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.

Voltaire’s Louis XV, from bien-aimé to mal-aimé

The French victory at Fontenoy in 1745 provided Voltaire, newly appointed historiographe de France, with a welcome opportunity. Present with the French army on 11 May had been Louis XV himself, at his best on campaign and already nicknamed le bien-aimé. Voltaire had a distinct turn for flattery when it suited him. What could be more fitting than the composition of an account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’?

This is the context for the first half of what became Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29A). After Fontenoy Voltaire looked with the rest of France for a favourable and honourable peace, with French glory personified in the figure of the king. But the war dragged on until 1748, by which point Voltaire’s enthusiasm for reporting it had dwindled: ‘les détails en sont si ennuyeux’, as he said to Frederick II. It was not ideal subject matter for Europe’s most renowned poet and dramatist.

The second volume of the Précis, now published (OCV, vol.29B), completes the text, showing how what began as a celebration of the king’s campaigns transforms itself into a history of Voltaire’s time.

Accordingly, the succession of endless marches and manoeuvres, the clash and clang of victory and defeat, give way to a series of chapters featuring men whose deeds provide heroic highlights beyond the battlefield. What do Admiral George Anson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the naval adventurer Mahé de la Bourdonnais have in common? Not much, except that Voltaire bunches them together to fill out his account of the final years of a war in which he had lost interest. These characters – their literary function is as relevant as the historical examples they provide – are all instances of personal heroism and perseverance in the face of long odds.

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, 1757. (British Museum)

After the war Voltaire may have felt that he had finished with writing about conflict, but although he regarded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) as a truce rather than a lasting peace, he did not anticipate the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, over which he passes with comparative brevity. While the earlier war is spread across twenty-five chapters in the Précis, its sequel is compressed into just five (ch.31-35). The first of these centres on the execution of the British Admiral Byng, ‘pour encourager les autres’, followed by that of the Franco-Irish general Lally, condemned for his military failures in India. The struggle for Canada is reduced to a dispute over a few acres of snow. The struggle in Europe is reduced to a personal contest between Frederick II and the duc de Richelieu. War is no longer a realm of heroism, and it is painted in a harshly negative light. Louis XV is nowhere to be seen. Voltaire, settled into life as seigneur of Ferney, no longer had to try to flatter his king.

Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d'avoir la tête tranchée

‘Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d’avoir la tête tranchée en place de grève le 8 mai 1766’. (BnF/Gallica)

The later chapters – mostly written in the 1760s, soon after the events they describe – allow Voltaire to move beyond war. They reflect the preoccupations of the philosophe engagé that he was soon to become. Religious questions are ever-present: the problems surrounding the papal bull Unigenitus and the refusal of sacraments; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bourbon Europe. The dangers of religious fanaticism are highlighted through chapters on Damiens’s attack on Louis XV, or the attempt on the life of the king of Portugal. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and tolerance comes to the fore in his strongly argued advocacy of judicial reform.

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

‘Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens, infâme parricide de Louis XV, le bien-aimé’. (BnF/Gallica)

These later chapters demonstrate the melding of Voltaire’s historical and philosophical concerns. The final chapter reviews the progress of l’esprit humain in Voltaire’s own time. His findings are mixed: despite some advances in certain areas, notably science, literature is in decline and can do no more than distract the reader, who would otherwise be ‘trop accablé de la contemplation des misères humaines’. As for the king, Voltaire almost blames him for bringing about his own death by sanctioning France’s failure to adopt the practice of smallpox inoculation. Louis le bien-aimé has by now become le mal-aimé.

Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV tracks its author’s development as a philosophe, but also as a historian, analyst and commentator on his own time, making it both a summary account of the age of Louis XV and a reflection of Voltaire’s concerns over the last thirty-three years of his own career.

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan

L’âme de Voltaire dans tous ses états: l’édition critique de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697)

John Locke, par Godfrey Kneller (1697).

