Voltaire in Korea

‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’ has just appeared in Korean, published by Humanitas. The author of the book, Nicholas Cronk, collaborated with his translator, the Enlightenment scholar Minchul Kim, to write this preface specially aimed at readers in South Korea.

‘The more I would like to extend my knowledge of history, the more I realise that it is necessarily limited. An Asiatic, an inhabitant of the vast country of China scarcely knows of our existence, and our Europe is for him what Korea and northern Japan are for us.’

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine (Paris, 1735). (Swaen)

So writes Voltaire in one of his notebooks. He had an enduring interest in non-European cultures, as the books in his scholarly library of 6000 books clearly testify. This led him to write one of his most ambitious works, his Essay on manners (in French, Essai sur les mœurs), which is a pioneering attempt to write a universal history. Before Voltaire, so-called universal histories, like that of Bossuet written in the late seventeenth century, tended to confine themselves to the history of Christian Europe, and Voltaire set out to write a history of all nations across the globe. Not only does he seek to describe the political and military history of all the world’s nations, he also aims to talk about their religious beliefs and their culture more generally; in particular, when he can find the information, their literature. He possessed a book called Description of China (in French, Description de la Chine), published in 1735 by the Jesuit Du Halde, a hugely popular work describing many aspects of Chinese culture; and it was here, in this huge compendium of information, that he uncovered the text of a thirteenth-century Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao (translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao).

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao, in Du Halde, Description de la Chine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire was so excited by this discovery that he used the play as the basis of his tragedy The Orphan of China (in French, L’Orphelin de la Chine), a tale of love, duty and final forgiveness set in the imperial palace in Beijing at the moment when Genghis Khan had invaded China. First performed at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1755, the play enjoyed an enormous success, and such was Voltaire’s fame as a writer that translations soon followed into other European languages: English (1756), Italian (1762), German (1763), Dutch (1765), Swedish (1777), Portuguese (1783), Spanish (1787), Danish (1815) and Polish (1836). Voltaire’s use on the stage of a thirteenth-century Chinese drama thus reached an enormously wide audience all across Europe, and the play was so successful that it had an influence on European culture even beyond the theatre. Voltaire was a French writer but he was never satisfied with a purely French readership, and even in his own lifetime he enjoyed celebrity status as a writer all across Europe.

Korea is indeed mentioned in The Orphan of China, but most references to Korea in Voltaire’s writings are to be found, not surprisingly, in his historical works, especially in his universal history. In the opening chapter of the Essay on manners, he speaks of Korea as part of the vast Chinese (he means Mongol) empire, ‘at the eastern extremity of our globe’, and he describes the various conquests of Genghis Khan, including that of Korea. Voltaire is clearly frustrated by the lack of information available to him, and he freely admits that Korea is one of those countries that remains poorly known in Europe.

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1812). (Wikimedia Commons)

While Voltaire is always interested in learning more about such nations, he is also eager to point out that the countries of the Middle East, for example, have ‘many fables’ remarkably similar to those of the Europeans – by which, of course, he means the Christian Bible (a dig at the so-called singularity of the Catholic Church). Habits in different countries from the Dardanelles to the ends of Korea may be different, Voltaire writes, and yet the basic foundation of ethical thinking is the same in all nations. There are also traditions and habits in civil life common to all parts of the globe, he claims, so for example, on the first day of the year, in Japan as in France, relatives and friends offer each other gifts. Behind the superficial differences between nations, Voltaire wants to insist that man is fundamentally the same across the globe. He is particularly keen to argue this point with regard to religion: each culture has its own way of praising God, he believes, but fundamentally we all praise the same supreme being, who created the Universe and who teaches us goodness.

