What was the ‘Bible’ in eighteenth-century Russia? Although printed church books, including volumes containing the Biblical texts needed for worship, had been printed in Muscovy since the mid-sixteenth century, the first complete Bible was printed in Muscovy in the mid-seventeenth century, in 1663 – about two hundred years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed in the West. It was in Church Slavonic, the language based on Old Bulgarian that is used to this day in Russian Orthodox worship and church books; Church Slavonic, in the eighteenth century as today, differed significantly from spoken Russian without being completely incomprehensible with a bit of practice. The Slavonic Bible text was created in the Middle Ages and was, in theory, based on the Greek text throughout (the reality was rather more complicated, and in some cases Latin sources were used). The Slavonic version of the Old Testament therefore largely followed the Greek Septuagint, unlike Protestant Bibles like the German Luther Bible and the English King James Bible, which are based on the Hebrew text. In the first half of the eighteenth century, on the initiative of Peter the Great, an effort was made to revise the Slavonic Bible text, standardizing it and bringing it consistently into agreement with the Greek. This revision was first published in 1751 and is known as the Elizabeth Bible. The corrected 1756 edition of the Elizabeth Bible remains to this day the authorized version of the Bible used in the Russian Orthodox Church. While literary paraphrases of portions of the Bible, such as the Psalms, had been a major literary genre since the seventeenth century, full-blown translation into modern, spoken Russian remained essentially out of the question until the turn of the nineteenth century. The first full Russian edition of the New Testament appeared in 1822 on the presses of the Russian Bible Society, a non-Church organization with the support of the British and Foreign Bible Society; it elicited strong resistance, and a full Russian Bible, known as the Synodal version, appeared only in 1876.
However, despite increasingly frequent printings of the full Slavonic Bible from 1751 onward, very few copies of the Bible published as a single edition were likely to reach readers outside the Church. There were more frequent editions of the sections of the Bible most used in worship, like the Gospels. But even these editions were mostly for use within the Church. Only the Psalter was very likely to have been read by most literate Russians: it was the third and last in the sequence of standard textbooks used to teach children to read, following a primer and the breviary.
Among its extensive collection of Bible-related treasures, including a magnificent copy of the famous Gutenberg Bible, the Bodleian holds a small but significant array of editions of Russian and Slavonic Biblical books of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most of these editions come from the collections of two eminent nineteenth-century scholars: Oxford’s first professor of Russian, William Morfill (1834-1909), and the orientalist Rev. Solomon Caesar Malan (1812-1894), who donated his library to Oxford’s former Indian Institute. Whereas Slavonic and Russian Biblical texts formed part of Morfill and Malan’s working collections, other editions ended up in the Bodleian for other reasons. One of my personal favourites is a beautiful Slavonic Psalter, printed in 1807 at the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. It is part of the Broxbourne collection, made up of books selected for their rare bindings.
Comparing the Broxbourne Slavonic Psalter with an early edition of the Russian Psalter published in 1822 by the Russian Bible Society illuminates the revolution that took place in the experience of reading the Bible at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Broxbourne Psalter is a pocket-sized, luxurious edition, printed in ornate Church Slavonic on gilt-edged pages, with images of Christ and the Mother of God stamped on its leather covers and its own leather carrying case. The Biblical text comes framed by the full authority of State and Church. The title page proclaims that the Psalter was printed on the orders of Emperor Alexander I and lists by name the entire imperial family at the time; these names recur at the very end of the volume in the pomiannik, or prayers for the commemoration of the living and the dead. In content it is a typical Malaia Psaltir’, or Little Psalter, meaning that the Psalms are divided into the 20 kathismata, or groups for liturgical reading, and accompanied by the corresponding prayers. The text of the Psalms is likewise preceded by catechetical material like the Athanasian Creed to ensure that the Psalms are read in the context of the Orthodox faith. By contrast the 1822 Kniga khvalenii ili Psaltir’ na rossiiskom iazyke (Book of Praises or Psalter in the Russian Language) is a simple, slim volume in Russian only.
The title page looks like that of any other secular book. Although the book’s short foreword, addressed ‘To the Christ-loving Reader’, is signed by a metropolitan and two archbishops, it is almost entirely philological, explaining the necessity for and principles behind the present Russian translation. The text of the Psalms appears alone, without any indications of how it might be used in worship; the lines have been numbered for ease in citation. Holding these two volumes side-by-side, one can easily see how the Bible Society Psalter might well have been perceived as a shocking Protestant innovation designed to rip apart the Orthodox faith. The story is of course not so simple, since the Bible Society piously intended to spread the faith through their publications. Yet, in its material form, the Scriptural text itself appears to have been secularized. These two little books present in a nutshell the drama and ambiguities of Holy Scripture in an age of secularization.
Until recently, it was generally considered that Islam, the youngest of the great world religions, was born ‘not amidst the mystery which cradles the origin of other religions, but rather in the full light of history’, as Ernest Renan, the French scholar of Middle East civilizations, put it in 1883. Most textbooks and popular biographies still take Renan’s line: Islam originated among the tribal Arabs of the Hijaz (the coastal region of western Arabia that includes both Mecca and Medina) who heeded the divine messages transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad as contained in the holy text of the Quran.
The traditional view of Muhammad’s life, conveyed by the vast majority of biographies, runs as follows. Muhammad began preaching around 510 CE in his native Mecca, the site of an ancient shrine to which Arabs made regular pilgrimages. His attacks on the local gods brought him into conflict with the city’s rulers, and in 622 CE, he and his band of followers migrated to the neighbouring settlement of Yathrib – later known as Medina, the Prophet’s ‘city’ – where he formed an alliance with local tribes, three of which adhered to Jewish rites. After a series of raids and battles (to which there are allusions in the Quran but no descriptions), he overcame the Meccan polytheists and restored the shrine at Mecca to the true worship of the God of Abraham. The recalcitrant Jews who refused to accept his message were expelled from Medina – and in one instance massacred for allegedly treacherous dealings with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies.
