From Cyclopaedia to Encyclopédie: experiments in machine translation and sequence alignment

Figure 1. Title page from the 1745 prospectus of the first Encyclopédie project. This page image is taken from ARTFL’s 18th Volume of the Encyclopédie.

It is well known that the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers began first as a modest translation project of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia in 1745. Over the next few years, Diderot and D’Alembert would replace the original editors and the project would be duly transformed from a simple translation into an effort to compile and organise the sum total of the world’s knowledge. Over the course of their editorial work, Diderot, and most notably D’Alembert, were not shy in incorporating these translations of the Cyclopaedia as filler for the Encyclopédie. Indeed, ‘ils ont laissé une bonne partie de ces articles presque inchangés, ou avec des modifications insignifiantes’ (Paolo Quintili, ‘D’Alembert “traduit” Chambers. Les articles de mécanique de la Cyclopædia à l’Encyclopédie’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21 (1996), p.75). The philosophes were nonetheless conscious of their debt to their English predecessor Chambers. His name appears some 1154 times in the text of the Encyclopédie and he is referenced as sole or contributing source to 1081 articles, where his name appears in italics at the end of a section or article. Given the scale of the two works under consideration, systematic evaluation of the extent of the philosophes’ use of Chambers has remained, even today, a daunting task. John Lough, in 1980, framed the problem nicely: ‘So far no one has had the patience to make a detailed study of the exact relationship between the text of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the work of Ephraim Chambers. This would no doubt require several years of arduous toil devoted to comparing the two works article by article’(‘The Encyclopédie and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia’, SVEC 185 (1980), p.221).

Recent developments in machine translation and sequence alignment now offer new possibilities for the systematic comparison of digital texts across languages. The following post outlines some recent experimental work in leveraging these new techniques in an effort to reduce the ‘arduous toil’ of textual comparison, giving some preliminary examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved, and providing some cursory observations on the advantages and limitations of such systems for automatic text analysis.

Our two comparison datasets are the ARTFL Encyclopédie (v. 1117) and the recently digitised ARTFL edition of the 1741 Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (link). The 1741 edition was selected as it was one of the likely sources for the translation original project and we were able to work from high quality pages images provided by the University of Chicago Library (On the possible editions of the Cyclopaedia used by the encyclopédistes, see Irène Passeron, ‘Quelle(s) édition(s) de la Cyclopœdia les encyclopédistes ont-ils utilisée(s)?’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 40-41 (2006), p.287-92.) In a nutshell, our approach was to generate a machine translation of all of the Cyclopaedia articles into French and then use ARTFL’s Text-PAIR sequence alignement system to identify similar passages between this virtual French Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopédie, with the translation providing links back to the original English edition of the Chambers as well as links to the relevant passages in the Encyclopédie.

For the English to French machine translation of Chambers, we examined two of the most widely used resources in this domain, Google Translate and DeepL. Both systems provide useful Application Programming Interfaces [APIs] as part of their respective subscription services, and both provide translations based on cutting-edge neural network language models. We compared results from various samples and found, in general, that both systems worked reasonably well, given the complications of eighteenth-century vocabularies (in both English and French) and many uncommon and archaic terms (this may be the subject of a future post). While DeepL provided somewhat more satisfying translations from a reader’s perspective, we ultimately opted to use Google Translate for the ease of its API and its ability to parse the TEI encoding of our documents with little difficulty. The latter is of critical importance, since we wanted to keep the overall document structure of our dictionaries to allow for easy navigation between the versions.

Operationally, we segmented the text of the Cyclopaedia into short blocks, split at paragraph breaks, and sent them for automatic translation via the Google API, with a short delay between blocks. This worked relatively well, though the system would occasionally throw timeout or other errors, which required a query resend. You can inspect the translation results here – though this virtual French edition of the Chambers is not really meant for public consumption. Each article has a link at the bottom to the corresponding English version for the sake of comparison. It is important to note that the objective here is NOT to produce a good translation of the text or even one that might serve as the basis for a human edition. Rather, this machine-generated edition exists as a ‘pivot-text’ between the English Chambers and the French Encyclopédie, allowing for an automatic comparison of the two (or three) versions using a highly fault-tolerant sequence aligner designed to pick out commonalities in very noisy document spaces. (See Clovis Gladstone, Russ Horton, and Mark Olsen, ‘TextPAIR (Pairwise Alignment for Intertextual Relations)’, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago, 2008-2021, and, more specifically, Mark Olsen, Russell Horton and Glenn Roe, ‘Something borrowed: sequence alignment and the identification of similar passages in large text collections’, Digital Studies / Le Champ numérique 2.1 (2011).)

