‘Pour encourager les autres’: Admiral Byng, Voltaire, and the 1756 battle of Minorca

20 May 2020 marks the 264th anniversary of the naval battle of Minorca in 1756. This battle’s immortalisation by Voltaire has forever fixed the execution of British Admiral John Byng as a symbolic lieu de mémoire in our collective European memorial heritage. The battle’s greatest legacy is arguably Voltaire’s iconic phrase from Candide (1759): ‘pour encourager les autres’.

Events of 20 May 1756: the battle of Minorca

duc de Richelieu

Portrait présumé du duc de Richelieu, by Louis Toqué (c. 1753). (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours)

The naval battle of Minorca on 20 May 1756 saw France and Britain clash over possession of the island. This battle took place on the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and is considered its first naval conflict. With a significant garrison stationed at the Fort St Philip fortress in Port-Mahon, Minorca was a strategic base for Britain. While the British navy was distracted by far-flung conflicts in the Atlantic and in North America, France, from the Toulon naval base, prepared a surprise expedition to attack Minorca. Under the duc de Richelieu, 15,000 French troops landed on Minorca on 19 April.

In response, the British dispatched a poorly equipped Admiral Byng to relieve the besieged British garrison. Byng, fearing that he was shorthanded for such an encounter, arrived off Port-Mahon on 19 May with thirteen ships. He faced a French fleet of twelve ships commanded by Marquis de La Galissonière. French naval reports state that Byng’s ships bore down on the French fleet at an angle, so that his six leading ships were exposed to fire from the French, who then slipped away unscathed. Byng subsequently failed both to land the soldiers he had on board, and to renew action against the French. After holding a council of war, he sailed back to Gibraltar, leaving the fort to its fate.

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l'île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l’île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756, by Jean-Baptiste Martin le jeune.

Minorca surrendered in June, thus giving the French significant advantage in the Mediterranean. British Admiral Byng was summoned back to Britain, tried by court-martial, and condemned to death. He was shot on 14 March 1757 at Portsmouth.

Minorca: the scenic backdrop for naval battle

For modern readers, Minorca (Menorca) is an idyllic Spanish island, part of a trio of Balearic islands (with Majorca and Ibiza) in the western Mediterranean sea. Its megalithic stone monuments speak to a very ancient history, while as a biosphere reserve Minorca battles nowadays to protect its environment. The eighteenth century typified the island’s history of serial invasions: Minorca was initially captured by the British in 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A new naval base was established in the deep natural harbour at Port-Mahon (nowadays Mahon, or Mao) and the influence of eighteenth-century Britain is still in evidence today in a wealth of indelible cultural signs.

The Execution of Admiral Byng

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

In the wake of the battle of Minorca, the execution of the British Admiral Byng proved deeply polemical and politicised. Public opinion was initially furious with Byng’s failure and flurries of pamphlets charged him with cowardice. The extreme severity of the court’s penalty for Byng’s failure to win the battle was primarily due to a recent amendment of the Articles of War which imposed death for the officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy either in battle or pursuit. Byng was deemed not to have done his utmost, but the court acquitted him of cowardice and in fact recommended mercy. A deeply entrenched antagonism between prime minister William Pitt the Elder and King George II complicated matters: a final pardon was ultimately refused by the king.

Admiral Byng

Admiral Byng, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Today, Byng’s descendants continue to petition the British government for a posthumous pardon. Ironically, after Byng’s trial, public clamour then rose against the ministry of the marine who had failed to provision Byng’s ships adequately and who were emphatically accused of casting the blame for their own failures onto a scapegoat, Byng.

Divided loyalties

In historical terms, it is not unusual to find that Irishmen held prominent positions on both sides: the Irish comte de Lally was one of the French king’s chief military advisors, while the defence of the British garrison was led by the Protestant Irish Lieutenant-Governor of Minorca, Lord Blakeney. Voltaire similarly enjoyed close affiliations to both sides: Richelieu was a long-standing personal friend, and he befriended both the young John Byng and his father, First Lord of the Admiralty Viscount Torrington, while in exile in England in 1726-1728. There is an uncanny symmetry in Voltaire’s attempt to save Byng from execution and his later vociferous campaign for Lally’s exoneration and posthumous rehabilitation, following a parallel accusation of treason after Lally’s defeat at Pondicherry, India (Fragments sur l’Inde, OCV, vol.75B). Even though Voltaire made personal profit out of a financial gamble on French success at Minorca, he felt deep sympathy for Byng, and carefully transcribed Richelieu’s own testimony that his enemy was not at fault during the battle and supplied it to England for the admiral’s defence.

