a struggle against despotism. Yet as historians have traditionally understood it, the prerevolution was an aristocratic revolt. The disparity between the contemporary and the historical views opened up a possibility of rethinking events and of seeing how they figured in the creation of a collective consciousness. That is the subject of the book I am now trying to write.

Zhang Chi: In studying the history of books, you focus on books themselves: how were they made, subscribed, and sold? But you didn’t seem to be concerned with the way people understood them, and the impact such understanding cast on their actions. Is that true? If so, your researches would be different from your friend Roger Chartier’s history of reading. We can know what people read, if there are necessary materials, but it’s hard to know what they think. I think that would be the problem with the history of reading. Would you have divergence with Charter on certain problems? How do you understand the history of reading?

Robert Darnton: I certainly agree that the history of books should include the history of reading, and I have attempted in a few essays to understand the way the French read books two and a half centuries ago. The problem I kept running into was the paucity of sources. Fortunately I found enough evidence to understand how readers responded to the works of Rousseau, but I did not come across documentation about the response to other authors. Of course, we can study marginalia, commonplace books, reviews, and a few other sources. But we do not have enough material to construct a rigorous history of reading – nothing like what we can demonstrate in studying the production and diffusion of books. We are reduced to aperçus. They can be important, suggesting, for example, that silent reading existed in antiquity and that conventions about the spacing of words and punctuation arose during the Middle Ages. I am persuaded by the insights of Roger Chartier and other historians, but I do not think they have produced a history of reading.

I have also followed Roger Chartier in taking inspiration from the works of Michel de Certeau and Richard Hoggarth. They emphasize the active role of readers in construing texts – even to the extent of finding meanings that were not intended by the authors. In this view, readers exert independent power, and readings vary accordingly. However, that raises a problem: if readers behave as poachers, acccording to de Certeau’s famous remark, the poaching, taken as a whole, could look like anarchy, endlessly varied individual experiences, and it would be impossible to perceive general tendencies. One way out of this dilemma could be to fall back on the notion of ‘interpretive communities’ developed by literary theorists such as Stanley Fish. That can be helpful, but how can those communities be detected and described? Where is the evidence of their activities? Like many literary scholars, I have become wary of theory as a way to understand the history of literature.

Despite these difficulties, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the impact of a few important books such as Uncle Tom’s cabin and The Sorrows of young Werther. Rousseau’s works had a profound effect on the reading public in France, even after 1789 when they appealed to émigrés as well as revolutionaries. The Wertherfieber certainly deserves a place in the social history of Germany. In casting about for ways of coping with the difficulties, I have recently been impressed by the insights of the sociologist Gustave Tarde and the historian Benedict Anderson. They relate reading to the formation of collective consciousness. Although, as they acknowledge, individuals read books in different ways, readers as a whole share a sense of participation in the same general activity. Anderson goes so far as to interpret this collective experience as a decisive factor in the development of nationalism in colonial societies. I think that the reading public under the Ancien Régime, varied as it was, developed a general awareness of participating in literary culture. The eighteenth century was a time when writers were celebrated as public personages, when the ‘sacre de l’écrivain’ took hold, and when the intellectual as a social type first emerged. That, too, is the subject of a book I hope to write.

Couronnement de Voltaire sur le Théâtre Français, le 30 mars 1778 (engraving by Charles-Etienne Gaucherl Wikimedia Commons).

Zhang Chi: Compared with the history of books you were concerned with, what kind of breakthrough would the history of communication bring into the understanding and interpretation of history?

Robert Darnton: The connection between reading and collective consciousness has implications for the attempt to understand the relation of the Enlightenment to the Revolution. I think it is clear, for example, that Voltaire mobilized public indignation about abuses in the Church and the judiciary during the Calas Affair. He did not simply ridicule religious orthodoxy as he had done in his early career; he damaged the authority of priests and parlementary magistrates by occupying a higher moral ground. It was the shifting, not just the sapping of moral authority that made the Enlightenment a force. Empowered by that realignment and driven by that ethical energy, the revolutionaries set out to create a new world.