This is a view that is easy to criticize. Historians of religion will point to substantial differences between some of the world’s religions. Other critics accuse Voltaire of what Edward Said calls ‘Orientalism’, that is, the patronizing colonial gesture of measuring the cultures of the Middle East by the yardstick of Europe, rather than judging them at their own value. But to be fair to Voltaire (who in any case is writing before the European colonisation of the Middle East), the sources available to him were limited, and he does try to master what scant information there is. Moreover, he is always quite explicit about his aim, which is deliberately to identify the elements of humanity that are common to all cultures. Voltaire can be accused of being Euro-centric – he could hardly be anything else – but his fundamental wish is to describe the qualities and values common to all humanity. In 1760-1761 the Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith published The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, a collection of letters written by a fictional Chinese philosopher Lien Chi Altangi, who was supposedly living in London. The expression ‘a citizen of the world’ became current in Europe in the eighteenth century, and it would be no exaggeration to describe Voltaire as one of the first ‘citizens of the world’.

* * *

Notwithstanding Voltaire’s stature as the representative figure of European Enlightenment, and notably of its most popular version which demanded resistance to the fanaticism and dogmatism of established religions, Korean readers have so far not been treated well with books to introduce them to his world. There is only a small number of scholarly articles written in Korean by and for scholars of European studies: in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and political theory. As for books, overshadowed by the publishing success of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, Korean publications relating to Voltaire have been confined to translations of a small set of ‘canonical’ fictions and treatises: Candide, Oedipe, Zadig, Micromégas, Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and the Treatise on tolerance. Very recently there have been published a small number of works on Voltaire, almost exclusively concentrating on his thoughts about China and Confucianism, sometimes producing, from a wishful selection of quotes, a far-fetched argument about the place of ancient Chinese philosophy in European Enlightenment. Among all these books, the only ones that are frequently read are Candide and the Treatise on tolerance. There is not a single book published on Voltaire the man as a whole.

A study guide to Candide in Korean

A study guide to Candide in Korean.

This is a lamentable lacuna, one which must be filled first in order to let the public know that there had indeed been a huge hole. The reading public is hungry for a succinct yet authoritative account of the man himself. South Korea is emerging as one of the world’s most dynamic and robust democracies and has recently experienced a completely peaceful yet remarkably successful revolutionary movement: the Candle Revolution of 2016–2017. Accordingly, its public sphere, aided by all kinds of old and new media, is witnessing the birth of debates which are resistant to dogmatism of all sorts and open to considering new world-views. This is the world of Voltaire, the sceptic poet who often dared not hope too loudly as he put forth his optimistic accounts of a future rid of fanaticism and despotism, a future in which the people are politically liberal and culturally refined. This is a world of gradual perfectibility, a world that can be transformed for the better by human will, an optimism part strategic and part sincere that has not always been favoured but is clearly the dominant rising voice in South Korea today. This is the world of Voltaire, crooked and complex, but also moving, demanding, and liberating.

Nicholas Cronk and Minchul Kim

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

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

Gustave Lanson

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

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

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

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

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

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

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

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

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

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

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

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

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Cronk

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


The history of the book that never was: Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). (Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia commons)

‘Je doute qu’il y ait à présent un homme dans l’Europe aussi bien au fait que moi de l’histoire de la dernière guerre’, wrote Voltaire in June 1752 about what he describes a few lines later as the ‘plus difficile de mes ouvrages’ (D4907, to the duc de Richelieu). The work was never published by him, however, so what went wrong? Voltaire sometimes delayed publication of his work until the time was ripe, or after a water-testing first draft that found the water chilly, but he rarely abandoned an entire book-length work. Yet this was the sad fate of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 (War of the Austrian Succession), now entering Voltaire’s complete works for the first time (OCV, vol.29C). Circumstances were against him all along, so that the time, the place and the loved one never did come together.

In 1745 the ‘loved one’ was Louis XV – ‘le bien aimé’. Louis’s personal presence during the Flanders campaigns of 1744 and 1745 showed him at his best, and so he is portrayed by Voltaire, writing as newly appointed historiographe de France in what became the relevant chapters of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. The first thing to go wrong was the time. Had an honourable peace for France been agreed at the end of 1745, as there was every reason to hope once the succession question had been resolved, the time would have been ripe for Voltaire, still living in Versailles, to have put down his pen and published his account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’, of which a manuscript had been sent to the king in 1746.