Voltaire’s textual re-enactments

While Minorca was the sole naval battle that the French would win during the Seven Years’ War, Voltaire’s historical account in his Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29B) homes in on the adroit French multi-pronged land attack on the myriad British defences around the Port-Mahon fortress. In an account of the battle in the Précis (vol.29B, p.171-76), it is clear that Voltaire greatly admires the military tactics of his friend Richelieu. Rather impudently, Voltaire had penned a premature ode to Richelieu’s success, ‘Depuis plus de quarante années’, which circulated before the fall of Port-Mahon (OCV, vol.45A, p.383-89).

Voltaire is so deeply implicated in Minorcan events that when the British prime minister’s brother Thomas Pitt visited him, he was keen to intervene directly in the British row by providing a transcription of Richelieu’s bird’s-eye-view version of events. Textually, the historian Voltaire includes a conspicuously self-important metatextual reference to this particular diplomatic intervention: ‘En vain le maréchal de Richelieu, qui du haut d’un terre-plein, avait vu toute la bataille, et qui en pouvait juger, envoya à l’auteur de cette histoire une déclaration qui justifiait l’amiral Bing’ (vol.29B, p.175). The episode also ends with a reference to Byng sending evidential documentation to Voltaire, which makes the history incredibly immediate by again placing the writer front and centre in his own historiographical text: ‘avant d’être frappé, il envoya son mémoire justificatif à l’auteur’ (p.176). Not only does this emphasise authorial involvement and importance, but it attempts once more to underscore Byng’s innocence by citing the Englishman’s enemy, Richelieu. Moreover, the Précis is overtly critical of a king who could have pardoned Byng, but failed to do so. Thus, in life, Voltaire campaigns for exoneration, and though his writings, he campaigns for Byng’s posthumous pardon.

While the historical account in the Précis concludes on an emotive note regretting the execution of Byng, the infamous version in Candide offers a more deeply critical and reductively satirical version. That 1759 conte philosophique stages the moment of execution on Byng’s ship off Portsmouth without naming names. In this way, Voltaire focuses the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses in battle. In an uncharacteristically decisive move, Candide darkly refuses to set foot in Voltaire’s beloved England, as he ponders pseudo-logically: ‘mais, dit Candide, l’amiral français était aussi loin de l’amiral anglais que celui-ci l’était de l’autre’. His interlocutors’ response is less a criticism of the execution itself than a broader indictment of the immense and miserable follies of war and of mankind: ‘il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’.

– Síofra Pierse, Associate Professor, UCD Dublin

The Battle of Fontenoy: a literary afterlife

The Battle of Fontenoy took place 275 years ago today, on 11 May 1745, near the city of Tournai, then in the Austrian Netherlands. The Maréchal de Saxe led French forces to victory against an allied Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who had been sent to relieve Tournai from French siege. The French were in a strong defensive position; initial frontal attacks by Cumberland’s troops proved unsuccessful, and the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry were eventually driven back by the French cavalry, artillery, and the Irish Brigade, who were serving under French command. According to Voltaire, the battle saw the death of 5339 Frenchmen, although his Scottish contemporary Tobias Smollett puts the number closer to 12,000 dead on either side.

the Battle of Fontenoy

Vue de la Bataille de Fontenoy gagnée par le Roi Louis XV sur l’armée des alliés le XI mai 1745. Engraving by S. Guélard, drawing by J.B. Brouard. (BnF/Gallica)

Following the French victory at Fontenoy, Saxe and his forces continued their advance through the Austrian Netherlands, pushing back British, Dutch, and Austrian troops over the course of the following few months. Although the Austrian Netherlands were soon returned to the Habsburgs in 1748, following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Battle of Fontenoy nonetheless represented a great victory on the part of France and of Louis XV.

Like all great battles, Fontenoy saw a significant literary afterlife, both in the years immediately following the battle, and well after it had passed from living memory. It boasts a number of fictional heroes among its veterans. Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste is perhaps the most memorable example: ‘Un régiment passait pour aller au Camp devant Fontenoy; de dépit je m’enrôle. Nous arrivons; la bataille se donne.’ A century later, in Treasure Island, we learn that Dr Livesey was among the British soldiers Jacques faced: ‘I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and got a wound myself at Fontenoy.’

The battle lingered and lingers on in Irish literary memory, too; the late nineteenth-century poet Emily Lawless wrote Fontenoy, 1745 from the perspective of the Irish soldiers who fought and died alongside the French. It begins:

Oh, bad the march, the weary march, beneath these alien skies,
But good the night, the friendly night, that soothes our tired eyes.
And bad the war, the tedious war, that keeps us sweltering here,
But good the hour, the friendly hour, that brings the battle near.
That brings us on to battle, that summons to their share
The homeless troops, the banished men, the exiled sons of Clare.

