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.

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.

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

Reviewing Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790: our own personal Enlightener

Around 1980, during a conference in Cambridge on the early history of political economy, I sat at dinner next to the German intellectual historian Hans Erich Bödeker. In the midst of some general chat about the state of things, he asked me whether in England people at large had lost faith in the Enlightenment. Taken by surprise, I said tentatively that I didn’t think most people in England had a view on the Enlightenment either way: the thing, or concept, simply didn’t have that sort of place in our culture.

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment, cover.

Forty years later, I still think that’s broadly true. Newton and Smith may be names to conjure with, but I doubt that they’re generally thought of as Enlightenment intellectuals; Hume, Gibbon and Godwin don’t have a place in our national story remotely comparable to that occupied by Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France. There have been changes. The Enlightenment has a larger presence in British public culture than it had in the last century. One’s more likely to encounter it in TV history programmes, or in the text framing exhibitions, moreover as a feature of our own and not just other nations’ history – even if one’s still more likely to encounter representations of the period foregrounding court intrigue, or ballroom belles, or indeed the East India Company, or the slave trade. Awareness of there being a case against ‘the Enlightenment project’ has spread too, whether in its postmodern, or, more widely, in its post-colonial form.

Ritchie Robertson’s huge but readable Allen Lane/Penguin tome in some ways reflects these changes. The commissioning editor – who, by the author’s account, took a close interest in the shaping of the book – must have believed there to be an anglophone reading public with an appetite for an 800-odd-page survey on this theme (and its respectful reception by the broadsheets suggests that he was right about that, or at least that quite a few readers will be persuaded that this is something that they should have read). And if this loosely centred book has an overall mission, both I and its other reviewers take that to be to dispel the various newish forms of suspicion or disdain that may attach to the category.

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh, annotated (unnamed photographer).

The book occasionally argues its case in this regard. Yes, Hume wrote an objectionable racist footnote, and refused to retract it – but that isn’t all that there was to Hume, or to the Enlightenment. Indeed some of his peers objected to what he said too – otherwise the question of retraction wouldn’t have arisen. ‘Enlighteners’ (as Robertson calls them, Englishing the German Aufklärer) didn’t, he readily concedes, get everything right. But nor did they adhere to any single set of dogmas. On the contrary, they were always questioning and arguing. We may still find value in some of the ideas they came up with, but above all it’s their spirit of enquiry, and their (admittedly uneven) openness to diverse voices that entitles these thinkers to our notice and respect.

Overall, the book develops this case not so much by explicit argument as by the way in which it proceeds. What we’re offered here is, in effect, a reader’s guide to the Enlightenment, one that takes us through the writings in which ideas were advanced and thrashed out. A striking number of pages are devoted to summaries of key or otherwise illuminating texts. And all the illustrations are of title pages of books. Robertson puts us in a position to hear these authors’ voices, their concordances and discordances. And, as we hear them, he’s there with us, or just in front of us, listening, responding. I think this approach works quite well. The texts aren’t too mediated – we get quite close to them. But they are mediated, by an informed, affable, reflective persona, who tells us what strikes him, and sometimes enlarges on what seems to him more or less sensible and usable in what he’s read. He’s our own personal Enlightener.

Thomas Paine, Age of reason, 1793

Title page of the first volume of Thomas Paine’s Age of reason, Paris and London, 1793.

I don’t think the book’s overarching argument is primarily addressed to scholars in the field – more to a wider public, or scholars in adjacent fields, because scholars who work on the Enlightenment already know how polyphonic it was. But they’re not ignored: their work deeply shapes this account. Notably, it underpins many of the book’s second-level interpretative positions. Thus, its conception of the Enlightenment as a European, and not a distinctively French phenomenon, and its insistence on the importance of religion as a context in which Enlighteners worked, critically but also very often sympathetically, with the aim of reforming rather than obliterating. It’s striking that the book has more chapters on religion than on science. Also, last but not least, Robertson goes with the trend of scholarship when he downplays the notion of an ‘age of reason’. Not merely was reason, when lauded, lauded more as critical instrument than as source of certainty, but also, through the century, its dependence on emotion was increasingly stressed. Emotion motivated, coloured and was itself a source of insight. The Enlightenment science of man was a science of an only partly rational being.

Others of the book’s features are more idiosyncratic, reflecting the author’s specific knowledge and interests, or the consequences of the way he set about writing it. The Enlightenment as conceived here was an intermeshed assemblage of relatively formally developed ideas. It didn’t inhere primarily in widely held, let alone popular attitudes and beliefs, though its thinkers were aligned with some broader currents in thought; putatively enlightened rulers are exceptional among non-authors in being given attention (and actually some of them did present themselves as authors, notably Frederick II of Prussia, but also Catherine II of Russia, with her propagandistic Nakaz).

A multilingual edition of Catherine II, Nakaz, 1770

A multilingual edition of Catherine’s Nakaz, St Petersburg, 1770. (PY Rare Books, London)

Scholars have done an enormous amount of work in recent decades on the infrastructure of Enlightenment – correspondence, publications, translations, libraries, academies, societies, universities (sometimes), discussion groups and salons. We hear something about this infrastructure here, but as context, not as a major focus of interest in its own right. Again, what is surveyed here is a pan-European Enlightenment, extending to North America; other parts of the world feature only as objects of enquiry – whereas some scholars have started trying to bring them into the story in other ways. Given that the author is a professor of German, it’s not surprising, though it’s a merit of the book that, among Europeans, he aimed from the start to give Germany as much attention as England and France. It’s noteworthy too, though, that he gives equal weight only to these three. Italy receives a fair amount of attention (Robertson thinks more in terms of language-regions than petty states, so feels free to write about ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’). Thinkers and writers from other places – Dalmatia, Switzerland, Finland – make interesting cameo appearances. The Netherlands, however, plays quite a small part, and Spain seems almost entirely absent, as if perceived only through the haze of its ‘Black Legend’ (Charles III isn’t among the enlightened rulers investigated). These limits to the book’s vision probably stem partly from the author’s ‘Reader’s Guide’ approach, which allows him to treat equally only works in languages he can comfortably read.

