Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

Map of Mexico or New Spain (1708), by Herman Moll. (Wikimedia Commons)

The viceroyalty of New Spain – whose territory largely corresponded to that of present-day Mexico – was, during the eighteenth century, the most important intellectual hub in Latin America and a place of extraordinary scholarly endeavors. During this period Mexico’s viceregal society saw the publication of its first regularly issued newspapers (for example the Gazeta de México), its first biobibliography of Mexico’s written production (Bibliotheca Mexicana), its first scientific periodicals (such as the Diario literario de México), and one of the first – if not the first – science fiction works of the region (Un viaje novohispano a la luna). Despite these achievements the literary production and intellectual life of eighteenth-century Mexico has been overlooked. Why? Perhaps one of the reasons lies in the need for scholarship on this era to go beyond the analysis of the traditional models and genres of the Hispanic Golden Age studied by specialists of the early modern period. Given that literatura was an umbrella term that, during the eighteenth century, extended to almost the entire universe of writing, I think that the literary production of this time in Mexico is best approached as the product of the complex historical, scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry that marked the era. Viceregal scholars, the practitioners of this literature, were polymaths that notably held a wide array of scholarly interests.

Front pages of the first issues of Mercurio volante (1772-1773), a scientific periodical edited by José Ignacio Bartolache (left), and of Gazeta de literatura de México (1788-1795).

My study Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters aims to fill this critical void by analyzing how eighteenth-century Mexican writers sought to establish their local literary republic’s place within the global community of learning. These individuals formed scholarly networks, engaged in the historical exploration of the past and present, and configured new epistemological approaches to literary production inspired by enlightened ideas. Polemics of different kinds, as suggested in the title of my study, played a crucial role in the formation of scholarly circles. One of the first of such controversies was related to the lack of recognition by European scholars of the intellectual capacities of those born in the Americas. In order to debunk existing prejudices and to be considered part of the res publica literaria, Mexican scholars were eager to showcase their intellectual attainments to Europe. For these scholars, the Republic of Letters was polycentric, with one of its centers located precisely in viceregal Mexico.

Many literary works of this era not only utilized scholarly polemics as unique points of departure, but also gave rise to new controversies. Beyond Mexican scholars’ efforts to defend the intellectual capacities of fellow inhabitants of the New World, these writers, especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, were involved in internal, epistemological battles related to the practice of knowledge. My book not only highlights the efforts of scholars in eighteenth-century Mexico to construct a polycentric Republic of Letters in order to receive recognition from their European peers, but also demonstrates the extent to which the intellectual realm was dynamic within the viceroyalty.

Elementa recentioris philosophiae, by Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra (Mexici, 1774) (Bodleian Library)

As such literary debates on knowledge attest, several intellectual circles coexisted in the viceroyalty that, due to their different characteristics, grew increasingly distant over time. In the works of some Mexican authors there existed two chronologically distinct Republics of Letters, that from the pre-Columbian era and that which emerged after the Spanish conquest. In the late eighteenth century, however, several publications attested to the simultaneous existence of at least two distinctive groups of scholars, one that was old and pertaining to scholasticism – the philosophical-educational system traditionally ruling the world of scholars – and another that was new, or modern, and influenced by enlightened ideas. In other words, the seemingly stable idea of the Republic of Letters in the mid-eighteenth century was to fall apart in the following decades, when Enlightenment-inspired criticism, opposition to ancient authorities, and philosophical and scientific development concerned with social realities put into play innovative approaches to knowledge and the practice of religion in the viceroyalty.

With Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters, I invite those scholars devoted to the study of eighteenth-century cultures to engage in an examination of a less-explored scholarly territory and its networks, and to think about how it was heterogeneously constructed by many-sided polemics and debates manifested through a broad range of literary works.

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in April 2021.

What do children do with books?

A key concept in childhood studies since the 1970s, children’s agency has recently returned to the heart of the reflections of a group of childhood historians. The conference Se soustraire à l’empire des grands. Enfance, jeunesse et agentivité (1500-1830) (Escaping the empire of the grown-ups: childhood, adolescence and agency, 1500-1830), organised by Sylvie Moret-Petrini at the Université de Lausanne, focused on the personal journals of children and adolescents. The aim was to tackle this source, often seen by historians as a surveillance and educational tool, or as ‘panoptiques de papier’ (paper panopticons), from a new angle and consider it as a space where young writers could reflect on their status as children and express forms of rebellion or indiscipline.

These reflections invite us to take a fresh look at another object that educators advised should be placed under the constant and close supervision of parents – the book. What kind of agency can be achieved in children’s and adolescents’ relationships with books, whether this was how they approached and absorbed texts, how they handled the book as a physical object, or the resources they drew from their reading to inform their present actions or future choices? This approach, as always, requires a cross-analysis of the rare traces that remain of the way children treated books and the mass of adult, pedagogical, parental, medical and literary discourse.