Voltaire, who was at the time of the battle historiographe de France, produced two literary accounts of the French victory: the Poème de Fontenoy (OCV, vol.28B, p.255-402), and two dedicated chapters in the second volume of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCVvol.29B, now published). Although ultimately a detailed and well-researched account, the chapters dedicated to Fontenoy in the Précis are not without dramatic embroidery and flourish, as we might expect from Voltaire. While Saxe is given the praise he is due, Voltaire opens by centering Louis XV as the hero of the narrative, raising morale – ‘Toute l’armée en voyant le roi et le dauphin, fit entendre des acclamations de joie’ – and showing valour and bravery in entering the fray: ‘Le roi ne voulut avoir pour sa garde qu’un escadron de cent vingt hommes de la compagnie de Charost, un seul gendarme, un chevau léger, un mousquetaire.’

Similarly, Voltaire’s use of direct speech produces a more dramatic and engaging narrative, although sometimes at the cost of the impression of total historical faithfulness; he writes, for example: ‘les Irlandais leur crièrent “Vive France”; mais dans le tumulte on n’entendait rien.’ Although effective in bringing home a striking image of the passion of the Irish soldiers in battle and the overwhelming clamour of war, it does beg the question as to how any source might have heard this battle-cry if it were indeed completely obscured by the surrounding noise.

the Battle of Fontenoy

A nineteenth-century depiction of Voltaire’s anecdote by French military painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.

Perhaps the most famous moment of dramatic flair in Voltaire’s account, however, is an anecdote in which the British Lord Charles Hay, turning with his infantrymen to face the French troops, invites them to fire first; there ensues a brief, polite exchange of ‘after you’, ‘no, no, I insist, after you’:

Le comte de Chabannes, le duc de Biron qui s’étaient avancés et tous les officiers des gardes francaises leur rendirent le salut. Milord Charles Hay capitaine aux gardes anglaises cria: ‘Messieurs des gardes françaises, tirez.’ Le comte d’Auteroche, alors lieutenant des grenadiers et depuis capitaine, leur dit à voix haute: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes.’ Alors le capitaine anglais dit aux siens, ‘Give fire, gentlemen. Faites feu, Messieurs.’

The truth of this moment of etiquette in the heat of battle is hard to verify. Voltaire seems to be the first to publish this anecdote, which means either that he heard it from an oral source, or that it is the product of a dramatic embellishment. Regardless, it makes for an interesting and engaging story, which probably accounts for its widespread presence in subsequent literature on the battle.

Voltaire’s presentation of Fontenoy as a personal victory for Louis XV, and his dramatic, detailed account of the French victory, are no doubt in part motivated by the patriotic demands of the role of historiographe de France and a personal desire to win favour at court. The French victory at Fontenoy, and the celebratory literature produced around it, cemented it as an important moment in the history of the country, and indeed of Europe.

– Josie Dyster

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

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

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

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

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

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

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

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

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

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

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

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

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

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

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

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan

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

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

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Janet Godden



Strategy and revolution: the last words of the Jesuit China Mission?

On the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Voltaire published L’Orphelin de la Chine and the Essai sur les mœurs, marking what is generally seen as the high point of sinophilia in Enlightenment France. In the latter work, Voltaire presents China as a nation ruled with stability and continuity by an absolute but enlightened monarch and a rational and secular civil service, impartially trained and selected through the famous imperial examination system. Voltaire was, of course, drawing on a narrative that had largely been created by the Jesuits since Matteo Ricci had settled in China 150 years earlier.

The general view continues that, after Voltaire, sinophilia turned to sinophobia. Europe’s industrial and economic progress was contrasted with China’s perceived stagnation. The political stability and continuity that sinophiles had cited as evidence of the superiority of China’s political economy became problematic, as it was seen also to show that China could not now progress. Accordingly, China’s influence faded and left very little mark on France in the twenty years leading up to the Revolution.

The Mandate of Heaven–Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772)

In The Mandate of Heaven – Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772), published this month by Brill, I argue that China, as presented by the Jesuits, had a significant impact over those two decades. This can be traced through the movements, work and writings of three men. The first is a French missionary, Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–1793), who arrived in Beijing in 1751 to join the French Jesuit mission there. Four years later, just as Voltaire’s works were being published, two young Chinese, Louis Ko (1732–1780) and Étienne Yang (1733–1787), arrived in France to complete their education and training as Jesuits. (There was a third, Louis Zheng, but he soon disappears from sight.)

The Seven Years’ War, which formally broke out in 1756, radically affected all three of these men. In 1762, emboldened by the military, political and financial defeat of France and her Catholic allies at the hands of Britain and Prussia, the French Parlement brought a successful action to expel the Jesuits from France. Louis XV was forced to confirm this decision in 1764. Ko and Yang were stranded in France but taken under the wing of the minister Henri Bertin (1720–1792). Bertin arranged for their return to China, but not before he had organised for them to tour France to see the country’s manufacturing and economic strength. When they left in 1766, they took with them a set of questions about China’s economy, prepared by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781). Perhaps because of this exchange, François Quesnay (1694–1774), leader of the “physiocratic” movement of political economists, published an article in the physiocrat journal Éphémérides du citoyen entitled “Le Despotisme de la Chine” (1767). Quesnay went much further than Voltaire had in suggesting that China was a model for Europe, in the phrase of Lewis Maverick, who translated this work into English in 1946.