Robertson is a literary scholar – which may help to explain his very textual approach. But that feature of his background probably also helps to explain some of the book’s other distinctive and attractive features. Thus the generic breadth of the texts it covers – here, novels, plays and poems feature alongside essays and treatises. At a recent discussion of the book (on which more in a moment), the historian Anthony La Vopa singled out for special praise the chapter in which Robertson explores in turn Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloïse, and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, and makes them speak to one another.

The book’s chapters each focus on a different theme about which Enlighteners thought. Sometimes the chapters are a bit miscellaneous, as the book seems to strain for almost encyclopedic coverage. But all in their various ways provide helpful introductions, sometimes excellent introductions, to thought and debate around the given theme. One chapter is devoted to Aesthetics: not a common topic in historical surveys, so the more welcome here.

If the book’s overarching message is primarily aimed at non-specialists, and much of what it says (inevitably) summarises recent scholarship, does it nonetheless have something distinctive to say to historians and literary scholars whose own work focuses on the period? And what will they make of it? An opportunity to test this was provided by a recent panel discussion, organized by Oxford’s interdisciplinary (though mainly historical and literary) ‘Enlightenment Workshop’, a seminar that’s been run during two terms of each year for some thirty years, for most of those years on the premises of the Voltaire Foundation in Banbury Road. Its establishment around 1990, and flourishing since, illustrates once again the rising trajectory of ‘the Enlightenment’ in British life. The Workshop’s range and character also testify to changing conceptions. Voltaire may be the tutelary genius of the place (his bust stands on the mantelpiece in the seminar room), but he presides over notably geographically and thematically varied terrain. It’s suggestive of this diversification that the Foundation’s long-running publication series, Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, has recently been rebranded Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment.

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, Amsterdam, 1738, frontispiece. (public domain)

When the pandemic first raged last year, the Workshop shut up shop. This year it has reconvened, though now of course on-line. The panel discussion of Ritchie Robertson’s book, followed by his impromptu response, and open discussion, marked the Workshop’s first meeting in the new format. As we’ve all repeatedly seen during the pandemic, the on-line format has benefits as well as costs. In this case it opened the way to an audience of unprecedented size: some 120 people watched the discussion live (only one fifth of those from within Oxford). Following its first airing, the YouTube recording was started by several hundred more people (though some didn’t linger long). At the same time, habitual attenders reported feeling uncomfortably distanced from the proceedings – and anonymized, as questions they posed were passed through a moderator who didn’t report (probably scarcely had the chance to register) their names.

There were three speakers on the panel. I started things off. I’m an Oxford historian, a specialist in the period but not primarily in its intellectual life. The other speakers were Karen O’Brien, another Oxford scholar, in her case of English literature, and Anthony La Vopa, an American historian of German social and cultural history, who has presented at the Workshop in the past (indeed, his last book The Labor of the mind: intellect and gender in Enlightenment cultures, was the subject of an earlier panel discussion); in this instance he spoke from his home base in the States. Like the author, the panellists are literary and historical in scholarly orientation, not, for instance, philosophical; indeed, none of the panellists would (I guess) characterize themselves even as intellectual historians. This made it likely that they would approach the book essentially on the author’s own terrain. The normal inclination of any reviewer is to find things to praise and things to criticize. All the panellists spoke warmly of the book’s range and lucidity. But all were also struck by some things the author doesn’t do.

I noted, thus, that the book does strikingly little with an issue that has loomed large in the more general scholarly literature in recent decades: the definitional question, What do we mean by ‘the Enlightenment’? What’s the case for using such a term, and for applying it to particular times, places and people? Jonathan Israel, in his several books (2001-) which play up the foundational role of the Dutch and distinguish a ‘radical’ from a ‘moderate’ Enlightenment, has offered one notable answer to these questions; John Robertson, in his The Case for the Enlightenment (2005), which uses the cases of Scotland and Naples to explore differences in modes of participation in common debates, offers a different vision; Dan Edelstein, in The Enlightenment: a genealogy (2010), adopts an entirely different approach, looking at how some thinkers and writers, initially in France, came to represent themselves and their age as ‘enlightened’. My own view, partly intuitive, partly arising from this scholarship, is that we never will agree on the character and boundaries of an entity termed ‘the Enlightenment’. But the category is not just diffcult to ditch, it also has heuristic use. Several different accounts of ‘the Enlightenment’ each in their own way help us to discern patterns, and to frame worthwhile questions. But even if (as I think), it’s acceptable to mix and match frameworks of reference, yet still (I would maintain) we need to be aware of which one we’re employing at any given time, and what its limitations are.

It’s not obvious that Ritchie Robertson agrees with this. He seems happy to dub people ‘Enlighteners’ without making clear on what basis he does that, and sometimes he reifies the Enlightenment: tells us for example that ‘the Enlightenment agreed’ on some point. At some level this doesn’t matter very much; it’s a mode of writing; he’s mostly concerned to give content to things that fall within generally accepted ‘Enlightenment’ parameters. Still, if there’s no clarity about criteria, the status of claims about what the Enlightened thought remains radically unclear. Do they amount to a definition of Enlightenment – are they specifying a criterion? Or are such statements synthetic, telling us something empirically verifiable about a set of people judged by other, unspecified criteria to be enlightened? Or are we being told that there was a general consensus among all serious thinkers at this time: is ‘Enlightenment’ operating in this instance just as the name of a period? If you’re the kind of reader who asks yourself questions like these, you’ll be left fretting, because they won’t be answered. Responding to this comment, the author said that he felt enough had been written about those issues by others, and it would be boring to harp on about them. Fair enough. I’m sure he has a point. Personally, I do fret a bit about such things.