Stanislas Leszczynski by Jean Girardet

Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766) by Jean Girardet (1709-1778), court painter in Lunéville.

The war dragged on, however, until 1748, by which time Voltaire, disillusioned by life at Versailles, was on a protracted visit to King Stanislas Lesczynski at Lunéville where he still was when Mme Du Châtelet died in 1749. This catastrophe induced Voltaire to accept a long-standing invitation from Frederick II to stay in Potsdam. Here the Guerre de 1741 was eventually completed, but Voltaire never returned to live in Paris or Versailles, the sources of his inspiration and material and the natural springboard for his history.

Voltaire was evidently keen to test the waters in Paris with a revised version of the first part, up to the battle of Fontenoy, but his principal adviser, the comte d’Argental, warned him – ‘sans être obligé d’entrer dans les détails’ – on no account to publish it without approval (see D4843; 19 March 1752).

Although the war was no doubt still a sore subject with the king, d’Argental’s oblique hint shows that Voltaire was already aware of the justified criticisms that he had unduly flattered his friends, in particular by exaggerating the part played at Fontenoy by his friend and hero the duc de Richelieu and consequently downplaying that of the true victor, the maréchal de Saxe. Voltaire had been carried away, one might almost say that he had replaced one loved one with another.

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain (1696-1771). (Bibliothèque nationale, public domain)

Maurice de Saxe by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748). (Public domain)

Voltaire evidently cut his losses. From his base in Potsdam he had another string to his bow – publication of the full manuscript by Conrad Walther in Dresden. The idea had been mentioned in March (see D4841) but in August Voltaire was nervous, telling Walther that he would want a small printing in anticipation of an early second edition, as happened with the Siècle de Louis XIV on which Walther was then engaged (D4994). This unpromising request would explain why the work was not printed by Walther, if indeed the final manuscript was ever sent, but it is hard to account for Voltaire’s unease other than fear of mockery about the flattery of his friends.

So when three years later in 1755 the manuscript of the first part of the Guerre was ‘stolen’ and published under Voltaire’s name with an Amsterdam title-page, had he jumped or was he pushed? His disclaimers were not seriously believed either then or now. More interesting, and curious, is the fact that Voltaire did not proceed to publish his own authorised edition, nor did he take steps to publish the complete text to 1748 as promised to Walther. Once more he bided his time, but for what?

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un, title page of part 1 (Amsterdam [Paris], 1755). (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By late 1755 Voltaire was already in the process of preparing the edition of his complete works of 1756, where he was joining the Siècle de Louis XIV to the end of what became the Essai sur les mœurs […] depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours. What better solution than to tack on as well the early chapters of an abbreviated Guerre de 1741? The decisive nail in the coffin of the Guerre de 1741 may well have been the reversal of alliances in 1755 which transposed Austria, the adversary of 1745, into France’s new ally. At a stroke the Guerre was relegated to the status of a redundant curiosity. Voltaire had missed the boat.

The Collection complète des œuvres de Voltaire of 1756 contains truncated versions of the text up to the battle of Fontenoy. Subsequent editions were augmented by further pared-down chapters until the whole was subsumed into the Précis du siècle de Louis XV in 1768 (OCV, vols. 29A and 29B).

Thus it was that the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 was never published as a complete text in Voltaire’s lifetime. Nineteenth-century editors of his complete works, starting from Beuchot, found the strands of the Guerre and Précis hard to unravel. This is understandable but they undoubtedly missed a trick. (The OCV edition is able to use shading to highlight the passages from the Guerre that are carried forward into the Précis.)

The Guerre de 1741 is fully deserving of its place in Voltaire’s complete works. It is more than a historical narrative; it is a picture of Voltaire at work and revealing of the pains he took. It also shows that for the ci-devant historiographer writing about his own time was not as easy as all that – not easy at all in fact.

