Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).


Fausser le climat pour mieux s’exprimer? Stratégies de discours dans la philosophie politique de la Renaissance aux Lumières

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573).

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573). Courtesy of (CC by 4.0).

Pour expliquer l’hypothèse de lecture de mon livre, Les Climats du pouvoir: rhétorique et politique chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, je voudrais me référer à la blague suivante, tirée d’un article du Dictionnaire de Trévoux:

‘Le froid, dans le figuré, est une métaphore établie; mais il ne faut point qu’elle passe les bornes: & l’Italien qui disoit à son retour de Pologne, que les personnes de ce pays-là étoient si froides, que leur conversation l’avoit enrhumé, outrait la métaphore.’ (‘Froid’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux)

Durant l’Ancien Régime, la popularité des discours climatologiques et déterministes tenait non seulement aux effets de science qu’ils apportaient à la conversation mais à leur flexibilité rhétorique. C’est pourquoi il faut noter la sagesse de l’article ‘Froid’ du Dictionnaire de Trévoux qui ironise sur la facilité des corrélations à laquelle la logique déterministe peut trop souvent donner lieu. Entre la température et le tempérament, le potentiel rhétorique des associations fait voir un glissement métaphorique qu’on peut aisément exagérer ou dissimuler à des fins multiples. Dans mon livre, qui porte sur les appropriations politiques du climat, le but n’est pas nécessairement de faire rire. Mais on retrouve le même écart créatif à l’égard de cette théorie prétendument scientifique.

C’est un ludisme qui échappe parfois aux analyses, surtout en raison du passé controversé des théories des climats. Celles-ci ne méritent souvent que des explications historiques et épistémologiques. On considère souvent le discours comme une erreur de l’époque, comme si son ‘primitivisme’ ou manque de rigueur scientifique neutralisait quelque peu sa charge ethnocentrique. D’où la tendance à expliquer les différentes versions de la théorie en bloc, en fonction d’une épistémè qui n’est plus la nôtre, mais qui entrent dans une généalogie de nos origines et de nos progrès scientifiques. Ainsi, Bodin croyait à la théorie des climats à cause des influences de la cosmologie; Montaigne et La Mothe Le Vayer y recouraient grâce à l’ouverture chorographique (géographie axée sur la description) fournie par les récits de voyage et ainsi de suite. Toutefois, de telles lectures désamorcent le déterminisme climatique et le neutralisent par l’explication. Ainsi, en soumettant le discours à des déterminismes épistémologiques, on risque de passer sous silence les logiques internes du discours, c’est-à-dire leur créativité propre.

C’est ici que je voudrais dégager l’ironie des théories des climats. Chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, les théories des climats s’avèrent conscientes d’elles-mêmes ainsi que des erreurs géographiques qu’elles véhiculent. Autrement dit, les discours des climats ne sont pas nécessairement une chasse gardée pour les historiens de la science. Dans le cas des appropriations politiques, ils peuvent jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la structure argumentative de l’ouvrage et inviter à des usages métaphoriques. Mon livre propose une lecture en profondeur de ces arguments, tant sur la forme que sur le fond, les reliant aux grandes théories politiques de la période: la souveraineté, le constitutionnalisme et le républicanisme. J’avance que l’usage créatif du discours climatique révèle différents niveaux de lecture et différents types de lecteurs.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (anonymous portrait, 1728). Public domain.

Pour revenir à la blague du Trévoux, il faut cependant convenir que, contrairement à la voix narrative qui annonce l’humour du ‘rhume’, les corrélations température-tempérament des déterminismes climatiques tendent à estomper leurs marques énonciatives. La tentative est de confiner à une vérité scientifique. La dimension rhétorique se dissimule derrière l’observation empirique. De là, le discours se réclame d’une vérité physique, des observations avérées par la connaissance géographique, pour objectiver une position scientifique, que mon étude explique, de différentes manières, comme un homme de paille. C’est ce voile de la ‘scientificité’ qui abrite une stratégie détournée ou ‘ésotérique’ (Leo Strauss) de représenter le pouvoir. Moins des ‘caractères’ sociologiques ou des indices de la diversité humaine, les climats cachent une philosophie du pouvoir. Une grande partie de mes analyses expliquent le pourquoi de cette dissimulation que les théories de Strauss – mais aussi l’héritage des miroirs des princes – aident à structurer. Pour les modèles gouvernementaux et absolutistes de l’Ancien Régime, le discours climatique sera envisagé en tant qu’un idiome destiné aux législateurs, qui imite le manque de transparence de leur pouvoir, c’est-à-dire les arcana imperii, afin de mieux les influencer.