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank,1819

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank (1819). (British Museum, public domain)

I also noted some fuzziness in the book’s treatment of the Enlightenment’s legacies. The book’s terminal date is 1790, though in fact it carries its account through the French Revolutionary Terror, that is, to 1794 (but not to post-Terror phases of the Revolution). What’s the argument for stopping precisely there, or indeed approximately there? In what senses were early nineteenth-century thinkers and rulers continuators of Enlightenment, or its heirs, and in what senses not? Like many other writers on the topic, Robertson doesn’t argue the case for stopping where he does; he just stops. He often uses Kant’s critical comments on enlightened traditions of thought to wrap up discussions, though – which might seem to imply that things did take a new direction in the last decades of the century, that is, not just because of the Revolution but also because of other shifts in thought. But then, in what sense and through what causal chain are we heirs to the Enlightenment, as the author often implies that we are? All this remains unclear.

Karen O’Brien in her comments picked up on another major theme of the book, the subject of its subtitle, indeed: The Pursuit of happiness. She noted that, as in other respects, and entirely legitimately, Ritchie Robertson builds on themes in recent scholarship. She suggested, however, that while the theme works convincingly as a recurrent motif, arguably – given the central role it’s assigned – it should have been given more analytical and discriminating attention. Robertson occasionally hints that there were a number of very different conceptions of happiness around (this emerges, for instance, in his account of ideas about punishment). But not much is made of these distinctions, or their implications for how thinkers subsequently diverged.

Tony La Vopa expressed appreciation especially of the book’s dialogic staging: the very suggestive way in which it brings different texts into conversation with each other. But he too noted some omissions which struck him as important. He said he was surprised that the book didn’t say more about the modern social theorists who have been among the Enlightenment’s most influential recent critics and interpreters: Horkheimer and Adorno; Foucault; Habermas. They’re noted, but briefly, and scarcely directly engaged with. The author explained that he had initially written more about Habermas at least, but his editor thought that this section should be cut. La Vopa also suggested that something important gets missed if one doesn’t say much about the Enlightenment’s penetration into everyday life. Inasmuch as Enlighteners engaged with religion, for example, they engaged with institutions, concepts and practices which touched people’s lives very deeply, for example, through the institution of marriage.

In his response, Ritchie Robertson largely agreed with panellists’ characterization of what the book does and doesn’t do, while defending or at least explaining his choices in terms of his own interests and his vision of the book’s mission. He said, remarkably, that this massive, very learned and very lucid book had been easy to write. His editor, Stuart Profitt, had somehow discerned that he had it in him, and, confronted with that proposition, he had found that it was true.

In the brief question period that followed, one of the most consequential questions came, to my mind, from the Hungarian historian László Kontler (though it came to Robertson and the panel in anonymous form; only YouTube watchers could see who asked what question). Kontler in his work has been preoccupied with the shape of the Enlightenment across the map: the different forms it took in different places; in what ways differently located thinkers interacted, and in what ways they cross-fertilised. One can’t rise far above the very particular in that line of enquiry without having to think hard about what one might mean by ‘Enlightenment’, in a context in which one’s going to want simultaneously to recognize some kind of unity and to admit difference. Kontler asked if chronologies of Enlightenment differ depending on one’s geographical focus. But this, like other definitional and demarcational issues, largely lies outside the agenda of Ritchie Robertson’s book.

Because the book doesn’t engage very directly with scholarly arguments, it’s not clear that it will reshape how scholars think about their subject. But who knows, perhaps it will, precisely by going around the back of those arguments, and implicitly at least posing new questions, which may help to shape the way a new generation, who grow up with this book, will think.

As to the place that Enlightenment occupies in our public culture: will it get caught up in the culture wars which politicians are reportedly pondering whether to stir up for political gain? Anything is possible, but this doesn’t look likely to me. It may figure in the occasional scrap, as over whether or not we should blacklist Hume. But by and large, wider dissemination of the notion that the Enlightenment was an important phase in history has, as I’ve noted, been associated with the diversification and geographical extension of the term’s scope. With any luck, we’ll keep seeing it as polyphonic, and all of us will find Enlighteners that we want to argue for, as well as ones that we want to argue with. Ritchie Robertson’s book – even if it doesn’t push diversification and geographical extension to anything like their limits – should help to advance this cause.

– Joanna Innes

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790, Allen Lane, 2020.

Our warm thanks to the editors of the Oxford magazine, where this review first appeared (no.429, Fifth week, Hilary term, 2021).

Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

“Combining profound linguistic sophistication with enviable literary style, Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman, two of today’s most esteemed scholars of Russian literature, have produced the definitive translation of Radishchev’s classic revolutionary cri de cœur.” – Douglas Smith, author of Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs

‘Each person is born into this world the equal of any other.’

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow

Alexander Radishchev, Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790).

This line opens a speech in the court trial of a family of serfs who killed their master in self-defence. This line and other statements about inequality, human rights, and social justice, are of crucial importance in Alexander Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow (1790). These ideas make this travelogue both a work ahead of its time in Russia, published seventy years before the Great Reforms of the 1860s, and a work that is completely contemporary to its time because the ideals expressed by Radishchev’s narrators are consistent with progressive movements of the 1790s. An experienced civil servant, Radishchev could have written out his positions on agrarian reform and serfdom in a treatise or a formal report. Instead he chose to cast his radical critique in the form of a journey. He published this work on a hand-press with dire personal consequences, facing first arrest and then exile. What may have been explosive then – and what is most relevant now – was not Radishchev’s policies on serfdom (he offered none in this work) but rather the arguments for human rights he espouses.

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC)

Title page of the first edition (Library of Congress, Washington DC).