Gradus ad Parnassum

Becoming a poet and settling accounts in the margins: the Berkeleys’ Gradus ad Parnassum. (Centre culturel irlandais, Paris, fonds patrimonial, B 1010)

It is clear there was plenty of room for manoeuvre concerning ways of reading, places and times of reading, and the material uses of the book as a physical object. Those who enjoyed reading as a child recall their ability to fully immerse themselves into the imaginary world opened up by a text, like children who play at being a fairy or Robinson Crusoe. In adolescence, parents express the fear that certain books may cause their offspring to ‘emulate something unusual’ or to take up careers other than those they had envisioned for them. The ‘wild’ handling of books is documented by the volumes themselves, such as the practice of writing and drawing in the margins, either to pass the time or to convey messages to someone sitting nearby. We find examples in literature and art of children making castles out of books or using them as stepping stones, like the Cholmondeley children painted by Hogarth in 1732. However, beware of such overly euphoric representations of childish creativity. Alongside these noisy diversions, there were also quieter forms of agency, ‘weak uses’ of books such as interrupted or unengaged reading, or expressions of a dislike of reading (sometimes found in correspondence or in parents’ diaries), which were all ways of rejecting the pedagogical norms of consulting books as a means of self-improvement and learning.

Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family

Building paper worlds: Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family, 1732. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case, most traces of, or clues to, the agency of young readers are available to the historian only through writings originating from the adult world (theoretical discourse, pedagogical literature) or produced under close adult supervision (children’s journals). Even annotated books, which in principle offer the most spontaneous traces of children’s reading, have only been preserved and transmitted to us as a result of adult arbitration. The discourses undoubtedly refer less to childish practices and more to the preoccupations and concerns about juvenile behaviour projected by the adult world. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The figures of child readers represented in eighteenth-century children’s literature in particular pose a problem. What can literature teach the historian? Or, as Judith Lyon-Caen might say, what can history teach us about literature? There are two possible research avenues here.

The historian can first of all shed light on these literary figures through archives that document their reality in a more fragmentary and indirect way. The foolish vanity of the young Valentin, who waves his Telemachus under the nose of a gardener’s son to clearly mark the social divide between them, is certainly ridiculed in La Vanité punie, but the episode also highlights the fact that the child has grasped the social advantage that he can gain from his small possession – albeit he uses it inappropriately here – at a time when children were given beautiful books as gifts at New Year and in a society where owning a library was a powerful symbol of social distinction. Agency, as we know, is never disconnected from the socio-institutional contexts that are imposed on it at the very heart of practices.

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants (London, 1782).

Similarly, in the short play Un bon cœur fait pardonner bien des étourderies (A good heart makes up for many careless mistakes) (published in L’Ami des enfants in 1782), Arnaud Berquin portrays a young man, Frédéric, who sells his watch and school books to give money to the poor. Police archives contain many files on peddlers convicted of acquiring books from schoolchildren in exchange for sweets or novels. Some had been unmasked as a result of the ex libris on the textbooks, as in Berquin’s play. The practice of selling on is therefore well documented, but it is presented in literature as a form of children’s agency rather than as the (female) street vendors’ agency as generally tackled by historians.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle is the February 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This example leads us on to the second research avenue. It reminds us not to present children’s agency as a given, an a priori, but rather as a construction, an ‘œuvre de re-connaissance et de re-présentation des enfants par les adultes’ (work of re-cognition and re-presentation of children by adults), to borrow Pascale Garnier’s expression. The focus on childhood in the eighteenth century led to the valorisation of youthful inventiveness, including in its negotiations with the rules, as long as it remained venial, expressed qualities associated with childhood (innocence, impulsiveness), and did not constitute a threat to the established order. Children’s literature thus presented a framework of acceptability for a number of uses of the book, regardless of the final judgement made on the protagonist. We still need to be able to document what was outside the scope of the representable, what the anecdotes left out, what the parents did not want to admit, what only serendipitous archives perhaps can tell us as historians.

Emmanuelle Chapron, Aix Marseille Université

A version of this notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in February 2021.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIII siècle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

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

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

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment, cover.

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

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

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh

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

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

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

Thomas Paine, Age of reason, 1793

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

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

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

A multilingual edition of Catherine II, Nakaz, 1770

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

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

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

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

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

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738

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

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

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

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

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

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank,1819

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Joanna Innes

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

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

‘A la manière de Voltaire’ – contrefaçons et découvertes

La Henriade

La Henriade (Londres, 1741), page de titre. (BnF)

On ne prête qu’aux riches. Ce proverbe chaque jour vérifié éclaire les origines du volume le plus étonnant de la collection des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Complete works of Voltaire), publiée à la Voltaire Foundation d’Oxford, volume 146. L’entreprise paraît marginale, quand on songe que ce volume va figurer sur les rayons à côté de La Henriade et du Dictionnaire philosophique. Or elle n’appelle pas seulement l’admiration à cause de la prodigieuse enquête et des multiples éclaircissements qu’elle a exigés des éditeurs. Elle invite à une découverte passionnante. Il s’agit du recueil, aussi complet que possible, des vers attribués à Voltaire sans qu’ils soient toujours en réalité de sa plume.