– Richard Spavin

Two Years On: the State of the Studies, by the General Editor

The arrival of the New Year of 2018 marks two years since I began as General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. The past two years have been rather dramatic ones for the nations in which most of our readers and authors live, in ways in which the study of the literature and culture of the eighteenth century might seem to be either irrelevant or utopian. The cosmopolitan and rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment has been all too scarce among our leaders.

From a liberal perspective, the events of the past two years have provided an unending series of coups de théâtre. We have seen major political peripeteia in the UK and the US, with parallel subplots of unexpected reversals of fortune in Italy, Germany and Austria. Where the political plot has not been tragic it might best be characterised as ‘labyrinthine confusion’, most notably in Spain – with nothing less than full-on farce in Russia.

With even Canada offering something of a political romance, and French politics staging a one-man show based on a mythopoetic hero’s journey, the past two years have been experienced by many academics – especially humanists – as Sturm und Drang. The sense of dread has ranged from visa and residency issues for international students and scholars in the US and UK (to put it bluntly, in the case of the US, the exclusion of visiting scholars and the prospect of mass expulsion of students) to existential threats to the institutions from their own governments at the Central European University in Budapest and the European University in St Petersburg.

Beyond politics and academia the gothic has been all too evident. Just as in my original post I noted the spectre of terrorism haunting Paris, violence inflicted on otherwise unsuspecting audiences has been a leitmotif of the past two years, with particularly horrific incidents in Orlando (site of the upcoming ASECS conference) and less than a mile from my home campus in Las Vegas.

And all of this of course is only to think of the wealthiest and most economically developed parts of the globe. In such a moment, the Enlightenment might seem to have lost all relevance.

Yet those who might maintain that ‘the Enlightenment’ has no historical meaning and offers little to no value as an area of scholarly inquiry have not been reading the pages of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Since I became General Editor, we have published 24 books counting our most recent volume, and many of these have directly addressed many of the circumstances framing today’s events.

Our authors have explored issues of European politics such as how print media impacted reading practices and the formation of public opinion across Europe; the political uses of satire on stage and in image; transnational correspondence networks; the experiences of continental Europeans residing in England; and the continental influences on English populist and radical discourse.

Through study of literature and thought, our authors have delved into the foundations of contemporary European culture by studying the essential tensions within and boundaries around human nature and collective identity. We have published books on such topics as English aesthetic conceptions and appropriations of the Far East; the interplay between rationalism and belief among Orthodox Christians; and the same interplay among Maurist Benedictine Catholics. We have published on the tension between national and cosmopolitan culture at the Russian court; the tension between indigenous and colonial societies in North America; that between sexes and races in conceptions of the family in Scottish thought; and also on human conceptions of the sentiments of animals. Our authors have written on gender and science; and on the physics of the body.

Our books have also shown the contemporary relevance of classical Enlightenment topics, notably in the highly original works on the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns; Holbach; Rousseau and publicity; and Rousseau on stage. And we have continued to find original interpretations of Voltaire!

Thanks to the hard work of many, beginning with the Voltaire Foundation director Nicholas Cronk, the Studies are positioned to go forward in the coming years to explore and reiterate the relevance of the Enlightenment while also questioning the cogency of it as a category of historical analysis. Our new strategic partnership with Liverpool University Press will give our books wide exposure and distribution and will help achieve the VF’s longstanding goal of creating an electronic library of the Studies backlist. Thanks as well go to the many readers who participated in our first-ever survey on scholarly reading practices, the results of which we are analyzing and plan to publish in the coming year.