Modern scholars, taking their view from more than a century of biblical criticism, have begun to cast doubt on the traditional narrative. The first written accounts of Muhammad’s life were forged out of a vast body of stories known as Hadiths (‘traditions’ or reports), passed down orally by the generations that followed him. The earliest biography, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833 CE, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who is thought to have lived between 707 and 767 CE. By that time the Muslim armies had long defeated the Persian Empire, wrested control of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt from the heirs of Constantine and Justinian, and established a fragile imperium that stretched from Iberia to the Indus Valley. The Arabian prophet, whose exemplary life and preaching are supposed to have inspired this remarkable series of conquests was already famous, and his biography came fully supplied with the supernatural tropes – angelic visitations and miracles – that adorn the lives of holy persons in almost every human culture.
There are clearly problems with this biography to which modern scholars are drawing increasing attention. The dating of the first written narrative to at least a century after Muhammad’s putative death in 632 CE may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most Bible scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written up to four decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. The story of Jesus contained in the synoptic gospels has long been subjected to the rigors of formal criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about the life and personality of Jesus, as distinct from the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus.Despite its greater antiquity, the Christian narrative appears to have had a shorter oral transmission time than its Muslim counterpart. Furthermore, while there are allusions to Jesus in the writings of Josephus and Pliny that provide some cross-referencing for the events described in the Gospels, the Muslim accounts have no such historical anchoring: they are almost entirely ‘insider narratives’ composed in the spirit of piety. Some verses from the Quran, including references to Muhammad, are inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dating from 692 CE. Yet even these have been questioned as sources for the life of Muhammad. The word ‘muhammad’, written in Arabic script without an initial capital letter, can be treated as a passive participle meaning ‘the praised one’. At least one scholar, drawing on numismatic and archaeological evidence, suggests that the inscriptions actually refer to Jesus.
The text of the Quran, the ‘discourse’ or ‘recitation’ that is said to contain the exact words dictated by God to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, is supposed to have been fixed by Uthman (R. 644-656), the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad’s worldly power. It may have provided some clues to Muhammad’s biography – but they are only clues. The text is not arranged chronologically, and its style is highly allusive and elliptical. There are few extended narratives: the Quran’s auditors were evidently familiar with the materials in its discourses. There are references to stories contained in the Hebrew Bible and the Midrash (biblical commentaries), allusions to the Jesus narratives in the Gospels, including Gnostic versions expurgated from the official canon, and stories about Arabian prophets and sages who do not feature in the Judeo-Christian repertoire. The earliest Muslim exegetes – many of whom were Persian converts to Islam and far removed culturally from Muhammad’s supposed Bedouin milieu in western Arabia – were inspired to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography in order to understand the holy text, in particular, allusions to events in the Prophet’s life or ‘occasions of revelation’. There is a sense in which the Quran’s textual history conforms to Muslim piety: far from Muhammad being its ‘author’, the Quran, as the unmediated Word of God, is in a literary-historical sense the ‘author’ of Muhammad.
Scholars who have examined Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Hebrew sources alongside the earliest Arabic texts of the Quran and the hadiths have advanced a variety of alternatives to the conventional narrative. The American linguist John Wansbrough, who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, suggested that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts surrounding Mecca and Medina, arose much further north in a sectarian milieu of Christians and Judaized Arabs in the lands of the Fertile Crescent. More recently, in Muhammad and the Believers (2010), Fred Donner, doyen of American Islamic scholars, has argued that Islam began in the same region as part of an ecumenical movement of monotheists living in the daily expectation of End Times. This revisionist view has recently been given a more popular currency by a British classical author, Tom Holland, in his book In the shadow of the sword (2012).
Following in Wansbrough’s wake, Holland suggests that Islam was born, not in the deserts of Arabia, but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars – the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. Muhammad’s Qurayshite enemies may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the traditional biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who ‘laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable’, knowing full well what he was about.
The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians, and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations – long entrenched in the region’s culture – that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to this view, the purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its by now well-established iconic moral authority.
None of the revisionist discourse, which has been strongly contested by some scholars working on the earliest manuscript sources, would have been known to Voltaire. As a religious iconoclast he would, no doubt, have relished the debate that has recently opened up over Islamic origins. As a dramatist, however, he explicitly rejected any requirement for historical accuracy. As Hannah Burton points out in the introduction to her elegant prose translation, the character of Mahomet is a fiction created for dramatic effect, not an attempt to portray a real historical actor. ‘Where would Virgil and Homer be if people had bothered them about the details?’ Voltaire asks. The same question is currently being asked of Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose skeletal remains were recently discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. Shakespeare’s murderous villain, crook-backed and leering, dragging his misshapen body round the historical stage, bears little relationship to the somewhat prudish devotee of St Anthony the Hermit, patron of those who struggle against the sins of the flesh, who is documented in the historical record. Just as Shakespeare’s character was invented to appease the Tudors who had defeated Richard on the field of Bosworth, Voltaire’s Mahomet was invented to annoy the religious.
