Catfishing Voltaire

Sam Bailey has just received an MSt in European Enlightenment studies from the University of Oxford (distinction) and won the Gerard Davis prize for his MSt dissertation. He is working at the VF as a research assistant over the summer. In the coming academic year, he will begin an AHRC-funded PhD on representations of disability in seventeenth-century French cabaret poetry at the University of Durham.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

It is for good reason that the Republic of Letters is often referred to as a social network. A quick browse of the Electronic Enlightenment project reveals how seamlessly the lengthy written exchanges between the philosophes can be repurposed for digital publication. Indeed, the letters themselves, with their perplexing in-jokes, abbreviations and allusions, seem to invite the various cross-references and hyperlinks that can be added when publishing electronically. So strong are these parallels, that a recent seminar I attended involved a tangential discussion of whether Diderot would have liked Wikipedia. (For the record, we concluded that he would have admired the ambition of the project but would not have liked the fact that anyone can contribute).

As with their twenty-first-century counterparts, eighteenth-century social networks came with a host of pitfalls and were frequently hijacked for the purposes of trickery and even practical jokes. Indeed, a so-called mystification involved luring an unsuspecting gullible individual into a humorous trap designed to teach him or her to be more alert.[1] A particularly popular strategy was to adopt a false identity through which to communicate with one’s target, a ruse that bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day concept of ‘catfishing’. For those who don’t spend their time watching late-night American reality TV, catfishing is the social media phenomenon of creating a fake online profile to strike up a (usually romantic) relationship with a stranger.

The term originates from the 2010 film Catfish, which documents a real-life situation of this kind. A character explains that when transporting live cod for long distances, fishermen found that the flesh of the fish turned soft and mushy due to inactivity. Their solution was to place a small number of catfish into the tanks, which proceeded to chase the cod and keep them agile. There are people in life who are like those catfish, so the analogy goes, people whose unpredictable actions keep us alert and forever looking over our shoulders. Although the name and the online setting are new, the phenomenon of catfishing is most certainly very old.

Poem by Desforges-Maillard

Poem by Desforges-Maillard published in the July 1732 issue of the Mercure de France.

Towards the beginning of his life as a literary celebrity, Voltaire was embroiled in a saga very similar to a modern incident of catfishing when he became the unwitting victim of Paul Desforges-Maillard. As explained in the 1880 edition of his collected works, Desforges was a lawyer and amateur poet from Brittany who, despondent after many failed attempts at achieving literary recognition, tried an ingenious marketing strategy with the latest poem he sent to the Mercure de France. And so, ‘un beau jour de l’année 1732 […] le Mercure présenta à Voltaire, coquettement encadrée dans ses colonnes, la pièce de vers suivante, datée du Croisic, en Bretagne, et signée d’une femme’.[2]

The woman in question was one Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne, whose verses in the Mercure had already won her several admirers in the months leading up to this event. However, none were as distinguished as Voltaire. The verse ‘A M. Arouet de Voltaire…’ was an immediate hit, causing Desforges to continue publishing under the Malcrais pseudonym and receive further praise from many unsuspecting (male) readers. The seductive image of the ‘héroine du Mercure’, an unmarried, unknown woman, exiled far from metropolitan Paris in Brittany completely captured the imagination of the Parisian reading public.[3] Eventually, Malcrais’s verse received a laudatory, even flirtatious, response from Voltaire himself, who, by all accounts, had been duped: ‘Voltaire, ce prince des moqueurs, a aussi été moqué, joué, mystifié’.[4]

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire as a response to Desforges-Maillard’s poem.

Alain Viala recognises that ‘signer une œuvre publiée, c’est engager une image de soi’, and the pseudonymous identity of Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne is precisely that: a projection of a fabricated self-image designed to carry out a mystification of her readers and, specifically, to ensnare Voltaire, the prince of mockery himself.[5] Initially, wrote Desforges-Maillard in 1753, his objective was simple: ‘quand j’écrivis sous le nom de mlle de Malcrais; je ne voulais tromper que l’auteur du Mercure avec lequel j’étais brouillé, chacun prit la pilule et l’avala’.[6] How far we choose to believe this self-portrait of the catfish as a victim of circumstance is up to us, but it serves to highlight a risk inherent to pseudonymous publication, namely that one can never be sure how far the ruse will play out and exactly whom it will deceive.