Il est paradoxal qu’une entreprise comme celle des Œuvres complètes, qui a pour premier objet de donner à lire toutes les œuvres de l’écrivain sous leur forme la plus authentique, débarrassée de toutes les altérations qu’elles ont pu subir au cours des temps, des suites apocryphes, des atténuations et des adaptations, se donne pour tâche, alors qu’elle atteint presque son achèvement, de fournir le texte magnifiquement édité de poèmes fabriqués par des inconnus ou obscurs plumitifs à la manière de Voltaire. C’est donner à la contrefaçon le sacre de l’édition critique, le label de la plus célèbre des entreprises modernes consacrées à la célébration du génie voltairien. C’est travailler au rebours de la longue suite d’érudits qui, depuis la Renaissance, s’attachent à nettoyer les traditions incertaines pour livrer à l’imprimerie, dans toute sa splendeur, dans toute sa pureté, le texte même sorti du stylet, puis de la plume de ces grands hommes, les auteurs consacrés par des générations d’admirateurs.

Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire

‘Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire’, manuscrit de la collection Doubrowski de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg.

Publier les Poésies attribuées à Voltaire, c’est dans une large mesure édifier un musée de la contrefaçon au sein même du Musée du Louvre. Mais dans une certaine mesure seulement. Car le travail minutieux des éditeurs, sous la direction de Simon Davies, a permis de retrouver parfois des vers authentiques de Voltaire, qui avaient échappé aux éditions de ses œuvres, et qui n’étaient conservés qu’en copies manuscrites. Par exemple, nous sont révélés grâce à cette enquête immense dans les périodiques, dans les recueils, dans les fonds manuscrits cinq vers inédits, retrouvés dans les papiers de Cideville, l’ami rouennais de Voltaire, ou un poème à Mme Du Deffand, inséré dans une lettre. Beaucoup d’autres petits poèmes, un tiers environ du total des 170 textes rassemblés, peuvent être attribués à l’écrivain avec certitude ou probabilité, et ont été imprimés de son vivant sous son nom, sans avoir été recueillis en volumes. Le reste est probablement apocryphe.

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis, Papiers Cideville, Rouen.

N’attendons pas la révélation du chef-d’œuvre inconnu. L’intérêt puissant de cette masse de poèmes, brefs ou longs, qu’on a lus jadis pour des vers du célèbre écrivain, est ailleurs: elle permet de saisir ce qui, au XVIIIe siècle, correspondait dans l’idée du public au style de Voltaire, ce qui avait l’air de porter la marque de son génie propre. Par là ce volume si particulier constitue un apport original et significatif aux études de réception de son œuvre, à la connaissance des attentes du public pour ce qui le concerne. (Sur cette question, voir mon livre sous presse chez Droz, Genève, Voltaire et son lecteur: essai sur la séduction littéraire.) Il est certain que le public du temps, contrairement à la postérité, attend de Voltaire avant tout des œuvres en vers; la fameuse formule du Neveu de Rameau, ‘un poète, c’est de Voltaire’, reflète une évidence pour les contemporains. Jusqu’à Candide au moins, dicté par un écrivain qui atteint l’âge de nos retraites, le public attend de Voltaire des œuvres en vers, le reste ayant un statut marginal, et ces œuvres, il les lit et les connaît familièrement, souvent par cœur. De là la prolifération des imitations, fondement principal de ces ‘vers attribués’.

Opuscules poétiques

Un livre témoin de la passion populaire pour la poésie de Voltaire, les Opuscules poétiques (Amsterdam, [1773]). (BnF)

Pour qui est familier de l’ensemble de l’œuvre de l’écrivain, cet ensemble offre un visage vaguement familier, ressemblant mais déformé. La ressemblance naît de la communauté des thèmes: la satire antireligieuse, les réflexions sur la sagesse et le bonheur, mais surtout de la recherche d’une parfaite élégance dans des petits genres inspirés par la galanterie et la sociabilité, du madrigal aux épîtres et aux bouts-rimés. Les pièces brèves sont les plus nombreuses, mais une Apothéose du roi Pétaut ou une Ode au roi de Prusse rappellent aussi les grands poèmes philosophiques ou satiriques qui ont tant contribué au succès et à la gloire du ‘poète-philosophe’. Toutefois la ressemblance se perd presque partout dans les imperfections de l’exécution. C’est en feuilletant les vers de ses imitateurs, qui furent ses admirateurs, que l’on mesure la supériorité du poète Voltaire en son siècle: un maître des moyens poétiques à la française, des rimes, du jeu des vers mêlés, du choix des mots ‘mis en leur place’, de l’éloquence et des chutes foudroyantes. Par cette étonnante somme de vers retrouvés, d’authenticité incertaine pour la plupart, témoignage éclairant de l’admiration de ses contemporains, la stature du grand homme sort grandie.