Utopian fervor can spread through the social order like wildfire. Historians have shown how it drove millenarian movements, especially during the Reformation, and I think that something similar took place in the French Revolution. The common people in the Sections of Paris were seized by the energy and vision of radicals who had absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment during difficult careers in the lower ranks of literature and the law. Pierre Manuel, as I have tried to show in The Devil in the Holy Water, typifies Sectional radicals of this kind. Thanks to the power of the press, men of the same stripe – Brissot, Carra, Marat, Danton, Desmoulins – rose to power at the national level. When I first developed this argument, which identified radicalism with the milieu known as Grub Street, I over-stated the case. But I did not mean to reduce revolutionary energy to the frustrations of hack writers. Instead, I intended to demonstrate the importance of obscure intermediaries in the process of ideological mobilization.

A poster of 1793 displaying the Phrygian bonnet.

Non-print media were crucial to this process. Few sans-culottes read books, even if they were literate. They listened to speeches, sang songs, marched in processions, and ate off plates decorated with Phrygian bonnets and crowing roosters. Newspapers and pamphlets belonged to a general stream of sounds and images that swept through Paris. The same was true before 1789. In Poetry and the police I tried to reconstruct the course of that stream in the context of the political crisis of 1749-1750, a time when the Maurepas ministry was overthrown and when contemporaries attributed its downfall to ‘songs’. That observation was a short-hand way of describing the mixed messages that passed through all the media of the time and that actually shaped events. Chamfort made the point with a witticism: ‘France is an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.’ So, yes indeed, I do believe that the history of books should be situated within the study of other media and of communication in general.

Zhang Chi: In The Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment (2014) French scholar Antoine Lilti asked: ‘Is it possible to write a social history of the Enlightenment? What connections should be drawn between the works, ideas and authors that brought great changes to the intellectual and political landscape in France during the long eighteenth century – commonly called the Enlightenment – and the social changes that occurred during this period?’ What would be your answer to this question? Half a century has passed since you first published The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in Pre-revolutionary France. In your opinion, what kind of progress have we made in understanding Enlightenment as a social phenomenon generally? Digitization changed a lot about historical researches. What do you think about its implication?

Robert Darnton: I think Antoine Lilti has partly answered his question by his own work on the salons and the nature of celebrity. Both of his books successfully relate the Enlightenment to social life in Paris during the eighteenth century. Yet they do not constitute a social history of the Enlightenment, a large enterprise that would require broader research. One problem, of course, is how to conceive of the Enlightenment itself. I am not a great believer in definitions, because they tend to reify a subject – that is, to treat it as a thing-in-itself, which, once identified, can be traced through history as if it were a radioactive substance in the blood stream. Antoine Lilti is conscious of this danger and therefore emphasizes the games and worldly amusements of the salons along with the performances in them by the philosophes. He puts Rousseau’s influence into a social context by showing how it was carried on the wave of a new phenomenon, the fascination with celebrities, which included a few philosophes but usually featured non-intellectuals like Cagliostro and the cardinal de Rohan. The more we know about the social context of the Enlightenment, the better we can appreciate it as a historical phenomenon. By situating the Enlightenment socially, however, we may raise the danger of blunting the sharpness of the philosophes’ ideas, of underestimating their cutting edge.

That problem did not seem urgent to the generation that set the course of Enlightenment studies immediately after World War II. Although I myself did not intend to become a historian of the Enlightenment, I got to know the leading scholars of that generation thanks to my tutor at Oxford, Robert Shackleton, the expert on Montesquieu. He introduced me to Franco Venturi, the historian of intellectuals and the reform movement in Italy. Later I became a close friend of Roland Mortier and met other specialists like René Pomeau, Ralph Leigh, and Ira Wade. They did not find the Enlightenment problematic, although they disagreed in describing aspects of it. Its leaders could be identified, its ideas analyzed. It was a field of study, with its own reviews, organizations, and congresses. Above all, as they understood it, it challenged orthodox ideas. It took the Church as its principal target, and it fomented reform of all kinds, social and political. This militant Enlightenment suited a generation that had fought fascism in World War II and opposed totalitarianism during the Cold War.