Joseph Amiot

A revolutionary? Joseph Amiot in Alfred Hamy, Galerie illustrée de la Compagnie de Jésus, 1893.

Ko, Yang and Amiot became correspondents of Bertin for the next thirty years. Amiot’s correspondence began in 1766 when the abolition of the Jesuits had thrown the French mission in Beijing into chaos and dismay. Amiot, by then one of its senior members, decided he needed to demonstrate to the French government that the Jesuits, the China mission and he himself were still of strategic value to France. Accordingly he translated “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” (孫子兵法 Sunzi bingfa) and other Chinese military materials, and sent them to Bertin. In his dedicatory letter, Amiot made clear his intent:

“A Frenchman, transplanted for the past 15 years in the capital of the Chinese empire, offers as homage to your Excellency a segment of his literary works. This tribute, owed to you by virtue of your taste for all that concerns the Sciences and the Arts, would not, perhaps, be unworthy of you if it were offered by anyone other than a Jesuit. It is a note, a compilation, or a type of translation of what has been written, least badly, in this extremity of Asia, on the military art … China is a vast field in which you constantly encounter some new resource that is no less suitable for the political utility of an enlightened statesman than for the sterile curiosity of the idle philosopher.”

Amiot’s work was published in 1772, and one of its readers was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, Paul-Gédéon Joly de Maizeroy (1719–1780), himself a translator of classical military theory. In 1771, Maizeroy published his translation of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI’s Taktika. In the course of this Maizeroy took the word στρατηγíα from the Greek and created the French word stratégie. For Maizeroy, “strategy” was the all-embracing process by which political objectives are translated into action using military means. This was a significant development, but just as important is the fact that for Maizeroy, the object of strategy is not fighting but winning. By 1777, Maizeroy had synthesised classical European and Chinese traditions in a formulation that strongly echoes the Sunzi:

“The science of war […] is the art of managing the lives of men and of achieving victory. The latter does not mean only winning in combat. It is winning by reducing to nothing the plans of the enemy, obliging him to abandon an advantageous position, or to retire, without one’s being obliged to take the risk of combat itself.”

A survey of European history and military thought from 1600 to 1945 would show just how radical this idea was at the time, but it can be seen as a pivotal idea in the asymmetrical warfare that has characterised the past 74 years. It also explains why the ideas of the Sunzi have been so influential outside the military world. Today, Maizeroy and Amiot are largely forgotten, but strategy is a common part of the civilian vocabulary, and even in civilian life “Sun Tzu” is the best-known exponent of the idea of it.

There is one more piece to this story. Amiot acknowledged in his letter to Bertin that he was not sending a literal translation (although he contradicts this elsewhere). What he does not say, however, is that he has very significantly altered the closing words of the final chapter of the Sunzi. In Amiot’s version, this chapter deals with “divide and rule” as a fundamental approach to strategy, and he suggests that two of the great figures of Chinese history were masters of it. These two men were, respectively, subjects of the Xia and Shang dynasties, but were instrumental in their overthrow. As Yuri Pines writes in his article “To Rebel is Justified? The Image of Zhouxin and the Legitimacy of Rebellion in the Chinese Political Tradition (2008), these stories exemplify the Chinese notion of “legitimate rebellion”, which arises when a ruler has lost the “mandate of heaven” (天命 tianming). The original text makes passing reference to these men, whereas Amiot writes of them,

“Is there a single one of our books that does not praise these two great men? Has history ever called them traitors of their nation, or rebels against their sovereigns? Far from it; they are always mentioned with the greatest respect. They are, according to historians, heroes, virtuous rulers, saintly figures.”

This then is how one should describe those who rebel against an unjust ruler. And, for good measure, Amiot on four occasions tells his readers that the Xia dynasty was overthrown in 1766 BCE. How strange that he was writing in 1766 CE.

Was Amiot trying to suggest that Louis XV had lost the “mandate of heaven” and could now be overthrown? Certainly, the missionary was downcast by Louis’s decision to suppress his beloved Society of Jesus. Regardless of his motive, however, his work was picked up by a group of radical soldiers who were part of the Physiocratic circle and who published État actuel de l’art et de la science militaire à la Chine in 1773. This was on the face of it a review of Amiot’s work, but the authors used the introduction as an opportunity to take Quesnay’s thinking from 1767 to a new level and called explicitly for a revolution in Europe to establish a government and political economy like those of China. “Fortunately,” they conclude, “everything tells us that this great revolution is not far off!”