Janet Godden

L’Essai sur les mœurs: une lecture personnelle

L’Essai sur les mœurs est en grande partie un recensement de la souffrance infligée par la cruauté humaine sous toutes ses formes (nous dirions aujourd’hui le sadisme), et de la quête de liberté au moins sous certaines formes. Véritable tour de force de synthèse, atteignant à la perfection du langage, il s’agit d’un ouvrage dérangeant qui fait voir un homme révolté devant l’Histoire telle qu’il la présente. Voltaire s’en est pris à l’Histoire comme il a l’habitude de s’en prendre à la Bible. Sa virtuosité en impose, mais cette histoire du monde et l’analyse du devenir historique qui en découle génèrent autant de perplexité chez le lecteur qu’elles ne l’éclairent, et ce pour plusieurs raisons, dont les moindres ne sont pas la partialité de l’auteur et sa conception atemporelle de l’Histoire. L’Essai sur les mœurs, fascinant par ses méandres, est sans doute l’œuvre de Voltaire la plus complexe du point de vue du sens qui saurait être attribué à l’ensemble.

Page de titre de la première édition

Page de titre de la première édition.

Ce n’est sans doute pas là un enjeu essentiel, mais à la toute fin, au dernier chapitre (‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’), Voltaire s’interroge sur les leçons à tirer de ce vaste panorama des actions humaines qu’il a voulu présenter à travers les mœurs, un concept qui confère une unité sémantique à son travail mais dont la spécificité est difficile à cerner. Aurait-il perçu les camps de concentration nazis comme mœurs des Allemands? Voltaire a voulu éblouir avec ses obsessions; il a créé un vertige moral en contemplant l’hypocrisie des gens de pouvoir, et s’en repentira en cherchant à atténuer le tableau morbide des abominations commises au cours de l’histoire de l’humanité qu’il a peint en parallèle avec les plus grandes réalisations de l’esprit humain. Il adoucit – un peu tard – son agressivité habituelle (‘jamais on n’a vu aucune société religieuse, aucun rite institué dans la vue d’encourager les hommes aux vices. On s’est servi dans toute la terre de la religion pour faire le mal; mais elle est partout instituée pour porter au bien; et si le dogme apporte
 le fanatisme et la guerre, la morale inspire partout la concorde’, ch.197, p.330) et crée une ouverture vers un optimisme intellectuel (‘Quand une nation connaît les arts, quand elle n’est point subjuguée et transportée par les étrangers, elle sort aisément de ses ruines, et se rétablit toujours’, ch.197, p.334).

Son ambition initiale était claire. Il a expliqué sa frustration, et celle conjointe de Mme Du Châtelet, devant la lecture de l’Histoire à laquelle il avait accès: ‘nous avons jusqu’à présent dans la plupart de nos histoires universelles, traité les autres hommes comme s’ils n’existaient pas. La Grèce, les Romains se sont emparés de toute notre attention, et quand le célèbre Bossuet dit un mot des mahométans, il n’en parle que comme d’un déluge de barbares, cependant beaucoup de ces nations possédaient des arts utiles que nous tenons d’elles; leurs pays nous fournissent des commodités et des choses précieuses que la nature nous a refusées, et vêtus de leurs étoffes, nourris des productions de leurs terres, instruits par leurs inventions, amusés même par les jeux qui sont le fruit de leur industrie, nous ne sommes ni justes ni sages de les ignorer’ (‘Nouveau Plan d’une Histoire de l’esprit humain’, OCV, t.27, p.157). Il serait difficile de contester une telle affirmation. ‘Mon principal but avait été de suivre les révolutions de l’esprit humain dans celles des gouvernements. Je cherchais comment tant de méchants hommes conduits par de plus méchants princes ont pourtant à la longue établi des sociétés où les arts, les sciences, les vertus mêmes ont été cultivés’ (‘Lettre de M. de V*** à M. de ***, professeur en histoire’, OCV, t.27, p.179). C’est donc un univers moral qui le préoccupe; Voltaire n’est pas en quête d’exotisme.

