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

https://twitter.com/helen189/status/1290261481062375425?s=20

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

https://twitter.com/BryanBanksPhD/status/1290245758059388929?s=20

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

https://twitter.com/FrenchProfessor/status/1290215320091635720?s=20

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

https://twitter.com/cwellmon/status/1290310792156450819?s=20

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

https://twitter.com/MeghanKRoberts/status/1290281237089665024?s=20

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.

The ‘Rights of Man’: Our debt to the Enlightenment?

Barely a week passes without some news story, from somewhere around the globe, involving human rights – most often, sadly, a story of their violation. But how far back does the story of human rights itself go? How deeply rooted in history is the idea that human beings have rights that they can assert against state and other forms of power?

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This is not a question a single book can answer. But Vincenzo Ferrone’s new book The Enlightenment and the Rights of Man goes further than most. It tells the story how, in Western Europe, the notion of the rights of human beings grew and took root, from beginnings in the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The starting point is natural law theory. This itself has foundations in antiquity and medieval thought. But it was in the seventeenth century, with figures such as Grotius and Pufendorf, that it was elaborated into a fully worked-out body of thought. The rights of individuals were in fact not one of its primary concerns. But in allowing for a source of law that lay beyond the limits of existing or ‘positive’ law, it made room for an idea of individual rights that pre-dated and could claim priority over the law of the state. It was this idea that later thinkers such as Locke, Barbeyrac, Rousseau, and Filangieri could take up and develop. What was needed, finally, was for talented popularizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Mirabeau, and Schiller to spread the gospel of the rights of man to public opinion at large – which, as Ferrone shows, they did with gusto, and with considerable success. Through their efforts, the rights of man were entrenched in public discourse, becoming a political cause in the process.

This of course is not to say that the political programme of the rights of man has ever been universally accepted. On the contrary, it has been contested, and has suffered numerous setbacks. Ferrone indeed closes his book with the story of one such defeat.

It concerns the short-lived order of the Illuminati, an offshoot of freemasonry. Committed to radical political aims, it was founded in 1776 and banned in 1784. The fear of its influence, exaggerated for propagandistic purposes by its enemies, led to repressive measures in a number of jurisdictions, both Catholic and Protestant. The excesses of the French Revolution after 1792 did the rest to discredit claims to individual human rights in large parts of Europe. The revival of the idea, in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, lies beyond the scope of the book.

For Ferrone himself the cause of human rights, as formulated in and by the Enlightenment, is far from spent. In a time when many have queried the legacy of the Enlightenment, he delivers a passionate defence of its central claims. But whatever side of the argument you are on, you will find in his book a narrative that gives ample food for thought. The case for the illumination provided by intellectual history is rarely made as forcefully as it is here.

– Kevin Hilliard

 

L’édition Kehl de Voltaire, une aventure éditoriale et littéraire au tournant des Lumières (2ème partie)

La richesse extraordinaire de l’histoire de l’édition de Kehl provient de l’alliance entre deux projets, l’un éditorial et l’autre idéologique. La combinaison inédite de ces enjeux, portés par des hommes aussi différents que Decroix, Ruault, Beaumarchais et Condorcet, présente un cas exemplaire de ce qu’ont pu être les Lumières. Non pas un idéal uniforme partagé par un groupe d’individus décidés à affronter un ennemi commun, mais bien plutôt, comme le rappelle T. Todorov, une «multiplicité redoutable» d’individus et d’idées, dont le débat et la confrontation font émerger «un esprit commun des Lumières» (T. Todorov, «L’esprit des Lumières», dans Lumières! Un héritage pour demain, Paris, 2006). Mon ouvrage a donc pour ambition de retrouver la «position» exacte de ces éditeurs au sein de la société des Lumières (pour reprendre le mot de Beuchot dans sa Préface générale aux Œuvres complètes de Voltaire), de reconstituer les étapes de leur travail et d’en analyser les enjeux.

L’archive des premiers éditeurs posthumes de Voltaire permet aussi de lire au quotidien, pendant la décennie qui va de 1779 à 1789, le vécu personnel, intellectuel et sensible, des auteurs de l’édition dite «de Kehl», du nom de cette bourgade allemande dans laquelle Beaumarchais a implanté l’imprimerie de sa Société Littéraire Typographique. Pour Beaumarchais, Condorcet et leurs deux principaux collaborateurs, Nicolas Ruault et Jacques Decroix, la relation à Voltaire est à la fois affective, philosophique et politique. Dans leur correspondance, au détour des informations techniques sur l’avancement du travail éditorial, ils racontent l’histoire de leur relation à l’œuvre du patriarche, détaillent les raisons de leur admiration, dialoguent avec ses idées, réagissent à la lecture des volumes qu’ils sont en train de constituer et aux aléas de l’entreprise dans laquelle ils se sont engagés.