The eighteenth century was a great age of journeys, real and fictional. Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed. While the Enlightenment generally promoted moral universals, it also relativized social practices, and by experiencing reality first-hand, travellers commented anthropologically on variations of ways of life near and far; dietary practices, marriage arrangements, sexual taboos, and human rights were thrown in the spotlight, indications of local customs that showed differences and consistencies in the application of universal human tendencies. The pioneering work in travel as comparative social science was Montesquieu’s Persian letters (Lettres persanes, 1721), and many later journeys dressed up philosophical enquiry as adventure. The Supplement to the Journey of Bougainville (Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, 1796), a masterpiece by Denis Diderot, considers the state of nature in which eighteenth-century Tahitians lived as a society. Polygamous family structures were naturally communist in property sharing, while colonization by outsiders wrought disease and poverty on the native population. Captain James Cook may have been a hero as an explorer, but from another standpoint his settlers had brought destruction. Similar in its use of travel as a vehicle for social critique was Guillaume Thomas Raynal’s A Philosophical and political history of the Two Indies (Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, 1770). A tale of travels full of tirades against colonial exploitation, unfair trade practices, and slave rebellions in the East Indies, South America, and elsewhere, the book was banned in France in 1779 and burned by France’s public executioner. Raynal escaped arrest by going first to the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia and then to St Petersburg where Catherine the Great offered him a warm reception. Raynal’s book was one that Radishchev had in his library and from which he quoted.

Fictional journeys provided defamiliarized perspectives on beliefs, attitudes, and customs as socially constructed

Alexander Radishchev

Alexander Radishchev (unknown painter).

In his travelogue Radishchev followed the example of other distinguished European writers in representing the societal ills and governance issues besetting his country; he uses a mixed form that combines novelistic stories, treatise-like speeches, and allegories in a way that is both specific and universal, realistic and abstract, targeting troubles that existed in one place but could happen in any society. This is the tradition in which Radishchev’s Journey from St Petersburg should be read. His journey follows a real postal route, with grumpy stationmasters and insufficient postal horses lending verisimilitude. His hero offers an outsider’s perspective on local practices and, like Diderot’s naturalist in Tahiti, he is particularly fascinated by the treatment of women, arranged marriages, sexual exploitation, and the ravages of venereal disease. And in the manner of Laurence Sterne (as well as of Nikolai Karamzin, whose work Radishchev may have read), Radishchev’s hero is brimming with virtue and tears. A readiness to weep may look quaint now, but in eighteenth-century literary symbolism, weeping was proof of a human capacity for empathy. Empathy, for the most important social theorists of the period such as Lord Kames and Adam Smith, is the bedrock of natural justice that societies must try to encode in law if they are to prevent discord and rebellion fomented by colonial and internal exploitation.

Yet what was Radishchev’s motivation to write this work? Russia had undergone multiple reforms during Catherine the Great’s long reign. In 1790, however, Catherine was seen, rightly or wrongly, as aged and more vulnerable to court factions and intrigues. Furthermore, there had been no progress on the question of serfdom just as the French Revolution inspired popular movements on a massive scale across Europe and the globe. Under some individual landholders, the plight of the serfs had improved. But for the vast majority of serfs (and we are talking about more than 90 per cent of the Russian Empire’s population), economic hardship was constant and unalleviated, exacerbated by other societal woes such as forced conscription and sexual exploitation – all topics that come up in this work.

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin

Catherine II by Alexander Roslin
(1776-77, Hermitage).

A prohibited book, the Journey’s radicalism was seen as implicitly revolutionary. But this is contestable. Instead, the Journey’s radicalism might be better understood again in the context of its time. Unlike Captain Cook or Josiah Banks, for example, Radishchev did not write about scientific or exploratory journeys. (His letters from Siberia, however, show how observant he was about local flora and fauna.) His work places him closer to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Raynal’s Philosophical and political history in taking a human rights-based perspective, and how Russian serfs are presented as equal members of society is one of the most striking positions adopted in the Journey. Peasants’ lives matter not just out of economic efficiency but because of natural justice, an argument made in the speech of a nobleman who justifies acts of violence as self-defence in the aforementioned trial of the two serfs.

In these lines, at a time when questions of economic equality and race are making headlines across the United States and around the world, one can see the relevance of Radishchev’s work to our present moment, especially in translation. The speech below uses a familiar vocabulary, one that reflects the Enlightenment values enshrined in other contemporary documents such as the American Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights:

“Man considered, therefore, outside society is a being dependent on nobody else for his own deeds. But he puts a limit on these, consents not to subordinate himself to his own will alone, and becomes obedient to the commands of other human beings, in a word becomes a citizen. For the sake of what cause does he restrain his desires? For what purpose does he set a power over himself? Unlimited in the exercise of his willpower, why does he limit it through obedience? – For his own sake, – says reason. – For his own sake, – says an inner voice. – For his own sake, – says wise legislation. It follows that where it is not in his interest to be a citizen there is no citizen. It follows, therefore, that whoever wants to deprive him of the advantage of being a citizen is his enemy. He seeks in the law defense and retribution against his enemy. If the law either does not have the power to defend him or does not wish to do so, or lacks the power to help him immediately in his present woe, then the citizen uses his natural right of defense, preservation, welfare. For the citizen, insofar as he has become a citizen, does not cease to be a person whose first duty, stemming from his organism, is preservation, defense, welfare.”

– Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman

The text of this contribution first appeared in the Columbia University Press blog in September 2020.

Lumières de Descartes. La première diffusion de la philosophie cartésienne dans le Royaume de Naples

Agatopisto Cromaziano, nom de plume de Appiano Buonafede, écrit dans son œuvre De l’histoire et de la nature de toute philosophie (Della istoria e della indole di ogni filosofia, 1788) que le ‘rétablissement philosophique cartésienne’ avait été un vrai obstacle épistémologique qui avait limité la diffusion de la science de Newton; en effet, pour Buonafede, la philosophie de Descartes était en Italie un mélange de quelques notions cartésiennes (les idées claires, les principes évidents) avec la philosophie de Galileo Galilei. Mais cette présentation de la philosophie de Renato (comme Giambattista Vico appelait Descartes) était fausse ou pour mieux dire elle voulait présenter une histoire de la philosophie italienne toute indépendante de la pensée de Descartes.