The great philosophe was clearly familiar with the more positive details of the Prophet’s life as contained in the ‘Preliminary discourse’ attached to Sale’s English translation of the Quran (1734), and in two French biographies of Muhammad, Henri de Boulainvilliers’s La Vie de Mahomed (1730), and Jean Gagnier’s La Vie de Mahomet traduite et compilée de l’Alcoran (1732).As a passionate anti-cleric, however, he simply plundered these sources and distorted them for his wider purpose, which was to attack the hypocritical religiosity he saw as underpinning France’s ancien régime. Richard Holmes quotes from one of his many ill-tempered diatribes against priests of every denomination who ‘rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God’ (‘Transubstantiation’, in Dictionnaire philosophique). The intellectual forebear of such ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire viewed Muhammad initially through anti-Christian and, specifically, anti-Catholic spectacles.
Depicted as an impostor and a lecherous villain, Voltaire’s Mahomet is singularly lacking in redeeming features. Far from having the qualities that grace the heroes of classical tragedy, he appears as a scheming, ambitious, and wicked tyrant, an impostor motivated by lust. The remorse he exhibits at the end of the play – added, it has been suggested, for ‘public edification – is, in Ahmad Gunny’s view, ‘at best a passing impression and not a permanent trait of character’. Some critics have seen Mahomet as being more of a tract than a play – an attack on religion generally, and in particular the fatalism that Voltaire and many of his contemporaries associated with Islam. Discerning critics saw it as a coded attack on the Catholic Church, cleverly disguised as a polemic against its principal religious enemy. Lord Chesterfield thought that under the guise of Muhammad, Voltaire was really attacking Christ, and was surprised that this was not noticed at the time of its first performance in Lille (1741). Chesterfield met a good Catholic there ‘whose zeal surpassed his insight, who was extremely edified by the way in which this imposter and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’ (‘dont le zèle surpassait la pénétration, qui était extrêmement édifié de la manière dont cet imposteur et ennemi du Christianisme était depeint’). One can easily imagine Voltaire smiling with his tight-lipped grin of ‘a maimed monkey’ (un singe estropié), as he himself described it. How satisfying to have stimulated a bigoted response from a play whose original title page reads Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète, tragédie.
Voltaire’s attack on fanaticism in Mahomet may have been pitched at the supposed enemy of Christianity, but there was a more immediate polemical purpose in his distortion of the Muhammad story. In his life of the Prophet, Boulainvilliers follows Ibn Hisham and subsequent chroniclers, including the Syrian Abu al-Fida al-Hamawi (1273-1331), from whom Boulainvilliers drew his narrative, who relates that Abu Sufyan, leader of the Qurayshites, inspired by the Prophet’s magnanimity, eventually converts to Islam. In Voltaire’s play, however, the Abu Sufyan character (who is called Zopire, possibly after a Persian who features in Herodotus’s Histories as helping Darius trick his way into Babylon)is murdered for failing to embrace Islam. Voltaire’s treatment not only blackens Muhammad’s character, but sabotages the image of the charismatic visionary who defeated his enemies by force of the Quran’s eloquence as much as by his prowess in battle. A similar purpose is evident from his treatment of Palmira, who resists Mahomet’s advances and kills herself rather than succumbing to them. The model for Palmira in Muhammad’s biography is Zainab bint Jahsh, ex-wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, whom Muhammad married – correctly, in accordance with Islamic practice – after she had been divorced from her husband. Instead of embracing the more sympathetic image of Muhammad depicted by Boulainvilliers and Sale, Voltaire defaults to an older vision of Islam as a ‘religion preached by the sword and violence without any element of persuasion’. Doubtless it was this wholly negative depiction of the Prophet that secured papal approval for the play by Benedict XIV – an anti-Jansenist pope who would have seen the attack on Muhammad as a critique of the influential Jansenist party in France. A leading figure of this puritanical Catholic movement was the procurator Joly de Fleury, who was responsible for withdrawing the play after its successful Paris debut in 1742.
Voltaire, however, was far from being uniformly hostile to Islam. In a private letter to Frederick of Prussia he acknowledged that he had made Muhammad worse than he was: ‘Mahomet did not exactly weave the type of treason that forms the subject of this tragedy’ (‘Mahomet n’a pas tramé précisément l’espèce de trahison qui fait le sujet de cette tragédie’ D2386).His earlier play Zaïre, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, presents the Muslim religion more pragmatically. The heroine Zaïre, whose husband, the sultan Orosmane, tragically mistakes her encounter with her lost brother, a Christian, for sexual infidelity, offers a rather more tolerant view:
‘My heart doesn’t know itself … Custom and law moulded my earliest years to the happy Muslim religion. I see only too clearly: the training that we are given as children shapes our feelings, our mores, our belief. On the banks of the Ganges, I would have been a slave to false gods; in Paris, a Christian; in this place, a Muslim.’
Voltaire’s subsequent essay, De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet (1748), maintains his view that Muhammad was an impostor who exploited beliefs in the supernatural while having no such supernatural help himself. In this respect, he regarded Islam as inferior to the Chinese religion because – unlike Muhammad – Confucius depended neither on revelation, nor on lies, nor on the sword for his teachings, but only on reason. However, in disputing the claim that Muhammad was illiterate – a theme he took up in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les mœurs – Voltaire also makes some positive comments about the founder of Islam:
‘How can one imagine that a man who had been a merchant, poet, legislator and sovereign was unable to write his name? If his book is unsuitable for our times and for ourselves, it was truly good for his contemporaries. His religion was even better. We should recognise that he virtually rescued the whole of Asia from idolatry. He taught the unity of God and forcefully denounced anyone claiming that God has partners. He banned the usurious exploitation of strangers, and enjoined the giving of alms. Prayer is an absolute requirement; acceptance of eternal decrees animates all. It is hardly surprising that a religion so simple and wise, taught by a man who was always victorious in the field took power in much of the world. In actuality the Muslims made as many converts by the word as by the sword, including Indians and many Negroes. Even the Turkish conquerors submitted themselves to Islam’ (OCV, vol.20B, p.335).