The next step was to establish workable parameters for the Text-PAIR alignment system. The challenge here was to find commonalities between the French translations created by eighteenth-century authors and translators and machine translations produced by a modern automatic translation system. Additionally, the editors and authors of the Encyclopédie were not necessary constrained to produce an exact translation of the text in question, but could and did, make significant modifications to the original in terms of length, style, and content. To address this challenge we ran a series of tests with different matching parameters such as n-gram construction (e.g., number of words that constitue an n-gram), minimum match lengths, maximum gaps between matches, and decreasing match requirements as a match length increased (what we call a ‘flex gap’) among others on a representative selection of 100 articles from the Encyclopédie where Chambers was identified as the possible source. It is important to note that even with the best parameters, which we adjusted to get favorable recall and precision results, we were only able to identify 81 of the 100 articles. (See comparison table. The primary parameters chosen were bigrams, stemmer=true, word len=3, maxgap=12, flexmatch=true, minmatchingngrams=5. Consult the TextPair documentation and configuration file for a description of these values.) Some articles, even where clearly affiliated, were missed by the aligner, due to the size of the articles (some are very small) and fundamental differences in the translation of the English. For example, the article ‘Compulseur’ is attributed by Mallet to Chambers, but the machine translation of ‘Compulsor’ is a rather more literal and direct translation of the English article than what is offered by Mallet. Further relaxing matching parameters could potentially find this example, but would increase the number of false positives, in effect drowning out the signal with increased noise.

All things considered, we were quite happy with the aligner’s performance given the complexity of the comparison task and the multiple potential variations between historical text and modern machine translations. To give an example of how fine-grained and at the same time highly flexible our matching parameters needed to be, see the below article ‘Gynaecocracy’, which is a fairly direct translation on a rather specialised subject, but that nonetheless matched on only 8 content words (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Comparisons of the article ‘Gynaecocracy’.

Other straightforward articles were however missed due to differences in the translation and sparse matching n-grams, see for example the small article on ‘Occult’ lines in geometry below, where the 6 matching words weren’t enough to constitute a match for the aligner (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Comparisons of the geometry article ‘Occult’.

Obviously this is a rather inexact science, reliant on an outside process of automatic translation and the ability to match a virtual text that in reality never existed. Nonetheless the 81% recall rate we attained on our sample corpus seemed more than sufficient for this experiment and allowed us to move forward towards a more general evaluation of the entirety of identified matches.

Once settled on the optimal parameters, we then Text-PAIR to generate both an alignment database, for interactive examination, and a set of static files. Both of these results formats are used for this project. The alignment database contains some 7304 aligned passage pairs. The system allows queries on metadata, such as author and article title as well as words or phrases found in the aligned passages. The system also uses faceted browsing to allow the user to summarize results by the various metadata (for more on this, see Note below). Each aligned passage is presented as a facing page representation and the user can toggle a display of all of the variations between the two aligned passages. As seen below, the variations between the texts can be extensive (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Text-PAIR interface showing differences in the article ‘Air’.

Text-PAIR also contextualises results back to the original document(s). For example, the following is the article ‘Almanach’ by D’Alembert, showing the aligned passage from Chambers in blue (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Article ‘Almanach’ with shared Chambers passages in blue.

In this instance, D’Alembert reused almost all of Chambers’ original article ‘Almanac’, with some minor variations, but does not to appear to have indicated the source of the first part of his article (page image).

The alignment database is a useful first pass to examine the results of the alignment process, but it is limited in at least two ways. It identifies each aligned passage, but does not merge multiple passages identified in in article pairs. Thus we find 5 shared passages between the articles ‘Constellation’. The interface also does not attempt to evaluate the alignments or identify passages that occur between different articles. For example, D’Alembert’s article ‘ATMOSPHERE’ indeed has a passage from Chambers’ article ‘Atmosphere’, but also many longer passages from the article ‘Generation’.

To accumulate results and to refine evaluation, we subsequently processed the raw Text-PAIR alignment data as found in the static output files. We developed an evaluation algorithm for each alignment, with parameters based on the length of the matching passages and the degree to which the headwords were close matches. This simple evaluation model eliminated a significant number of false positives, which we found were typically short text matches between articles with different headwords. The output of this algorithm resulted in two tables, one for matches that were likely to be valid and one that was less likely to be valid, based on our simple heuristics – see a selection of the ‘YES’ table below (fig. 6). We are, of course, making this distinction based on the comparison of the machine translated Chambers headwords and the headwords found in the Encyclopédie, so we expected that some valid matches would be identified as invalid.

Figure 6. Table of possible article borrowings.

The next phase of the project included the necessary step of human evaluation of the identified matches. While we were able to reduce the work involved significantly by generating a list of reasonably solid matches to be inspected, there is still no way to eliminate fully the ‘arduous toil’ of comparison referenced by Lough. More than 5000 potential matches were scrutinised, looking in essence for ‘false negatives’, i.e., matches that our evaluation algorithm classed as negative (based primarily on differences in headword translations) but that were in reality valid. The results of this work was then merged into in a single table of what we consider to be valid matches, a list that includes some 3700 Encyclopédie articles with at least one matching passage from the Cyclopaedia. These results will form the basis of a longer article that is currently in preparation.