Apothéose de Voltaire

Apothéose de Voltaire, dédiée a sa Majesté le roi de Prusse (1782), par R.G Dardel et P.F. Legrand. Image Gallica/BnF.

À elle seule, la correspondance de Ruault permet de suivre la trajectoire d’un intellectuel attentif aux petits et aux grands événements qui marquent la décennie pendant laquelle se joue le premier destin posthume de Voltaire. Il compose une fresque vivante de la vie parisienne, et en livre un témoignage vivant et attentif, marqué par une sensibilité pour la nouveauté, dans le domaine esthétique, social et politique. Il a conscience de la singularité et de l’historicité de sa condition et de son individualité. Son engagement intellectuel est à la fois le produit du hasard et d’un déterminisme culturel, qu’il présente ainsi: «Je suis tout dévoué à la bonne cause, soyez-en bien persuadé. C’est une passion que j’ai eue dès qu’un charitable philosophe m’a ouvert les yeux à la lumière, dans ma province de Normandie, et dans mon adolescence, six semaines après ma première communion. Je l’ai conservée, cette noble passion, et tel que vous me connaissez j’ai fait des adeptes; d’abord trois frères cadets, dont deux sont prêtres et disent hautement et bassement la messe dans leur église cathédrale et paroissiale. Dans leur intérieur, ils sont pénétrés, pour cette belle et très utile cérémonie de tout le respect qu’elle mérite. J’en connais beaucoup d’autres qui ont les mêmes sentiments et qui se gardent bien de s’en vanter» (Ruault à Decroix, 21 avril 1784).

Jouant comme Voltaire du registre biblique, il définit son engagement au service de la cause philosophique: «Je ne me lasserai jamais, mon cher philosophe, de travailler, même obscurément, pour la propagande philosophique. Si le bon et grand esprit m’avait départi plus de talent, je n’aurais pas été fâché d’être au nombre des Apôtres; mais le sort veut que je sois réduit à être leur très humble serviteur. Je m’en console facilement. On dit que l’obscurité est heureuse; je n’en sais rien encore. Apparemment on est heureux sans le savoir, et qu’il en est de ce bonheur-là comme de la santé dont on ne fait cas que quand on l’a perdue» (Ruault à Decroix, 8 juin 1786).

Volumes de la correspondance de Voltaire dans l’édition in-12 de 1785

Volumes de la correspondance de Voltaire dans l’édition in-12 de 1785.

Ces archives exceptionnelles, éparpillées dans des collections publiques et privées, en Europe et au-delà, rassemblées pour la première fois, nous invitent à pénétrer dans l’atelier des éditeurs. Decroix use d’ailleurs d’une métaphore culinaire pour définir ce travail: «On peut au besoin déguiser un peu les ragoûts. C’est l’art des cuisiniers; et comme nous avons entrepris de donner un fort bon repas à l’Europe et au monde entier, il ne faut pas en négliger les entremets» (Decroix à Nicolas Ruault, 8 octobre 1784).

Decroix est l’un des premiers lecteurs de la Correspondance qu’ils sont en train d’éditer: «Que cette correspondance générale est un excellent cours de morale et de philosophie! Que les malheureux y trouvent de consolation en y voyant les tourments et les persécutions répandus sur toute la vie d’un grand homme, le courage et la résignation avec lesquels il supporte les événements de la vie et l’heureuse conviction du néant des choses humaines dont on y est frappé presque à chaque page. Je sens mes chagrins allégés en tenant le livre, mais le taedium vitae revient quand je le quitte» (Decroix à Ruault, 23 janvier 1789).

Beaumarchais, dans une lettre au prince Youssoupov datée de 1791, évoque une rencontre à Paris, qu’il date du 1er avril 1778, rencontre au cours de laquelle Voltaire lui aurait confié la mission d’éditer ses œuvres complètes: «Ce fruit de mon attachement pour l’écrivain de notre siècle a coupé ma fortune en deux: mais malgré le gouvernement, le clergé, tous les parlements, et des dangers de toute espèce, j’ai tenu parole à l’Europe en rendant gloire ouvertement à l’étonnant vieillard qui m’avait dit presque en mourant, en me serrant dans ses bras décharnés: Mon Beaumarchais, je n’espère qu’en vous: vous seul en aurez le courage! Je l’ai eu seul, mon prince. Voltaire est glorifié: je ne regrette point mes pertes; et les 15 mille francs de votre impératrice sont, ma foi, la moindre de toutes» (Beaumarchais au Prince Youssoupov, 12 novembre 1791).