Voltaire’s articles in the Mercure de France in 1745 proceed on similar lines. In one of them he disposes of the myth that the Muslim conquerors of Spain were wild monsters whose only superiority lay in force. While acknowledging the cruelty that always accompanies conquests, he points out that the Moors were not without humanity, and that in all their provinces they tolerated Christians. Despite the asymmetrical Islamic approach towards mixed marriages (whereby a Christian man would be executed for marrying a Muslim woman unless he converted to Islam), the Muslims were merciful conquerors, leaving the vanquished their property, laws, and religion. Hence, Spaniards who had hitherto followed Catholicism were not reluctant to leave it, becoming Mozarabs instead of Visigoths.Turning his attention eastward, he likewise commends the Turks for their tolerance. Whereas no Christian nation allows the Turks to build a mosque on its soil, the Turks allow the Greeks to have their churches in lands under their control, and he commends the way that, in their European domains, they have retained ‘Asian’ traditions, such as building caravanserais for travellers, or schools and hospitals attached to mosques.
In his excursion into early Islamic history in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire commends the Caliph Umar for allowing Jews and Christians full liberty of conscience following the capture of Jerusalem. Interestingly, in discussing the succession to Muhammad he takes the Shi‘ite view: that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his Caliph, or successor.As Voltaire’s knowledge of Islam deepened, he clearly became better disposed towards the faith. In the Essai, for example, he dwells on the contrasting historical trajectories of Christianity and Islam. From being a religion initially spread by arms, Islam became increasingly tolerant, whereas Christianity, after starting out from a ‘meek and humble’ stance, became ever more barbaric and intolerant. The contrast is underlined in the Examen de Milord Bolingbroke (1766), where it is Christianity that fails the test of reason. Belief in an all-powerful God, says Voltaire, is the only Muslim dogma: without the coda proclaimed in the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) that Muhammad is rasul Allah (the Messenger of God), Islam could have been every bit as ‘pure and beautiful’ as the Chinese religion. There is an implicit endorsement of this view in the final chapters of Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide(1762). After their bizarre and traumatic adventures in Europe and Latin America, it is in Muslim Turkey that Candide and his companions find the peace of mind where they may ‘cultivate their garden’.
– Malise Ruthven
Note: Since there is virtually no connection between Voltaire’s ‘Mahomet’ and the prophet of Islamic tradition, I have adopted Voltaire’s spelling when referring to this character and used the conventional spelling ‘Muhammad’ when referring to the Prophet.
The most widespread European attitude towards Islam and the Muslim world in the eighteenth century was one of hostility. Islam was of course the main challenger to Christianity, and in the early part of the century the Ottoman Empire was still an ever-present threat in the Mediterranean. So it was an object of both fear and suspicion. But in some quarters there was less hostility. The toleration of religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire was contrasted favourably with the religious persecution in many European countries, with the Catholics often being singled out as much more intolerant than the Muslims. Irreligious thinkers sometimes used this to attack all Churches.
Several people who had direct experience of the Muslim world also gave a more nuanced opinion, admitting, like Thévenot, that the ‘Turks’ had some good qualities. There was even a small group of writers who went much further and actively tried to counter European prejudices against Muslims. One of these was the Frenchman Jacques Philippe Laugier de Tassy, who had a long career in the French Ministry of the Marine, beginning in 1699. We do not know much about him. In 1717 he was appointed Chancellor at the French consulate in Algiers. In 1720 we find him ‘Commissaire de la Marine’ (in fact consul) in Amsterdam, where he stayed until his death in 1748. He seems to have been highly respected, apparently earned the confidence of the Dutch, and received several honours.
A view of the city and harbour of Algiers. By Gerard van Keulen, ca. 1690.
In 1725 he published in Amsterdam a Histoire du Royaume d’Alger, apparently, according to his own account, to satisfy curiosity about that country. As one would expect, he gave an account of its history and government, together with a description of the inhabitants, their customs, religion and so on – all based on his own observations and generally quite fair-minded and impartial. This in itself is quite surprising. For not only was he a career diplomat (even if that did not mean the same in the early eighteenth century as it does today) but, in addition, Algiers was the most hated of the North African states. It lived by piracy, attacking European shipping in the Mediterranean and abducting and ransoming their passengers. Its government and army, usually said to be composed of the dregs of the Ottoman Empire, were seen as particularly violent, aggressive and intractable. Travellers and diplomats much preferred the Tunisians.
But Laugier went further than simple description. He says openly in the Preface to his work that he has written it to counter European prejudices against the Muslims, which, he says, are so terrible ‘qu’ils n’ont point d’expressions assez fortes pour faire voir le mépris et l’horreur qu’ils en ont’. For him, European prejudices prevent them from judging Muslims by objective standards.
He even writes: ‘je suis persuadé que si ces mêmes personnes pouvaient converser sans le savoir avec des Mahométans qui n’eussent point le turban et qui fussent habillés à la manière des chrétiens, ils trouveraient dans eux ce qu’on trouve dans les autres peuples. Mais s’ils avaient le Turban, cela suffirait pour les faire opinionâtrer dans leurs préventions.’
The slave market in Algiers: Mannier Hoe de Gevange Kristen Slaven tot Algiers Verkoft Werden, 1684, by Jan Luyken.