– Sylvain Menant

Rethinking Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais: in the footsteps of Gustave Lanson

With the publication of volume 6B, containing the full annotated text of the Lettres philosophiques, we have just moved one step closer to celebrating the completion of the Complete works of Voltaire in 2021. We are familiar with the challenge of trying to make sense of a text that has hitherto been little studied – the recently completed edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV is a case in point. A challenge of a different sort is presented by the small number of texts that are well known and much edited: in these cases, is there anything left to say? That problem is especially stark in the case of the Lettres philosophiques, where one epoch-making critical edition, that of Gustave Lanson, casts a long shadow over those of us following in his footsteps.

Gustave Lanson

Gustave Lanson at work at the Sorbonne. (Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne; photographer unknown)

Lanson was a devoted lycée teacher much involved in the reform of the school syllabus before he became professor at the Sorbonne in 1904. He didn’t just edit the Lettres philosophiques, he pretty much invented the work for the twentieth century and beyond. The title was scarcely known in the nineteenth century, and the Lanson edition of 1909 (re)created it very deliberately to turn it into a teaching text.

In the years before the First World War, when Lanson was lecturing on Voltaire at the Sorbonne, the French faculty in Oxford was still in its infancy – its only significant contribution to Enlightenment studies was from Miss Eleanor Jourdain, vice-principal of St Hugh’s, who published an account of meeting the ghost of Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon… but that story must wait for another blog. Voltaire first came onto the Oxford French syllabus in 1923, when the Siècle de Louis XIV was set for the Pass School (how many students read that work now?). Then, as part of a comprehensive revision of the syllabus in 1927, it was resolved, rather boldly, that the nineteenth century should begin in 1715, and so Voltaire became a prescribed author on the Finals syllabus (where he has remained ever since): the two works chosen for ‘special study’ were Candide (in the 1913 edition of André Morize, a pupil of Lanson) and the Lettres philosophiques (in Lanson’s own edition, of course). During World War II the teaching of Voltaire carried on unchanged and, given the impossibility of importing books from France, the Oxford publisher Basil Blackwell commissioned student editions of Candide and the Lettres philosophiques. The editors had to work quickly, and Owen Taylor’s edition of Candide came out in 1942, followed the year after by the Lettres philosophiques, edited by Frank Taylor, a tutor at Christ Church. This excellent edition remains in print and was still the prescribed edition in Oxford when I studied Voltaire as an undergraduate in the 1970s. I remember my surprise when I discovered at Thornton’s in Broad Street a copy of the original 1943 printing, produced on poor-quality paper with the ‘Book production war economy standard’ logo at the front. I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Voltaire by way of the Lettres philosophiques was entirely due to Gustave Lanson.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

Lanson taught literature at the Sorbonne at a time when ‘French literature’ was considered inferior to ‘History’ as a university subject. He devoted much of his career to defending the seriousness of literary study, hence the pressing need to produce a ‘scientific’ edition of a literary work that would prove the credentials of this emerging subject. So, the importance of Lanson’s Lettres philosophiques was not just that it was the first proper critical edition of any Voltaire work; it was intended to be the model for all future literary scholarship, no less. As he writes in his edition of the Lettres:

‘Il m’a paru utile de donner une édition critique des Lettres philosophiques, une édition qui fût non seulement la première édition critique de cet ouvrage, mais la première aussi, à ce que je crois, d’un écrit de Voltaire, et qui inaugurât une série de travaux qu’il serait vraiment temps de commencer.’

These circumstances help to explain both the strengths and some of the oddities of Lanson’s pioneering work. The bibliographical descriptions, for example, are needlessly complicated and confusing, with their stemmas of different textual traditions that Lanson seems to have borrowed from medievalist colleagues such as Joseph Bédier. This aspect of his editorial work has not been emulated, and we hope that the bibliographical section in our new edition will be simpler and clearer to follow.

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lanson’s stemma from the second edition. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The annotation is a remarkable feature of Lanson’s edition. He explains that he does not aim to produce a historical commentary on the work, still less to say whether Voltaire’s judgements are well founded; nor does he wish to put Voltaire’s text in the context of earlier travel accounts to England (something that F. A. Taylor does in his edition). Instead, his goal is to identify and explain as precisely as possible the sources of Voltaire’s text:

‘Mon but a été d’aider à comprendre comment Voltaire a fait son livre, comment et sur quels matériaux son esprit a travaillé. J’ai voulu présenter un commentaire de “sources”, rien de plus. L’idéal eût été d’arriver à découvrir pour chaque phrase le fait, le texte ou le propos qui avait mis en branle l’intelligence ou l’imagination de Voltaire: on se fût ainsi rendu compte du travail intérieur qui les a utilisés, fécondés, déformés, transformés. Je n’ai pas besoin de dire que je n’ai pas atteint cet idéal.’