Desforges writes that Voltaire was ‘bien double, bien vain et bien mauvais’, in other words, just as much of a con-artist as the man behind Malcrais.[7] Far from a literary demi-god, Voltaire is, in Desforges’ view, no more than another cunning trickster who dons masks as and when he sees fit with a view to deceiving people into exalting him. While Desforges evidently had no qualms about deceiving a man he considered the arch-deceiver, even relishing the challenge, the moral limit for him came when, still publishing as Malcrais, he received a letter from the biographer Évrard Titon du Tillet praising her work. Desforges felt guilty for duping Titon du Tillet, a seemingly honourable man who was himself guilty of no trickery, and this caused him to reveal his true identity to his readers, who, predictably, promptly lost interest.[8]

Voltaire, however, never forgot, frequently evoking the Malcrais episode in his correspondence as the definitive example of all not being as it seems. Desforges is remembered, but only as Malcrais, the ‘muse androgyne’ to whom Voltaire continued to make reference in letters right up until 1770. Malcrais’ name is preserved in history as Voltaire’s catfish, the cautionary figure who kept him alert and ceaselessly reminded him that appearances may be deceiving.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For more on mystification, see Reginald McGinnis’s Essai sur l’origine de la mystification (Paris, 2009).

[2] Paul Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses de Desforges-Maillard (Paris, 1880), p. II.

[3] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. IX.

[4] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. I.

[5] Alain Viala, La Naissance de l’écrivain (Paris, 1985), p. 85.

[6] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753.

[7] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753′.

[8] The way in which Desforges revealed his true identity is yet another remarkable tale that allegedly involved him dressing as a woman and going to dinner with Voltaire. The full story can be found in the preface to the 1880 edition.


L’Ingénu and Electronic Enlightenment

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Electronic Enlightenment (EE), an online collection of edited correspondence from the early modern period, has been an invaluable resource for me as a first-year modern languages student at Durham University. As part of the Reading French Literature module I have been studying my first work by Voltaire, the satirical novella L’Ingénu, and have used EE to explore Voltaire’s correspondence, pursuing my intuitive hunches about this text as well as finding out more about the context in which it was written.

Religion struck me as one of the main topics of discussion in L’Ingénu. In reading letters to and from Voltaire on EE, I began to better appreciate the extent of religious contention in eighteenth-century France. The theory of Creation is referenced in a seemingly poignant moment at the end of chapter 13, where l’Ingénu is touched by the sight of a beautiful woman: ‘il faut convenir que Dieu n’a créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes.’ However, shortly after this assertion, Voltaire writes, ‘C’est une absurdité, c’est un outrage au genre humain, c’est un attentat contre l’Etre infini et suprême de dire: Il y a une vérité essentielle à l’homme, et Dieu l’a cachée.’ Here the use of irony and of different narrative voices points to the value of turning to Voltaire’s correspondence, as this is an external source which may be used to compare Voltaire’s voice as a narrator with his supposedly real voice when in communication with his peers. Voltaire’s particular form of expression means that the reader can never be quite sure as to where his personal opinion lies. This is confirmed through a study of his correspondence, where we see him playing with different voices.

Letters from figures such as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert piqued my curiosity to read about religious policy in contemporary society. D’Alembert remarks about religious tensions and debate in France, ‘la censure de la Sorbonne contenait douze à quinze pages contre la Tolérance’ (14 August 1767). This source of ‘unofficial’ discourse between the two men corresponding in a personal capacity is useful in gauging a contemporary reaction to the public discourse and politics of the time and the context in which Voltaire wrote.

Image from L'Ingénu.

‘Le Huron tout nu dans la rivière, attendant qu’on l’y vienne baptiser’, in Le Huron, ou l’Ingénu, histoire véritable, fromRomans et Contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.234. Image BnF/Gallica.

Without this letter, I would not have started to explore so keenly this facet of eighteenth-century society. Similar religious contention is revealed in Voltaire’s letter to Etienne Noël Damilaville, as he makes reference to the significance of truth and tolerance in religious debate: ‘Je sais avec quelle fureur le fanatisme s’élève contre la philosophie. Elle a deux filles qu’il voudrait faire périr comme Calas, ce sont la vérité et la tolérance’ (1 March 1765). The case of Jean Calas serves as an illustration of Voltaire’s discussion of religious intolerance. It prompted me to look further into the Calas story, and to learn about the inferior position of Protestants in France at the time.