I do not go so far as to suggest that Amiot set out to invoke a revolution in France, but he made two important connections. Firstly, as he introduced Chinese classical military thought to Europe, he influenced the emerging idea of strategy, and connected strategy to revolution. Secondly, he connected the longstanding ideal of the Chinese state with the doctrine of justified rebellion. In Amiot’s Sunzi the Chinese saint is a rebel who uses strategy to overthrow a tyrannical sovereign and establish enlightened rule.

– Adam Parr

Voltaire as philosophical historian and historian of modernity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Bailey


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


Anarchists and terrorists at Geneva and Waterford in the 1780s

On the 1st of July 1782, in the early hours of the morning, most of the leaders of the popular government at Geneva fled their city by boat, landing on the Neuchâtel shore of Lake Geneva, then governed by Prussia. The action shocked the abandoned inhabitants of the small republic, who had been preparing to face invading troops from France, Savoy and Bern. Republican patriotism was rife in the city, and the populace was ready for death in the name of liberty. How did this come to pass?

Geneva had long been a city divided into warring factions. A commercial town at the centre of ancient trade routes, and the Rome for Protestants, Geneva was famous not only for the piety of its inhabitants but also for the production of watches and fine smith-work. As in so many small states across Europe, a number of rich families emerged to dominate the ruling councils of the city, whose male members served also as leading magistrates. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they built splendid houses in the upper town, away from the artisans of the lower town. Often having additional property beyond the city walls, and extensive investments in French commerce, accusations were levelled that such families were forming a patrician class, ruling for themselves rather than the public good.

Source: BnF, Gallica.

The group of Genevans making such a claim became known in the 1750s as the représentants, because they repeatedly made representations or complaints to the General Council of all citizens and bourgeois that morality was collapsing, and that the ruin of the city was imminent because of the influence of France over the chief magistrates, themselves corrupted by a lust for luxury and lucre. Divisions became acute between représentants and magistrates in the early 1760s, and especially after the représentants recruited Geneva’s most famous son, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to their cause. Rousseau, characteristically, was so independently minded that his Lettres écrites de la montagne satisfied few of the représentants, but he was presented by their enemies as demagogue in chief, whose works were designed to put an end to government and religion. Just as at Paris, Rousseau’s Contrat social and Émile had been burned at Geneva in 1762. As soon as his Lettres began to circulate in the city in December 1764, arguments were being made that Rousseau’s deadly doctrines would bring anarchy to Geneva.

The magisterial party at Geneva, called négatifs in the 1760s and constitutionnaires in the 1770s and after, reached a compromise with the représentants by agreeing to constitutional reforms in 1767. By the early 1780s, however, the représentants were demanding further change, and once more were branded as Rousseauists, advocates of an ideology that, if brought to power, would see an end to civil order and possibly civil war. For the magistrates, precisely this happened on 5 April 1782 when the people rebelled. The représentants had not fomented revolution but they took control of the city, imprisoned several magistrates, and initiated projects intended to create a new constitution and greatly increase equality at Geneva. One of the reasons the représentants had not wanted to take power by popular revolution was that they knew they risked the wrath of France. France’s foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, was close to numerous magistrates, and of the view that a popular republic on the borders of France could not be stomached. Vergennes was cunning, and he put together a combined invading force that included Geneva’s traditional ally among the cantons, Bern, and Geneva’s traditional foe, Savoy. By the end of June, twelve thousand troops had reached the walls of the city, erected bulwarks for their cannons and mortars, and prepared for siege. The besieged were branded anarchists and terrorists, who had put an end to the legitimate government of the city state and replaced it with a wild democracy in which neither property nor life was safe.

Plan de l’attaque de Genève (source: Bibliothèque de Genève).

Within the city, since the April revolution the people of Geneva had rebuilt the walls and put gunpowder in the cathedral of St Pierre and in the houses of deposed magistrates. Their goal was not victory. Everyone knew that they could never stand against France, and especially against a France supported by the most powerful canton in addition to Savoy. Rather, the people considered themselves to be preparing for martyrdom. The intention of the inhabitants was to send a message to the wider world. Through their deaths and the accompanying destruction of the city of Geneva, which would be set aflame as soon as the invaders used mortars, they would reveal the extent to which both Protestantism and republicanism were in danger in the 1780s. Someone in another part of Europe might listen and take action against the forces of oppression and corruption; the Genevan martyrs would then not have died in vain.

Entrée des troupes suisses et françoises dans Genève (source: Bibliothèque de Genève).

In fact, many people within the city awoke on the morning of the 1st of July to find that the invading troops were already inside the walls. The représentants who remained in the city had opened the gates and surrendered as soon as their friends had left by boat. Resistance became futile and Geneva was saved. The price, many contemporaries felt, was that Geneva was no longer independent, having become a French protectorate. As a theatre was built within the city in order to entertain the invaders, many also embraced the view that Geneva was no longer a bastion of Calvinist morality. Republicans and Calvinists who remained at Geneva tended to be particularly despondent about the future in the early 1780s.

