Voltaire: a life in letters

Commentaire historique

Title page of the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

In the late summer of 1776 there appeared an anonymous Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. On the face of it, this biography of the 82-year-old Voltaire was written by a ‘man of letters’, not in his first youth either, with access to the great man and to the ‘chaos of his papers’. The work is indeed heavily reliant on Voltaire’s correspondence, both in the opening narrative and in the collection of letters that follows, but early readers were in no doubt that Voltaire had played an active part in its composition. As the reviewer of the Mémoires secrets put it in September 1776: ‘It is a third party who is supposed to be speaking; but from the style and favourable manner in which all the facts are presented, and from a multitude of secret and specific details besides, there can be no doubt that he supplied the materials and put in the colour’.

Letter from Commentaire historique

Manuscript of Voltaire’s letter to Dmitriy Alekseevich Golitsyn of 19 June 1773 in the hand of Durey de Morsan, corrected by Voltaire. With kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium: Collection Launoit MS 315.

Not unusually, Voltaire denied being the author, arguing that he could not possibly have written something so self-indulgent. Word was that a certain Durey de Morsan had penned it, with Voltaire supplying the ‘anecdotes’ and the ‘style’ (according to Moultou writing to Meister on 4 November 1776). Durey de Morsan was perpetually in debt and lived at Ferney on and off between 1769 and 1774. He was certainly involved to some degree, but this may have been limited to copying letters (there are several in his hand) and signing a chit dated 1 May 1776 stating that he had seen the original documents and handed them over to Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. (On Wagnière’s own later claims to be the author, see the ‘Révisions posthumes’ in volume 78B.)

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of Commentaire historique

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of the book sent to Catherine the Great after Voltaire’s death. With kind permission from the National Library of Russia: Bibliothèque de Voltaire 11-227.

The Commentaire historique continued to grow and change even after Durey de Morsan had returned the documents he had seen. Voltaire’s letter on the Ganganelli forgeries is dated 2 May, and the one to Faugères on the superiority of all things seventeenth-century seems to have been written the following day. No doubt some rewriting was necessary when Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, fell from grace on 12 May. He still features in the Commentaire historique – not least in the poem Sésostris, addressed to the king in happier times and given particular prominence as the final item in the volume – but never by name.

Commentaire historique, declaration by Durey de Morsan

The Declarations by Durey de Morsan and Christin in the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

On 1 June, it was the lawyer Christin who signed a statement vouching that the documents had been copied accurately (in fact the letters were sometimes ‘improved’ for publication). And still the Commentaire historique kept growing. Voltaire’s letter to Spallanzani on slugs, tardigrades, and the nature of the soul is dated 6 June, and his letter ‘Sur le fameux cocher Gilbert’ must be later than the 24th, when he discovered that Gilbert, a witness against his protégé Morangiès, was apparently a pickpocket and a counterfeiter. In early July the disgraced lawyer Simon Linguet, who had helped to defend La Barre in 1766 and Morangiès in 1772, visited Ferney. Although his name is reduced to an initial, he can be associated with a disproportionate number of the letters included, raising interesting questions about the selection criteria.

This edition of the Commentaire historique, with all its letters included and annotated for the first time, finally allows us to properly consider the text as a whole. I hope it might also help to demonstrate the usefulness of further work on the rest of Voltaire’s vast correspondence.

The Commentaire historique is publishing in two volumes in September 2018. Volume 78B contains the introduction and a dossier on the text’s posthumous fate, and volume 78C contains the full text, including the ‘lettres véritables’ normally stripped from it, and annotation.

– Alice Breathe



Voltaire on death

The following post is reblogged from Oxford University Press. The author, Alyssa Russell, is a marketing manager at OUP on the Global Online Products and Academic/Trade teams.

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher, wrote over 20,000 letters during his lifetime. One can read through his letters to learn more about his views on democracy and religion, as well as the soul and afterlife. The following excerpts from his letters show how his thoughts and ideas about death and the soul evolved over time.

Death, by Aufray de Roc'Bhian

‘Death’, by Alphonse Édouard Enguérand Aufray de Roc’Bhian. (Public domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Voltaire first brushed with death in December 1723. At the young age of 29 he contracted smallpox. In a letter written to Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron de Preuilly in December 1723, Voltaire reflects on the previous days and his few regrets:

“[I] made my confession; and my will, which, as you will readily believe, was exceedingly short. After that, I calmly awaited death: only regretting that I had not put the finishing touches to my poem and to Mariamne, and that I must part from my friends so soon.”