Giuseppe Valletta

Giuseppe Valletta (1636-1714), fondateur de l’Accademia degli investiganti.

Paolo Mattia Doria, Giambattista Vico et Giovanni Battista De Benedictis, entre autres, ont décrit Descartes comme un philosophe corrompu et épicurien, mais c’était seulement le premier impact d’une nouvelle philosophie sur une philosophie qui était en difficulté aprés la condamnation de Galilée. D’ailleurs, le rapprochement de Descartes et de l’atomisme antique est courant à l’époque, par exemple Pierre Bayle dans son Dictionnaire historique et critique, dans l’article ‘Démocrite’ écrit que ‘c’est encore Democrite qui a fourni aux Pyrrhoniens tout ce qu’ils ont dit contre le témoignage des sens; car outre qu’il avait accoutumé de dire que la Vérité était cachée au fond d’un puits, il soutenait qu’il n’y avait rien de réel que les atomes et le vide, et que tout le reste ne consistait qu’en opinion. C’est ce que les Cartésiens disent aujourd’hui touchant les qualités corporelles, la couleur, l’odeur, le son, le saveur, le chaud, le froid; ce ne sont, disent-ils, que des modifications de l’âme.’ Et comme pour Pierre Bayle, on peut se demander si Giuseppe Valletta, auteur d’une Lettre apologétique de défense de la philosophie moderne et de ses spécialistes (Lettera in difesa della moderna filosofia e de’ coltivatori di essa, 1791), a l’intention d’attirer l’attention sur les éléments de la physique atomiste – et pour Valletta la philosophie atomiste de Démocrite avait un origine Mosaïque – qu’on a cherché di christianiser en soulignant sur la foi chrétienne de Descartes, en opposition des théories impies, telles que le refus de l’immortalité de l’âme et l’éternité du monde, que Valletta assignait à la philosophie aristotélicienne.

Tommaso Cornelio

Tommaso Cornelio (1614-1684).

Mais pour bien comprendre la première diffusion de la pensée de Descartes, avant tout chose il faut souligner que c’est le philosophe Tommaso Cornelio qui, les derniers mois de l’année 1649, a fait connaître a Naples beaucoup des œuvres des philosophes étrangers, pas seulement Descartes, mais aussi Francis Bacon et Pierre Gassendi et d’autres encore. Et à Naples les textes de Descartes sont étudié dans le cadre d’une querelle anti-péripatéticien et anti-scholastique, qui explore d’un point de vue critique la philosophie de la nature de la Renaissance, en se référant sans intermédiaire aux théories de Kepler, de Galilée, Gassendi, Bacon et Descartes, mais aussi à des auctoritates anciennes tels que Démocrite et Lucrèce, Platon, Pythagore et Epicure. Mais il faut encore souligner que pour gagner contre l’opposition des aristotéliciens dans le Royaume de Naples, la philosophie de Descartes et de ses companions doit démontrer sa supériorité dans la médécine.

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica (Venetiis, F. Barba, 1663).

En effet les questions epistémologiques et scientifiques soulevées par la médecine engagent Tommaso Cornelio et ses amis de l’Accademia degli investiganti,  Leonardo Di Capua et Sebastiano Bartoli, et font gagner à l’Accademia une visibilité européenne dans l’an 1656, lorsque à Naples éclate une épidemie de peste. Cette pandémie marque un moment dramatique dans l’histoire de la ville: la médecine des savants fait l’expérience de son impuissance, tandis que la propagation devient irrésistible à cause de la paresse des autorités compétentes et l’ignorance des savants qui insistaient pour suivre les théories de Galien, contaminées avec des infiltrations astrologiques.

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli, 1656, par Micco Spadaro (Domenico Gargiulo) (c.1609-1610 – c.1675).

Et alors, Descartes n’est qu’un auteur, un philosophe, un savant, mais il se transforme en un symbole de la nouvelle philosophie, une nouvelle science que ne veut pas jurer sur les doctrines des anciens (nullius jurare in verba magistri) mais interroger la nature des choses. C’est la libertas philosophandi qui est le but des partisans de la philosophie cartésienne, c’est à dire de la philosophie moderne, et Giulia Belgioioso a suivi le parcours de Descartes à Naples en démontrant que ce n’est pas seulement la philosophie ou les œuvres de René Descartes mais aussi l’image différente du philosophe (La variata immagine di Descartes. Gli itinerari della metafisica tra Parigi e Napoli) qui est un emblème de la nouvelle science de la nature et, après l’épidémie du 1656, un modèle idéal pour les nouvelles recherches qui ont l’ambition de défaire l’émerveillement. Ettore Lojacono (Immagini di René Descartes nella cultura napoletana dal 1644 al 1755) écrit que cette ambition mêle la tradition aristotélicienne avec la pensée de Bacon et Descartes, selon lequel l’émerveillement est un motif de réflexion mais aussi le signe d’un état d’ignorance qui est dû surtout aux préjugés d’Aristote.

Leonardo Di Capua

Leonardo Di Capua (1617-1696).

Gaetano Tremigliozzi et Giacinto Gimma, dans une petite œuvre écrite pour défendre Carlo Musitano et la médecine moderne contre la médecine de Galien (Nuova Staffetta da Parnaso circa gli affari della Medicina pubblicata dal sig. Gaetano Tremigliozzi e dirizzata all’illustrissima Accademia degli Spensierati di Rossano, in Francfort, 1700) rapprochent Descartes et Hippocrate tels que partisans de la science médicale face aux partisans de Galien; modernité philosophique n’est pas seulement suivre la philosophie cartésienne ou baconienne mais, comme beaucoup des Novateurs, adopter une stratégie rhétorique qui a pour but d’isoler le philosophe péripatéticien et le médecin sectateur de Galien, en utilisant l’héritage de la philosophie de Démocrite, Epicure et Hippocrate.

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti (Naples, 1689), page de titre.