The current generation has other concerns. Without presuming to characterize it as a whole, I would mention two factors that have shaped its scholarship: globalization and digitization. The attempt to see everything globally can appear as a fad, yet it is an appropriate response to the interconnectedness of the world today. The International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was devoted primarily to the famous philosophes (above all Voltaire) at the time of its founding by Theodore Besterman, now includes 37 national societies, which cover most of the globe. Their members want to investigate Enlightenment thought as it affected people in Rio de Janeiro, Tunis, and (yes!) Beijing – and they want to know how those people developed ideas of their own. One line of inquiry that corresponds to the interests of this generation deals directly with connectedness. Enlightenment scholars have studied correspondence networks, showing how intellectuals communicated through the mail and how their exchanges created a common sense of participation in an international Republic of Letters. The correspondence of Samuel Formey, the secretary of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, is astonishing. He wrote and received dozens of letters every day from nearly every part of the Western world.

That brings me to the second subject, digitization. If Formey’s correspondence were digitized, it would be a map of the Republic of Letters. (There have been attempts to do so, but I think they have foundered.) We now have nearly complete editions of the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson, and they have been digitized. Taken together, they already constitute such a map; and they have been combined with digital versions of many other writers in a gigantic data base, the Electronic Enlightenment administered from Oxford. The digitization of texts such as ARTFL’s version of Diderot’s Encyclopédie raises endless possibilities for word-searching, context-scrutinizing, and discourse analysis. I won’t mention other examples of big data, which, I gather, are familiar in China. But I would like to conclude by suggesting one direction that might be taken by future scholarship.

The Enlightenment can be understood as a campaign to spread light. Most of its ideas had been developed before the eighteenth century. What gave the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ its peculiar character was the diffusion of ideas, followed up by engagement in putting them into practice. Leaders like Voltaire, Franklin, and Formey consciously manipulated the media of their day. Their strategies could be studied and compared so that we could see them at work, enlisting allies, attacking enemies, empowering reforms, and transforming public opinion. Research of this kind is already taking place and could lead to something like a social history of the Enlightenment. If I were to choose one example of a book that shows the way, I would cite Forging Rousseau: print, commerce and cultural manipulation in the late Enlightenment by the late and much regretted Raymond Birn. It gives a deeply researched and superbly written account of how Rousseau became embedded in the collective imagination of the French.

From a letter by Voltaire to d’Alembert, 28 September 1763 (D11433; Gallica images).

Although I haven’t come close to answering all your questions, I had better stop here at the point where globalization and digitization converge. It should be clear at this point that scholarship cannot be contained within national, disciplinary, or political boundaries. I am sending my replies to you from a place of confinement at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and at a moment when the destructive forces of nationalism and bigotry seem more threatening than ever. Yet we still hear the call of Voltaire: Ecrasons l’infâme.

Another version of this interview has been published in Historiography Bimonthly (2021, No. 1). Thanks for the authorization from its editors. Especially thanks to Jiao Bing, editor from Historical Research.

The best books on Catherine the Great

She was born in 1729 as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, but by 1762 had become Empress of All Russia and went on to rule for 34 years as Catherine II. She regarded herself as an enlightened despot who embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and consorted with the French philosophes. Russian historian Andrei Zorin introduces the remarkably industrious and able politician who is remembered as Catherine the Great.

Before we get to the books, could you briefly tell us who Catherine the Great was? She was born a German princess, I believe. How did she become Empress of Russia and what is her claim to ‘greatness’?
Andrei Zorin, Leo Tolstoy (Chicago, 2020).

Yes. Catherine was a German princess. Germany, which had more than 20 different states, was a pool of eligible princes and princesses for royal marriages. Catherine’s was a very small and poor principality, Anhalt-Zerbst, devoid of any political importance. A royal marriage to the Russian heir to the throne was a very great opportunity for her. Maybe she was chosen for that very reason. Anhalt-Zerbst couldn’t play any political role, but the Prussian king, Frederick II, who was a patron of the principality, also approved of the match because he believed it was his chance to gain some influence in Russia. This was a miscalculation because Catherine was the last person to be influenced by anyone.

Catherine was incredibly well educated for a girl of that age. As a teenager she was reading philosophical literature. When she came to Russia, she was absolutely dazzled by the splendour of the court, under the Empress Elizabeth. It was a luxurious court and a contrast to the very Protestant, Lutheran, poor, German principality she had come from.

