Voltaire as philosophical historian and historian of modernity

Whether from modern scholars or his contemporaries, most criticism of Voltaire’s history books boils down to one thing: Voltaire was not an academic historian. In his defence, he never claimed to be one, and his histories are all the more interesting for it. Voltaire’s histories have received renewed scholarly interest in recent years, and the Voltaire Foundation’s ‘Voltaire: historian of modernity’ research project began in 2015 with the aim of improving our understanding of Voltaire’s practice and influence as a contemporary historian of the early modern period and includes the set of critical editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts. This year heralds the completion of the Siècle de Louis XIV,  Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, and Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne multi-volume editions with the Précis du siècle de Louis XV following early next year.

The University library at Göttingen, painted by Johann Christian Eberlein (1800).

Detractors such as August Ludwig Schlözer in the Göttingen School of academic history accused Voltaire of being less concerned with historical facts and rigorous scholarship than he was with narrative and readability (Annales de l’Empire, Introduction, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.44A, p.16). His authorial voice and his distinctive style were dominant, as was his constant insistence on philosophical readings of history, attempting to extract moral lessons from the past at every turn. Naturally, Voltaire’s defenders view precisely these characteristics as advantages of his approach.[1] Pierre Rousseau, editor of the Journal encyclopédique, praised the Annales de l’Empire in 1754 for its ‘philosophical spirit’ and the ‘character of the author’ (vol.44A, p.29).

Furthermore, Voltaire’s presentism and philosophical bent constituted a deliberate move away from traditional histories, most notably Bossuet’s overtly Christian Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681) and those emanating from academic schools of history such as Göttingen. (For a direct comparison between Voltaire and Bossuet’s styles, see our article ‘Essai sur les mœurs: What Voltaire did differently’.) Voltaire leaned towards what we would today term popular history, writing a series of accessible, enjoyable books that delivered a wealth of historical knowledge and philosophical reasoning in an appealing package.

Admittedly, he did so with a generous helping of editorialising, but it helps if we understand the context from which these books were born. In the famed querelle of the Ancients and the Moderns, Voltaire was firmly on the side of the Moderns. This influenced the shape and purpose of his historical writings: he was a historian of modernity who placed far more emphasis on recent years than on antiquity. Voltaire’s presentist approach is evident in his flagship Siècle de Louis XIV, which helped secure him the title of Royal Historiographer in 1745, and his universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs, which devotes far more pages to recent episodes than it does to the great events of ancient history, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In the section of his 1744 Conseils à un journaliste entitled ‘Sur l’histoire’, Voltaire defends his presentism:

‘Foster above all in the young more taste for the history of recent times, which is for us a matter of necessity, rather than ancient history, which is merely a matter of curiosity.’

[‘Inspirez surtout aux jeunes gens plus de goût pour l’histoire des temps récents, qui est pour nous de nécessité, que pour l’ancienne, qui n’est que de curiosité.’ (vol.20A, p.482)]

As well as a historian of modernity, Voltaire was also a philosophical historian, meaning that his histories were part and parcel of his philosophical enterprise, namely the promotion of reason and tolerance. Voltaire accordingly invented this discipline of philosophical history for himself in La Philosophie de l’histoire (vol.59). These two disciplines were symbiotic: as a history of societies closer to his own, Voltaire believed that modern history had more instructive value from a philosophical standpoint, especially to young people. Even when writing about the distant past, as he does in the early chapters of the Essai and the Annales, Voltaire is always looking forward by asking the reader the question of ‘what can we, in the present, learn from all this?’

We have a series of short introductory articles for readers wishing to explore the Annales de l’Empire in more depth:

We have a similar series of introductory articles for the momentous work of universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations:

Samuel Bailey

 

[1] For a defence of Voltaire’s historical methodology, see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the Necessity of Modern History’, Modern Intellectual History, 6:3 (2009), 457–84.

 

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D’Argenson’s Considérations

Enlightenment political theory has received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years as intellectual historians and political theorists have mined the riches of eighteenth-century ideas about human rightsthe self, or international law. Surprisingly little of this work, however, has been devoted to the so-called Early Enlightenment, the decades before the eruption of the high Enlightenment at mid-century with the publication of seminal works such as Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) or Diderot and d’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie (1751-). Yet, this time was rich with the fermentation of ideas that would make their mark later in the century.