Les premières lumières de Descartes dans l’Italie du Sud étaient lumières d’un physician proche à la révolution scientifique mais elles sont surtout les lumières d’un philosophe qui n’est pas encore devenu le philosophe du Cogito. Et il faut attendre l’an 1755 pour la première traduction de Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice du Discours de la méthode (Dissertazione del sig. Renato Des Cartes sul metodo di ben condurre la sua ragione e di cercare la verità nelle scienze), traduction presque inconnue et sur laquelle a attiré l’attention Ettore Lojacono, et encore dans cette traduction la métaphysique de Descartes n’a pas la première place, face à la querelle sur l’âme des bêtes: à savoir, la diffusion de la philosophie de Descartes dans le Royaume de Naples a été surtout une réflexion sur la science et la médécine de la modernité.

Fabio A. Sulpizio

The Digitizing Enlightenment ‘twitterstorm’ of 3 August 2020

This past week our publication partner, Liverpool University Press, shipped out copies of Digitizing Enlightenment: digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies, edited by Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe, the July volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

Rousseau’s Premier Discours

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Rousseau’s Premier Discours, on the question ‘Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs’.

To help launch this important book, on Monday 3 August Burrows and Roe, joined by Melanie Conroy, one of the contributors, organized a ‘twitterstorm’, inviting dix-huitiémistes working on digital humanities projects of any sort to post links of their work on Twitter, tagged with #DigitizingEnlightenment.

Over the course of 48 hours stretching from first light Sunday morning in eastern Australia to midnight Monday night on the Pacific coast of the United States, 112 unique tweets were posted from 28 accounts. The sequence of posts may be read, in reverse chronological order, here.

To enlighten and enliven the discussion, and in the spirit of eighteenth-century intellectual exchange, the Voltaire Foundation sponsored a competition, asking for the most creative and thoughtful response to the question: ‘Has the rise of  #dh been a boon or a barrier to #C18 studies?’

Twelve individuals posted responses, and the jury – consisting of Burrows, Roe and Conroy – deploying a sophisticated algorithm, ranked the entries and identified three runners-up and two winners.

The three runners-up were:

Helen Williams


As a first-gen scholar in the North East teaching & researching at a post-92 institution, #DigitizingEnlightenment is a boon, making the #18thcentury accessible & bringing diverse new voices, projects & approaches to scholarship & study. Many of us wouldn’t be here without it.

– Helen Williams (@helen189) August 3, 2020

Bryan Banks


Really excited to see this book come out!@SimonBu86342933 @glennhroe @MelanieConroy1 put the #DH in 𝐝ix-𝐡uitiemistes.

Today’s organized hashtag #DigitizingEnlightenment, like much DH work more broadly, makes the #18thC more legible and accessible to us today./1 https://t.co/IajlYLtPWk

– Bryan Banks (@BryanBanksPhD) August 3, 2020

Russell Goulbourne


Definitely a boon – because it’s the #DH analysis of huge numbers of texts that allows us to see that it’s precisely in the 1760s, at the height of the Enlightenment, that boon comes to mean “a benefit enjoyed”. QED. #DigitizingEnlightenment

– Russell Goulbourne (@FrenchProfessor) August 3, 2020

And now the winners:

Chad Wellmon

As Kant wrote 200+ years ago, DH has been a boon to #C18 studies. It’s a no-brainer @VoltaireOxford: “It is so easy to be immature. If I have a [computer] that has understanding for me, surely I do not need to trouble myself.” I. Kant, “An Answer to the Question ‘What is DH?’” https://t.co/wIGQJDT7p4

– chad wellmon (@cwellmon) August 3, 2020


Megan K. Roberts

I hate to be the lone skeptic, but I am concerned about the influence of #DH and #DigitizingEnlightenment on the field. Some projects are wonderful for research and teaching, but I worry that others place too much emphasis on an extremely select group of French philosophes.

– Meghan Roberts (@MeghanKRoberts) August 3, 2020


Both winners received copies of Digitizing Enlightenment as well as OSE’s June 2019 title, another volume of essays which deployed digital humanities methods to study the eighteenth century, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmonston and Dan Edelstein.

As a supplement to the printed books, the data visualizations, tables and figures, as well as a portion of the text for each of these two volumes, are accessible on open access on the OSE ‘Digital Collaboration Hub’, built on the Manifold Scholar platform and hosted by Liverpool University Press. These may be accessed, appropriately, at http://digitizingenlightenment.com

Thanks to all who participated – and we all hope to be able to renew the annual ‘Digitizing Enlightenment’ symposium in July 2021, to be hosted at the University of Montpellier, in the context of the ‘Enquête sur la globalisation des Lumières’ initiative.

– Gregory S. Brown

NB: For the month of August, copies of Digitizing Enlightenment are available for purchase at a 25% discount. Purchasers in North America may order from the OUP-Global site using the code “DISTRO25” and purchasers anywhere else in the world, including UK, Europe and Australia,  may order from the LUP site using the code “DIGITIZING25“.

Free thinking in secret

We all have secret thoughts which are occasionally betrayed by an unexpected gesture, an uncontrolled facial expression, a peculiar lapsus… which express at an awkward moment precisely what we wanted, or were supposed, to hide. All the secret services of all political regimes rely on that kind of clue to detect clandestine dissidents. But even if we are not all revolutionary rebels or terrorists, the simple conventions of everyday sociability make us very conscious of the necessity of self-censorship and the constraints bearing on the public sphere and even on mundane conversation. When we perceive signs of divergence in others, we judge them according to circumstances and quickly make a feasible interpretation – which may remain secret…

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève.

It does not seem to me to be totally extravagant to imagine the birth and spread of free thought in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries on the same model. We know that there existed in France a strict system of censorship, that the punishments inflicted on free thinkers were drastic and that the Bastille, the Vincennes dungeon and the place de Grève (where executions were carried out) were well-known to careless or reckless writers and booksellers. In this context, can we not expect free thought to have found expression in subtle and ambiguous texts addressed to an élite of intellectual accomplices? Isn’t it obvious that texts of that period should be read “between the lines” if one is to discover the undercover coherence and the true intention of the author?