Voltaire assis, par J.A. Houdon.

Voltaire assis, par J.A. Houdon.

Le discours des éditeurs est empreint d’une sensibilité politique marquée par une forte dimension affective et personnelle, en prise avec les événements. Leur expérience exceptionnelle en a fait des «gens à aventures extraordinaires» (Ruault à son frère, 25 avril 1785). Animés par une énergie caractéristique des Lumières combattantes de la dernière décennie, les éditeurs de Voltaire ont eu conscience de braver une hydre, un monstre institutionnel, l’«Infâme» puissant et violent que Voltaire avait identifié comme la cible de son combat. Témoins et acteurs de leur temps, ils ont perçu avec une lucidité et une sensibilité remarquables l’enjeu du rapport de force qui s’est noué autour de l’édition des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire pendant cette décennie qui précède la Révolution française.

La perfection recherchée par les éditeurs ne sera jamais atteinte. Nicolas Ruault concluait philosophiquement: «Vous garderez cela pour l’édition que l’on fera sans doute à Paris dans le 19e siècle qui n’est pas loin d’ici. Je crois que ce 19e vaudra mieux que le 18e; que le 20e vaudra mieux encore que le 19e; et ainsi des autres, usque ad finem, s’il y a une fin à ce qui est, à ce qui sera etc . Pour moi je crois à l’éternité de l’esprit et de la matière, sous quelque forme qu’ils se montrent» (Nicolas Ruault à Jacques Joseph Marie Decroix, 23 mai 1786). De quoi nous faire réfléchir à l’heure où s’achève la nouvelle édition des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire réalisée à Oxford, sous l’égide de la Voltaire Foundation.

– Linda Gil

L’édition Kehl de Voltaire, une aventure éditoriale et littéraire au tournant des Lumières (1ère partie)

Strasbourg

Strasbourg, sa citadelle et le fort de Kehl avec tous les ouvrages qui ont été construits pendant la paix, par Du Chaffat capitaine et ingénieur de la Rep. d’Ulm et J. G. Ringlin. 1735. Image BnF/Gallica.

C’est en face de Strasbourg, sur la frontière franco-allemande, une forteresse construite par Vauban en 1683, située sur les rives du Rhin, que Beaumarchais fit installer, en 1780, une imprimerie où furent confectionnés les volumes de la grande édition de Kehl des œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Quarante presses, deux cents employés, dix ans furent nécessaires pour réaliser cette édition monumentale, que Beaumarchais voulait «le plus beau monument littéraire et typographique de ce siècle».

Le libraire Panckoucke est à l’origine de cette histoire éditoriale. En 1777, son intérêt commercial croise l’ambition de Voltaire de revenir à Paris après vingt-huit ans d’exil. Entre Ferney et Paris, les derniers mois du patriarche se passent à réviser ses écrits. Après sa mort, Panckoucke récupère les manuscrits de Voltaire et tente de réaliser l’édition. Trop d’obstacles matériels, économiques, politiques se dressent face à son entreprise. Il cède son projet à Beaumarchais en février 1779. L’édition de Voltaire fait alors l’objet d’une transaction inédite : les manuscrits et droits d’impression sont revendus pour une somme globale de cent mille écus. C’est la première fois dans l’histoire que l’œuvre d’un écrivain acquiert un tel prix, tout en étant interdite. Portant sur la vente des manuscrits et des droits d’édition, le contrat détaille par une série de clauses les conditions de la transaction et de l’association.

Beaumarchais, par Jean-Marc Nattier (vers 1755).

Beaumarchais, par Jean-Marc Nattier (vers 1755).