He recovered from this bout of smallpox, but, as was indicative of the time, was quite incorrect about the nature of the disease, stating in the same letter:

“Smallpox is, in a simple form, merely the blood ridding itself of its impurities, and positively paves the way to more vigorous health.”

In 1726, Voltaire’s sister Catherine Arouet died. Quite shaken, he muses on death in his letter to Nicolas Claude Thieriot:

“Life is but a dream full of starts of folly, and of fancied, and true miseries. Death awakes us from this painful dream, and gives us, either a better existence or no existence at all.”

Almost 10 years later, in 1735, Voltaire muses on what the soul is in a letter to René Joseph Tournemine. The letter marks an important point in his intellectual development:

“[M]atter itself does not perish. Its extent, its impenetrability, its need to be delimited and to be located in space, all that and a thousand other things remain after our death. Why should not what you call soul also remain? It is certain that I know what I call matter only by some of its properties, and those very imperfectly. How then can I assert that omnipotent God has not been able to give it the faculty of thought?”

He later admits:

“I am very far from believing that I can assert thought to be matter. I am equally far from being able to assert that I have the slightest idea of the nature of what is called soul.”

Jumping ahead to August, 1769, Voltaire has been ill and is contemplating his own death, in this letter to Gottlob Louis von Schönberg, Reichsgraf von Schönberg:

“Yes, sir, it is true that I have been very ill. But that is the common lot of old age, especially when one has always had a feeble constitution: and these little warnings are the stroke of the clock to tell us that soon we shall have passed beyond time.”

He next introduces an interesting perspective of death: that animals benefit from not knowing it is coming:

“Animals have a great advantage over human beings: they never hear the clock strike, however intelligent they may be: they die without having any notion of death: they have no theologians to instruct them on the Four Ends of animals: their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and often objectionable ceremonies: it costs them nothing to be buried: no one goes to law over their wills: but in one respect we are greatly their superior — they only know the ties of habit, and we know friendship.”

Thirty-five years after previously writing down his thoughts about the eternal soul, Voltaire muses how it’s not known whether or not the soul lives on, in his letter to Frederick William, Prince of Prussia, November 1770:

“It is very true that we do not know any too well what the soul is: no one has ever seen it. All that we do know is that the eternal Lord of nature has given us the power of thinking, and of distinguishing virtue. It is not proved that this faculty survives our death: but the contrary is not proved either. It is possible, doubtless, that God has given thought to a particle to which, after we are no more, He will still give the power of thought: there is no inconsistency in this idea.“

Even if we do not know whether the soul lives on, Voltaire pragmatically advises that it is the best course of action to always do right:

“In the midst of all the doubts which we have discussed for four thousand years in four thousand ways, the safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have nothing to fear from death.”

On May 26, 1778, Voltaire wrote his last letter. Death is clearly on his mind; the letter, written to Trophime Gérard de Lally-Tolendal, chevalier de Lally-Tolendal, is comprised of only one sentence:

“The dying man returns to life on hearing this great news: he tenderly embraces M. de Lally: he sees that the King is the defender of justice: and he dies content.”

Voltaire died four days later at the age of 83.

– Alyssa Russell

Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.


New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.


TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.


New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.


New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’


Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

Launching and celebrating the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini

Round table and Italian launch

Sala Azurra of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Piazza dei Cavalieri. From left to right: Professor Vincenzo Ferrone (University of Turin), Professor Andrea Giardina (SNS) in the chair, and Professor Marcello Verga (University of Florence).

The Italian launch of the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini, edited by myself and Mireille Gille, took the form of a one-day round table on 12 April in the beautiful Sala Azzura of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. The late Renaissance surroundings of Vasari’s building in the Piazza dei Cavalieri lent themselves perfectly to the evocation of two aristocatic eighteenth-century scholars whose wide-ranging culture was in itself a continuation of that very spirit of the Renaissance.

The incontro was organized by Professor Andrea Giardina, who holds the chair of Roman History and is Director of the Laboratory of History, Archaeology, Epigraphy and Tradition of Antiquity. He is also the current President of the International Committee of Historical Sciences. After paying a handsome tribute to us for our work, he invited Professor Vincenzo Ferrone of the University of Turin, and Professor Marcello Verga of the University of Florence and also director of the Istituto di Storia dell’Europa Mediterranea du Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Rome, to open the discussion.