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754, t.3. (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal)

L’Essai est l’histoire des pratiques humaines, non pas celle des idées, et c’est pourquoi il ne retiendra pas comme titre l’Histoire de l’esprit humain auquel il avait songé. Voltaire aurait pu intituler son ouvrage ‘Histoire de la condition humaine’, mais il ne l’a pas fait. Il utilise le terme une seule fois, au chapitre 155: ‘Ce gouvernement [de la Chine], quelque beau qu’il fut, était nécessairement infecté de grands abus attachés à la condition humaine’ (lignes 168-69). L’objet de sa recherche n’était pas tant de décrire les mœurs comme telles à travers l’histoire de l’humanité, que de créer une occasion pour en critiquer, à la lumière de sa propre échelle de valeurs, certaines d’entre elles qui choquaient sa sensibilité morale et esthétique – et critiquer sa propre société par la même occasion.

L’histoire universelle devient un monde peuplé de personnages réels travaillés par l’imagination de Voltaire qui entretient avec eux le même genre de rapport ambivalent qu’il entretient de façon chronique dans ses relations affectives d’amour ou d’amitié. Il a traité les faits historiques comme il traite ses relations personnelles: tout devient une affaire pratiquement personnelle, lui-même étant omniprésent dans son texte, d’où son originalité. Il tire les ficelles de l’Histoire et anime un théâtre de marionettes à son gré. Laurent Avezou, dans son article ‘Autour du Testament politique de Richelieu’ (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des chartes, t.162, 2004, p.421-53) a bien perçu cette tendance chez Voltaire (‘Le philosophe a transformé le Testament en affaire personnelle’, p.449) en dévoilant son ambivalence vis-à-vis certaines des grandes figures de l’histoire ‘qui transparaît dans son Essai sur les mœurs’ (p.448).

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson. (Arsenal,  MS 8. H. 2243; D5903)

Voltaire nous a tenu moralement en suspens, on pourrait presque dire en otages, parce que nous ne sommes pas à même de savoir exactement quel est le jugement qu’il porte sur une quantité d’événements et de phénomènes historiques, son attitude par rapport à la découverte du Nouveau Monde et ses conséquences, par exemple. Son admiration est suivie d’une désillusion qui prend sur lui le dessus, et son dégoût pour les atrocités commises l’emporte sur la considération des avantages ou désavantages au plan économique. L’exploitation et l’esclavage sont mentionnés, mais ne font pas l’objet d’un approfondissement: ‘Les Européens n’ont fait prêcher leur religion depuis le Chili jusqu’au Japon, que pour faire servir les hommes, comme des bêtes de somme, à leur insatiable avarice’ (OCV, t.26A, p.187-88); ‘Des milliers d’Américains servaient aux Espagnols de bêtes de somme’ (p.244). Pour une région différente, parlant des ‘nègres’ de la ‘côte de Guinée, à la côte d’Or, à celle d’Yvoire […] Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme’ (p.285). La révolte de Voltaire s’arrête à ce genre de remarques. Il faut peut-être placer ces commentaires (qui ne sont rien d’autre) en parallèle avec ceux-ci pour comprendre sa position: ‘le travail des mains ne s’accorde point avec le raisonnement, et le commun peuple en général n’use ni n’abuse guère de son esprit’ (p.66); ‘nous ne prétendons pas parler de la populace; elle doit être en tout pays uniquement occupée du travail des mains. L’esprit d’une nation réside toujours dans le petit nombre qui fait travailler le grand, qui le nourrit et le gouverne’ (p.321).

Son attitude face au cannibalisme aussi fait voir son ambivalence et la division de sa pensée: ‘La véritable barbarie est de donner la mort, et non de disputer un mort aux corbeaux ou aux vers’ (p.214); ‘Comment des peuples toujours séparés les uns des autres, ont-ils pu se réunir dans une si horrible coutume?’ (p.215). Ces points de vue ne sont pas mutuellement exclusifs, et c’est là un des traits qui fait la spécificité de l’Essai: la multiplicité des regards.

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756.