En 1733, la première version de la Lettre sur Locke est écartée par Voltaire des Lettres sur les Anglais à cause de ses audaces quasi-matérialistes qui risquent d’entraîner la censure de l’ensemble du recueil. Une nouvelle version sensiblement remaniée et édulcorée est finalement publiée en tant que lettre 13 de l’ouvrage. Mais Voltaire reprend la version d’origine en 1736 et développe la comparaison entre l’homme et l’animal, en allant bien au-delà des allusions prudentes de Locke dans son Essai sur l’entendement humain (1690): de la possibilité d’une “matière pensante”, le pas est glissant vers l’affirmation d’un lien essentiel entre l’“organisation” des corps et leurs propriétés cognitives. La Lettre lui échappe alors et connaît une circulation manuscrite et de nombreuses éditions au cours du dix-huitième siècle.

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557

Paris, BnF (Arsenal): Ms 2557.

Notre édition critique a exigé une véritable enquête de détective selon plusieurs pistes ouvertes par les “nouvelles à la main” qui annoncent au mois de juin 1736 la diffusion d’une version inédite de la Lettre sur Locke. Toutes ces pistes ont conduit à un recueil de manuscrits clandestins conservé à l’Arsenal, qui s’est révélé être la source de toutes les copies manuscrites connues et des très nombreuses éditions publiées au cours du dix-huitième siècle. Chemin faisant, il s’agissait de démasquer les ennemis de Voltaire et leurs complices – une bande de “usual suspects” – qui ont œuvré à la diffusion de la Lettre et d’autres écrits audacieux de Voltaire. On découvre ainsi au bout de l’enquête une stratégie concertée de comploteurs qui exploitent un aspect des compositions de Voltaire qui le rend vulnérable: son irréligion. Voltaire a beau tempêter, multipliant les dénégations et les désaveux; il porte plainte, il fait lancer des enquêtes, des perquisitions, des saisies, des arrestations et des interrogatoires; imprimeurs, libraires, colporteurs, pamphlétistes, journalistes, auteurs petits et grands, et un violoniste de l’opéra, tous y passent, mais rien n’y fait: dans l’ombre, les autorités de l’Etat veillent au grain et assurent l’impunité aux coupables.

Alexis Piron.

Alexis Piron, gravure de Nicolas Le Mir d’après un tableau de Nicolas Bernard Michel Lépicié, dans Œuvres choisies (Paris, Duchesne, 1773).

Nos recherches révèlent une série d’initiatives malveillantes de la part des ennemis de Voltaire, Alexis Piron en tête: il est jaloux des succès de Voltaire et indigné de la désinvolture méprisante que le poète-philosophe affiche à son égard. Or, Piron fréquente Moncrif à la Société du Bout du Banc; il obtient une copie de la Lettre clandestine et la fait publier par son complice “calotin”, le journaliste La Varenne. La Marre, le protégé de Voltaire, est déjà entré dans le complot : dès 1735, il collabore avec Moncrif dans la publication d’un Recueil du cosmopolite (1735) comportant la première édition – ignorée jusqu’ici – de l’Epître à Uranie. Ce recueil fait partie d’une véritable campagne de publication des écrits compromettants de Voltaire, comme le révèle le conte anti-voltairien de Piron intitulé La Malle-Bosse, publié pour la première fois dans les Mémoires de l’Académie des colporteurs (1748) et de nouveau dans les Voltariana (1749).

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif

François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, portrait attribué à Maurice-Quentin de La Tour.

Notre enquête fondée sur les ornements typographiques a permis d’identifier les principaux coupables: Prault fils, d’abord, qui recueille tout écrit compromettant qui sort de la plume de Voltaire; Simon fils, ensuite, qui se cache derrière le pseudonyme de “Pierre Poppy” et publie en 1738 la première édition française de la Lettre sur Locke. Quelques années plus tard, ce même Simon fils – imprimeur officiel de l’archevêque de Paris – publie, avec l’ornement caractéristique de la “tête de philosophe ébouriffé”, les Pensées philosophiques de Diderot et l’Essai sur lorigine des connaissances humaines de Condillac. Les ennemis de Voltaire publient ainsi les œuvres scandaleuses de Voltaire dans l’intention de le compromettre auprès des autorités en mettant en évidence ses convictions anti-chrétiennes. Maurepas n’attend qu’un tel prétexte pour le faire condamner.