This ‘ideal’ of attempting to pin down the sources of every single phrase in the book strikes us now as somewhat surreal, and of course Lanson has been much mocked by later generations for his unrelenting positivism. Where Lanson produced his commentary in the form of long endnotes, our style of annotation is not only different in approach, it is also more concise. That said, we remain enormously indebted to Lanson’s work, which in important respects remains unsurpassed.

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

A particular challenge posed by this text lies in the choice of base text and the presentation of (so-called) variants. The problem begins with the fact that there is not really one first edition. The work was initially published by William Bowyer in London, in English, as the Letters concerning the English nation (1733). Early in 1734 Bowyer produced in London the first French edition, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (with the false imprint ‘A Basle’); and then later that year, another enlarged French edition was published, without privilège, by Jore in Rouen. For Lanson, there was no problem: the English edition could be dismissed as a mere translation; and the first French edition had the double disadvantage of being foreign and of being less complete (it lacked the 25th letter on Pascal). It seemed obvious to him that the ‘real’ version of the text was the one published in France, the one that had caused the scandal that nearly landed Voltaire in jail. And so this multi-faceted work became reduced to the Lettres philosophiques, and the other two early versions, though noted, were eclipsed. There have been many editions of this work since 1909, and all editors have followed Lanson in their basic decision to choose the Jore printing over the other two.

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French

Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais, first edition in French.

It was an American scholar, Harcourt Brown, who first confused this picture by arguing intriguingly in an article of 1967 that Voltaire had composed about half of the text in English, and that the Letters concerning the English nation were in fact part English original and part translation. His arguments were taken further by André-Michel Rousseau, who in 1964 had updated Lanson’s edition of the Lettres philosophiques, and who wrote a remarkable doctorat d’état on L’Angleterre et Voltaire. A.-M. Rousseau was originally invited to edit this work for the Complete works of Voltaire, and in a lecture given at the Taylor Institution in Oxford in 1978, celebrating the bicentenary of Voltaire’s death, he laid out his plan for an edition that would break radically with the Lanson tradition: he argued forcefully that the Jore French text was in many respects inferior to the Bowyer French version printed in London and, crucially, that it was this London version that lived on in later editions. He proposed therefore to side-line the Jore edition, and present the two London editions as a bilingual edition, with the English and French on facing pages:

‘Au lecteur du vingtième siècle, on doit la vérité: une édition bilingue. A main gauche, comme sur un clavier, l’anglais de Voltaire; à main droite, le français de Voltaire, non le texte imprimé par Jore, déjà légèrement, mais nettement marqué par la sénescence, mais la rédaction verte, drue, candide, de l’édition de Londres. En somme, les vraies “Lettres anglaises” – et parfois “philosophiques” – en un seul concert visuel.’

This was fighting talk – how I wish we had a podcast of that lecture, and how I wish Rousseau had gone on to produce his edition as planned. When I prepared the first modern edition of the Letters concerning the English nation, I still went along with the Harcourt Brown thesis that Voltaire had begun to write this book in English. But I soon began to have doubts, which I discussed over the years with a good friend, the late Pat Lee: in due course, we each found evidence disproving Harcourt Brown’s central argument, and there is now a scholarly consensus that Voltaire wrote this book in French, and that the English version is in its entirety a translation by John Lockman.

But that does not mean that Lanson was right to dismiss the English version out of hand. They may be a translation, but the Letters concerning the English nation are still, strictly speaking, the first edition of our work. More than that, there is clear evidence that from the start Voltaire intended his Lettres to appear in both French and English (even if he didn’t originally intend the English version to come out first). Lanson’s stirring declaration that the Lettres philosophiques were ‘the first bomb thrown at the Ancien Régime’ (the quote that launched a thousand essay questions…) makes sense in the context of the Third Republic, but is simply not sustainable when we examine the work’s complex international publishing history. Voltaire was clearly writing not just for a French readership, but also for English and European readers more widely. So, in the new Oxford edition, we will include the English version as a text possessing its intrinsic interest as part of the overall European reception of this work.

Where does that leave us with regard to the choice of copy text? Should we stay with Lanson in choosing the Jore edition, the Lettres philosophiques? Or should we follow A.-M. Rousseau’s preference for the Bowyer text, the Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais? Rousseau was not wrong to say that the Bowyer printing is technically of higher quality than the Jore edition – the Rouen printer was producing a clandestine edition, and no doubt had to work fast. It is also true that because subsequent reworkings of the text mostly took the Bowyer edition as their starting point, the recording of variants to that edition is in practical terms simpler than recording variants to the Jore edition. Only the Jore edition, however, has the 25th letter, the Anti-Pascal, which was a key part of the book’s polemical impact; and Lanson is right to say that this edition provoked the censorship storm that overwhelmed Voltaire in 1734. Our decision was finely balanced but, in the end, we decided to keep Jore as the base text, not least so as to give the Anti-Pascal its proper prominence.