What happened to the now exiled représentants who had fled to Neuchâtel? This is where the story becomes interesting and remains little-known. The représentants had strong links with Britain, in part because the politician Charles Stanhope, known as Lord Mahon, had lived at Geneva in the 1760s and considered himself to be a représentant. Stanhope put the représentants in touch with William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne between 1761 and 1784, who became prime minister soon after the Genevan revolution was crushed, on the 4th of July 1782. Shelburne was facing crisis at home because Britain had been defeated in war by the new North American republics, who were fighting against Britain alongside France, the Dutch Republic and Spain. Peace negotiations had commenced and many felt that Britain, like Geneva, was another Protestant state on the edge of collapse.

A young lawyer called François d’Ivernois, who was one of the editors of the Geneva edition of Rousseau’s collected works, travelled to London to meet Shelburne and Stanhope. The représentants had a plan. They promised the British government that the industrious half of Geneva, hating the restored magistrates and French dominion, were willing to leave the city, taking their wealth and manufacturing skills to another place, where they might enjoy peace and liberty. A community of watchmakers could be established, bringing prosperity to a New Geneva on foreign soil. Shelburne and his friends embraced the project. Lands were offered to the Genevans in England, but the preferred location became Ireland because of the quality of the ports, but also because Ireland was deemed ripe for improvement. Rebellious tendencies in Ireland, in the midst of the volunteer movement demanding economic and political reform, might be assuaged by the creation of New Geneva.

The location that was ultimately chosen was a substantial tract of land at the confluence of the ‘Three Sisters’ rivers – the Barrow, Nore and Suir, just outside Waterford. Funds were granted to the Genevans to the level of £50,000 and a city was mapped out. Land was purchased, buildings were erected and around a hundred families made the move from Geneva to Ireland. Most of the leaders of the April revolution at Geneva in 1782 took an oath of allegiance to George III and became Irish subjects of the crown in 1783. Then things began to go wrong. The first disaster was Shelburne’s fall from power, accused by members of parliament and the country of signing up to an ignominious peace. The ongoing crisis in Britain and in Ireland meant that his successors were less interested in New Geneva. This meant that the complaints of the Genevans who had made the journey, that funds to help them were not being released, that no further buildings were being erected and that life in Waterford was as poor and as miserable as it had been at Geneva, fell on deaf ears. The Genevans, seeing conspiracy everywhere, expressed the view that their enemies in France and in the old city also had friends at Westminster and at Court, who were promoting their view that they were dangerous extremists who would bring terror and anarchy to Ireland, just as they had in Geneva. By 1785, just as the buildings were finished, the Genevans gave up. They were convinced that the Protestant noblemen responsible for the project in Ireland were taking the funds for themselves and would never allow New Geneva to become a reality.

The final chapter of the story is more bizarre still. The buildings of New Geneva were turned into a barracks for regiments serving in Ireland or en route for foreign climes. In 1798 New Geneva, now called Geneva Barracks, became a prison for United Irish rebels against the British crown. It became infamous for the dreadful conditions suffered by the prisoners and the executions that occurred within its walls. Ballads such as Carole Malone’s ‘The Croppy Boy’ restated contemporary assertions that rebels were illegitimately massacred at Geneva in Ireland. Although New Geneva was constructed as an asylum for exiled republicans, it became a place for the imprisonment and extermination of Irish republicans. Like the Genevans before them, they too were accused of being anarchists and terrorists.

– Richard Whatmore

Richard Whatmore’s ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans. The Genevans and the Irish in time of revolution’ will be published by Princeton University Press in August 2019.


Un aide-mémoire du professeur Voltaire: Les Annales de l’Empire

Il faut commencer par un peu de publicité négative. Pourquoi ne pas le dire? Les Annales de l’Empire, dont la Voltaire Foundation va publier une admirable édition en trois volumes, ne sont guère représentatives de la création voltairienne. Peu lues et jamais rééditées en dehors des collections d’œuvres complètes de l’écrivain, elles ne portent sa marque que par des aspects mineurs. Au cœur de la conception de l’Histoire dont Voltaire s’est fait le pionnier, on sait que figure l’étude des mœurs et des civilisations, comme l’illustre son livre majeur dans ce domaine, l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations. Or Les Annales de l’Empire présentent un résumé de l’histoire de l’Allemagne, ou plus précisément de l’empire romain germanique, de Charlemagne jusqu’à Charles VI mort en 1740. Ce résumé est constitué d’une longue suite de brefs chapitres dont chacun est consacré à un règne. Les informations biographiques, dynastiques et militaires en font presque toute la matière. Le texte reprend, souvent mot pour mot, en les abrégeant, les historiens qui faisaient alors autorité, ou des formules de l’Essai sur les mœurs composé dans la même période.