Page de titre de l’édition publiée chez Pierre Poppy en 1744.

Autre piste qui impose, elle aussi, une révision de la biographie voltairienne: la Lettre de Voltaire est connue à la cour du prince royal Frédéric (futur roi Frédéric II) à Rheinsberg, malgré l’étroite surveillance dont celui-ci fait l’objet de la part du “diable” Manteuffel, qui défend l’autorité de la philosophie de Wolff, conçue comme indispensable à l’Etat de Brandebourg à la fois comme philosophie politique de la souveraineté et comme philosophie religieuse de l’immatérialité et de l’immortalité de l’âme. La diffusion de la Lettre au Brandebourg s’explique par une indiscrétion de Thiriot, le fidèle ami et secrétaire de Voltaire, qui se fait valoir auprès du futur roi Frédéric II de Prusse en lui envoyant la Lettre clandestine de Voltaire au mois de juin 1736, bien avant que Voltaire ne décide de le faire à son tour au mois de novembre: cet envoi par Thiriot entraîne, par l’intermédiaire du marquis de La Chétardie, la conversion philosophique du prince, qui rejette désormais l’autorité de Manteuffel et le système de Wolff. Il s’avère que la diffusion secrète de la Lettre sur Locke provoque la “conversion” philosophique du prince royal, la disgrâce de Manteuffel ainsi que la rupture définitive entre l’Aufklärung wolffienne et les Lumières voltairiennes.

C’est donc une histoire doublement secrète que révèle l’édition de la version clandestine de la Lettre sur Locke. C’est grâce à ces trahisons et à cette circulation clandestine que la Lettre de Voltaire a pu jouer son rôle – avec les réflexions de Guillaume Lamy, de Bayle, de Collins et de Toland – dans l’émergence de la pensée matérialiste au cœur des Lumières françaises.

– Antony McKenna et Gianluca Mori


‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles’

‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles, donne pouvoir à qui voudra de m’acheter la terre qu’il voudra, pour le prix qu’il voudra, où je vivrai tant qu’il voudra, comme il voudra, avec qui il voudra. Fait où il lui plaît. V.’ Ce court texte, résultat sans doute d’une plaisanterie dont les circonstances nous sont malheureusement inconnues, est l’un des morceaux rassemblés dans le volume de Fragments divers qui clôt la partie littéraire des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (la correspondance, les marginalia et les textes attribués suivent). Le manuscrit de cette procuration fictive, éditée par John Renwick dans ce tome 84 des Œuvres complètes, est effectivement une bribe issue de la plume du grand écrivain qu’il aurait lui-même probablement qualifiée d’‘écrit inutile’. Qu’aurait-il pensé du volume qui vient de paraître?

OCV t.84, Fragments divers

Le tome 84, Fragments divers, daté ‘2020’, prend sa place à côté du tome 85, l’un des premiers volumes à paraître sous la direction de Th. Besterman en 1968.

Un fragment est considéré comme une chose rare et précieuse, le plus souvent incomplète, qui nous est parvenue d’un passé proche ou lointain. Sa survie doit souvent quelque chose au hasard. Voltaire emploie le mot dans ce sens, par exemple dans Dieu et les hommes (1769):

‘Les Juifs avaient une telle passion pour le merveilleux que lorsque leurs vainqueurs leur permirent de retourner à Jérusalem, ils s’avisèrent de composer une histoire de Moïse encore plus fabuleuse que celle qui a obtenu le titre de canonique. Nous en avons un fragment assez considérable traduit par le savant Gilbert Gaumin, dédié au cardinal de Bérule. Voici les principales aventures rapportées dans ce fragment aussi singulier que peu connu. …’ (Chapitre 24, OCV, t.69, p.385)

Ou encore, dans le Commentaire historique (1776):