We resolved, however, to present the variants in a different way from Lanson. The variants in his edition are scrupulously recorded, of course, yet they are frankly hard to interpret, and we need to ask why that is. The censorship of the Lettres philosophiques was savage, and given that Voltaire was legally obliged to abandon the title, he worked to recast the work in a disguised form, under a different name. While individual ‘letters’ largely survive, redesignated as ‘chapters’ from 1739, they are in places substantially rewritten and transformed, and entirely new chapters are added. In other words, we are not dealing here with ‘one’ book and its textual ‘variants’, but rather with a shifting text that continued to evolve throughout Voltaire’s lifetime – so much so, indeed, that Voltaire really questions our received notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘closed’ text. The challenge for the editor of a print edition is to find a way of taming this shifting entity within the two dimensions of the printed page. So, in our new edition, while we have retained the Lettres philosophiques as base text, we have given full prominence to the other French version, the Lettres écrites de Londres, by including its distinctive paratexts and index in a separate section, and we have created a third section, ‘Mélanges (1739-1775)’, which seeks to track and explain as clearly as we can the various permutations (not variants!) of the letters as they evolve over four decades.

This leaves the dilemma of the title. Our decision to name the overall edition the Lettres sur les Anglais certainly breaks with recent tradition, although the more familiar Lettres philosophiques has only been standard since Lanson imposed it in 1909. Before that, the work was habitually referred to as the Lettres anglaises or Lettres sur les Anglais, titles that Voltaire himself used in his letters. Writing after Voltaire’s death, both Condorcet and Frederick II refer to the Lettres sur les Anglais, and we have followed their example. The great advantage of this title is that it can designate collectively a whole cluster of related printed texts (and the associated manuscript Lettre sur M. Locke). In choosing this title, we wanted to emphasise the fundamentally fluid nature of the Lettres and not to single out any one expression in print.

For all Lanson’s supposedly ‘scientific’ critical approach, his edition of the Lettres philosophiques is a highly politicised work. The Entente cordiale of 1904 was an ambitious diplomatic attempt to strengthen the links between England and France at a moment when war with Germany seemed imminent. For this first exemplary scholarly edition, Lanson’s choice of a work in 1909 that celebrated European Enlightenment and the cultural connections between France and England was hardly fortuitous. And what of the new Oxford edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais, which emphasises Voltaire’s European readership, and that we have been working on in lockdown in 2020 while the UK was discussing severing its ties with the European Union? Whether its editors realise it or not, no critical edition is ever neutral.

Nicholas Cronk

Lettres sur les Anglais (II) was published in December 2020, an edition by Nicholas Cronk, Nick Treuherz, Nicolas Fréry and Ruggero Sciuto.


Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.

What can abbé de Saint-Pierre tell us about the political Enlightenment?

Can an author wishing to establish the monarchy in the first decades of the 18th century belong to the Enlightenment, which associated itself with human rights, political freedom and popular sovereignty? In La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre: une science politique des Modernes I wanted to emphasize that the writings of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre (1645-1730), invite us to question the chronology, the themes and the areas of influence of a polymorphic emancipatory movement whose legitimizing function leads to a neglect of its complexity and points of tension.

Abbé de Saint-Pierre

Abbé de Saint-Pierre, after François de Troy. (Institut de France)

Saint-Pierre defends the indivisible power of the monarch, redefines access to the nobility and its prerogatives, and assigns religion and the Church an essential role of education and assistance. He thus maintains the pillars of the Ancien Régime, which the French Revolution was going to destroy, rejecting the attempts to reform the monarchy on the side of a bygone world. To interpret what preceded from what followed feeds a retrospective and teleological point of view which has recently been reinforced by the application of the concept of radical Enlightenment to the political arena. Defined as republican, democratic and egalitarian, the Enlightenment, presented as the guarantor of the values of Western modernity, overshadows what has been called ‘the royal thesis’, which made monarchical authority a means of carrying out reforms. Is this thesis contrary to the political Enlightenment; is it an unfinished, incomplete form, or one of its aspects? I ask these questions in my book, not to make the Enlightenment a criterion by which we should judge or rehabilitate the projects of Saint-Pierre, but to examine certain little-known aspects and contradictions.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

The abbé de Saint-Pierre condemned the hereditary dignities and the venal offices, the recommendations, the clienteles, which structured the society of his time and which played an essential role in the exercise of power, whereas other undisputed representatives of the Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu, defended the venality of offices, the role of parliaments and the nobility as a counterweight to the power of the sovereign. Within the framework of the monarchy, Saint-Pierre supposes a social contract that guarantees the well-being of everyone, with a duty, if not of results then of means. For him, the general interest cannot be protected by the compromising of particular interests, opposed in their principle to the ethics of reciprocity, but rather by a single power, which must answer to public opinion and assume sole responsibility for its decisions when exposed to criticism. Education, the social control disciplining subjects without integrating them into political decision – if Saint-Pierre promotes the education of the common people, the State must ensure the slow progress of universal reason through political stability, sustaining the autonomy and the authority of the able and scholarly elites.