One of the key texts of the early Enlightenment, penned by René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757), which circulated clandestinely in manuscript for decades before its posthumous publication as the Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France in 1764, mounted a scathing indictment of the Old Regime social and political order, championed equality as a central moral and political value, and argued for extending democracy within the monarchy. Originally titled ‘Jusqu’où la démocratie peut être admise dans le gouvernement monarchique’ and composed primarily in the 1730s, d’Argenson’s treatise called for the redistribution of land, improving the material circumstances of the peasantry, and establishing municipal magistrates with substantial autonomy. With the establishment of his system, d’Argenson wrote, ‘the kingdom would change face’. Indeed, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, upon reading the manuscript, wrote to d’Argenson that he ‘appears a bit more partial to democracy than to monarchy’, while the fermier général Dupin wrote to d’Argenson that there was an ‘immense distance […] between our current situation and what you propose’. This is the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s treatise, based on four different manuscripts held in archives and libraries in France, and presented here with a selection of d’Argenson’s other political writings that have never been published.

D’Argenson is probably best known to posterity as a chronicler of his time thanks to his widely cited nine-volume Journal et mémoires, one of the most important existing sources on the politics of the 1730s to 1750s, as a member of the short-lived Club de l’Entresol, and for his Notices sur les œuvres de théâtre published in 1966. Among the philosophes, d’Argenson was known, as d’Alembert wrote in the dedication to one of his books, for his ‘breadth of knowledge’, ‘love of the common good’, and for being a ‘philosophe in your sentiments’. His true intellectual passion was ‘the principles of the true science of humanity, those of morality and politics’, as le Beau stated in the eulogy given to the Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres upon d’Argenson’s death.

The depth of d’Argenson’s critique of the social and political order is perhaps more surprising given his status as the scion of a powerful political family. His father was the powerful lieutenant general of police under Louis XIV and then Keeper of the Seals during the Regency, his brother Minister of War, and he himself served a brief tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs during the War of Austrian Succession. Rousseau commented when citing d’Argenson’s manuscript in the Social Contract, published two years before the Considérations: ‘I have not been able to deny myself the pleasure of occasionally quoting from this manuscript, although it is unknown to the public, in order to honor the memory of a good and illustrious man, who kept even in the Ministry the heart of a good citizen, and views on the government of his country that were sane and right.’ This critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations brings to light for the first time those views and, in an introductory essay, situates them within d’Argenson’s full political philosophy and the political and intellectual context of his time.

– Andrew Jainchill, Queen’s University (Canada)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Andrew Jainchill is the editor of the May Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume, D’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement, a critical edition, with other political texts, which utilises rare manuscripts and previously unstudied archival sources to produce the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations.

The age of lightness

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

Reasonable doubt and the birth of Enlightenment

There has rarely been a better time to write about skepticism than the current so-called post-truth era. Recent debates over fake newsalternative facts, and the role of expertise in public policy have shaken the United States, Europe, and the world. Contemporary pundits and political demagogues often play the skeptic in an attempt to sway popular opinion and fuel nascent populist movements. By questioning how we know what we know, whether we can know anything with certainty, or whether any source or testimony can be fully trustworthy, these figures seek to undermine the basic shared assumptions of liberal societies.

The Skeptical Enlightenment is the March 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The use (and arguably abuse) of skepticism raises troubling questions, but they are neither new nor peculiar to the present. They harken back to previous crises of certainty. Skepticism first emerged in the world of contentious philosophical debates of ancient Greece. There, the skeptics posed challenging arguments that offered an appealing alternative to dogmatic schools of thought that claimed to offer true and certain claims about the surrounding world. The skeptics, by contrast, called for a suspension of judgement on all questions and insisted that we could know nothing with certainty – not even the proposition that we could know nothing with certainty! The most radical articulation of skepticism, known as Pyrrhonism, was revived in early modern Europe during the Reformation and reached its peak popularity in the early 1700s. Through these debates about truth and certainty, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers first came to articulate our modern understanding of rationality – one that used a limited skepticism about what was known and knowable to arrive at useful understandings of nature and of human affairs.

This volume of essays provides a timely explanation of how Enlightenment thinkers successfully grappled with the challenges posed by an earlier crisis of philosophical confidence. We dispute popular and commonplace narratives that continue to depict the Enlightenment as an unalloyed Age of Reason when Europeans boasted an unbounded confidence in the powers of human understanding. Instead, the essays in this collection depict a complicated, variegated, and entangled Enlightenment culture to which skepticism was far more central than anyone thought. We build on recent scholarship to show how eighteenth-century responses to powerful skeptical arguments led thinkers to redefine reason, moderate its ambitions, and turn toward morally and socially useful ends.

Philosophers no longer considered rationality an innate or nearly infallible faculty. Instead, they accepted the fallibility of human understanding, the limitations of individual experiences, and the need to interrogate one’s assumptions. Such a reorientation made the cultivation of a healthy and limited skepticism indispensable to the improvement of the human condition, and it placed education at the forefront of Enlightenment theories of progress.