Thanks to our internationally prominent editorial board we have a rich and broad network of authors, which will see us publish in the coming two years our first volumes on Digital Humanities in the Enlightenment; major works on penal law and on human rights theory in the Enlightenment; several works on political theory and social change; and works on the reciprocal and dynamic relationship between various forms of religious belief (or disbelief) and Enlightenment culture. We will in the coming years see an enhanced breadth to our books, as numerous works in the editorial pipeline address the Enlightenment as a global topic: on cultural, intellectual, political and economic encounters between western Europe and eastern Europe, central Asia, south Asia, Persia, New Spain and beyond. We have multiple books in preparation or under consideration as well on nature and the environment, and several more drawing on a wide range of theoretical frameworks to provide original views on gender identity and power relations.

Now more than ever the Enlightenment matters – and now more than ever we are seeing that scholarship on the Enlightenment is vibrant and has a dynamic home at the Voltaire Foundation and in the Studies.

– Gregory S. Brown

Cross-European perspectives on the Enlightenment: academic events at the Voltaire Foundation in early 2018

Avi Lifschitz is the new Academic Programme Director at the Voltaire Foundation. In his first Vf blogpost, he surveys some of the events scheduled over the second and third terms of 2017/18.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

The main aim of our academic programme in early 2018 is to develop comparative and original views on eighteenth-century European culture in a series of events. Enlightenment – in the singular or plural, preceded by a definite article or left indefinite – has long been treated as a largely Franco-British affair, extending from Newton and Locke to the French philosophes and their acolytes. The Enlightenment Workshop, Oxford’s interdisciplinary research seminar on eighteenth-century culture, seeks to challenge this view by examining Enlightenment phenomena all the way from St Petersburg to London via Austria, Prussia, and further afield in Europe. In 2018 the Workshop will take place at the Voltaire Foundation in both Hilary and Trinity Terms. Its speakers come from a variety of academic institutions: as well as showcasing eighteenth-century research conducted here at Oxford and elsewhere in the UK, we are delighted to host speakers from Hungary, Germany, California and the American East Coast.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

While Paul Slack (Linacre College, Oxford) discusses the complex interrelations between seventeenth-century British ideas of socio-economic Improvement and an eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Shiru Lim (UCL) analyses the concept of philosophical kingship by juxtaposing the philosophes’ relationships with Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia. Thematically and methodologically too, the Workshop aims to explore the Enlightenment from a variety of approaches. Elisabeth Décultot (Halle) asks whether we can still use the term ‘Enlightenment’ – and with which controversies and semantic fields we engage when we do so.[1] The theological implications of natural catastrophes, explored by László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest), are followed by a paper focusing on street-lighting in eighteenth-century Paris and its wider significance, to be presented by Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth College).

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

German Enlightenment controversies on art and religion are explored by Katherine Harloe (Reading) and Paul Kerry (Brigham Young University), whereas Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) turns her gaze to more radical thinkers in an overview of French materialism from Diderot to the Revolution. The famous Parisian salons of the Enlightenment are examined from a fresh perspective by Chloe Edmondson (Stanford University); such venues would not have been hospitable to the subject of Adam Sutcliffe’s (King’s College London) paper, Moses Mendelssohn, who is widely regarded as having launched the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah).

The Enlightenment Workshop concludes on 17 May 2018 with an interdisciplinary discussion of new work on gender in different Enlightenment cultures, published in Anthony La Vopa’s recent book The Labor of the Mind (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).  La Vopa will reply to comments on his book by colleagues from several Oxford faculties: Katherine Ibbett (French), Joanna Innes (History), Karen O’Brien (Head of the Humanities Division; English), and Ritchie Robertson (German).

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

This session is not, however, the only reference to the significance of gender for research on Enlightenment Europe in our programme: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Münster), author of a new biography of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, touches upon this issue (among others) in her discussion of the empress and the Catholic Enlightenment. Her lecture on 26 February 2018 concludes a study day dedicated to recent research across Europe, conducted on the occasion of Maria Theresa’s 2017 tercentenary. The study day, convened by Tobias Heinrich, also includes papers by William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford), Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna). The speakers all aim to provide new perspectives on the empress, who has hitherto been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Frederick II and Catherine II (who are discussed earlier in the Enlightenment Workshop).