Beaumarchais se lance dans cette entreprise en disciple fervent de Voltaire: «Ce ne sera qu’en lisant cette édition complète, qui se prépare avec tant de soin, qu’on connaîtra tout entier cet homme qui fut véritablement extraordinaire en toute chose», annonce l’un des avis publiés dans la presse. Lui aussi, comme Panckoucke, est confronté à des obstacles sans nombre. Il met toute son énergie, son talent de polémiste et d’écrivain au service de son combat. Face aux risques de censure, il donne à ses plaidoyers la forme de comédies: «Vous avez offert de n’imprimer les œuvres d’aucun auteur vivant. Bene sit; de ne vous jamais prévaloir sur des terres du prince en Alsace. Bene sit; de ne pas ajouter un mot aux œuvres du grand homme qui puisse choquer les opinions ou les mœurs très austères de notre siècle timoré. Bene sit mais nous ne châtrerons point notre auteur, crainte que tous les lecteurs de l’Europe qui le désirent tout entier ne disent à leur tour en le voyant ainsi mutilé: Ah che schiagura d’aver lo senza coglioni! Et quels sots pédants étaient ses tristes éditeurs!»

L’enquête que je mène dans mon ouvrage s’appuie sur des archives en grande partie inédites et s’attache à restituer cette histoire du livre dans tous ses aspects: enjeux typographiques et commerciaux, épistémologie et pensée du livre, innovations éditoriales, enjeux politiques de la transmission du patrimoine voltairien à la veille de la Révolution française, censure théologique et parlementaire.

Condorcet, portrait anonyme.

Condorcet, portrait anonyme.

Frédéric II, admirateur de Voltaire, avait perçu l’enjeu de la transmission de l’œuvre de Voltaire: «Les écrits de Virgile, d’Horace et de Cicéron ont vu détruire le Capitole, Rome même; ils subsistent, on les traduit dans toutes les langues, et ils resteront tant qu’il y aura dans le monde des hommes qui pensent, qui lisent et qui aiment à s’instruire. Les ouvrages de Voltaire auront la même destinée; je lui fais tous les matins ma prière, je lui dis: Divin Voltaire, ora pro nobis!» (Frédéric II à D’Alembert, 22 juin 1780).

C’est Condorcet, disciple et compagnon de route de Voltaire pendant ses dernières années, qui est chargé de sélectionner, de classer, d’établir, d’annoter les écrits de son maître. En marge, il fournit un commentaire qui s’apparente davantage à un dialogue vivant, tourné vers l’avenir, qu’à un simple commentaire critique. Dans l’Avertissement général, au tome 1, il jette un regard rétrospectif sur son travail: «Permettra-t-on aux rédacteurs de placer ici une remarque qui les a frappés ? Personne n’admirait plus sincèrement qu’eux M. de Voltaire: personne n’avait plus lu ses ouvrages; cependant en revoyant dans la nouvelle édition ces mêmes ouvrages distribués avec ordre, et de manière qu’on puisse en saisir l’ensemble, M. de Voltaire s’est encore agrandi à leurs yeux, et ils ont appris que jusque-là ils ne l’avaient pas connu tout entier».

Page de titre du t.1 de l’édition de Kehl de 1785.

Page de titre du t.1 de l’édition de Kehl de 1785.

L’édition de Kehl présente en effet un cas particulier dans la bibliographie des éditions voltairiennes: elle fonde une nouvelle tradition éditoriale, mettant en œuvre une série d’innovations économiques et commerciales, littéraires, intellectuelles et éditoriales. L’enjeu est une nouvelle définition de l’idée d’œuvre et d’auteur. C’est la première édition posthume des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, la première à faire l’objet d’une souscription. Elle inaugure également la publication de la correspondance, conçue comme un corpus à part entière. Complétée par une Vie de Voltaire, elle est pensée comme un ensemble complet, visant à présenter l’intégralité d’une trajectoire humaine et littéraire. Le corpus doit être définitif, grâce à un effort d’exhaustivité, de classement et de répartition. Il doit préparer l’avenir, et fonder la postérité littéraire, philosophique et politique de Voltaire. Il introduit une nouvelle réception de l’œuvre, par la classification, par le commentaire et l’annotation, écrits dans les marges, et par l’illustration, qui propose une nouvelle scansion des textes.

Visant à la fois la continuation, la synthèse et le dépassement du corpus tel qu’il se constitue progressivement du vivant de Voltaire, le projet s’élabore grâce à la volonté conjointe de l’auteur et de ses éditeurs, avant de prendre la forme d’un manifeste pour les temps nouveaux. (à suivre / to be continued)

– Linda Gil

Linda Gil est Maître de conférence à l’université de Montpellier Paul-Valéry et membre de l’Institut de recherche sur la Renaissance, l’âge Classique et les Lumières, IRCL, UMR 5186 du CNRS.