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library.

The proceedings of the conference organised at the Mazarine library on The Secret Thoughts of Academicians: Fontenelle and his fellow-members – published in the latest number of the periodical La Lettre clandestine (Paris, Garnier: no 28, 2020)  – assume a positive answer to that question.

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière.

There were indeed many  Academicians who secretly contributed to the spread of free thought: Fontenelle, Lévesque de Pouilly and his brother Lévesque de Burigny, Fréret, Terrasson, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Voltaire, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Mirabaud, Naigeon are here studied in depth, as are the conditions of censorship and the circulation of clandestine manuscripts among specialised booksellers and the critical judgement on them offered by Louis Racine, the cardinal de Bernis and by the journalists of the Society of Jesus. A good number of clandestine manuscripts – and in particular those that belonged to the family of Mme Du Châtelet, identified by Maria Susana Seguin – are now kept at the Mazarine Library in Paris.

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard. (Getty Images / The Bridgeman Art Library)

Rather than resume too briefly the many articles published here, I would like to offer a short reflection – based on recent research by Gianluca Mori – on the approach to reading and interpretation that they suggest and on the coherence of the history of free thought of which they give us a glimpse. The historian Oskar Kristeller used to claim that the reputation of Italian scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries as unbelievers and atheists was a false retrospective view of the Paduan professors imposed by French scholars whose historical vision was distorted by their interest in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Despite research published by Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, this thesis – which excludes any covert intention on the part of Cremonini and Pomponazzi in particular – was maintained by the American scholar Richard Popkin in his works on La Mothe Le Vayer, and has more recently been theorised by the Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner.

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

However, it obviously imposes very narrow limits on any enquiry concerning authors of the modern period (16th-18th century): since these authors publicly declare their orthodox opinions, tainted by skepticism and fideism, it becomes impossible to suspect them of entertaining heterodox convictions or of being the authors of anti-Christian writings. To my mind, this prejudice is blown apart as we read the articles devoted to Fontenelle and his colleagues: the modern period is marked by the abyss between public and private life, between professions of faith and philosophical convictions. As is demonstrated by the research of Jean-Pierre Cavaillé on “libertinism”, of Alain Mothu on Bonaventure des Périers and of Gianluca Mori on Guy Patin, and as is made manifest by Molière’s comedies and Pierre Bayle’s published works, the Academicians were heirs to a long tradition of dis/simulation. The cat is now out of the bag.

– Antony McKenna

Digitizing the Enlightenment

As country after country has gone into COVID-19 lockdown, we have all had to learn to communicate, network, teach, study and relate online in ways unimaginable a few short years – or even months – ago. This phenomenon is just the latest stage in the information-technology revolution and part and parcel of the ongoing development of an increasingly digital society. This revolution has touched almost every aspect of our lives, from how we work, study, shop, relax and even make and maintain personal relationships. But it is also transforming scholarship and the way we conduct and communicate academic research. Thus, it is perhaps apt, and with consummate good timing, that Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment has chosen to subject tag our new volume as ‘History of Scholarship (Principally of Social Sciences and Humanities)’. Yet this is certainly not how we and our collaborators envisaged our project at the outset, nor can any single tag capture the content of our volume and its collaborative agenda in its entirety.

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo, designed by Evan Casey for the Voltaire Foundation, featured on the cover of Digitizing Enlightenment.

Ironically, as we write, Digitizing Enlightenment is also a living movement – or at least a loose network of scholars who meet annually in pursuit of a common agenda. That agenda was born in a series of conversations that took place from 2010, culminating in Dan Edelstein’s post-panel suggestion at the American Historical Association conference at Montreal in April 2014 that we should hold periodic meetings between like-minded digital projects relating to the Enlightenment. The aim of these meetings would be to establish common conventions and digital standards, with a view to linking our resources and realising the enormous and still largely untapped potential of Linked Open Data. Those present for Dan’s suggestion – Simon Burrows, Jeff Ravel, Sean Takats and Dan himself – have all provided chapters for our book, but much of the energy behind Digitizing Enlightenment since has come from Glenn Roe, who Simon had first encountered a month earlier in Australia, where they had both recently taken up academic positions.

It was this fortuitous coincidence, underpinned by the fertile combination of Simon’s professorial establishment funds and Glenn’s energy, together with their mutual contact books, that led to Western Sydney University hosting the first Digitizing Enlightenment symposium in July 2016. Among the projects discussed there, and in our book, were large-scale treatments of Enlightenment correspondences, theatre attendance records, and textual corpora including the mid-eighteenth century Encyclopédie; bibliometric projects were presented on the production and dissemination of literature; together with presentations on mapping and data visualization growing out of these projects. The symposium was so well received that it has been an annual event ever since. It was held at Radboud University in Nijmegen (2017), Oxford (2018), Edinburgh (2019). In 2020, but for COVID-19, it would have been held in Montpellier.

It was not entirely by chance that such a project coalesced around the guiding notion of the ‘Enlightenment’. For the long eighteenth century has been blessed by a number of high-profile and long-established digital projects. These include ground-breaking commercial datasets such as Gale-Cengage’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), which features in several of our chapters, semi-commercial projects such as the Electronic Enlightenment and large academic consortiums such as the Franco-American ARTFL project. This made the Enlightenment a natural laboratory for exploring the possibilities and achievements of the Digital Humanities for transforming scholarship on a single historical era. Further, as our book emphases, our discussions built on a long tradition of digital innovation in eighteenth-century studies that can be traced back at least as far as the twin Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIe siècle volumes produced by a team led by François Furet in 1965 and 1970. It might further be added that our over-arching subject material lends itself to digital-historical analysis; the Enlightenment might after all be viewed as the long-run culmination of the intellectual turmoil and – as several contributors point out – information overload unleashed by a previous technological and communications revolution.