She arrived in Russia aged 15, into this entirely alien atmosphere. She converted to the Orthodox faith, as was appropriate, although she never became a real believer, mostly seeing Orthodoxy as a part of Russian traditions. She mastered the language, although she made mistakes in it and spoke with a German accent till the end of her life. Still, her Russian was good enough for her to write fiction, plays, fairy tales and letters. Of course, her main language was not even German but the more aristocratic French.

After Elizabeth’s death, her nephew – Catherine’s husband Peter III – ascended the throne. Catherine later claimed that their marriage was never consummated and her son and the heir to the throne, Duke Paul, was the son of Count Sergei Saltykov, her first lover. She wrote that this affair was arranged by the Empress Elizabeth because the empire needed an heir. We’ll never know whether that was true. Some scholars see likenesses in the images of her husband and her son. But, anyway, relations between the couple were strained and Catherine was afraid of being put into a monastery, which was the fate of several Russian divorced royal spouses. She had studied Russian history very carefully.

Quite apart from this threat, she was incredibly ambitious and realised that her moment was coming. Her husband was never popular in Russia. He was also a German prince but, unlike his wife, displayed utter disgust for Russian customs. For example, Russian Orthodox services are notoriously long, and Peter publicly expressed his boredom and left quickly. Catherine, in contrast, took care to attend them, praying for hours and hours.

Even more importantly, Peter quarrelled with the guard. The guard officers assisted Catherine to seize the throne in a staged coup d’état. In her manifesto there is a wonderfully Orwellian sentence, that she became the empress ‘by the will of all the estates and especially that of the guard’. Everyone is equal but… We don’t know about all the estates, but the guard definitely wanted to have her on the throne. It’s absolutely clear that she was a usurper.

Her husband was assassinated ten days later. We’ll never know whether it was by Catherine’s direct order, tacit agreement, or whether the assassins second-guessed her wishes. No one was punished for the assassination. Catherine was not a bloodthirsty tyrant. Actually, she was averse to excessive bloodshed but, at the same time, she was ruthless when she believed she needed to take somebody out of her way.

‘Her reign is considered the Golden Age’

She came to the throne in a very bad, very precarious situation. She was a German princess, there were rebels, her husband had just been assassinated and there were other pretenders to the throne, who had better rights to it than she did. A significant section of her supporters believed she should be a regent until her son reached maturity. She had other ideas and managed to run the country for 34 years until her death in 1796.

In the 18th century territorial expansion was seen as the greatest proof of a country’s glory. She was glorified for expanding Russia’s borders enormously, mostly to the south and west. Her reign was also a period of cultural blossoming in Russia. It witnessed the huge growth in literacy, the development of the press, theatre and literature. Some scholars claim that it was also a period of significant economic growth although others say that the economic development of Russia during this period was not so successful. It’s still an open question. She did manage to facilitate both external and internal trade and to introduce important reforms. Her system of provincial government exists to the present day. She put in place the foundations of the Russian secondary educational system, which was one of her major successes. She established the rights of different estates – nobles and city dwellers – in her charters.

Where she failed completely was on the peasant question, the serf issue. As a follower of the philosophes she believed serfdom was horrible and akin to slavery. It was contrary to her beliefs but she never tried to mitigate it, let alone abolish it. She had several plans to deal with it, but nothing came of them and the situation of peasants in her reign worsened rather than improved. There was an ongoing civil war between the peasants and their masters. During the 1770s there was a huge peasant rebellion, which nearly threatened the existence of the Russian Empire. It took an enormous effort to put it down. Serfdom was the time bomb beneath the building of the Empire. She left it to her successors, and it was not dealt with until the 1860s.

But for the educated Russian nobility her reign is considered the Golden Age, the age of glory. Also it was seen as a time of peace between the throne and educated society. The first cracks in that coalition appeared in the 1790s, in the very last years of her reign. This division between the despotic monarch and educated society actually started to widen in the 19th century. Catherine’s reign saw very close cooperation between the educated part of the nobility, who saw enormous opportunities in her reign, and the throne, which needed the support of educated people to succeed.

Your first book is by Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. Tell us about it.
Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (London, New Haven, 1981; London, 2002).