‘Le fameux comte de Bonneval devenu pacha turc, et qu’il [Voltaire] avait vu autrefois chez M. le grand prieur de Vendôme, lui écrivait alors de Constantinople, et fut en correspondance avec lui pendant quelque temps. On n’a retrouvé de ce commerce épistolaire qu’un seul fragment que nous transcrivons. …’ (OCV, t.78C, p.42-43)

Cependant, Voltaire aurait-il vu ses propres fragments du même œil? Car il a beau être l’auteur prolifique que l’on sait, les fragments n’en demeurent pas moins précieux, même s’il aurait sans doute été horrifié de voir publier une édition critique de papiers qu’il ne destinait pas à la publication. A l’exception des notes de travail, dont une poignée est publiée ici sous le titre de Fragments de carnets, et des corrections qu’il a apportées à une préface de Baculard d’Arnaud, les textes que nous publions ici n’ont rien de lacunaire, mais cette collection hétéroclite et aléatoire de courts textes jette un nouvel éclairage sur plusieurs facettes de la vie littéraire – et moins littéraire – de Voltaire.

Il y a d’abord un certain nombre de textes dans le sens plus traditionnel du terme, qui évoquent des sujets chers à Voltaire: la Bible; la question de l’âme des bêtes; la nécessité de rester unis entre philosophes face à l’Infâme; la dramaturgie. D’autres encore concernent des activités d’édition: une préface inédite pour une collection prévue de ses œuvres; un avis et des instructions pour l’imprimeur concernant une édition de La Henriade publiée en 1770; une dédicace inédite pour un ouvrage paru à Berlin au moment où son séjour en Prusse tournait mal. Enfin, une troisième sorte de texte nous transporte au plus près de l’écrivain: ses rapports avec la poste; sa façon de classer ses lettres et autres papiers; des notes de travail qui préparaient des écrits plus développés.

Le fragment dont une page est reproduite ci-dessous nous montre Voltaire au travail: il prend des notes à partir de ses lectures sur l’‘histoire orientale’ tout en ajoutant ses propres observations aussi. On le voit revenir sur son manuscrit pour identifier les passages qui l’intéressent le plus, ce qu’il fait en dessinant des espèces de ‘mains’ stylisées qui ressemblent à des ‘6’ penchés. Il apporte des compléments en marge. Il note à plusieurs reprises la source de sa lecture (les Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin, en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, de Jean Chardin), et cite des vers persans en traduction. Cette édition des fragments de carnets découverts depuis la publication en 1968 des Notebooks de Voltaire par Theodore Besterman fournissait l’occasion pour nous de faire une analyse plus poussée de ses notes de travail.

OCV t.84, Fragments diverses, fragment 48a

Fragment 48a (manuscrit autographe), f.7r. Oxford, Voltaire Foundation: MS20.

Outre l’intérêt des découvertes et des nouvelles perspectives, éditer de tels textes procure le plaisir de travailler avec des documents autographes. Nous jugeons que ce volume de fragments, quelque disparates qu’ils soient, apporte du nouveau dans le domaine des études sur notre auteur en révélant aux lecteurs ses papiers restants et des brouillons qu’il n’avait pas jugé bon de publier. N’en déplaise à Voltaire.

– Gillian Pink

‘Depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours’ – mission accomplished

Many readers picking up Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV for the first time might find it all too easy to put down again as not living up to its title. By only a stretched definition is the work a précis; it is not about a siècle; and only in a few places does it focus on Louis XV. But to put it down too quickly would be a mistake. There are many reasons why the Précis – published by the Voltaire Foundation in 3 volumes, the first of which (vol.29A) has just come out – deserves our attention. Here are some of them.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe (Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne), BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4. By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Foremost perhaps is the picture of Voltaire in action as a historian of modernity. We know from earlier writings that he thought the study of modern history important for the instruction of future generations. He also thought it essential for the historian to be both accurate and impartial, but then when it came to writing about his own day – events that he had witnessed himself or involved people he knew – he was not always able to put these ideals into practice. The need for impartiality may be behind the detachment with which Voltaire treats Louis XV, but elsewhere he frequently sails too close to the wind, particularly in the polemical chapters at the end of the work. Accuracy he strove for conscientiously, as he had done with the Essai and the Siècle, although sometimes within his own compass of taking the mean position of several authorities without naming any of them. He allows himself to embroider, but if he occasionally seems to invent it is probably in error or where strict accuracy needed to be set against readability, as pointed out by a correspondent of 1768: ‘Vous attachez tant par la magie de votre diction que l’on aime presque mieux s’égarer avec vous que s’instruire pesamment avec d’autres’ (vol.29A, p.140).