He issues a plea to judge others by objective standards, to recognise the good and bad in them. He says he has no great sympathy for the Muslims but he underlines their fair treatment of Christians, who are free to practice their religion. He particularly attacks the Trinitarian Monks who went to ransom the Christian captives, generally referred to as slaves, and wrote works of propaganda full of lurid accounts of the terrible ill-treatment and suffering of the Christians, particular in Algiers. Perhaps this reflects a Protestant sensibility, due to Laugier’s years in Amsterdam, but that is speculation. In any case, his work was quite widely read, translated into English, and used as a source of information by Montesquieu. But it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Europeans’ attitudes to the Muslim world. Hostility to the Turks increased over the century, as the threat they posed lessened, and anti-Muslim prejudice today is as strong as ever. But a voice like Laugier’s, calling for a fairer judgement, perhaps still has something to say to us today.
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.
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. 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. In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683). 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)
 Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640-1850) (Paris, 2003).
 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).
 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).
Passage de la mer Rouge à pied sec, arrêt du Soleil et de la Lune, résurrection des morts, transformation de la farine en anguilles, refus de s’agenouiller devant le Consistoire de Genève, habitude d’entendre le contraire de ce qui est dit et écrit, tours de passe-passe de Rousseau à Venise: tel est l’assemblage – hétéroclite, on en conviendra – de ‘miracles’ – ou prétendus tels – dont Voltaire se gausse en les réunissant au sein de cette Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Ecrites à Genève, et à Neufchâtel. L’ouvrage est loin d’avoir la rigueur d’un quelconque traité susceptible de répondre aux très sérieuses Considérations sur les miracles de l’Evangile pour répondre aux difficultés de M. J.-J. Rousseau (1765) publiées par le pasteur David Claparède, qui fournissent le prétexte de la première intervention de Voltaire, dans une feuille volante intitulée Questions sur les miracles, à M. le professeur Cl……. par un proposant. Loin même d’être, dans sa forme finale, le fruit d’un projet concerté dès l’origine: d’Autres questions, puis une Troisième Lettre paraissent peu après, et l’affaire aurait pu en rester là. Mais lorsque John Turberville Needham publie une Réponse au ‘proposant’, son intervention met le feu aux poudres, et la présence à Genève du prêtre catholique irlandais – présenté, pour l’occasion, comme un jésuite anglais – suscite encore un rapprochement avec les derniers épisodes des troubles qui agitent alors la République (affaire Covelle, poursuites contre Rousseau), relançant successivement l’activité de l’artillerie de Ferney: à jets continus, ce sont au total vingt Lettres qui se succèdent, entre mi-juillet 1765 et janvier 1766; elles seront au mois de mai réunies au sein d’un recueil, qui comporte aussi les réponses de l’adversaire, dûment annotées, le tout entrelardé de paratextes.
Aux circonstances singulières qui conduisent à la publication de la Collection s’ajoute ultérieurement une histoire éditoriale complexe: d’abord dans les Nouveaux Mélanges (voir OCV, t.60A), puis dans les collections dites ‘complètes’ des Œuvres de Voltaire, à commencer par l’‘encadrée’, le recueil est défait, ramené à la succession des Lettres originales à l’exception de l’une d’entre elles, réutilisée entre-temps dans les Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Si les éditeurs de Kehl cherchent à retrouver l’esprit du recueil, ils ne réintroduisent les textes de l’adversaire, jugés excessivement ennuyeux, que sous la forme d’extraits. Les choix qui ont conduit à éditer, dans ce volume des OCV, l’intégralité de la Collection, accomplissent ainsi – osons le mot – une résurrection: le texte, connu par la suite sous le titre trompeur de Questions sur les miracles, n’a pas été donné à lire sous cette forme depuis plus de 250 ans. C’est l’occasion de procéder à une redécouverte qui permet d’apprécier, dans leur diversité, les expérimentations que Voltaire y effectue.
Expérimentation, d’abord, dans la construction a posteriori d’un recueil, organisé autour d’une fiction minimale qui s’invente au fil des Lettres, à l’intérieur d’un cadre narratif et discursif faisant intervenir une foule de personnages, les uns fictifs, proches des marionnettes qui peuplent l’univers des contes, les autres réels mais largement fictionnalisés, chacun doté d’une voix propre: de quoi orchestrer un beau raffut par la mise en place d’une structure polyphonique qui tient à la fois – sans se réduire à l’une de ces composantes – du micro roman épistolaire, du brûlot polémique et du pamphlet.
Expérimentation aussi dans la diversification de modes d’écriture pamphlétaire, même si l’on retrouve à l’occasion les recettes éprouvées d’une entreprise visant à faire taire l’adversaire en l’accablant de ridicules et en discréditant son discours: Needham se prétend-il imprudemment ‘qualifié par ses recherches’ pour faire pièce aux objections des incrédules? Il s’agira conjointement de disqualifier sa personne et ses interventions dans l’espace public: le pseudo-savant qui a cru observer, au cours d’expériences mal conduites sur de la farine de blé ergoté délayée dans de l’eau, sa ‘transformation’ – voire sa ‘transfiguration’ – en ‘anguilles’, lui-même ‘jésuite transfiguré’, devient le ‘jésuite des anguilles’, enfin l’‘anguillard’, que son ‘galimatias’ désigne comme un homme à enfermer. Il est même condamné ‘à faire amende honorable une anguille à la main’ avant d’être ‘lapidé’: il ne s’agit cependant que d’une exécution de papier, et le coupable finit d’ailleurs par s’échapper. Jean-Jacques aussi réchappe à sa propre lapidation, mais l’affaire est plus sérieuse.
Expérimentation encore, à l’occasion de l’évocation des troubles qui affectent Genève, d’une pensée politique dont les éléments se mettent en place: les tirades enflammées d’un Covelle, doté d’une éloquence dont l’original était sans doute incapable, sur la liberté, qui est tout à la fois liberté de penser et accomplissement d’une libération du ‘despotisme presbytéral’, préludent aux textes ultérieurs sur les affaires genevoises (Idées républicaines, OCV, t.60B), avant l’ultime réécriture, en mode burlesque, des tribulations qui agitent la ‘parvulissime’ dans La Guerre civile de Genève (t.63A).