Ce que Voltaire voulait accomplir pour Mme Du Châtelet, l’a-t-il réellement fait? Sans doute pas. Voltaire n’est pas librement à l’écoute des phénomènes qu’il décrit. Il ne cherche pas à comprendre, mais à imposer un point de vue normatif et provocateur; il s’adonne davantage à une esthétique des civilisations qu’à une anthropologie. S’il n’y a pour lui qu’un seul univers moral, il n’éprouve pas le besoin d’en faire la démonstration. Il a juxtaposé l’abominable au sublime sans percevoir ce qui mène à l’un ou à l’autre. Et qui le pourrait? Mais il a été à même de rattacher la psychologie individuelle aux grands mouvements historiques. Sa pensée synthétique hallucinante et ses sarcasmes sont susceptibles d’intéresser particulièrement les jeunes générations et capables tout autant de les égarer. Il a dit beaucoup de choses vraies, et si sa vérité reste incomplète ce n’est qu’un encouragement à explorer de nouveau toute une série de perspectives sur le devenir historique. L’Essai sur les mœurs est autre chose qu’un objet de musée littéraire. Les problèmes sur lesquels Voltaire s’est penché resteront toujours actuels. La connaissance du passé et de la diversité culturelle telle que présentée par un observateur du siècle des Lumières hautement original qui nous instruit autant sur son siècle que sur le monde entier s’avérera toujours utile, surtout dans le monde monoculturel où nous vivons aujourd’hui.

Dominique Lussier

A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

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

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

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

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

Essay sur l’histoire générale

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

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

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

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

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Oliver

Voltaire and Choiseul: the ever-evolving French diplomacy of 1759-1760

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748)

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748).

In May 1759 king Frederick II of Prussia sent Voltaire a poem disdaining the French king Louis XV (see Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire, OCV, vol.45C, p.439) and insulting his favorite, Mme de Pompadour. The Cabinet noir, empowered to read letters, informed the concerned parties, and Voltaire’s position with the French court was suddenly at stake. In a conciliatory effort, instead of waiting for lightning to strike him, Voltaire sent the poem to the duc de Choiseul, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was protected by Pompadour.

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746)

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746).

Choiseul responded in kind, sending a poem ridiculing the Prussian sovereign, with a threat to publish it should Frederick disclose his to the public (D8270; part of the poem is in Mémoires, p.441). This was an invitation: either to encourage a war of words between Frederick and Choiseul, or to mediate between Prussia and France. Thus was born a utilitarian relationship, whereby Voltaire shared Frederick’s messages with the minister, suggested diplomatic actions in line with Choiseul’s policies, and, most importantly, applauded Choiseul’s every move to the public.

In response Choiseul could tactfully disseminate specific ideas of his ministry by merely corresponding with the philosophe. Because of the fame they each enjoyed, they both understood that their relationship was not entirely private, but their exchanges benefited from a veil of intimate friendship. Therefore, when salons passed around copies of Voltaire’s letters, or when Choiseul’s responses ‘accidentally’ found themselves in the hands of peers, both could retreat into the légèreté that characterized Choiseul’s ministry. Choiseul used this to his advantage to navigate the tumultuous seas of the Seven Years’ War.

Summer 1759

The first exchanges between Choiseul and Voltaire present a spunky star minister possessing shameless confidence. He responds to Frederick’s verses by calling him a coward, too insignificant to be noticed by the big players of the European arena. On top of his brazenness, he explicitly leaves Voltaire the choice of transmitting his thoughts back to the enemy. Keen to claim a sense of privacy in his correspondence, the minister nonetheless wastes no time in showing his anger over Frederick’s poetry to the Austrian ambassador.

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763)

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763).