Comme le montre la riche introduction de Gérard Laudin, la part du secrétaire de Voltaire, Collini, dans l’élaboration du livre est importante. Le style s’appauvrit parfois jusqu’à l’ellipse, dans des phrases nominales qui ressemblent aux lignes d’un sommaire. Bref, il s’agit d’une œuvre peu personnelle, que l’auteur lui-même juge trop «sèche» pour «plaire en France» (lettre à d’Argental, du 24 novembre 1753). Ce caractère est accentué par une annexe chronologique et, dès le début, par un résumé méthodique en vers de tous les chapitres qui peut paraître bizarre à des lecteurs du XXIe siècle, mais qui accentuait, pour des lecteurs du XVIIIe siècle, la nature pédagogique de l’ensemble. Ce qu’on appelait alors les «vers techniques» faisait partie des moyens utilisés dans les collèges, et les professeurs de Voltaire à Louis-le-Grand en composaient pour fixer dates et événements dans la mémoire de leurs élèves. Toutes ces particularités s’expliquent par l’origine de l’ouvrage: il s’agit d’un travail de commande, payé 1000 écus d’argent, entrepris pour satisfaire aux «ordres sacrés»[1] de la duchesse régnante de Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, dont la bienveillance était très précieuse pour Voltaire, et qui voulait que la jeunesse allemande disposât d’un manuel commode pour apprendre l’histoire de son pays. Voltaire parle de cette vaste mais modeste entreprise sans enthousiasme: «un temps de ma vie perdu» (lettre à d’Argental, du 24 novembre 1753).

Les lecteurs qui vont se plonger dans la nouvelle édition des Annales ne vont pourtant pas perdre leur propre temps. Car le diable se cache dans les détails. Les interventions de l’écrivain dans la sèche succession des souverains, de leurs mariages, de leurs campagnes, de leurs assassinats n’occupent que peu de place, mais elles sont savoureuses. Le plus souvent, elles consistent en réflexions sceptiques sur la réalité des faits ou leur interprétation par la tradition historique («c’est ainsi qu’on écrivait autrefois l’histoire», chap. 32). Parfois l’esprit critique teinte le récit d’humour pince sans rire: en 1377, «Charles IV, âgé de soixante-quatre ans, entreprend de faire le voyage de Paris, et on ajoute que c’était pour avoir la consolation de voir le roi de France Charles V, qu’il aimait tendrement, et la raison de cette tendresse pour un roi qu’il n’avait jamais vu, était qu’il avait épousé autrefois une de ses tantes» (chap. 33). La fréquentation des historiens érudits, ses sources dans un domaine qu’il découvre, suscite chez Voltaire la moquerie, mais aussi l’indignation, quand la vérité est tordue pour des intérêts dynastiques. «L’Histoire est-elle un factum d’avocat où l’on amplifie les avantages et où l’on tait les humiliations?» (ibid.).

Mais la verve voltairienne trouve une autre matière dans l’histoire de l’Empire: c’est l’occasion de faire l’histoire des papes, en raison du rôle, controversé, de la papauté dans le choix et le sacre des empereurs. Les Annales consacrent une large place à la désignation, à la personne et à la conduite des occupants du trône de Pierre: on se doute que Voltaire ne manque pas une occasion de souligner tous les scandales qui marquent dans ce domaine les siècles troublés dont il fait l’histoire, et qui ont fait coexister des antipapes, des faux-papes et des papes indignes. Par exemple, en 1409, écrit-il, «il était assez difficile de savoir de quel côté était le Saint-Esprit» (chap. 35). Les occasions ne lui manquent pas de dénoncer les bases dérisoires du pouvoir pontifical, comme quand s’en empare un Jean XXIII dont il dit: «c’était un soldat sans mœurs, mais enfin c’était un pape canoniquement élu» (chap. 35). Le choix des épisodes les plus pittoresques ou les plus scabreux, les réflexions ironiques font de cette histoire de la papauté l’ingrédient le plus savoureux, peut-être, d’un texte où on ne l’attend pas.

Mais ce texte à visée pédagogique, en première apparence neutre et tout factuel, recèle d’autres attraits que vont découvrir les lecteurs de la nouvelle édition: le survol de tant de siècles, de tant de royaumes, de tant de guerres, de tant de dynasties, les silhouettes fugitives de tant de héros et de tant de misérables, tant de renversements de pouvoir, tant d’échecs, tant de réussites, tant de villes fondées, fortifiées, ornées, brûlées, rasées ont inspiré à l’auteur des annales de multiples et fascinantes réflexions sur la destinée des hommes et des peuples. Il s’interroge à la fin du livre sur le bonheur qu’ont pu connaître les maîtres successifs de l’Empire, et il n’en voit guère; tout au long des événements qui se pressent de page en page, il s’interroge sur le droit naturel qui se dégage de tant de lois successives et contradictoires, sur la base solide sur laquelle on pourrait se fonder pour échapper à l’arbitraire des droits qu’impose la force et qui sont factices: «Le temps change les droits» (chap. 33).