This has influenced my reading of L’Ingénu, since it supported the idea that the protagonist was regarded as such a social outsider because of the uniformity and strictness with which Catholicism dominated. From reading Voltaire’s letters, we can acknowledge the position of the author. It is clear that he advocated religious freedom, and sought to denounce the Catholic Church, since he poses assertive questions such as: ‘comment obtenir justice? comment s’aller remettre en prison dans sa patrie où la moitié du peuple dit encore que le meurtre de Calas était juste?’ (1 March 1765).

Finally, reading a distinct form of material such as Voltaire’s letters, instead of solely his published writings, has made me consider the impact of the public and the motivation behind authorship. Much more assertive opinions regarding theological inclination are expressed in the evidently intimate, more personal letters than in Voltaire’s stories, and the subtlety of his opinions appears clearer when the richness of the correspondence in EE is taken into account.

– Hannah Hawken

If Voltaire had used Wikipedia…

At the Voltaire Foundation we’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the University of Oxford’s Wikimedian in residence, Dr Martin Poulter. He has helped us to build some new content for our website as well as contributing to our mission to promote the work of Voltaire. In this blog post, he explains a bit more about the project.

Sharing open knowledge about Voltaire’s histories

To raise awareness of Voltaire as a historian, we used three tools:

  1. Histropedia: a free tool for creating engaging, interactive visualisations
  2. Wikidata: a free database and sister site of Wikipedia that drives Histropedia and other visualisations
  3. Wikipedia: the free multilingual encyclopedia.

As well as holding data about people, publications, and events, Wikidata acts as a cross-reference between the different language versions of Wikipedia, showing which concepts are represented in which languages. By querying Wikidata, we could count how many language versions of Wikipedia had an article on each work by Voltaire. This showed, as expected, a large imbalance: forty languages for Candide versus three for the Essai sur les mœurs, for example. The current number of articles for each work is shown by the size of the bubbles below.


Creating interactive timelines

The timelines are built from three things:

  1. Wikipedia articles (that open on double-clicking the entry in the timeline)
  2. Publication dates and titles from Wikidata
  3. Images (in the case of books, usually title pages) that are hosted in the Wikimedia Commons repository (another sister site of Wikipedia).

We added articles, data and images to what was already present on these sites. Since Wikimedia sites are open and free, this content is available for reuse by other sites and applications. For instance, the images have been tagged by their year, language and subject so as to appear in searches and image galleries (for example for books in French or books from the eighteenth century).

A custom Wikidata query showed works by Voltaire with their publication dates, helping to identify works lacking a date. We added new entries for some works that were absent, including most of the historical works.

The timeline of Voltaire’s works uses a custom database query to bring all this content together. The timeline does not by any means include all of Voltaire’s works, but more will appear in future as their details are added to Wikidata. As well as each work’s title, publication date and image, the query returns the type of work; poems, plays, fiction and so on. This is used to colour-code the timeline. Clicking on the drop icon in the top left brings up a list of types. Readers can select the type they are interested in to filter the results shown in the timeline, for example to show only the histories. To make the histories especially visible, we added title page images from public domain sources or the Voltaire Foundation’s own collection.

As well as the timeline of works, we used Histropedia to create a companion timeline for ‘An explorer’s guide to the Siècle de Louis XIV ’. Instead of a database query, this one is driven by a fixed list of people and events, all of whom already had articles in English Wikipedia. The resulting timeline is the sort of thing that we like to imagine Voltaire might have produced, if he’d had access to Wikipedia while researching his monumental history of the reign of the Sun King. We’re sure he would have been unable to resist adding to Wikipedia a few articles of his own…

Creating and publicising Wikipedia articles

We created English articles on The Age of Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Annals of the Empire and Précis du siècle de Louis XV. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give basic facts about each work, to indicate why each work is important and to cite printed editions and relevant online resources, such as the explorer’s guide.

One way we drew readers to these new articles was to make links from elsewhere in Wikipedia, naturally including the Voltaire article which gets 3670 hits per day. Another was to use the Did You Know (DYK) process: new articles, of sufficient length, can be submitted for review. If they pass a check of accuracy and quality, an interesting fact from the article, linked to the full article, appears on the front page of English Wikipedia for twelve hours, exposing it to potentially millions of people. The articles on Essai sur les mœurs and The Age of Louis XIV were both submitted to DYK, getting 1584 hits and 1070 hits respectively during their times on the front page. The attention inspired another Wikipedian to create a Turkish article on the Essai, bringing the total number of Wikipedia articles on the Essai to five.