Choiseul’s words were not, in fact,  spontaneous or innocent. Throughout the spring of 1759 Choiseul had worked hard to inspire faith in the new alliance on both the French and Austrian sides, to convince the Austrian administration of his goodwill, and finally to ratify the new defensive treaty between France and Austria to protect against Prussian aggression on the continent. In the same vein, in his letter of 6 July 1759 (D8387) he tactfully asks Voltaire to share Frederick’s letters with the Russian ambassador to reveal Frederick’s vulgar comments on the czarina. Two days later he also sends a memoir to his ambassador to St Petersburg in which he justifies the need for more Russian involvement in the war, possibly as a mediator for peace. Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and czarina Elizaveta of all the Russias shared a healthy diplomatic relationship, due to their common interest in crushing Prussia. Very much aware of this, Choiseul wanted to show his support for their alliance, for the continental war, and for Russia’s growing role on the European scene. The minister used these spontaneous events and the genuineness of correspondence between friends to emphasize his diplomatic commitments.

Autumn 1759

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757)

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757).

In his letter of 12 November of the same year (D8588) Choiseul recognizes, with optimism, the many obstacles impeding French diplomacy. News of the loss of Québec had reached France by then. He quotes the proverb placed as a motto over his door by his relative Henri-Louis de Choiseul, marquis de Meuse, ‘A force d’aller mal tout ira bien’, before sneering at his favorite target, the Prussian princeling. The minister makes more explicit links between France, Austria, and Russia, likening them to doctors curing Europe of war while Prussia is merely a soothsayer. By focusing on the continental war in his semi-public correspondence, he purposefully aligns all three powers to the eyes of the public. His growing ties with the Spanish court and his concerns for the maritime war against England are carefully omitted. Indeed, on 10 August 1759 king Carlos III ascended to the Spanish throne, advocating for a strong alliance with France and for firm defence against English sea power. The French ambassador always at his side, his plans for the Bourbon Family Pact were soon under way, much to Vienna’s dismay. Taking great care not to cause waves in the fragile Austrian alliance, Choiseul uses the cover of a friendly letter to underline his pro-Austrian and pro-Russian position on the European continent.

Winter 1759-1760

Come December, all of this has changed. Not only has France lost Québec, but the French invasion of England had been a complete, and very costly, disaster. Thankfully on 27 November England and Prussia proposed a peace congress to all belligerent parties. On 20 December  (D8666) Choiseul jokes to Voltaire about signing a peace treaty and claims France’s only quarrel is with England. Spain is boldly mentioned, and the additional risk taken of saying how war on the continent does not interest the king’s cabinet. The French minister is indirectly striking back at the request by Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kaunitz that France forget about her maritime war and focus solely on supporting Austria. Choiseul has decided to make his distance from Austrian interests clear in this letter. Peace has become his only concern, and he actively solicits his ambassadors to Russia, Denmark, Holland and Spain in the hopes of finding a mediating power. In a letter of 14 January (D8708) the minister brags about France having the power to crush Prussia, whose only hope for survival would be a peace treaty. From his perspective, only Prussia’s enemies or his allies can make peace, not France. The duke makes his terms for peace very clear in the letter, arguing for no territorial gain on France’s behalf. While he continues to bash Frederick II with his usual panache, by winter his intentions have changed radically: instead of criticizing Frederick to show his engagement with Austria, he now ridicules the sovereign in the hopes he will realize how much Europe needs peace.

In eighteenth-century Europe, much like today, figures like Voltaire offered their fame as a channel through which savvy politicians could run their public relations. With his early letters Choiseul plugs the many holes causing the Austrian alliance to sink, portraying a unified continental alliance system that laughs in the face of German princelings. Later the minister advocates for peace on every front, formal or informal, diplomatic or social, making a point to open the way towards negotiation without pointing fingers. The recurrent coincidence in timing between his letters and news from the different battle fronts make clear the moments when Choiseul reached certain conclusions about his diplomatic strategy, and when he put them into action.

The ‘war of poems’ is discussed, with some questions about the accuracy of Voltaire’s account, in Choiseul et Voltaire: d’après les lettres inédites du duc de Choiseul à Voltaire, edited by Pierre Calmettes (Paris, 1902), p.7f. Not all the letters mentioned have survived. Those that have are available in Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, ed. Th. Besterman, and Electronic Enlightenment, identified by D and the letter number.

Aliénor Sauvage

‘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