The choice of five books is always contentious. Whoever you might ask would give you a different list. However, if you reduced the number of necessary books on Catherine the Great and her reign to just one, I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree. Any expert would say that the most important book written on this topic in any language, not excluding Russian, was the one written by Isabel de Madariaga. She is the founding mother of contemporary Catherine the Great scholarship. It is the only book on my list that is 40 years old. The others, Catherine’s letters aside, were written in the 21st century.

And does the book cover all of those areas of Catherine the Great’s life and times that you spoke about?

Yes, absolutely. The book is called Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great and it is a comprehensive history. It’s a huge book and de Madariaga worked on it for decades. She published it in her 60s and it was her first book. It was the result of an enormous amount of work and a paradigm-shifting book, completely changing the understanding of Catherine the Great and her reign. Before that, Catherine was mostly viewed through her sexual exploits and considered mostly interesting because of her lovers. She was criticised for hypocrisy – she corresponded with the philosophes, but at the same time maintained despotic rule and preserved serfdom. She was much denigrated.

There are two usual explanations why Catherine never tried to address the peasant question. One was that she was hypocritical and never wanted to. The other was that she was afraid of the nobles and didn’t want to undermine their interests, because they constituted her main support. De Madariaga challenged both assumptions and produced her own, much more convincing explanation which, from my point of view, actually solves the paradox.

‘It’s absolutely clear that she was a usurper’

She pointed to the weakness of the Russian state and bureaucratic apparatus. The book makes clear that state machinery was totally lacking when Catherine the Great came to the throne and she had to try and build it. She was not able to contemplate the creation of millions of new subjects that needed to be taxed, recruited to the army and brought to law and had to outsource it to land and serf owners. From her reign until the abolition of serfdom in the 1860s, all Russian emperors, excluding Paul I who reigned just for a few years, hated serfdom and believed that it constituted an abominable evil of the Russian social system. They were absolute rulers, but none of them actually dared to do anything about it because they knew there was nothing they could rely on. The state was virtually non-existent and too weak to deal with this enormous mass of subjects. That was de Madariaga’s basic answer, which solved one of the very important mysteries of Russian history.

She was a daughter of the Spanish ambassador of Republican Spain to England and she worked in the BBC foreign service. Her PhD was on Russian diplomacy at the time of Catherine the Great, and I think her analysis of Catherine’s foreign policy is an absolute masterpiece, too.

For the reader who is reluctant to read this nearly 1000 page book there is a shortened version, Catherine the Great: a short history. But I don’t think that, in the foreseeable future, this book’s pre-eminence is going to change because, if you study the period, there is no way around this very fundamental achievement.

Your next book is Simon Dixon’s Catherine the Great. Is this one more of a straightforward biography of Catherine the Great?
Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London, 2001, 2nd ed. 2009).

It’s not so much a biography. Simon Dixon is a professor at University College London and one of the generation of Russian 18th-century scholars who have developed their vision based on de Madariaga’s work. Unlike Madariaga’s book, it is a short history, written mostly for undergraduate students. It’s less than 200 pages long in the first edition. But it constitutes an astute analysis of different aspects of her reign. What Dixon’s book achieves is to bring together Catherine the Great’s policy and her personality. It’s a highly challenging question – when you analyse an absolute ruler where does the person end and the state begin? What is personal and what is political? You can’t fully explain everything by the personal features of the ruler as that would be too simplistic but, at the same time, you can’t avoid them.

Many scholars now think there are only factors, not actors. That approach doesn’t promise an exciting narrative, but what’s worse, may not help us to understand history. Simon Dixon manages both factors and actors very well, in a short, readable, clearly written book. He looks at Catherine’s attitude to absolutism, her conviction that Russia, being as big as it is, could only be ruled by an absolute ruler and, at the same time, explains the influence of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the laws (L’Esprit des lois) on her political instincts. Some aristocratic thinkers, being fans of Montesquieu, believed that the nobility should, as a corporate body, participate in the running of the government and the country, but Catherine with all her admiration for the French thinker did not buy it. She did want the nobles to enjoy their corporate rights, but was not ready to share her power and responsibility with them.

Dixon succeeds wonderfully in a very short space, in bringing together her vision, her personal impact, her policy, the actual problems she faced during her reign and how she addressed them. It’s a very skilful book, weaving all this together.

Let’s move on to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book, Catherine the Great and Potemkin. Potemkin was one of one of Catherine’s generals and statesmen, wasn’t he, but also her great love affair?
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great and Potemkin: the imperial love affair (London, 2007).