Professor Vincenzo Ferrone dwelled largely on the influence of Newton on Antonio Niccolini’s thinking, and he suggested that the abate may have been a freemason. He regretted the absence of references to the publication of the Encyclopédie in his correspondence with De Brosses. Professor Marcello Verga then picked up the references in the correspondence to Niccolini’s belief that his beloved Tuscany was in decline, an idea that also lay at the heart of the debates of Muratori and Tiraboschi. Moreover, if Niccolini said little about the politics of Tuscany, his views of European events are shown to have been particularly striking. Niccolini’s admiration for Montesquieu, whom he saw as serious critic of despotism, led Professor Verga to speak of the political role of the Florentine academies, such as the Crusca, where the scholarship of the elite also served to rein back despotism. He drew attention to Niccolini’s final belief that the Church was, indeed, the strongest bulwark against despotism.

Villa at Camugliano (from left to right): Marchese Lorenzo Niccolini, Dr Mireille Gille, and Professor John Rogister, taken the day before, 11 April.

In response to these stimulating points of discussion, Mireille Gille began by stressing the fortunate circumstances that had made possible the publication of both sides of the correspondence, while lamenting the loss of several letters which deprived us of any knowledge of Niccolini’s reaction to the news given to him by De Brosses of the publication of the Encyclopédie. She also described the rules adopted in the presentation of the texts that had enabled the correspondence to fully reflect the grammatical and spelling quirks of the two writers, one of whom was not writing in his native language.

I then took up some of the points raised by the speakers. I questioned whether Niccolini was a freemason, saying that there was no formal evidence for the claim and that what got him into trouble was his initial hostility to the exclusion of the natural heir of the Medicis from the succession to the grand-ducal throne by the major European powers. Indeed I emphasised Niccolini’s ‘soft’ Jansenism, an approach similar to that of his friend Benedict XIV, and his secret role as a diplomat. Although an admirer of Newton, Niccolini sided with the view that ‘cento Newton non farebbero un Montesquieu’. After questions from a large audience of scholars, Professor Giardina thanked the participants and concluded the session by inviting those present to a reception.

A congenial lunch hosted by Professor Giardina for the participants later took place at an osteria. Marchese and Marchesa Niccolini, who had made possible the publication of one half of the correspondence with documents from their family archives, were present at the session. The previous day Mireille Gille and I had been to their Medicean villa at Camugliano to present them with a copy of the volume, and we were shown the splendid estate. After a delightful lunch, we were taken on a tour of the villa from which Antonio Niccolini had written at least one of his letters to President de Brosses. Being in the very place that the abbé had put pen to paper was a very fitting start to the launch.

Celebrating the Correspondance with the De Brosses family

The lunch: Alec de Brosses introducing Count Dorick de Brosses (left), John Rogister is on the right.

When I mentioned to Alec de Brosses that there was to be a launch in Pisa of his ancestor’s epistolary exchanges with Niccolini, he was keen that there should also be one in France. For some years now, he had hosted occasional gatherings of the De Brosses family at his château d’Ailly near Parigny (Loire). As this year also marked the 240th anniversary of the death of président de Brosses in May 1777, it seemed appropriate to hold both events at the same time.

The date was fixed for 3 June, near enough to the anniversary, and there would be a buffet lunch at which I would give a presentation of the volume. After travelling down from Paris the day before, Alec met me for the short journey in bright sunshine to the beautiful eighteenth-century château d’Ailly, where I was to stay. On either side of my bed were large prints of the comte de Saint-Florentin and cardinal de Tencin, not men who had been close to the président’s heart, one suspects. The next day, about sixty members of the De Brosses clan arrived in family groups bearing exquisitely prepared food for the lunch, and Count Dorick de Brosses, the owner of the président’s papers, came over from Saint-Trys with bottles of his chateau’s wine.

A group photograph of the De Brosses family on the terrace of the chateau after the lunch, including: (in front, on the right) John Rogister; (on the step behind him) Dorick and Alec de Brosses; (top left at the back) Count de Brosses, head of the family.