The main purpose of these events is to bring together graduate students, staff members, and visiting researchers from various faculties in Oxford, as well as guests from outside the University. This interdisciplinary dialogue might lead, we hope, to the creation of an Oxford salon for the discussion and exchange of invigorating ideas on Enlightenment culture – where there is no need for personal invitations or letters of introduction. All are welcome to attend the Enlightenment Workshop at the Voltaire Foundation, 99 Banbury Road, on Mondays at 5:00 p.m. (Hilary Term) and Thursdays at the same time (Trinity Term).

– Avi Lifschitz

[1] For some of Décultot’s views on Enlightenment historiography, see this recent discussion of the German Enlightenment.

Le Portugal de Voltaire: un royaume sans lumières


Honoré Daumier, jésuite cherchant à détériorer la statue de Voltaire. Lithographie parue dans Le Charivari du 22 septembre 1869.

Voltaire a très tôt développé une piètre opinion de la culture portugaise et de ses élites. Ses idées s’étant formées au contact des Lettres persanes de Montesquieu et des Lettres juives du Marquis d’Argens, le Portugal lui apparaissait peuplé d’individus vains et orgueilleux, et la cour portugaise lui semblait un endroit triste et de peu d’agréments (voir la lettre au marquis d’Argenson du 16 avril 1739). La toute-puissance de l’Inquisition, qui dans Candide persécute les innocents suite au terrible tremblement de terre survenu à Lisbonne en 1755, entérine un jugement déjà sévère. Si Voltaire applaudit à l’expulsion des Jésuites du royaume en 1759, orchestrée par le très puissant premier ministre le Marquis de Pombal, il ne révisera plus son opinion sur la monarchie lusitanienne. C’est qu’en 1761 le père Malagrida est brûlé par l’Inquisition après avoir publié un écrit (Juízo da verdadeira causa do Terramoto) où il lie le tremblement de terre à la colère divine dirigée contre les vices de la capitale. Si Voltaire ironise sur les idées du jésuite, il critique néanmoins très sérieusement les liens que Lisbonne entretient avec Rome.

Il est indéniable que le tribunal de l’Inquisition était très puissant au Portugal, et que l’ultramontanisme avait laissé des traces dans la théologie et la philosophie. Ce dernier courant de pensée se manifesta très fortement pendant le règne de Jean V, le prédécesseur de Joseph Ier, roi sous lequel gouverna le Marquis de Pombal. Cependant, comme en France malgré la censure, les Lumières (Luzes en portugais) se diffusèrent au Portugal. Un des meilleurs représentants de ce courant de pensée est Louis Antonio Verney, qui s’est illustré par ses travaux en pédagogie où il prend le contre-pied des Jésuites. Dans Le Précis du siècle de Louis XV, Voltaire fait de l’Inquisition le thème principal de sa critique de ‘l’obscurantisme portugais’. Ce cadre de pensée va être utilisé par les historiens libéraux du dix-neuvième siècle – en particulier Alexandre Herculano dans son Histoire de l’Inquisition (1854-1859) – pour dénoncer le retard économique et scientifique pris par le Portugal dans de nombreux domaines. L’idée de cette critique est que la peur, voire la paranoïa, distillée dans les esprits par l’Inquisition conduisit les Portugais vers une sorte de timidité, voire de crainte mentale, qui serait à l’origine de l’immobilisme de la nation. Au vingtième siècle, cette critique sera réutilisée pour expliquer la facilité avec laquelle l’Etat Nouveau d’Antonio de Oliveira Salazar a impressionné les consciences, grâce notamment à l’exploitation d’une police politique de sinistre mémoire. (Antonio Tabucchi a fort bien décrit le climat de suspicion et de crainte qui régnait alors dans son beau roman Pereira prétend.)

Au dix-huitième siècle, cependant, nombreux sont ceux, parmi les jeunes notamment, qui apprécient la pensée de Voltaire et qui font circuler ses productions sous le manteau. António Ferreira de Brito s’est d’ailleurs demandé si l’œuvre du philosophe aurait été pareillement appréciée si elle n’avait pas été aussi censurée.