Yes, he was. Potemkin is arguably the most famous of Russia’s pre-revolutionary statesmen, apart from the rulers. He also enjoys the honour, or notoriety, of having become part of the language because a lot of people have heard about so-called ‘Potemkin villages’. These were imagined settlements along Catherine’s road to Crimea, serving as predecessors to today’s fakes. In fact these villages never existed. They were invented by French diplomats who aspired to draw Turkey into a war with the Russian Empire. They wanted to convince everyone that there was nothing built in the south of Russia except Potemkin villages – to give an incentive for the Turks to start hostilities. The Ottoman Empire paid a huge price for believing that.

Of course, Potemkin produced many performances during Catherine’s famous trip to the south, to show what he had already achieved and planned to achieve there. Such practices were widespread in court life. If we study the court of Louis XIV, who was a model ruler for Catherine, we can see how important all these staged performances were. In a way Potemkin represented his vision. If there were dressed-up peasants, he didn’t plan to deceive the audience, which knew very well that these were theatrical decorations. It was very, very expensive for the Treasury. He spent a lot of money on these performances. But Catherine was shrewd and knew him very well. She easily forgave him excessive expenses, but would never allow him to deceive her.

This book tells us the true story about that. It is a wonderful biography of both lovers. It dwells on the question of their secret marriage, which might have taken place – we’ll never know. Montefiore seems to be all but certain that they were secretly married. Simon Dixon is nearly certain. I’m slightly less certain but it is highly probable, at the very least, that it was the case. And it was an incredible love. Catherine had a lot of lovers throughout her life and Montefiore is specific about her relations with each of them. But very seldom did she allow them to play a serious political or administrative role in the running of the country.

‘She changed her lovers, but she was not promiscuous’

Montefiore discusses the gender bias around the stories of all her lovers. Nobody ever sees it as something to wonder at when male rulers exchange their lovers for new, younger ones. But when it happens to a female ruler it is seen as an act of terrible immorality and deviation. Catherine had about a dozen lovers – maybe there were a couple more – but they followed one after another. She changed her lovers, but she was not promiscuous – at least by modern standards. All of her affairs were conceptualised as love. She was very much under the spell of sentimental literature. Potemkin was the greatest and the strongest of those loves. And Montefiore has worked in the archives, unearthing their exciting correspondence. He gives a vivid portrait of a strange, eccentric man who lived like a sultan but was, at the same time, fervently religious, who contemplated becoming a monk and was an administrative genius. Potemkin’s managerial and administrative skills, arguably, have been unmatched in Russian history.

Montefiore quotes a couple of ambassadors to Russia who had personally met Napoleon and George Washington. Both of them said that Potemkin was the most impressive personality that they’d ever seen. The book confirms that perception. It tells the story of this incredible personality and his incredible love, which continued after Catherine and Potemkin ceased to be lovers and lasted until Potemkin’s death in 1791 – five years before Catherine, although he was ten years her junior. They both had other partners, but their intimacy realised itself in their political cooperation. Potemkin had a great plan of resurrecting Greece and reconquering Constantinople – the notorious ‘Greek Project’. A lot of scholars believed before that it was just a sham. But Montefiore shows that it was a real plan to reorient Russia from the Baltics to the southern borders. For all this, I think it is an exciting book about one of the most important people of 18th century Russia.

Your fourth book is Catherine the Great’s Selected Letters
Catherine the Great: selected letters, tr. Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev (Oxford, 2018).

This book is not a scholarly monograph, but a scholarly edition of Catherine the Great’s letters. I think it is worth having a book on the list that gives voice to the Empress herself. Letters, of course, played an enormous role in 18th-century culture and life. Not only did they serve as a main vehicle of communication, but they created information networks, were tools for running policy, and so on.

Catherine was a prolific letter writer. She wrote tens of thousands of letters to 400 correspondents and to nearly half of them she wrote in her own hand. She was a workaholic. As well as the huge number of letters that she wrote, she wrote plays, she wrote articles, she wrote fairy tales for children, for the education of her sons. You wonder when she had time to rule the country. She was the first Russian monarch ever to have a regular day schedule.