The Précis also has a remarkable history as the culmination of Voltaire’s plan, announced in 1742, to write a universal modern history and take it up to his own day. This was the launching pad for the Essai sur les mœurs. The nascent Siècle de Louis XIV, he said in 1745, was destined to ‘[entrer] dans ce grand ouvrage et doit le terminer’ (vol.29A, p.6, n.3). But as the following reign rolled on the distance between an end point of 1714 and continuing the history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’ became too great to be bridged. In 1768, in preparation for the new quarto edition of his Œuvres complètes, Voltaire uncoupled the Siècle from the Essai, reducing the subtitle to ‘jusqu’au règne de Louis XIII’, and using the chapters that carried his history beyond 1714 as the basis of the new Précis du siècle de Louis XV.

Voltaire thus uses the word précis not in the sense of an abridgement of a longer account, as might be expected of a detached published work, but of a summary of what he sees as the essentials of the age in a series of capsules. This enables him to pick and choose his material, pausing to give anecdote and detail in some places, particularly the early years when he himself was in Paris, passing rapidly over the middle years of the reign and dwelling again at length on aspects of the later years that attracted his attention as philosophe. Throughout his style is light, never flippant, and his sometimes provocative leaps, summaries or asides beckon the reader to further research.

As for ‘siècle’, Voltaire had felt from the outset that the achievements of France in the glorious era of the roi soleil should be defined not in terms of a reign, but as an ‘age’ or epoch. This is the sense in which the word is used again of the reign of Louis XV, although the king did not dominate his own reign and was noteworthy only in the wrong ways. For most of the book Louis XV himself stands silently to one side, but the events portrayed seem none the worse for that, highlighting the difference between his ‘siècle’ and that of his great-grandfather.

In 1768 Voltaire brings the Précis up to date with further chapters on more recent matters, and extends the themes of some of these into the self-contained Histoire du parlement de Paris. He closes the resulting gap between the early and later years of the reign of Louis XV by bringing in a précis in the more usual sense of the word. This was the first authorised appearance, albeit in shortened form, of Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741, undertaken in 1745 in his capacity of historiographe du roi, as an account of the ‘campagnes du roi’ in Flanders of 1744 and 1745. These campaigns covered years that showed the king at his best and France as victorious; they were soon extended both backwards and forwards to take in the whole war, but that is another story, to be read with the full text in volume 29C. Circumstances conspired against Voltaire’s intention to publish the Guerre de 1741 until he was settled in Geneva, by which time France was involved in another war and any thirst for details of the War of the Austrian Succession had long evaporated. By the mid 1760s, therefore, the Guerre was a work in search of a home, and the incipient Précis a work with a beginning and potential end but no middle. The solution was obvious.

Having difficulty keeping up? Unsurprising – the complexities defeated the Kehl editors as well as Beuchot and Moland, who omitted the original complete Guerre entirely. The Introduction in vol.29A of this edition analyses the sequence of the composition of both texts and the eventual assembly of the whole in 1768.

But Voltaire was unable to call it a day. Another edition of his complete works in 1775 saw him taking up his pen once more at the age of eighty to record the death of the king, who in the course of nature – and perhaps Voltaire’s original conception of this work – would have been expected to outlive Voltaire. And Voltaire was then spurred on to review the whole. Annotations preserved in a copy of the 1775 edition now in St Petersburg show the Précis to be among the most heavily corrected texts under revision at the time of Voltaire’s death, truly taking his modern history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’. Looking at the years since 1742 and the water that had flowed beneath Voltaire’s many bridges since then, his readers can only respond, Chapeau!