The four new English articles get about fifty views per day, or 18,000 per year. They have been checked and approved by other Wikipedians, and the individual facts within them are cited, so can be expected to remain in Wikipedia from now on.

Someone who has just read an article is open to reading a related article. In usability research, the end of an article is termed a ‘seducible moment’ for this reason. Wikipedia uses navigational templates (blocks of related links) to take advantage of these moments and direct readers to articles on the same theme.

We expanded English Wikipedia’s navigational template for Voltaire works, and, since French Wikipedia lacked a template, we created one. This links to all articles about Voltaire works and the article about Voltaire, greatly increasing the number of incoming links to each. We left instructions for French Wikipedians on how to embed the block in future articles.

Comparing article hit rates before and after the change, we estimate that the French navigational template increased views of its articles by about 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.

– Martin Poulter


Le 14 juillet: « Liberté, égalité, fraternité » et les valeurs voltairiennes

« Tel est le fanatisme: c’est un monstre sans cœur, sans yeux et sans oreilles. Il ose se dire le fils de la religion, il se cache sous sa robe, et dès qu’on veut le réprimer, il crie, ‘Au secours on égorge ma mère.’ »

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tome 70A (2015), p.142-43)


Hommage aux victimes à Nice

We all at the Voltaire Foundation express heartfelt solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, following the brutal and tragic events in Nice, committed on ‘Bastille Day’, a day of national celebration of Republican values.


« Translation de Voltaire au Panthéon français » (1791)

These Republican values are also European values, inextricable from the legacy of Voltaire. In July 1791, Voltaire’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon, in what is remembered as one of the Revolution’s greatest public ceremonies. The hearse made its way first to the Place de la Bastille, and the crowd watched as the coffin was placed on a highly symbolic pile of rubble, the stones of the Bastille prison which had been torn down in 1789. Next day, the procession that wound its way to the Panthéon included a model of the hated Bastille, Houdon’s statue of Voltaire seated, and all seventy volumes of the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s complete works. On the coffin was an inscription reclaiming Voltaire as a hero of the Revolution:

« Il vengea Calas, La Barre, Sirven et Monbailli. Poète, philosophe, historien, il a fait prendre un grand essor à l’esprit humain, et nous a préparés à être libres. »

‘He avenged Calas, La Barre, Sirven and Monbailli. Poet, philosopher, historian, he made the human mind soar and prepared us to be free.’

– Nicholas Cronk


« Ordre du cortège pour la translation des mânes de Voltaire le lundi 11 juillet 1791 »



Un taxi londonien



The London Eye, le 15 juillet 2016

Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

Tolerance and combat

After the killings on 7 January 2015 in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Voltaire of all people suddenly rushed into public prominence in France, serving as a symbol of (one supposes) free speech, satire, tolerance, and a certain insolence éclairée. His image sprang up on walls and lampposts, quotations and misquotations appeared on placards, and the Traité sur la tolérance flew off bookstore shelves across the country. This sudden public reclamation of the patriarch of Ferney prompted members of the Société française d’études du dix-huitième siècle (SFEDS) to seek some way to engage with the public’s enthusiasm for eighteenth-century ideas, and to highlight their relevance to debates taking place today. An anthology of texts was prepared, and appeared in April of last year under the title Tolérance: le combat des Lumières.


Picture taken in Paris a few days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Scholars in the UK quickly took up the challenge of translating these texts into English as a way of broadening access to them. Thursday 7 January 2016, the anniversary of the attacks, saw the publication of this collective endeavour, involving 102 student and faculty translators, as Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment, edited by Caroline Warman and made available for free online. This was paired with a roundtable discussion at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, chaired by Warman and featuring a distinguished panel of four Oxford academics: Catriona Seth, Kate Tunstall, Timothy Garton Ash, and Karma Nabulsi.

Warman introduced the proceedings as an opportunity to ‘think about the eighteenth century from a contemporary point of view’; to ask, as the anthology invites us to do, ‘what does free speech mean, and do we like it?’.