Certains traits, à la fois politiques et religieux, des ‘Lumières portugaises’ expliquent la réception tronquée de Voltaire. Si la puissance des jésuites posait problème au Marquis de Pombal il n’est pas pour autant devenu un amateur de Voltaire et ceci pour au moins deux raisons. Le fait est que le catholicisme portugais connaissait un renouveau avec la philosophie du pape Benoît XIV, mais surtout, pour le puissant premier ministre, la critique du pouvoir politique était poussée trop loin chez Voltaire. De ce fait, et Louis Antonio Verney partageait cette opinion, l’impiété de Voltaire paraissait trop corrosive, d’où le nombre important de ses œuvres qui furent condamnées et qui le restèrent durant de nombreuses décennies. L’une des répercussions fâcheuses des invasions françaises que le pays subit en 1807 et 1809 fut que le libéralisme en sortit durablement discrédité, phénomène qui assura la pérennité de la monarchie pendant le dix-neuvième siècle. L’hostilité des pouvoirs politiques envers les critiques anti-absolutistes de Voltaire, alliée à la puissance de frappe de l’Inquisition et à la ‘terreur psychologique’ exercée par ce tribunal, a conditionné la réception de Voltaire au Portugal.

Si, parmi les ecclésiastiques très nombreux sont ceux qui dénoncent le déisme voire le matérialisme de l’auteur travestis sous son rationalisme[1], dans d’autres cercles de lecteurs on observe des hésitations, voire des condamnations explicites, qui traduisent un malaise certain devant les écrits voltairiens.


‘La ville de Lisbon dans son état avant le tremblement de novembre 1755’, par J. Couse; entre 1755 et 1760 (image Wikicommons).

Les textes les plus sulfureux du patriarche de Ferney, comme le Dictionnaire philosophique, seront brûlés par le bourreau en place publique. D’ailleurs, fait frappant qui illustre l’attitude anti-libérale du dix-neuvième siècle et l’hostilité fasciste du vingtième siècle, cet ouvrage ne paraîtra en traduction portugaise qu’en 1966. On assiste d’ailleurs au même phénomène en ce qui concerne les romans. Candide est traduit en 1835 avec le titre curieux de Cândido ou o optimismo ou o philósofo enforcado em Lisboa pelos Inquisidores, e apparecendo depois em Constantinópla nas Galés;[2] or malgré l’accent placé sur l’Inquisition le texte est édulcoré et les critiques anti-absolutistes atténuées. Il en va de même pour la traduction de Zadig faite en 1815, totalement purgée des éléments les plus critiques, et globalement remaniée. S’il est important de se souvenir que les critères de traduction d’alors étaient bien moins rigoureux que les nôtres, la comparaison qui peut être faite avec la traduction de Zadig de Filinto Elísio de 1778 (mais publiée en 1819) montre que la censure sur la pensée de Voltaire est restée constante.

Ces quelques exemples illustrent donc une réception complexe, avec d’un côté un intérêt évident de la part des lecteurs pour les œuvres de Voltaire, et de l’autre une méfiance, voire une peur, envers la radicalité la plus rationaliste. A cette forme de réception intellectuelle s’ajoutent encore les barrières politique et religieuse qui non seulement dénaturèrent l’œuvre de Voltaire mais qui de plus en restreignirent très fortement l’accès, et ceci même pour les textes majeurs, jusqu’à la deuxième moitié du vingtième siècle. La traduction du théâtre voltairien connut cependant une diffusion rapide dès la chute du Marquis de Pombal, à partir des années 1780. José Anastácio da Cunha fait publier une traduction de Mahomet en 1785[3], pièce qu’il avait fait jouer en privé dans la décennie 1770. Ainsi, il semblerait que le théâtre de Voltaire soit passé plus facilement entre les mailles de l’Inquisition. Une étude fouillée à ce sujet reste à entreprendre.

– Helder Mendes Baiao

[1] La traduction dès 1775, de l’opuscule apocryphe Repentir ou Confession publique de Monsieur de Voltaire (1771) illustre le procès d’impiété fait à Voltaire.

[2] ‘Candide ou l’optimisme ou le philosophe pendu à Lisbonne par les Inquisiteurs, et qui réapparaît ensuite à Constantinople aux galères’.

[3] José Anastácio da Cunha, Tradução do ‘Mofama’ de Mr. de Voltaire, in Obra literária, (Oporto, 2006), t.2, p.211-99.