There was a convivial partie de campagne atmosphere to the reunion, and sadly I was the only one dressed in city clothes, having just attended a very formal event at the Mazarine two days previously. This discrepancy did not seem to matter as the weather changed and rain forced us all to go indoors for the lunch. I gave my short speech, and concluded by presenting a copy of the Correspondance to Dorick de Brosses, who seemed to me to bear a striking resemblance to portraits of his ancestor. I could not help reflecting that the président had two wives and several daughters before he finally produced the son and heir from whom all present-day members of the family are descended.

After lunch the sun came out again and group photographs were taken on the terrace of the chateau facing the lake. During the late afternoon most of those present departed, and those staying at Ailly had a final dinner there. The next day Alec drove me to Roanne to catch the train to Lyon, where I boarded a very crowded Whit-Sunday TGV back to Paris full of pleasant memories of the hospitality and wit of a remarkable family.

– John Rogister

Catherine II et Friedrich Melchior Grimm : les clés d’une correspondance cryptique

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine II, par Fiodor Rokotov, 1763.

On comprendrait difficilement l’intense relation d’échanges et de transferts culturels qui s’est établie entre l’Europe occidentale et la Russie dans le dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle sans étudier la correspondance, entre 1764 et 1796, de Catherine II, Impératrice de Toutes les Russies, et de son principal agent d’influence, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, natif de Ratisbonne établi à Paris qui fut longtemps le directeur de la Correspondance littéraire destinée aux têtes couronnées du continent. Cette correspondance ne comporte pas moins de « 430 lettres », ce chiffre étant cependant « donné à titre approximatif parce que les limites entre les lettres ne sont pas toujours très nettes », les épistoliers pouvant inclure dans une énorme « pancarte » plusieurs lettres écrites à des dates successives. Elle n’était jusqu’alors connue que par les éditions données par Iakov Karlovitch Grot dans le Recueil de la Société impériale russe d’histoire en 1878 (lettres de Catherine II à Grimm, t. 23) et 1885 (lettres de Grimm à Catherine II, t. 44). Quelque utiles qu’aient pu être ces éditions à des générations de chercheurs, force est de reconnaître qu’elles ont fait leur temps. Outre le fait que la séparation des correspondance active et passive en deux volumes rendait difficile de suivre le fil de l’échange, Grot ignorait plusieurs manuscrits, commit certaines erreurs et retrancha des lettres certains passages qu’il jugeait malséants.

Aussi attendait-on avec impatience l’édition de cette correspondance par Sergueï Karp, directeur de recherche à l’Institut d’histoire universelle de l’Académie des sciences de Russie, qui travaille depuis longtemps sur Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm et leurs relations avec la Russie. Il a fait paraître en juillet 2016 le premier volume d’une édition qui devrait en comporter au moins cinq autres[1]. Il couvre les années 1763-1778 qui virent Grimm passer du statut de simple commissionnaire à celui de principal agent de l’Impératrice. Faute de disposer de ce volume au format papier, on pourra le consulter au format électronique sur le site de l’éditeur moscovite.

Force est d’évoquer la qualité, la richesse et l’importance de l’échange épistolaire. Plus qu’un agent de premier plan, Catherine II a trouvé en Grimm un ami et un confident avec lequel elle pouvait plaisanter en toute liberté. Ne lui a-t-elle pas écrit : « avec vous je jase mais n’écris jamais […] je prefere de m’amusér et de laisser aller ma main », ou, mieux encore, « je n’ai jamais écrit à personne comme vous»? Si cette correspondance est en ce sens familière ou « privée », elle est aussi « artistique » et « politique » pour reprendre le titre de l’édition. Catherine II n’était pas une simple collectionneuse mais une collectionneuse de collections; c’est à Grimm qu’elle confia le soin d’acquérir les bibliothèques de Diderot, de Galiani et de Voltaire, les loges du Vatican, pour ne donner que ces quelques exemples de cette frénésie d’acquisitions, de sorte qu’il n’est pas exagéré d’écrire que la Russie est redevable à l’Impératrice de la richesse de certaines de ses plus grandes institutions culturelles, comme la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie et le Musée de l’Ermitage.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

Friedrich Melchior Grimm, gravure de Lecerf, dessin de Carmontelle, 1769.