In this interrogation of the political Enlightenment, my work looks towards the East, the proponents of a ‘good police’ and an authoritarian welfare state, studying the connections forged by Saint-Pierre to Germany and Prussia. A monarchical framework perceived as the guardian of efficiency and rationality, the promotion of social discipline with a paternalistic tendency, seemed to be compatible with the public use of reason and independent political thinking. This imposes a higher duty of telling the truth and spreading one’s ideas publicly in print, which earned the abbé his eviction from the Académie française and left him no choice but to publish abroad in Holland.

The ambivalence of reason, between despotism and light, which fully belongs to the heritage of the Aufklärung, as Antoine Lilti points out in his latest book on Michel Foucault, seems to perfectly apply to the writings of Saint-Pierre. (See Antoine Lilti, L’Héritage des Lumières, Ambivalences de la modernité, Paris, 2019, p.380.)

– Carole Dornier, University of Caen Normandy, France

A version of this text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog for November 2020.

A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

Every project in the Complete Works of Voltaire corpus seems to have its own special features that make it not quite fit into the mould of what has gone before. Our team meetings ring to the sounds of editors wailing ‘But this is different !’ The principles that have served us well over the 50-year duration of the project have had to be agile and adaptable to cover the astonishing range of genres and styles covered by Voltaire.

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Histoire de la guerre de 1741, Amsterdam 1755 (left: Bnf, Paris; right: Bodley, Oxford)

Even by the standards of the Voltaire Foundation, though, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV presents a unique challenge because of its complex genesis. Much of the material in the chapters of the Précis which cover the War of the Austrian Succession was first written by Voltaire for his Histoire de la guerre de 1741, a project enthusiastically started when he was appointed as historiographe de France in the 1740s. He never published it himself (though it was published, supposedly unofficially, and at least twice, in 1755), but rewrote and integrated large parts of it in his ambitious universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs. Later, he separated the material on Louis XIV (to become the Siècle de Louis XIV) and Louis XV, and the Précis (which was by this time not really a précis) became a work in its own right in 1769, with later chapters added in the 1770s to take account of, amongst other things, the king’s unexpected death in 1774.

Essay sur l’histoire générale

Essay sur l’histoire générale, [Geneva], 1756 (Bodley, Oxford)

This genesis means that the collation and presentation of variants is different from what we usually do. Our usual process goes something like this:

  1. Select a work by Voltaire
  2. Assess the different editions and manuscripts of the work and choose the most appropriate base text (for example, the version that was last overseen by Voltaire, or sometimes the first edition, or else the edition that was most widely read during his lifetime).
  3. Collate significant textual variants from other editions and manuscripts against the base text and present them neatly at the foot of the page.

Sometimes (particularly for example in the theatrical corpus) the variant versions are too divergent from the base text to be presented on the same page, and so in such cases we would print whole scenes or sections as an appendix, with a reference on the relevant page of the base text to direct the reader to where this material could be found.

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.

In the case of the Guerre/Précis project, though, it was clear that we were dealing with not one but (at least) two separate works. The remit of the Précis is much wider than the War of the Austrian Succession, the primary focus of the Guerre. Not to mention what we might call the Essai sur les mœurs stage in the middle, where the titles are dispensed with but the material is reused and moved around to create a narrative that fits into the wider universal history.

We decided early on that the Guerre needed therefore to be treated as a separate text, and, for the first time in a collection of Voltaire’s complete works, it is published in full. This has avoided some horrendous complexities of page layout had we tried to show all the Guerre material as variants to the Précis, as well as the awkwardness of chopping it up into gobbets for appendices. Being able to read the Guerre in its entirety allows the reader a richer understanding of this little-known and underrated text as well as of how it fits into the context of the Précis project. It has also allowed us to separate the manuscripts relating to the composition of the Guerre from those which relate specifically to the Précis, and to present variants from these in the most appropriate context.

However, it has meant that the overlap between the material in the Guerre and that of the Précis has to be shown in other ways. We decided to adopt the method of lightly shading passages in the Guerre to show when there is textual overlap between that text and the later Précis text. This has had the great advantage of showing the reader at a glance the scale of the reuse of this material, as well as allowing us to concentrate in greater detail on the text that is unique to the Guerre. For the shaded sections, readers are referred to the annotation of the Précis, whereas the unique Guerre text is annotated in full in that volume. As Voltaire edited the text as he reused it, we have ignored small differences in phrasing for the purposes of this exercise (see image for example) – but it does sometimes throw into relief small amendments made during the reuse process, for example, deciding to name someone, or amending figures of battlefield casualties etc. in response to new information.

Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 / Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Above: Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ch.24, l.264-69. Below: Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ch.26, l.78-83.