Publish, possibly perish, but live life to the full

The Age of the Enlightenment was awash with print and the number of authors, male and female, with at least one publication to their name grew by leaps and bounds across the eighteenth century. Becoming a published author, however, was not always easy. The reading public wanted to be entertained as well as informed, and dry works of science and scholarship were not to their taste. Mathematicians, natural philosophers, and even antiquarians who wanted to place an erudite tome in the public domain had to either find a patron to finance the cost of publication or put their hands in their own pockets. Members of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters were proud of their independence but seldom rich. As a result, many published little of substance. Those who did often exhausted their inheritance and faced bankruptcy. The Montpellier naturalist and agronomist, Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741-1824), a savant of limited means with an itch to write, struggled throughout his life to get his words of wisdom into print. His lengthy autobiography, left on his death in manuscript form, is an extraordinary window into the trials and tribulations of the enlightened scientist as author. Edited and introduced by myself for the first time under the title From Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: the recollections of Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741-1824), it is essential reading for anyone working on the history of the book in the long eighteenth century.

Amoreux had his first introduction to vanity publishing in 1784 when he sought to find a printer for his Traité de l’olivier. Rather than negotiate with a local Montpellier publisher or send his manuscript to Paris, he decided to try his luck in Avignon, which had a thriving commercial press. Avignon was part of the Papal States and its printer-booksellers, largely free from the censorship restrictions that their French counterparts endured, purportedly offered good terms.

Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier Entrée.

Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier, entrance.

The experience was not a happy one. Amoreux’s initial investigations led him to believe that an Avignon house would charge him 30 livres per folio sheet of sixteen pages: 24 livres to cover the cost, plus 6 livres profit. This, however, turned out not to be the case. A medical friend in the city, Jean-Claude Pancin, who acted as go-between, approached two printers of repute. Both refused to take the book on such a small return. Balthazard-Jean Niel (1724-c.1789) demanded 40 livres a folio and a further 30 for 300 flyers, and could not be shifted. Pancin dismissed him as ‘une espèce de juif’, a stinging insult in a town with a sizeable ghettoised Jewish minority. The terms of Jean-Louis Chambeau (c.1716-1780) were better, but he still wanted a premium of 28 sous per folio on the grounds that typesetting the manuscript required three different fonts. Moreover, it proved impossible to close the deal because Chambeau’s compositor objected to the state of the manuscript: Amoreux had sent his friend a manuscript peppered with ‘petits billets sous forme d’additions attachées au texte.’

The Montpellier naturalist had no choice but to see if he could get an acceptable quote from a publisher in his home town. This he must have done, for the 365-page book was eventually published by a printer called Guiot and distributed through the bookshop of the widow Gontier. Assuming Guiot charged 30 livres per sheet, the publication would have cost Amoreux nearly 700 livres. This would have made a considerable hole in his purse. At this date Amoreux’s only income came from his post as a medical librarian, worth 500 livres per annum. Had he not been a bachelor still living at home with his parents, he would never have been able to publish his first substantial book. And had he not managed to do so, he might well have thrown in the towel and published next to nothing, like so many of his contemporaries in the Republic of Letters.

Le parvis et la façade de Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris in the 18th century, by Jean-Bapstiste Scotin (1678-?). Public domain.

Amoreux’s autobiography, however, is more than a study of the angst of the scientific author. Starting in 1800, Amoreux made continual visits to the capital to taste its intellectual delights. His Souvenirs provide a detailed account of his stays in Paris. With Amoreux, the reader will walk the city from end to end, cross its bridges old and new, visit its museums and bookshops, revel in the sights and sounds of the Champs Elysées on Bastille Day, and catch a glimpse of Napoleon through the crowd. On the way to listen to the lectures of Cuvier or some other intellectual giant, he or she will even drop into the Paris morgue. No other account of early nineteenth-century Paris catches so fully the multi-faceted nature of the vibrant post-Revolutionary city, whose cast of characters ranges from bankers to barrow-boys. If Amoreux had had the literary talent, he could have left a work which would have stood comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses. Nobody interested in Napoleon’s Paris as the cultural centre of Europe should miss the opportunity to accompany the Montpellier naturalist on his travels.

– Laurence Brockliss

Les Nouveaux Mélanges : recette d’une bonne capilotade, façon Voltaire

CAPILOTADE. s. f. Sorte de ragoût fait de plusieurs morceaux de viandes déjà cuites. Bonne capilotade. Faire une capilotade des restes de perdrix, de poulets.