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

With this in mind, then, we offer up Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies as rather more than a contribution to the history of scholarship. Certainly, we have offered a sample of Digital Humanities c. 2016-2020, as it relates to the technologies available and their application to Enlightenment studies broadly construed. In addition, the first half of the book offers detailed accounts of the origins and development of key Enlightenment digital projects up until that point, accompanied by valuable and sometimes disarming insights on the dangers and delights of digital research from foremost practitioners in the field. These chapters, as well as some later contributions, are helping to reshape some dominant meta-narratives of the Enlightenment, not least by hinting simultaneously at the enduring aristocratic leadership of the French Enlightenment and the extent to which Enlightenment literary production and consumption was infused with religious content. However, our contributors also showcase other ways that Digital Humanities scholarship is in the process of changing the field through the transparency, methodological rigour, and collaborative imperatives that are necessary concomitants of this new kind of research. Finally, the book offers a collaborative roadmap for future digital research – at a moment where, as our final contributor, Sean Takats points out, the Enlightenment is fast losing its privileged position as the most richly digitized century of the modern era. As a corollary, we hope that our volume may be as useful to scholars of other periods as for Enlightenment scholars themselves.

– Simon Burrows (Western Sydney University) and Glenn Roe (Sorbonne University)

Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe are the editors of the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies, which is the first book length survey of the impact of digital humanities on our understanding of a key historical period and paradigm.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Virtue in crisis: Enlightenment perspectives

With frightening speed, COVID-19 has brought about a global crisis. In western democracies the phenomenon was first tracked and measured from a distance, then discovered to be not just ‘their’ problem, but ‘ours’ too. In the process, common behaviours were subjected to new scrutiny; with the virus, moral sentiment proliferated. Formerly anodyne acts were proclaimed to be vices, twinned with equal and opposite virtues. Politicians devised lists of what may and may not be done, and other lists, of what should and should not be done. These lists concerning ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are in fact a plea for civic virtue: if the majority are sufficiently virtuous, the nation will be healed. Striking a utilitarian note, certain commentators began to argue that the good of some must now be sacrificed for the good of all, and current lives, for future prosperity.

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life. Engraving by G. Vidal after Ch. Monnet. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the Enlightenment era, natural disasters, contagions, and wars also fed debates about civic (and other) virtues. Then as now, these were embedded in larger discussions of morality, the common good, and the relation between individual citizens and the polity. For instance, we may recall an exchange that took place between Rousseau and Voltaire, following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Voltaire wrote a poem expressing rage against Optimists who might still argue, with Alexander Pope, that ‘partial evil’ is ‘universal good’. In the case of the Lisbon earthquake, ‘partial evil’ would consist in many thousands of deaths. Yet according to Voltaire’s Optimists (whom he addresses as ‘wretched mathematicians of human suffering’), universal good would be sustained by those very deaths. After all, children could inherit their parents’ wealth, stone masons find employment, and animals feast on rotting corpses. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau objected that the disastrous effect of the earthquake was not tied to some unfathomable cosmic riddle. It was, rather, the consequence of the European tendency to live in large cities, where so many are exposed at once to a single danger; and neither God nor nature, but humanity was responsible for this. More generally, as in his celebrated Second Discourse, Rousseau argues that, as it pursues what (other) philosophes see as progress, civilisation reaps what it sows.

If we can hear echoes of such debates in contemporary life, it is because we are, in important respects, heirs of the Enlightenment. Many of us think about virtue and the common good in an entirely secular way; our moral duties are owed, we feel, not to God, but to our fellow citizens. It makes sense to describe this as a ‘post-Enlightenment’ view. After all, it counted as a bold step when, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle wrote that a society of atheists might be capable of virtue.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, secularisation, linked by the historian Paul Hazard to a ‘crisis of the European mind’, had gained extensive ground. In France, atheistic thinkers suggested that virtuous behaviour should be understood as whatever contributes to the common good in this, the only life we have. Diderot and the materialist coterie of the baron d’Holbach, for instance, tended towards this view. But Voltaire and Rousseau, who abhorred atheism, were secularisers, too; for they rejected ecclesiastical explanations of the Lisbon earthquake (or anything else). In brief, secularisation in France was in the first instance a case of pushing back against the mundane influence of the Church and its theology. We should be wary, however, of casting a few major writers as the isolated prophets of secular modernity. If there was a crisis of the European mind, it was caused by a nexus of cultural, social and historical forces which far exceeded the ‘Republic of Letters’.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2020

James Fowler is the co-editor of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Enlightenment Virtue, 1680-1794, in which contributors analyse complex and shifting relations between religious and civic virtue during the Age of Enlightenment.

During the Revolution, various factions laid claim to civic virtue. Speaking for the Montagnards, Robespierre asserted, not only that virtue was the essence of the (French) Republic, but that Terror could be an ‘Emanation of virtue’. He also echoed those, including Rousseau, who (had) admired the ‘male’ virtues of Sparta, or other ancient republics. Despite women’s participation in the Revolution, the virtues prescribed by the Terror were gendered ones; indeed, what was virtue in a man might be vice in a woman. The Moniteur universel of 17 November 1793 held up three recently executed women as examples of vice: Marie Antoinette; ‘la femme Roland’ (married to the Girondin Jean Roland); and Olympe de Gouges (author of a Declaration of the Rights of Woman). The former queen was a ‘bad mother’ and ‘debauched wife’; as for the others, they had in different ways ‘forgotten the virtues of their sex’. For a brief period, at least, it must have seemed that the state did not distinguish between private, public, and gendered virtue, nor between unvirtuous thoughts and crimes against the nation. Public executions became, as never before, virtue’s instrument.

In moments of national crisis, we tend to inquire, earnestly and urgently, what should count as civic virtue. If only half-consciously, we may turn to notions of the common good, especially utilitarian ones, which we have inherited from the Enlightenment era. Certainly, that period is an excellent place to start if we wish to put the current debate into historical perspective.

– Dr James Fowler, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.