Recognizing the limits of human understanding in philosophical and theological questions also increasingly led thinkers to accept religious toleration. Contrary to what one might expect, critics of organized religion and those who championed faith against reason both embraced skeptical doubt. In a further irony, notable opponents of skepticism emerged from amongst those who tried to defend the rational foundations of belief. Many of the essays in this collection thus examine the persistence of religious belief in the Enlightenment while untangling the complex interactions between religion and philosophy in this period.

We suggest that rethinking the central place of skepticism in eighteenth-century learned culture provides important insights into the most vital concerns faced by the intellectuals of this period. Indeed, skeptical doubts were pervasive in various fields of knowledge, including not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also history, jurisprudence, theology, and political thought. Essays in this volume therefore highlight how debates between the skeptics and their opponents helped inform the modern evidentiary foundations of these fields and disciplines. We explain how notions such as probability and common sense emerged as bulwarks against skeptical critiques.

Examining the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers struggled with fundamental questions about truth and certainty invites us to consider how best to grapple with similar challenges in our current ‘post-truth’ moment. While the historical contexts are vastly different, important similarities nevertheless exist between the present and the eighteenth-century skeptical crisis. Then as now, various economic uncertainties, the proliferation of new forms of media, and new technologies all combine to create the sense that the real world might not be as it appears. Then as now, some answers can be found in a reexamination of the fundamental assumptions and truths that may no longer be as self-evident as we might think. Then as now, the ability to grapple with these questions has profound moral and political implications. This study of the Skeptical Enlightenment reminds us that fake news and the self-interested machinations of the powerful are powerless against a healthy dose of skepticism deployed in the service of humanity.

– Anton M. Matytsin (Kenyon College) and Jeffrey D. Burson (Georgia Southern University)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Anton M. Matytsin and Jeffrey D. Burson are co-editors of the latest Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume.

Believing in an age of Enlightenment

Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions, and not just their vocal opponents. [1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins, is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s and even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime.

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist–Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.

Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français, edited by Isabelle Tremblay, is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640-1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665-1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.

Portrait of Madame de Genlis by Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art).

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)

References

[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640-1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34-55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triomphant 1660-1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615-56 (629).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Il faut se plonger dans l’Essai sur les mœurs

Le titre est trompeur. Le lecteur peut croire que l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations est une brochure rassemblant des réflexions générales sur les diverses façons de vivre et de juger des hommes, comme on en a tant produit au siècle des Philosophes. Il s’agit en réalité du plus gros livre sans doute qu’ait écrit Voltaire, en pas moins de 197 chapitres, et d’une histoire du monde entier assez détaillée, d’ailleurs publiée d’abord sous le titre d’Abrégé de l’histoire universelle. Il a fallu neuf épais volumes à la Voltaire Foundation pour en publier une édition nouvelle dans les Œuvres complètes.

Essai sur les moeurs

OCV, t.21-27: l’ensemble complet de l’Essai, t.I-IX.

Le projet de l’écrivain entre dans ces programmes ambitieux qu’a lancés le Siècle des Lumières pour embrasser l’ensemble des faits ou des connaissances, comme L’Esprit des lois qui cherche à analyser les lois de tous les temps et de tous les pays, comme l’Histoire naturelle de Buffon qui entreprend une description raisonnée de tous les aspects de la nature vivante et inanimée, comme l’Histoire générale des voyages, comme l’Encyclopédie évidemment, rassemblement des connaissances de tous ordres. Voltaire, lui, a l’ambition de présenter et de comprendre l’humanité dans toute son extension géographique et chronologique, en plongeant dans le passé le plus lointain et en allant jusqu’aux événements les plus récents, en ne se bornant pas à l’histoire de l’Europe mais en explorant aussi le passé de l’Amérique et de l’Asie. L’écrivain toutefois est réaliste; il veut voir l’achèvement de son entreprise. Aussi se dispense-t-il de redire, par exemple, l’histoire de la Grèce et de la Rome antiques, si présente dans la mémoire du public cultivé grâce aux enseignements du collège et du théâtre tragique. Et pour l’histoire contemporaine, il a pu se contenter de reprendre le Siècle de Louis XIV, dont les frontières dépassent celles de la France, et le Précis du siècle de Louis XV. La tâche restait immense, et a occupé, sinon accaparé, Voltaire pendant au moins quinze ans, de 1741 à 1756.