On dit proverbialement et figurément, Mettre quelqu’un en capilotade, pour dire, Médire de quelqu’un sans aucun ménagement, le déchirer, le mettre en pièces par des médisances outrées.

Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, éd. 1762.
Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765)

Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765).

Prenez des échanges dialogués, qui tiennent à la fois du conte, de la scène isolée et du dialogue philosophique, ajoutez des fragments, une anecdote, des facéties. Salez, poivrez  généreusement. Vous obtiendrez un ensemble de ‘petits chapitres’ narratifs, argumentatifs et  on s’en doute  polémiques. C’est ainsi que le tome 60A des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire rassemble, sous le titre de Nouveaux Mélanges, une trentaine de textes brefs, très majoritairement en prose, parfois en vers, publiés ou republiés en 1765: ils offrent l’agrément de la variété et le charme des écrits ‘courts et salés’ mitonnés dans l’intarissable officine de Ferney. Le plat a du goût, et il est nourrissant.

Par delà la diversité des sujets et des formes, cet ensemble aborde en effet des questions qui se rattachent à trois au moins des préoccupations majeures de Voltaire depuis le début des années 1760: les affaires judiciaires (Calas, Sirven et bientôt La Barre), la campagne incessante menée contre l’Infâme, l’implication du ‘patriarche’ dans les troubles politiques qui agitent la République de Genève. Les textes réunis dans ce volume bénéficient en outre de l’unité éditoriale que leur confère leur parution dans la ‘troisième partie’ des Nouveaux Mélanges philosophiques, historiques, critiques, etc. etc., recueil publié par les frères Cramer avec le concours de Voltaire.

Les questions abordées ne sont donc pas foncièrement nouvelles: ces textes présentent, on le voit, des enjeux, notamment idéologiques, qui rejoignent ceux d’œuvres réputées ‘majeures’, publiées, rééditées ou remises en chantier à la même époque  le Dictionnaire philosophique, La Philosophie de l’histoire qui servira dans les années suivantes d’‘Introduction’ à l’Essai sur les mœurs. En production, tel trait, tel argument, tel exemple avancé dans l’un de ces ‘rogatons’ sert peut-être à compléter tel passage de l’une de ces œuvres, à moins que ces nouveautés, qui constituent les variantes introduites dans les moutures récentes de ces œuvres, ne constituent le noyau à partir duquel s’organise la matière du rogaton. En réception, redire avec des variations, c’est veiller, dans ces années de lutte, à la plus large diffusion possible des idées, à une forme de saturation de l’espace public dans laquelle Voltaire est passé maître. De nos jours, la recette fonctionne toujours: le connaisseur des ‘grandes’ œuvres, sensible au rappel d’une touche ou d’un morceau, apprécie les vertus digestives de ces petits textes; pour l’amateur et le curieux, ces derniers peuvent aussi servir d’apéritif préparant à la consommation des premières. En somme, les ‘petits chapitres’ se dégustent en entrée ou en dessert, de part et d’autre des plats de résistance qui les accompagnent, les mauvais convives dussent-ils se plaindre d’indigestion lorsque les mêmes mets  ou presque  leur sont trop fréquemment servis.

Le lecteur gourmand peut enfin s’intéresser à la manière dont Voltaire confectionne ce qu’il appelle fréquemment ses ‘petits pâtés’ et ses ‘ragoûts’, et, au-delà d’un art consommé d’accommoder les restes, chercher à percer celui de mettre les petits plats dans les grands  autrement dit s’interroger sur le statut de ces sous-ensembles que sont les ‘mélanges’ dans l’architecture globale de ‘collections complètes’ qui, du vivant de Voltaire, ne le restent jamais longtemps. L’existence de ces ‘mélanges’ questionne enfin l’actuelle collection, censément définitive, des Œuvres complètes, dont le principe de classement chronologique des textes exclut les regroupements génériques adoptés jusque-là. L’architecture de ce volume, tout comme celle du tome 45B (Mélanges de 1756) publié en 2010, montre que la catégorie accueillante des ‘mélanges’ constitue encore, faute de mieux, un principe efficace de regroupement des écrits fugitifs.

– Olivier Ferret