– Janet Godden



La Beaumelle, écrivain engagé avant la lettre

Le quinzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de janvier 1764 à décembre 1766.

Le 23 mars 1764 le mariage de La Beaumelle avec Rose-Victoire Lavaysse veuve Nicol est célébré en l’église du Taur à Toulouse. La Beaumelle a contraint par voie d’huissier le curé qui connaissaient les époux comme des protestants notoires à respecter la législation qui stipule que le royaume est tout entier catholique.

Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle. Artiste inconnu.

La Beaumelle s’installe à la Nogarède, propriété de sa femme, près de Mazères en pays de Foix. Il consacre beaucoup de soins à la mise en valeur de cette demeure et à la modernisation de l’exploitation des terres : locations, fermages, plantations de muriers, production de céréales. Le 22 août 1765, en tant que ‘seigneur haut, moyen et bas justicier du Carla’, il est élu député du corps de la noblesse et des militaires de Mazères à l’assemblée des notables de la province. En effet il a acheté à sa femme la seigneurie du Carla, la patrie de Bayle. Il s’engage dans les contestations politiques qui agitent ces deux communautés.

Par son mariage La Beaumelle est devenu le gendre du célèbre avocat David Lavaysse et le beau-frère de Gaubert Lavaysse, impliqué dans l’affaire Calas. La réhabilitation des condamnés prend le pas dans ses préoccupations sur sa Vie de Maupertuis et sur ses traductions des auteurs latins. Il rédige les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’, l’un des maîtres des requêtes de l’Hôtel qui le 9 mars 1765 déclarent innocents tous les accusés. Sollicité par Mme Calas il achève une consultation pour la prise à partie en dommage et intérêts des Capitouls et de la Tournelle du Parlement de Toulouse. Il y analyse la responsabilité du capitoul David de Beaudrigue dans les premiers commencements de cette procédure inique : par la rédaction antidatée du procès verbal de sa descente sur les lieux, par l’arrestation précipitée des personnes présentes avant tout interrogatoire et sans procéder à un état des lieux, par l’invention de prétendus bruits publics évoquant un crime religieux, il a empêché toute enquête objective et réduit au silence des témoins transformés en accusés. Gaubert Lavaysse à Paris est à la croisée de la rédaction de deux mémoires de prise à partie, l’un réalisé à Toulouse par La Beaumelle auquel Mme Calas renoncera, l’autre à Paris par Elie de Beaumont poussé par Voltaire.

Parmi les nombreux documents inédits contenus dans ce volume on notera les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’ inachevées, le très étendu ‘Mémoire à consulter pour la dame Calas’ prêt pour l’impression, tous deux de la main de La Beaumelle, le dossier qui a conduit à la destitution partielle du capitoul David de Beaudrigue convaincu de prévarication sans lien avec son action dans l’affaire Calas, et le rapport relevant dans les Mémoires de Maintenon les affirmations contraires à la foi catholique qui justifient sa mise à l’index par le Vatican en 1765.

– Claude Lauriol

N.B.: Jusqu’en 2019, la ‘Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle’ a été publiée par la Voltaire Foundation. D’entente avec les éditeurs Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol et Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, le relais éditorial sera pris, à partir du tome XVI, par les éditions Slatkine pour les derniers tomes de l’édition.

John V’s Lisbon: the new Rome

“All the new coins will show my effigy and name on one side, as some of the old kings in these reigns used to mint as well as almost all the Princes of Europe right now […]” 1

This quote comes from a new law issued by the Portuguese monarch, John V, in April 1722. By then the Portuguese king had been on the throne for fifteen years and, piece by piece, his magnificent plan for his country was coming together. Not only was the aforementioned law intended to reform the coinage in order to provide his subjects with more adequate coins for transactions, but it also formed part of a bigger plan of promotion of the Braganza monarch among the great powers in Europe. What better way for disseminating his image than in a coin that everyone would see?