Il croit distinguer que ce «droit naturel» tient à «la possession d’une terre qu’on cultive» (chap. 37), qu’il exige à l’origine au moins l’élection des souverains, et la conclusion d’«un vrai contrat passé entre le roi et son peuple» (ibid.), seul moyen de sortir du désordre et des violences de la féodalité. Il se réjouit d’une étape supérieure de la civilisation, qui est le développement des échanges grâce aux villes dont il suit toujours avec sympathie le développement et la conquête des libertés. Enfin les derniers siècles font entrer l’Allemagne dans la modernité. Un rayon d’optimisme traverse ainsi le sombre tableau d’une civilisation imprégnée de barbarie et longtemps agitée de mouvements absurdes, sur lequel Voltaire nous invite, aujourd’hui encore, pour en supporter les horreurs, à poser un regard critique.

– Sylvain Menant

[1] Lettre à la duchesse, du 23 février 1754.

Il faut se plonger dans l’Essai sur les mœurs

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

Essai sur les moeurs

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

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

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

OCV, t.23, p.283.

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

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

OCV, t.24, p.360.

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

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

– Sylvain Menant

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

Voltaire: a life in letters

Commentaire historique

Title page of the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

In the late summer of 1776 there appeared an anonymous Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. On the face of it, this biography of the 82-year-old Voltaire was written by a ‘man of letters’, not in his first youth either, with access to the great man and to the ‘chaos of his papers’. The work is indeed heavily reliant on Voltaire’s correspondence, both in the opening narrative and in the collection of letters that follows, but early readers were in no doubt that Voltaire had played an active part in its composition. As the reviewer of the Mémoires secrets put it in September 1776: ‘It is a third party who is supposed to be speaking; but from the style and favourable manner in which all the facts are presented, and from a multitude of secret and specific details besides, there can be no doubt that he supplied the materials and put in the colour’.

Letter from Commentaire historique

Manuscript of Voltaire’s letter to Dmitriy Alekseevich Golitsyn of 19 June 1773 in the hand of Durey de Morsan, corrected by Voltaire. With kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium: Collection Launoit MS 315.

Not unusually, Voltaire denied being the author, arguing that he could not possibly have written something so self-indulgent. Word was that a certain Durey de Morsan had penned it, with Voltaire supplying the ‘anecdotes’ and the ‘style’ (according to Moultou writing to Meister on 4 November 1776). Durey de Morsan was perpetually in debt and lived at Ferney on and off between 1769 and 1774. He was certainly involved to some degree, but this may have been limited to copying letters (there are several in his hand) and signing a chit dated 1 May 1776 stating that he had seen the original documents and handed them over to Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière. (On Wagnière’s own later claims to be the author, see the ‘Révisions posthumes’ in volume 78B.)

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of Commentaire historique

Revisions by Wagnière on a copy of the book sent to Catherine the Great after Voltaire’s death. With kind permission from the National Library of Russia: Bibliothèque de Voltaire 11-227.

The Commentaire historique continued to grow and change even after Durey de Morsan had returned the documents he had seen. Voltaire’s letter on the Ganganelli forgeries is dated 2 May, and the one to Faugères on the superiority of all things seventeenth-century seems to have been written the following day. No doubt some rewriting was necessary when Turgot, the Controller-General of Finances, fell from grace on 12 May. He still features in the Commentaire historique – not least in the poem Sésostris, addressed to the king in happier times and given particular prominence as the final item in the volume – but never by name.

Commentaire historique, declaration by Durey de Morsan

The Declarations by Durey de Morsan and Christin in the first edition. With kind permission from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

On 1 June, it was the lawyer Christin who signed a statement vouching that the documents had been copied accurately (in fact the letters were sometimes ‘improved’ for publication). And still the Commentaire historique kept growing. Voltaire’s letter to Spallanzani on slugs, tardigrades, and the nature of the soul is dated 6 June, and his letter ‘Sur le fameux cocher Gilbert’ must be later than the 24th, when he discovered that Gilbert, a witness against his protégé Morangiès, was apparently a pickpocket and a counterfeiter. In early July the disgraced lawyer Simon Linguet, who had helped to defend La Barre in 1766 and Morangiès in 1772, visited Ferney. Although his name is reduced to an initial, he can be associated with a disproportionate number of the letters included, raising interesting questions about the selection criteria.

This edition of the Commentaire historique, with all its letters included and annotated for the first time, finally allows us to properly consider the text as a whole. I hope it might also help to demonstrate the usefulness of further work on the rest of Voltaire’s vast correspondence.

The Commentaire historique is publishing in two volumes in September 2018. Volume 78B contains the introduction and a dossier on the text’s posthumous fate, and volume 78C contains the full text, including the ‘lettres véritables’ normally stripped from it, and annotation.

– Alice Breathe