Voltaire n’est pas le premier à avoir écrit une histoire universelle. Son œuvre est une réplique critique à celle de Bossuet, qui unifiait et expliquait le cours de l’histoire de l’humanité par le dessein divin du salut. Elle est aussi en concurrence, notamment, avec An Universal History, from the earliest account of time to the present dirigée par G. Sale qui paraît depuis 1736 en anglais et depuis 1742 en traduction française. Mais l’attrait de l’Essai tient à la façon personnelle d’écrire l’histoire qu’a inventée Voltaire. Il a choisi d’être omniprésent dans son récit et dans ses analyses, à la différence des historiens de métier, qui s’effacent derrière leur documentation. Alors qu’ils écrivent pour un public anonyme, Voltaire explique dès le début de son livre qu’il s’adresse à une lectrice de sa connaissance: c’est Mme Du Châtelet, qui n’aimait pas l’histoire et qu’il s’agit de convertir en dégageant les leçons du passé. Mme Du Châtelet meurt avant l’achèvement du livre, mais la fiction d’un texte adressé reste vivante jusqu’au bout.

OCV, t.23, p.283.

L’auteur est présent, commente son récit et sa façon de l’organiser, multiplie les remarques de tous ordres. C’est bien par cette pratique que le livre mérite son titre d’Essai. Elle donne un contenu philosophique continu au texte. Comme on peut s’y attendre, ce contenu philosophique est d’abord marqué par une vive critique du christianisme, qui en souligne les conflits internes et insiste sur les responsabilités du clergé ou de l’intolérance religieuse dans les convulsions politiques et les guerres. Mais ce thème obsessionnel chez Voltaire laisse une large place à des observations de tous ordres qui justifient dans le titre la présence des «mœurs» et des «nations». La couleur du récit est souvent rehaussée par des effets de contraste entre les caractères et les pratiques des différents peuples. Ainsi, au moment de la prise de Constantinople par les Croisés: «Les Grecs avaient souvent prié la Sainte Vierge en assassinant leurs princes. Les Français buvaient, chantaient, caressaient des filles dans la cathédrale en la pillant» (chap.57). Les vues générales foisonnent, et suggèrent une vision d’ensemble de l’histoire des hommes, vision dans l’ensemble pessimiste; ainsi à propos du culte des images: «Enfin cette pratique pieuse dégénéra en abus, comme toutes les choses humaines» (chap.14). Le lecteur, peu à peu, voit se dessiner une «philosophie de l’histoire» voltairienne: la formule servira de titre à un texte finalement placé en tête de l’ouvrage tout entier.

C’est un gros livre dont les dimensions peuvent rebuter le lecteur. Ne nous laissons pas détourner pourtant de ce produit savoureux du génie séducteur de Voltaire. Il n’est pas nécessaire de se plonger dans la succession de si nombreux chapitres. Des titres développés, une récapitulation finale aident à s’orienter dans cette forêt de faits, de guerres, de tableaux, de jugements, de portraits. Chaque chapitre tient en quelques pages, et chaque page est fragmentée en plusieurs paragraphes souvent brefs, faits de phrases simples généralement juxtaposées. Ce livre qui prétend être écrit pour une lectrice rétive cherche sans cesse à alléger l’effort du lecteur, à capter son intérêt pour les grandes comme pour les petites choses. Comme l’écrit Voltaire à propos d’une anecdote sur Tamerlan et ses conquêtes, «il est permis d’égayer ces événements horribles, et de mêler le petit au grand» (chap.88). Il est permis d’égayer, et il est permis d’abréger, ce que ne savent pas faire d’ordinaire les historiens. En cela, l’écrivain signifie et pratique sa souveraineté, qui est celle d’un honnête homme sûr de son jugement, ennemi méprisant des érudits de profession noyés dans les détails. Il conclut ainsi le chapitre 60: «Voilà tout ce qu’il vous convient de savoir des Tartares dans ces temps reculés».

OCV, t.24, p.360.

Car il s’agit de rester entre gens de bonne compagnie, qui ont le loisir de satisfaire leur curiosité pour des mondes et des temps lointains et le droit de tirer de leurs lectures des conséquences pour la société où ils vivent et qu’ils dominent. Voltaire ne cherche pas ici à fonder son prestige sur des découvertes d’archives ou des révélations de l’archéologie. Il se présente comme le compilateur intelligent et critique des historiens qui l’ont précédé. Mais sa supériorité tient à l’activité continuelle de son jugement, qui discute à tort ou à raison leurs affirmations, propose une vision vraisemblable des faits, en tire des leçons sur la nature de l’homme, sur sa constance et sa diversité, sur ce qu’il convient et ne convient pas de faire quand on gouverne, quand on fait et défait les lois, quand on veut développer une grande civilisation ou résister à sa déliquescence. C’est cette conversation d’un esprit brillant avec les voix multiples du passé que nous avons encore plaisir et profit à écouter dans l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations.

Il est question de l’Essai et de la conception voltairienne de l’histoire dans l’article de Robert Darnton récemment publié dans le New York Times.

– Sylvain Menant

La toute première édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation, est désormais disponible dans son intégralité avec la publication du volume I, qui comprend l’Introduction générale.