The first to speak was Catriona Seth, president of SFEDS and one of the originators of the French anthology. After the attacks, she said, ‘we were totally shell-shocked’ at what was ‘definitely seen as an attack against free speech’. Yet the book was not conceived to offer bromides or give ready-made, centuries-old answers. ‘The whole point of [the book] was saying we have to adhere to the possibility that other people can think differently to us.’

Speaking next, Kate Tunstall took a stand against the concept that gave the anthology its name. She made clear her distaste for the term ‘tolerance’ and explained that it ‘connotes […] something to be put up with. It belongs […] to the discourse of charity’. To her, invoking tolerance is ‘a way of refusing to allow conflict to be articulated in a productive way, that is to say among equals.’ She quoted at length from one of the passages included in the anthology, a speech delivered in 1789 by the Protestant Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne decrying Louis XVI’s 1787 ‘Edict of Toleration’: ‘[T]his, gentlemen, is how, in France and in the eighteenth century, we continue to apply that axiom of the dark ages and divide our nation into two castes, one favoured, and one excluded […] Tolerance! I demand that the very word be banished’.

In his comments, Timothy Garton Ash argued that there exists an absolutely basic principle which must be observed in society: a rejection of violence and violent intimidation. To say ‘#jesuischarlie’ in the wake of the assassinations of its staff, as distasteful as one may have found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, was according to him an expression of this principle. Because in modern multicultural societies people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds occupy the same space, ‘everyone is a heretic [to somebody else in a given society], and no one is a heretic [from the perspective of the liberal state]’. This is what is meant by tolerance today according to Ash. Amounting to neither acceptance nor endorsement, it is a limited form of respect ‘for the believer, but not for the content of the belief’.

For her part, Karma Nabulsi challenged the very terms of the public debate: ‘I don’t think [Charlie Hebdo] is a free speech issue, and I don’t think it’s a tolerance issue’, she said. She recast the question in terms of the triad of revolutionary Republican virtues: liberty, equality, and fraternity. For her, ‘je suis Charlie’ is not an expression of solidarity, but of exclusion. It evinces an ignorance of France’s colonial history and of the everyday lived experience of Muslims in modern France. It divides the ‘whole’ of Rousseau’s virtuous republic – where ‘each citizen is nothing, and can do nothing without the whole’ – into warring factions. So-called ‘tolerance’ and ‘free speech’ operate as watered-down approximations of the full-blooded virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all.

In these remarks and the discussion that followed, there was broad agreement on basic principles, but there was also a clear division between two ways of considering the questions at hand.

On one side were those who saw the question as one about free speech under threat, to which the answer was a firmer embrace of ‘tolerance’. On this account, free speech and tolerance are universal values, to be applied equally to all, irrespective of attitude or social position. On the other side were those whose principles are no less universal, who agree that violence and the threat of violence are to be rejected, but who take into account when applying their principles the world as it is, and the power structures that exist within it: Tunstall and Nabulsi stressed that all members of a society may ostensibly enjoy formal equality before the law, but still be subject to power relations that make this equality unequal de facto.

Seth described as ‘an irony of history’ an episode in which, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Voltaire’s legacy was celebrated in, of all places, the ‘Salon du Pape’ at Versailles, where a banner was hung bearing his epigram, ‘la tolérance est l’apanage de l’humanité’. Yet this was less an irony than an indication of the fact that, 237 years after Voltaire’s death, his ideas are no longer uncomfortable for those in power.

TraitŽe sur la tolŽrance

Page 1 of Traité sur la tolérance, Geneva, Cramer, 1763.

At the time he wrote the Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire was taking up his pen against the dominant groups in French society, decrying the manifest injustice of an execution founded on prejudice against a marginalised religious minority. The situation of French Muslims today has its parallels with that of French Protestants under the Ancien Régime. In this light the reflexive alliance between Voltaire and Charlie seems less sure. Last year’s assassinations were monstrous. But to react to them by venerating cartoons that targeted, either in intent or effect, a marginalised religious minority, all in the name of ‘tolerance’, is a less straightforwardly enlightened position than many have supposed.