On soulignera tout particulièrement la qualité des notes éditoriales de S. Karp. Elles sont requises pour éclairer la lecture de ces lettres qui, « dans la plupart des cas[,] sont strictement personnelles et volontairement obscures : c’est ainsi que Catherine a voulu les protéger contre la curiosité des tierces personnes ». S’adressant en 1801 à l’empereur Alexandre Ier, petit-fils de Catherine II, peu après son avènement, Grimm ne constatait-il pas « qu’il s’était établi entre l’immortelle et son pauvre correspondant, une espèce de dictionnaire qui a besoin d’une clef pour ne pas rester énigmatique »? Telle est cette clé que S. Karp offre au lecteur en faisant la lumière sur ce qui était destiné à rester obscur.

On s’attachera à l’« Introduction » pour au moins deux raisons : la première, due à l’éditeur général, consiste dans une étude précise de l’évolution du rôle joué par Grimm qui a su se rendre indispensable à l’Impératrice ; la seconde, œuvre de G. Dulac et de C. Scharf, étudie avec finesse les particularités de son maniement du français et de l’allemand. Surprenant est, en ce qui concerne la première de ces langues, le paradoxe d’une souveraine qui recourt tout à la fois à des néologismes éloquents et à des tournures archaïsantes, que l’Impératrice a parfois héritées de son institutrice huguenote, Mme Cardel, parfois du théâtre de la Foire et parfois aussi de la plume de Voltaire, qu’elle considérait comme son « maître » dans le domaine des belles-lettres. On sait en revanche qu’elle ne possédait que des rudiments d’anglais et qu’elle maîtrisait mal le russe.

S. Karp décrit admirablement l’arrière-plan de cette Correspondance. Suite au coup d’État par lequel son mari Pierre III fut renversé en 1762, Catherine II éprouva le besoin de justifier idéologiquement son règne tant au plan intérieur que sur la scène internationale, en sollicitant la plume des philosophes français qui façonnaient l’opinion publique. Grimm fut incontestablement le principal intermédiaire entre l’Impératrice et la scène philosophique occidentale. Mais contre l’opinion qui consiste à croire que les philosophes furent naïvement manipulés par une souveraine machiavélique, S. Karp considère fort justement, d’une part, que Catherine II a bien été la fille des Lumières, mettant en œuvre de nombreuses réformes qui ont permis une modernisation sans précédent de la Russie, et que, si instrumentalisation il y a eu, elle fut réciproque, les philosophes jouissant de l’actif soutien de cette puissante cour et ayant « utilisé l’exemple russe comme argument rhétorique pour critiquer les pratiques de la monarchie française » dont ils dénonçaient le despotisme.

Frappant est le contraste de la Correspondance de Catherine II avec Voltaire, d’une part, et Grimm, d’autre part. Alors que la première est soigneusement relue et revue, empreinte de formalisme, la seconde est spontanée, souvent écrite à la diable et emplie de facéties. S. Karp montre clairement que leur liberté de ton « abolissait fictivement la distance sociale » qui les séparait. Il fait également justice de l’interprétation, notamment accréditée par Grot, consistant à dénoncer les « flatteries » obséquieuses dont les lettres de Grimm seraient farcies. Il remarque fort justement que « l’humour respectueux » des lettres de Grimm ne s’apparente pas à de la flatterie et que les « formes outrées de la politesse restaient traditionnelles au XVIIIe siècle, comme une composante obligatoire du dialogue entre un souveraine et un simple mortel » (à preuve, les lettres de Diderot ou de Voltaire). Catherine II ne se laissait pas prendre à ces éloges obligés, elle qui se moquait d’elle-même et de ses obligations de souveraine. Ce qui prime dans les lettres de Grimm, c’est leur humour : « ses plaisanteries et ses sarcasmes contribuaient largement à créer cette atmosphère de complicité et de gaieté dans laquelle purent se développer leurs relations ».

Tout spécialiste du siècle des Lumières en général, et de Voltaire en particulier, devra désormais se référer à l’édition des lettres de l’Impératrice et de Grimm qu’on ne nommera désormais plus que « l’édition Karp » et dont on attend avec impatience l’achèvement tant elle contribue à renouveler notre compréhension du dernier tiers du XVIIIe siècle.

– Christophe Paillard

[1] Catherine II de Russie. Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Une correspondance privée, artistique et politique au siècle des Lumières. Tome I. 1764-1778, édition critique par Sergueï Karp, avec la collaboration de Georges Dulac, Christoph Frank, Sergueï Iskioul, Gérard Kahn, Ulla Kölving, Nadezda Plavinskaia, Vladislav Rjéoutski et Claus Scharf, Centre international d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, Ferney-Voltaire, et Monuments de la pensée historique, Moscou, 2016, lxxxiv p., 341 p. et 3 p. non paginées, 26 illustrations.