‘Je n’aime l’érudition que quand elle est un peu égayée.’ (Page 150 de notre texte de base.)
C’est dire que la Collection a enfin valeur de jalon dans une réflexion continue, ce que vérifie l’examen de celle, conduite en pointillés, sur la question des miracles: au niveau des arguments avancés comme des sources qui leur servent de fondement, les Lettres sur les miracles font aussi office de laboratoire dans l’élaboration de l’arsenal polémique qui nourrit en parallèle les rééditions contemporaines du Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, t.35-36) ainsi que, par la suite, les opuscules antichrétiens des années 1766-1767, en particulier L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (t.62), Le Dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (t.63A), jusqu’aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, dont une section de l’article ‘Miracles’ (t.42B) est ‘tirée d’une lettre déjà imprimée’ – la Douzième de la Collection, probablement après un essai infructueux de remaniement de la Première, fourni en Annexe de l’édition.
La Collection des lettres sur les miracles est en somme un objet étrange et foisonnant, à même de susciter la curiosité de quiconque s’intéresse à l’histoire éditoriale des ouvrages de Voltaire et à l’élaboration d’une manière et d’un positionnement polémiques sur des questions idéologiques importantes. Voltaire invente ici une formule appelée à une certaine fortune dans les productions tardives du ‘patriarche’, dont le fin mot est réservé au pseudo M. Beaudinet, ‘citoyen de Neufchâtel’: ‘Je n’aime l’érudition que quand elle est un peu égayée.’
Honoré Daumier, jésuite cherchant à détériorer la statue de Voltaire. Lithographie parue dans Le Charivari du 22 septembre 1869.
Voltaire a très tôt développé une piètre opinion de la culture portugaise et de ses élites. Ses idées s’étant formées au contact des Lettres persanes de Montesquieu et des Lettres juives du Marquis d’Argens, le Portugal lui apparaissait peuplé d’individus vains et orgueilleux, et la cour portugaise lui semblait un endroit triste et de peu d’agréments (voir la lettre au marquis d’Argenson du 16 avril 1739). La toute-puissance de l’Inquisition, qui dans Candide persécute les innocents suite au terrible tremblement de terre survenu à Lisbonne en 1755, entérine un jugement déjà sévère. Si Voltaire applaudit à l’expulsion des Jésuites du royaume en 1759, orchestrée par le très puissant premier ministre le Marquis de Pombal, il ne révisera plus son opinion sur la monarchie lusitanienne. C’est qu’en 1761 le père Malagrida est brûlé par l’Inquisition après avoir publié un écrit (Juízo da verdadeira causa do Terramoto) où il lie le tremblement de terre à la colère divine dirigée contre les vices de la capitale. Si Voltaire ironise sur les idées du jésuite, il critique néanmoins très sérieusement les liens que Lisbonne entretient avec Rome.
Il est indéniable que le tribunal de l’Inquisition était très puissant au Portugal, et que l’ultramontanisme avait laissé des traces dans la théologie et la philosophie. Ce dernier courant de pensée se manifesta très fortement pendant le règne de Jean V, le prédécesseur de Joseph Ier, roi sous lequel gouverna le Marquis de Pombal. Cependant, comme en France malgré la censure, les Lumières (Luzes en portugais) se diffusèrent au Portugal. Un des meilleurs représentants de ce courant de pensée est Louis Antonio Verney, qui s’est illustré par ses travaux en pédagogie où il prend le contre-pied des Jésuites. Dans Le Précis du siècle de Louis XV, Voltaire fait de l’Inquisition le thème principal de sa critique de ‘l’obscurantisme portugais’. Ce cadre de pensée va être utilisé par les historiens libéraux du dix-neuvième siècle – en particulier Alexandre Herculano dans son Histoire de l’Inquisition (1854-1859) – pour dénoncer le retard économique et scientifique pris par le Portugal dans de nombreux domaines. L’idée de cette critique est que la peur, voire la paranoïa, distillée dans les esprits par l’Inquisition conduisit les Portugais vers une sorte de timidité, voire de crainte mentale, qui serait à l’origine de l’immobilisme de la nation. Au vingtième siècle, cette critique sera réutilisée pour expliquer la facilité avec laquelle l’Etat Nouveau d’Antonio de Oliveira Salazar a impressionné les consciences, grâce notamment à l’exploitation d’une police politique de sinistre mémoire. (Antonio Tabucchi a fort bien décrit le climat de suspicion et de crainte qui régnait alors dans son beau roman Pereira prétend.)
Au dix-huitième siècle, cependant, nombreux sont ceux, parmi les jeunes notamment, qui apprécient la pensée de Voltaire et qui font circuler ses productions sous le manteau. António Ferreira de Brito s’est d’ailleurs demandé si l’œuvre du philosophe aurait été pareillement appréciée si elle n’avait pas été aussi censurée.
Certains traits, à la fois politiques et religieux, des ‘Lumières portugaises’ expliquent la réception tronquée de Voltaire. Si la puissance des jésuites posait problème au Marquis de Pombal il n’est pas pour autant devenu un amateur de Voltaire et ceci pour au moins deux raisons. Le fait est que le catholicisme portugais connaissait un renouveau avec la philosophie du pape Benoît XIV, mais surtout, pour le puissant premier ministre, la critique du pouvoir politique était poussée trop loin chez Voltaire. De ce fait, et Louis Antonio Verney partageait cette opinion, l’impiété de Voltaire paraissait trop corrosive, d’où le nombre important de ses œuvres qui furent condamnées et qui le restèrent durant de nombreuses décennies. L’une des répercussions fâcheuses des invasions françaises que le pays subit en 1807 et 1809 fut que le libéralisme en sortit durablement discrédité, phénomène qui assura la pérennité de la monarchie pendant le dix-neuvième siècle. L’hostilité des pouvoirs politiques envers les critiques anti-absolutistes de Voltaire, alliée à la puissance de frappe de l’Inquisition et à la ‘terreur psychologique’ exercée par ce tribunal, a conditionné la réception de Voltaire au Portugal.