D. Rodrigo Anes de Sa Almeida and Meneses

Image portrays D. Rodrigo Anes de Sa Almeida and Meneses (1676-1733), 3rd Marquis of Fontes. It does not yet mention the title of 1st Marquis of Abrantes, which would be conferred on him by John V on 12 August 1718. (Biblioteca nacional de Portugal)

Likely inspired by the marchis of Abrantes (one of his closest counsellors and a well-known collector of coins and medals), and also by his father-in-law, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I, who used medals to publicize his successes, John V quickly understood the impact of coins and medals as a vehicle to promote himself. He was seduced by the idea of placing himself on the face of the coins in the fashion of ancient emperors and old kings. He also endorsed reform at the House of the Mint in Lisbon, hiring foreign minters and acquiring new machinery in order to produce better coins and medals to fulfil his plans.

The Portuguese numismatic tradition was usually aniconic; John V’s change was a transcendent one and further illustrated just how important the use of images was for his grandiloquent plans. Underpinning these choices was the need to promote a strong and renovated image of the king before his peers, as he was, at that particular moment, challenging Pope Innocent XIII’s influence in the role Portugal played within the European arena. The king was adamant: Portugal must be seen and considered to be among the most powerful realms – Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire – so he planned to use the influence of Rome, through the obtaining of privileges from the Pope, in order to support and reinforce his beliefs and his agenda.

By 1722 John V was in his prime. Among other things, he had defeated the Turks with his ships in the Battle of Matapan, he had already been granted the patriarchal title for the former Royal Chapel in Lisbon, he had obtained the holy bands for his first-born like the other powerful monarchs around him, and he had lured several top-notch artists and musicians to Lisbon in order to meet his most extravagant desires about his new and brilliant court. Of course there were still many things to accomplish in order to pursue the glory that John V was expecting to achieve, but strong roots were already settled, and the years to come would be bursting with grandiose commissions in art, architecture and music.

This book deals with John V’s dream of turning Lisbon into a new capital, taking Rome as its model. It is not only concerned with the king’s fascination with the Papal City, but also explores how John V’s plan for his country and court involved many aspects, from art, architecture and music to ceremonies, images and of course politics. The volume does not pretend to be exhaustive, but rather presents a noteworthy sample of the most recent and refreshing research around a theme widely studied within Portuguese historiography but not so well known outside Portugal. Politics and the arts in Lisbon and Rome explores the obsession of John V with Rome from very different angles, tackling classical political history, musicology and art history, and ultimately aims to bring to life a fascinating period in the relations between Rome and Portugal. It also puts into perspective the achievements of a magnificent, and sometimes extravagant, king.

– Pilar Diez del Corral Corredoira, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Madrid)

Pilar Diez del Corral Corredoira is the editor of the October volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment seriesPolitics and the arts in Lisbon and Rome, a cross-disciplinary study of the Golden Age of Portugal in the eighteenth century, which explores new perspectives on John V of Portugal and his cultural endeavours with Rome.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

1. “Todas estas moedas da nova fabrica teraõ de huma parte o meu retrato, e nome, como usaraõ alguns dos Reys antigos destes Reynos, e praticaõ presentemente quasi todos os Principes da Europa”, António Caetano de Sousa, História Genealogica da Casa real portuguesa (vol. IV), Lisboa occidental: Na officina de Joseph Antonio da Sylva, 1735, p. 408.

Imperial letters don’t burn

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

When volcanoes erupted with meaning

When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010 it threw up a huge, glass-rich ash plume nine kilometres into the sky, penetrating the jet stream which then swept the volcanic debris south-eastwards over most of Europe. European air space was closed down, stranding approximately ten million passengers over six days at a cost of £130 million per day to the aviation industry. It disrupted the funeral of the Polish president and general election campaigning in Scotland, and brought blissful quiet to residents around Heathrow and other major European hubs. Ironically, the noxious gas-spewing volcano actually reduced air pollution by grounding planes for nearly a week. Among both witnesses to the eruption and those marooned by its billowing ash-clouds, it also produced a lot of stories (as well as a plotline for a 2013 French comedy).