This decision necessitated another choice: should we shade only the material that was used in our base text of the Précis (Voltaire’s revised 1775 edition, amended by him shortly before his death in anticipation of a new version of his complete works), or should we include all the material that was taken forward from the Guerre, through the Essai and early standalone Précis editions, even if it was subsequently deleted? After discussion with the general editors, it was decided in the end that in the Guerre it was important to distinguish between what Voltaire reused, and what was only ever used in the Guerre. This means that not all the highlighted text will be found in the base text of our edition of the Précis – much of it can be found instead in the variants. The critical thing is that all the shaded text is accounted for and commented on in our edition of the Précis (OCV, vols.29A and 29B).

The Histoire de la guerre de 1741, OCV, vol.29C, publishing in October 2020, completes the three-volume set of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, with volumes 29A and 29B published earlier in the year, the general editors being Janet Godden and James Hanrahan.

Alison Oliver

Lettres philosophiques 4D – coming soon to libraries near you!

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of 1733 edition. (Taylor Institution, Arch.8o.E.1733)

Lettres philosophiques! Lettres philosophiques!’, I hear you cry. And I bring you glad tidings: the time has almost come and your thirst will soon be quenched; volume 6B of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire will be released in a matter of months.

The cherry on the cake of our 200-volume edition, vol.6B has been a somewhat tough row to hoe, and for good reason. One of Voltaire’s most iconic texts, the Lettres philosophiques also had a terribly complicated publication history: originally appearing in English in 1733, they were only published in French the following year, simultaneously in London and Rouen. No sooner had they been released than the letter about Locke and the nature of the soul, significantly reworked by the author himself, began to circulate clandestinely (ask Antony McKenna and Gianluca Mori, whose great edition of the ‘Lettre sur M. Locke’ only appeared a few months ago!). Met with more than a bit of resistance by the French authorities, the Lettres soon stopped being printed under their original title, and were merged into the Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie first, and, after Voltaire’s death, into the big potpourri that is the Kehl Dictionnaire philosophique.

Lettres philosophiques

Title page of 1734 Jore edition. (British Library, 8465.aa.3.(1.) DRT)

As they moved from one edition to another, from one miscellany to the next, the individual ‘letters’ underwent several changes. And we are not talking about occasional, minor corrections; we are talking about entire ‘letters’ being suppressed, combined with others, or replaced by brand new content. An example? The Jore edition of 1734, the one that we still read today, contained no fewer than four chapters on Newton; by 1756, however, ‘Sur le système de l’attraction’ and ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ were entirely suppressed, and the first half of letter 17 (‘Sur l’infini et la chronologie’) met with the same, tragic destiny. In their place stood ‘De Newton’, a much shorter text in which gravitation and optics were mostly passed over in silence, pre-eminence being rather given to some not particularly laudatory anecdotes: the great Newton – Voltaire writes, possibly gesturing to his own niece, Marie-Louise Denis, who, at the time, also happened to be his lover – would have never risen to fame had it not been for ‘[sa] jolie nièce’ [Catherine Barton]. After all, in 1756 the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton also underwent major cuts, and all elements conspire to suggest that, by the mid-50s, Voltaire’s infatuation with the British mathematician had significantly lost momentum.

Gaining a better understanding of how the Lettres philosophiques may have changed over the forty-odd years between their publication and Voltaire’s death – looking at them in four dimensions, if you like – may cast much-needed light also on the history of other texts. Take, for instance, the Traité sur la tolerance. The impression that one gets from reading the letters that Voltaire sent and received between 1762 and 1763 is that this work was written almost impromptu in the months immediately following the execution of Jean Calas. But is that really the case? To a certain extent, yes. But it is also true that an early version of what would later become chapters 7, 8, 12, and 13 of the Traité could already be found in a rewriting of Letter 13, dating from about 1750: ‘Que les philosophes ne peuvent jamais nuire’. After all, as shown by Gianluigi Goggi, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, and Olivier Ferret in a wonderful collection of essays published in 2007, Voltaire was an undisputed master of réécriture.[1]

Simple variant readings printed at the bottom of a page of a critical edition are usually sufficient to give the reader a sense of how a text evolved over time. But with the Lettres philosophiques we soon realised that things had to be scaled up a little. Alongside the canonical 25 letters, each with its own variants, vol.6B will therefore contain twenty substantial rewritings as texts in their own right, all furnished with footnotes and (guess what?!) variants! Any overlaps and repetitions between ‘letters’ and variants, or even between variants and substantial rewritings, will be highlighted in grey, and footnotes will guide readers and help them to navigate these somewhat intimidating waters. But might there be other, even better ways of editing a text with such a complex history? Well, that’s one of the questions that we are addressing, as we begin to work on Digital Voltaire.

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] Copier/coller: écriture et réécriture chez Voltaire. Actes du colloque international (Pise, 30 juin – 2 juillet 2005) (Pisa, 2007).

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.