Si, parmi les ecclésiastiques très nombreux sont ceux qui dénoncent le déisme voire le matérialisme de l’auteur travestis sous son rationalisme, dans d’autres cercles de lecteurs on observe des hésitations, voire des condamnations explicites, qui traduisent un malaise certain devant les écrits voltairiens.
‘La ville de Lisbon dans son état avant le tremblement de novembre 1755’, par J. Couse; entre 1755 et 1760 (image Wikicommons).
Les textes les plus sulfureux du patriarche de Ferney, comme le Dictionnaire philosophique, seront brûlés par le bourreau en place publique. D’ailleurs, fait frappant qui illustre l’attitude anti-libérale du dix-neuvième siècle et l’hostilité fasciste du vingtième siècle, cet ouvrage ne paraîtra en traduction portugaise qu’en 1966. On assiste d’ailleurs au même phénomène en ce qui concerne les romans. Candide est traduit en 1835 avec le titre curieux de Cândido ou o optimismo ou o philósofo enforcado em Lisboa pelos Inquisidores, e apparecendo depois em Constantinópla nas Galés; or malgré l’accent placé sur l’Inquisition le texte est édulcoré et les critiques anti-absolutistes atténuées. Il en va de même pour la traduction de Zadig faite en 1815, totalement purgée des éléments les plus critiques, et globalement remaniée. S’il est important de se souvenir que les critères de traduction d’alors étaient bien moins rigoureux que les nôtres, la comparaison qui peut être faite avec la traduction de Zadig de Filinto Elísio de 1778 (mais publiée en 1819) montre que la censure sur la pensée de Voltaire est restée constante.
Ces quelques exemples illustrent donc une réception complexe, avec d’un côté un intérêt évident de la part des lecteurs pour les œuvres de Voltaire, et de l’autre une méfiance, voire une peur, envers la radicalité la plus rationaliste. A cette forme de réception intellectuelle s’ajoutent encore les barrières politique et religieuse qui non seulement dénaturèrent l’œuvre de Voltaire mais qui de plus en restreignirent très fortement l’accès, et ceci même pour les textes majeurs, jusqu’à la deuxième moitié du vingtième siècle. La traduction du théâtre voltairien connut cependant une diffusion rapide dès la chute du Marquis de Pombal, à partir des années 1780. José Anastácio da Cunha fait publier une traduction de Mahomet en 1785, pièce qu’il avait fait jouer en privé dans la décennie 1770. Ainsi, il semblerait que le théâtre de Voltaire soit passé plus facilement entre les mailles de l’Inquisition. Une étude fouillée à ce sujet reste à entreprendre.
CAPILOTADE. s. f. Sorte de ragoût fait de plusieurs morceaux de viandes déjà cuites. Bonne capilotade. Faire une capilotade des restes de perdrix, de poulets.
On dit proverbialement et figurément, Mettre quelqu’un en capilotade, pour dire, Médire de quelqu’un sans aucun ménagement, le déchirer, le mettre en pièces par des médisances outrées.
Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, éd. 1762.
Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765).
Prenez des échanges dialogués, qui tiennent à la fois du conte, de la scène isolée et du dialogue philosophique, ajoutez des fragments, une anecdote, des facéties. Salez, poivrez généreusement. Vous obtiendrez un ensemble de ‘petits chapitres’ narratifs, argumentatifs et on s’en doute polémiques. C’est ainsi que le tome 60A des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire rassemble, sous le titre de Nouveaux Mélanges, une trentaine de textes brefs, très majoritairement en prose, parfois en vers, publiés ou republiés en 1765: ils offrent l’agrément de la variété et le charme des écrits ‘courts et salés’ mitonnés dans l’intarissable officine de Ferney. Le plat a du goût, et il est nourrissant.
Par delà la diversité des sujets et des formes, cet ensemble aborde en effet des questions qui se rattachent à trois au moins des préoccupations majeures de Voltaire depuis le début des années 1760: les affaires judiciaires (Calas, Sirven et bientôt La Barre), la campagne incessante menée contre l’Infâme, l’implication du ‘patriarche’ dans les troubles politiques qui agitent la République de Genève. Les textes réunis dans ce volume bénéficient en outre de l’unité éditoriale que leur confère leur parution dans la ‘troisième partie’ des Nouveaux Mélanges philosophiques, historiques, critiques, etc. etc., recueil publié par les frères Cramer avec le concours de Voltaire.