Contrary to the expectations conjured by a title as univocal as Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment, this roundtable was no chest-pounding celebration of a code of unassailable liberal values in the face of barbarism. Rather, it came closer in spirit to the subtitle of the French anthology: le combat des Lumières. Combat and querelle are key elements of the Enlightenment just as much as tolérance—perhaps more so. The notions that ideas matter and that intellectual debate has genuine stakes were at the heart of the great flourishing that was the European Enlightenment, as exemplified by Voltaire. Yet rather than make ‘iconoclasts into icons’, as one attendee succinctly put it, we do better to honour and carry forward the legacy of the Enlightenment by enacting that legacy through rigorous critical engagement with the world we live in.

– Cameron J. Quinn



Pour la France, et pour Paris en particulier, l’année 2015 se sera terminée aussi douloureusement qu’elle avait commencé. Il nous a paru opportun, pour cette dernière livraison avant le nouvel an, de revenir sur la place centrale qu’occupait le combat contre l’intolérance chez Voltaire et ses amis philosophes.

La Liberte

‘La Liberté armée du Sceptre de la Raison foudroye l’Ignorance et le Fanatisme’ / Dessiné par Boizot; Gravé par Chapuy. 1793-1795. Paris, BnF.

Voltaire écrivit maintes fois contre le fanatisme religieux et ses conséquences néfastes pour le genre humain. Mais il appréciait également les textes des autres dans ce domaine. L’un de ces écrits, l’article ‘Fanatisme’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par Alexandre Deleyre, a fait l’objet d’une réécriture voltairienne, où le Patriarche condense ce qui était déjà un texte frappant pour le rendre encore plus incisif. Cette réécriture fait partie d’un groupe de textes publiés de façon posthume à partir de manuscrits tombés entre les mains de ses éditeurs. Cet ensemble difficile à interpréter, provisoirement appelés les ‘manuscrits de Kehl’, sera publié dans la série des œuvres alphabétiques de Voltaire au sein des Œuvres complètes. Dans cet article ‘Fanatisme’, Voltaire emprunte donc la voix d’autrui pour disséminer une énième fois le message contre l’intolérance et la superstition:

« Imaginons une immense rotonde, un panthéon à mille autels, et placés au milieu du dôme; figurons-nous un dévot de chaque secte, éteinte ou subsistante, aux pieds de la divinité qu’il honore à sa façon, sous toutes les formes bizarres que l’imagination a pu créer. A droite, c’est un contemplatif étendu sur une natte, qui attend, le nombril en l’air, que la lumière céleste vienne investir son âme. A gauche, c’est un énergumène prosterné qui frappe du front contre la terre, pour en faire sortir l’abondance. Là c’est un saltimbanque qui danse sur la tombe de celui qu’il invoque. Ici c’est un pénitent immobile et muet comme la statue devant laquelle il s’humilie. L’un étale ce que la pudeur cache, parce que Dieu ne rougit pas de sa ressemblance; l’autre voile jusqu’à son visage, comme si l’ouvrier avait horreur de son ouvrage. Un autre tourne le dos au Midi, parce que c’est là le vent du démon; un autre tend les bras vers l’Orient, où Dieu montre sa face rayonnante. De jeunes filles en pleurs meurtrissent leur chair encore innocente, pour apaiser le démon de la concupiscence par des moyens capables de l’irriter; d’autres, dans une posture tout opposée, sollicitent les approches de la Divinité. Un jeune homme, pour amortir l’instrument de la virilité, y attache des anneaux de fer d’un poids proportionné à ses forces; un autre arrête la tentation dès sa source, par une amputation tout à fait inhumaine, et suspend à l’autel les dépouilles de son sacrifice.

« Voyons-les tous sortir du temple, et pleins du Dieu qui les agite, répandre la frayeur et l’illusion sur la face de la terre. Ils se partagent le monde, et bientôt le feu s’allume aux quatre extrémités; les peuples écoutent, et les rois tremblent. Cet empire que l’enthousiasme d’un seul exerce sur la multitude qui le voit ou l’entend, la chaleur que les esprits rassemblés se communiquent, tous ces mouvements tumultueux, augmentés par le trouble de chaque particulier, rendent en peu de temps le vertige général. C’est assez d’un seul peuple enchanté à la suite de quelques imposteurs, la séduction multipliera les prodiges, et voilà tout le monde à jamais égaré. L’esprit humain une fois sorti des routes lumineuses de la nature, n’y rentre plus; il erre autour de la vérité, sans en rencontrer autre chose que des lueurs, qui, se mêlant aux fausses clartés dont la superstition l’environne, achèvent de l’enfoncer dans les ténèbres. »

– G.P.