Bayle against the Brexit Blues

Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?

You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.

Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.

Antony McKenna

Pierre Bayle est mort. Vive la République des Lettres!

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Enfant du Carla (aujourd’hui Carla-Bayle) dans le Midi-Pyrénées, fils et frère de pasteurs réformés, exilé peu avant la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre Bayle passa une grande partie de sa vie à Rotterdam, d’où il communiquait avec les philosophes et savants de toute l’Europe. Créateur d’un des premiers périodiques de critique littéraire, historique, philosophique et théologique, les Nouvelles de la république des lettres, il a défini une nouvelle conception de la liberté de conscience fondée sur le rationalisme moral. Dans son œuvre majeure, le Dictionnaire historique et critique, il recueille mille détails sur les événements historiques et cherche à démontrer, dans les articles philosophiques, que la religion chrétienne est incompatible avec une argumentation rationnelle. Dans ses toutes dernières œuvres, la Continuation des pensées diverses et la Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, il diffuse une version du spinozisme qui marquera tous les philosophes des Lumières. Bayle se représentait comme un simple citoyen de la République des Lettres et en est arrivé à incarner cet ‘Etat extrêmement libre’ où l’on ne reconnaît ‘que l’empire de la vérité et de la raison’. Il mourut, à l’âge de 59 ans, le 28 décembre 1706 vers 9 heures du matin, quasiment la plume à la main.


Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Hervé-Simon de Valhébert, écrite à Rotterdam le 22 octobre 1705.

Ce qui le marque au départ comme un marginal – l’éloignement du Carla des centres de la vie culturelle et la pauvreté de sa famille – nourrit une passion qui fait de lui un érudit aux lectures infinies, un lecteur critique hors pair, qui enregistre soigneusement, dans des recueils alphabétiques, toutes ses lectures et qui se plaît à affronter les récits, les interprétations et les systèmes philosophiques. Avec l’intelligence comme seule arme, il prend du recul par rapport aux controverses religieuses et aux débats philosophiques de son temps; il excelle à disséquer les systèmes philosophiques pour démontrer leurs conséquences absurdes: c’est un recul critique et souvent ironique qui fait de lui non pas un pyrrhonien mais un témoin privilégié de la crise qui marque son époque. Jacques Basnage décrit parfaitement sa passion philosophique:

‘Comme il s’était accoutumé à combattre les erreurs du vulgaire, il avait porté plus loin ce même esprit et un des plaisirs les plus doux qu’il goûtait était de faire sentir à une infinité de gens que les opinions qu’ils regardaient comme évidentes ne laissaient pas d’être environnées de difficultés insurmontables’ (Jacques Basnage au duc de Noailles, le 3 janvier 1707: Lettre 1743, Volume XIV).

Notre édition critique de sa vaste correspondance, qui comporte quinze volumes et près de de 1800 lettres échangées avec un très large cercle d’interlocuteurs, est désormais achevée. Le Volume XIV paraîtra en février 2017 et le Volume XV, comportant la bibliographie générale et l’index général des noms de personnes, paraîtra en été 2017.


Pierre Bayle is dead. Long live the Republic of Letters!

Born in Le Carla, a tiny village near Foix in the South of France, Pierre Bayle came from a family of Protestant ministers, and was exiled shortly before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Consequently, he spent most of his life in Rotterdam, from where he corresponded with philosophers and scholars throughout Europe. He launched one of the first literary and philosophical periodicals, the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and defined a new conception of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism.


His most famous work, the monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique, contains detailed historical articles and others concerning philosophers, in which he sought to demonstrate that Christian doctrine is incompatible with rational argument. In his last works, the Continuation des pensées diverses and the Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, he defined a version of Spinozism which greatly influenced Enlightenment philosophers. In his unassuming way, Bayle thought of himself as a simple citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to incarnate that ‘extremely free State’ in which no other law is recognised but ‘the rule of truth and right reason’. Bayle died at the age of 59 on the 28th December 1706 at about 9 a.m., virtually pen in hand.

The critical edition of his extensive correspondence, containing fifteen volumes and nearly 1800 letters exchanged with his vast network of friends and associates, is now complete. Volume XIV has just published (February 2017), and volume XV, containing the general index and bibliography, will publish in the summer of 2017.

– Antony McKenna