This book is not very big, but it gives a glimpse of her networking, of her correspondence with Voltaire and the Baron von Grimm, whom she was keen on making agents of her influence in Europe. She wanted to charm European thinkers. If you read her correspondence with Voltaire, you can immediately see that Voltaire wrongly believes he is playing the leading role and educating this young woman. He saw Russia as a tabula rasa where he could put into practice his ideal of becoming an adviser to the enlightened ruler.

Catherine mainly didn’t follow his advice, not because she was hypocritical, but because she knew she understood her job better than he did. She was very keen on maintaining good relations with the most popular thinker of the age, listened to his opinions and wanted to produce a good impression on him, but she never allowed herself to be guided too much by anyone.

I was going to ask you about Voltaire. Was the story with Diderot the same?

Yes, mostly. We know slightly less about her relations with Diderot because he personally came to St Petersburg, they communicated face-to-face and there are not many letters left. When Diderot arrived, Russia was on the verge of destruction. There was a huge peasant rebellion and a war at the time of his visit, but Catherine found time for daily conversations with him. She was very attentive to, and interested in, what Diderot had to say, but never allowed him to influence her decisions. Diderot was irritated because he believed he had come to St Petersburg to become the counsellor to the ruler.

I think the worst legacy of the French philosophes was that they strongly developed the idea that the role of intellectuals is to give advice to, and to guide, rulers. This delusion never worked well either for the intellectuals or for the rulers. Clearly Catherine understood this but, at the same time, she did believe that she as a monarch, and Russia as a whole, could benefit from their thoughts. She supported them, she bought their libraries. Needless to say, Voltaire and Diderot were not fools who could just be messed around. They perceived real interest on her part, but aspired for real political influence that she never granted to them.

Let’s move on to the last book, Douglas Smith’s Working the rough stone: Freemasonry and society in eighteenth-century Russia. What does this book tell us about Catherine the Great and her age?
Douglas Smith, Working the rough stone: Freemasonry and society in eighteenth-century Russia (DeKalb, Ill., 1999).

This stands a little bit apart from my other choices. The book is the history of Russian Freemasonry in the 18th century, primarily in Catherine the Great’s reign. Freemasonry started to develop in Russia in Petrine times, but it blossomed under Catherine. It was the start of Russia’s public sphere, of a Russian society independent from the throne, at least in some ways. Douglas Smith offers a perceptive analysis of the ways in which the public sphere can function in an unfree and undemocratic country, which doesn’t have open modes of political debate. For Russia, the Masonic lodges provided a sort of alternative network across social boundaries. Smith shows this role of Masonry. He also – I think accurately – discusses the paradox of Masonic secrecy. Masonic meetings were secret and you were supposed to keep silent about what took place. But, at the same time, Freemasons didn’t want their members to conceal the fact that they were Freemasons. They only had to conceal what actually happened at meetings, which worked well to provoke both excitement and animosity.

‘Her system of provincial government exists to the present day’

At first, Catherine was rather condescending. Being a rationalist and a sceptic, she was indifferent to Freemasonic pursuits. She believed she could use them as she needed educated people. But the more mystical they became, and the closer it got to the French Revolution, the more nervous she grew. For a while in the 1780s she even believed that Freemasons wanted to assassinate her. In the last period of her reign, she started to write comedies and pamphlets against them. Her European correspondents lauded her for using comedies and not repression against her opponents. But in the 1790s she actually started limited repressions against one of the groups of Freemasons. One of the leaders was arrested, several were sent to their villages.

But it was some sort of start of an opposition in the country, albeit based on moral grounds and not on political ideology. Smith shows this emergence of public opinion, independent of the throne. I started by saying that for most of Catherine’s reign politics was consensual. But I think this book shows how the cracks between the policy of the throne and the educated part of society started to appear.

– Andrei Zorin

This text was first published in Five Books.

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

A preface on Voltaire and Islam by Malise Ruthven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahomet (Bruxelles, 1742).

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

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

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

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

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

Zaïre (Paris, 1733).

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

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

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

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

Malise Ruthven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre Hadot, Voltaire, and the figure of the philosophe

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Matthew Sharpe

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

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

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

What is a miscellany?

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

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

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

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

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

Putting authors in the spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding what people read

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

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

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

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

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

–  Carly Watson

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