Les questions abordées ne sont donc pas foncièrement nouvelles: ces textes présentent, on le voit, des enjeux, notamment idéologiques, qui rejoignent ceux d’œuvres réputées ‘majeures’, publiées, rééditées ou remises en chantier à la même époque le Dictionnaire philosophique, La Philosophie de l’histoire qui servira dans les années suivantes d’‘Introduction’ à l’Essai sur les mœurs. En production, tel trait, tel argument, tel exemple avancé dans l’un de ces ‘rogatons’ sert peut-être à compléter tel passage de l’une de ces œuvres, à moins que ces nouveautés, qui constituent les variantes introduites dans les moutures récentes de ces œuvres, ne constituent le noyau à partir duquel s’organise la matière du rogaton. En réception, redire avec des variations, c’est veiller, dans ces années de lutte, à la plus large diffusion possible des idées, à une forme de saturation de l’espace public dans laquelle Voltaire est passé maître. De nos jours, la recette fonctionne toujours: le connaisseur des ‘grandes’ œuvres, sensible au rappel d’une touche ou d’un morceau, apprécie les vertus digestives de ces petits textes; pour l’amateur et le curieux, ces derniers peuvent aussi servir d’apéritif préparant à la consommation des premières. En somme, les ‘petits chapitres’ se dégustent en entrée ou en dessert, de part et d’autre des plats de résistance qui les accompagnent, les mauvais convives dussent-ils se plaindre d’indigestion lorsque les mêmes mets ou presque leur sont trop fréquemment servis.
Le lecteur gourmand peut enfin s’intéresser à la manière dont Voltaire confectionne ce qu’il appelle fréquemment ses ‘petits pâtés’ et ses ‘ragoûts’, et, au-delà d’un art consommé d’accommoder les restes, chercher à percer celui de mettre les petits plats dans les grands autrement dit s’interroger sur le statut de ces sous-ensembles que sont les ‘mélanges’ dans l’architecture globale de ‘collections complètes’ qui, du vivant de Voltaire, ne le restent jamais longtemps. L’existence de ces ‘mélanges’ questionne enfin l’actuelle collection, censément définitive, des Œuvres complètes, dont le principe de classement chronologique des textes exclut les regroupements génériques adoptés jusque-là. L’architecture de ce volume, tout comme celle du tome 45B (Mélanges de 1756) publié en 2010, montre que la catégorie accueillante des ‘mélanges’ constitue encore, faute de mieux, un principe efficace de regroupement des écrits fugitifs.
Electronic Enlightenment (EE), an online collection of edited correspondence from the early modern period, has been an invaluable resource for me as a first-year modern languages student at Durham University. As part of the Reading French Literature module I have been studying my first work by Voltaire, the satirical novella L’Ingénu, and have used EE to explore Voltaire’s correspondence, pursuing my intuitive hunches about this text as well as finding out more about the context in which it was written.
Religion struck me as one of the main topics of discussion in L’Ingénu. In reading letters to and from Voltaire on EE, I began to better appreciate the extent of religious contention in eighteenth-century France. The theory of Creation is referenced in a seemingly poignant moment at the end of chapter 13, where l’Ingénu is touched by the sight of a beautiful woman: ‘il faut convenir que Dieu n’a créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes.’ However, shortly after this assertion, Voltaire writes, ‘C’est une absurdité, c’est un outrage au genre humain, c’est un attentat contre l’Etre infini et suprême de dire: Il y a une vérité essentielle à l’homme, et Dieu l’a cachée.’ Here the use of irony and of different narrative voices points to the value of turning to Voltaire’s correspondence, as this is an external source which may be used to compare Voltaire’s voice as a narrator with his supposedly real voice when in communication with his peers. Voltaire’s particular form of expression means that the reader can never be quite sure as to where his personal opinion lies. This is confirmed through a study of his correspondence, where we see him playing with different voices.
Letters from figures such as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert piqued my curiosity to read about religious policy in contemporary society. D’Alembert remarks about religious tensions and debate in France, ‘la censure de la Sorbonne contenait douze à quinze pages contre la Tolérance’ (14 August 1767). This source of ‘unofficial’ discourse between the two men corresponding in a personal capacity is useful in gauging a contemporary reaction to the public discourse and politics of the time and the context in which Voltaire wrote.
‘Le Huron tout nu dans la rivière, attendant qu’on l’y vienne baptiser’, in Le Huron, ou l’Ingénu, histoire véritable, fromRomans et Contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.234. Image BnF/Gallica.
Without this letter, I would not have started to explore so keenly this facet of eighteenth-century society. Similar religious contention is revealed in Voltaire’s letter to Etienne Noël Damilaville, as he makes reference to the significance of truth and tolerance in religious debate: ‘Je sais avec quelle fureur le fanatisme s’élève contre la philosophie. Elle a deux filles qu’il voudrait faire périr comme Calas, ce sont la vérité et la tolérance’ (1 March 1765). The case of Jean Calas serves as an illustration of Voltaire’s discussion of religious intolerance. It prompted me to look further into the Calas story, and to learn about the inferior position of Protestants in France at the time.
This has influenced my reading of L’Ingénu, since it supported the idea that the protagonist was regarded as such a social outsider because of the uniformity and strictness with which Catholicism dominated. From reading Voltaire’s letters, we can acknowledge the position of the author. It is clear that he advocated religious freedom, and sought to denounce the Catholic Church, since he poses assertive questions such as: ‘comment obtenir justice? comment s’aller remettre en prison dans sa patrie où la moitié du peuple dit encore que le meurtre de Calas était juste?’ (1 March 1765).
Finally, reading a distinct form of material such as Voltaire’s letters, instead of solely his published writings, has made me consider the impact of the public and the motivation behind authorship. Much more assertive opinions regarding theological inclination are expressed in the evidently intimate, more personal letters than in Voltaire’s stories, and the subtlety of his opinions appears clearer when the richness of the correspondence in EE is taken into account.
Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?
You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.
In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.
Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.
An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.
Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general. He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV. In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts. He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758. He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’). Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.
Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic. His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester. Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722. The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination. Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade. The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.
Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator. In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire. Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England. Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.
Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.
Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728. Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics. Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’. For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration. Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections. Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722. These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government. Although he was able to publish La Henriadeby subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England. Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.
After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer. In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke. Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines. Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars. Voltaire idolized de Thou. Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’. Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.
Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime. Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury. He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country. Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen. In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.