Image of Eyjafjallajökull during its eruptions in 2010. (“14.05.10 | Eyjafjallajökull” by @dyntr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yet these twenty-first-century anecdotes pale in comparison to the production of eighteenth-century ‘eruption narratives’ related by voluble, scribbling travellers of both sexes on the Grand Tour, socializing in Naples and picnicking on the burning flanks of Vesuvius or, more rarely, Etna. These breathless travelogues outnumber the more measured texts written by scientists on the same slopes, although both frequently draw on the reports diligently sent to the Royal Society by the most famous volcanologist of the age, Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In fact, scrambling up volcanoes became a form of secular ‘pilgrimage’ for natural historians such as Lazzaro Spallanzani who scoured the volcanoes of southern Italy from 1788 to 1790. Eruptions, then, produced not just tephra but texts. But they also drew artists to their brilliant blaze, establishing a lucrative industry in Naples for painters like Pierre Jacques Volaire, who would trim Vesuvius’s natural sublimity to populate its foreground with his patrons in tiny silhouette against the yellow fountains and scarlet streams of lava.

The erupting volcano became such a ubiquitous image in eighteenth-century Europe that, even for those who hadn’t seen one in person, it gave material form to their various philosophies of ‘enlightenment’. For physico-theologists, it provided a fizzling foretaste of the fiery Second Coming; for providentialists, it stood as a safety-valve defusing the globe’s dangerous internal fires – the work of a beneficent God; and for deists and materialists, its immemorially ancient layers of lava challenged Biblical chronologies of the Earth. Yet for all its ‘enlightenment(s)’, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested, the volcano atavistically divided its devotees into two camps: the Promethean and the Empedoclean – those who were afraid of it but looked to master its fire, and those who adored it, seeking a form of mystical union in its flames. On a political level, we can see this mythical conflict between Prometheus and Empedocles play out in the French Revolution, between those keen to curb the explosive forces of the ‘volcano of Revolution’, as Edmund Burke put it, and those who embraced its red-hot heat, stoking it to ever more violent conflagration. So when Vesuvius erupted terrifyingly in June 1794 at the height of the Terror, it seemed to many contemporaries that the physical and the political volcanoes were in league. Yet Vesuvius’s tremendous blast of that year was not the greatest of the century: for that we have to return to Iceland eleven years earlier for the cataclysmic eruption of Laki. We now have a clear scientific vision of Icelandic volcanism, the product of the island straddling the great Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates diverge. But in 1783, the eight-month outpouring of lava, ash and gas from the 27-kilometre-long Laki fissure dismayed contemporaries as it too (like Eyjafjallajökull’s ash plume in 2010) injected megatons of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide into the lower stratosphere, cloaking western Europe in a deadly pall. A stifling summer was followed by a Siberian winter, killing hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock. Laki too produced stories – both intimate personal testimony from Icelandic survivors such as the so-called Fire Priest Jón Steingrímsson, and speculative climate theories involving comets, electricity, subterranean gases and the Calabrian earthquake of February that year.

My study ranges over all of these fields of volcanic meaning-making in order to show how the volcano articulated the fantasies and fears of eighteenth-century Europe. But in weaving these diverse narratives together, it also looks to contextualize and counter the dominance of a largely scientific conception of volcanism. At precisely the point where some situate the birth of the Anthropocene and others the emergence of the hierarchical dualisms of culture/nature and sciences/humanities, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe seeks to revise these notions in light of the volcano as it is also constructed in local lore, travellers’ tales and as iconic object, figure of religious or humanistic transcendence or political master-metaphor.

– David McCallam, Sheffield University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. David McCallam is the author of Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe: An Essay in Environmental Humanities which is the first book to examine European volcanoes in the period in the full range of their physical and figurative manifestations and is the July volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.