In all, we found some 3778 articles in the Encyclopédie that upon evaluation seem highly similar in both content and structure to articles in the 1741 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. Whether or not these articles constitute real acts of historical translation is the subject for another, or several other, articles. There are simply too many outside factors at play, even in this rather straightforward comparison, to make blanket conclusions about the editorial practices of the encyclopédistes based on this limited experiment. What we can say, however, is that of the 1081 articles that include a ‘Chambers’ reference in the Encyclopédie, we only found 689 with at least one matching passage. Obviously this recall rate of 63.7% is well below the 81% we attained on our sample corpus, probably due to overfitting the matching algorithm to the sample, which warrants further investigation. But beyond testing this ground truth, we are also left with the rather astounding fact of 3089 articles with no reference to Chambers whatsoever, all of which seem, at first blush, to be at least somewhat related to their English predecessors.

The overall evaluation of these results remains ongoing, and the ‘arduous toil’ of traditional textual comparison continues apace, albeit guided somewhat by the machine’s heavy hand. Indeed, the use of machine translation as a bridge between documents to find similar passages, be they reuses, plagiarisms, etc., is, as we have attempted to show here, a workable approach for future research, although not without certain limitations. The Chambers–Encyclopédie task outlined above is fairly well constrained and historically bounded. More general applications of these same methods may well yield less useful results. These reservations notwithstanding, the fact that we were able to unearth many thousands of valid potential intertextual relationships between documents in different languages is a feat that even a few years ago might not have been possible. As large-scale language models become ever more sophisticated and historically aware, the dream of intertextual bridges between multilingual corpora may yet become a reality. (For more on ‘intertextual bridges’ in French, see our current NEH project.)


The question of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is one such factor, as it is known that both Chambers and the encyclopédistes used it as a source for their own articles – so matches we find between the Chambers and Encyclopédie may indeed represent shared borrowings from the Trévoux and not a translation at all. Or, more interestingly, perhaps Chambers translated a Trévoux article from French to English, which a dutiful encyclopédiste then translated back to French for the Encyclopédie – in this case, which article is the ‘source’ and which the ‘translation’? For more on these particular aspects of dictionary-making, see our previous article ‘Plundering philosophers: identifying sources of the Encyclopédie’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing 13.1 (Spring 2010) and Marie Leca-Tsiomis’ response, ‘The use and abuse of the digital humanities in the history of ideas: how to study the Encyclopédie’, History of European ideas 39.4 (2013), p.467-76.

– Glenn Roe and Mark Olsen

Pierre Hadot, Voltaire, and the figure of the philosophe

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

Pierre Hadot is rightly known preeminently for his work on ancient philosophy, including dedicated studies (and translations) of Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius. In a series of celebrated studies after 1970, Hadot made the case that ancient philosophy needed to be understood as a specific ‘form of life’ in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense. To be a philosopher was to make an existential choice to live in a certain manner. This way of life, whether Stoic, Epicurean, or Platonic, was based upon a specific theoretical understanding of self, world, and language, but not reducible to it. It involved regimens of what Hadot calls ‘spiritual exercises’ like meditation on theoretical truths, premeditation of evils, the memento mori, codified practices of questioning and answering, and measures to moderate or remove negative emotions.

It is less well known that Hadot came to this assessment of ancient philosophy by way of a hermeneutic concern. He was struck by the distance between modern academic philosophy and ancient philosophical texts, with their different literary and rhetorical dimensions, digressions and genres (like dialogues and poems). Hadot was also taken by the way particular formulae, like ‘nature loves to hide’, or the ‘view from above’ on mortal affairs (see below), were repeated and varied in different philosophers and philosophical schools. Hadot’s substantive vision of ancient philosophy emerged as an attempt to give an adequate explanation of what social, ethical, political and intellectual conditions could explain these textual features.

In principle as in fact, then, this approach can be applied to modern as well as ancient philosophical writings, wherever these significantly vary from the 6-12,000-word papers, commentaries, and treatises we presently credit. In one of his public presentations, in fact, Hadot mentions the Enlightenment philosophers, as well as movements in ‘popular philosophy’, as examples of the survival of the ancient idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ in modern times. Hadot’s comment is significant in all sorts of ways, not least since Hadot never widely pursues it, although his last work is a book on Voltaire’s great admirer, Goethe. We know that the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, are rarely taught today in philosophy departments as philosophers. We can well surmise that the premier reason for this is that their philosophical outputs each involved, by our standards, solely literary outputs – dialogues, dramas, epistolary novels, dramas, poetry – as well as texts aiming less at theoretical discovery or innovation than popular dissemination and application of ideas – encyclopedia and dictionary entries, pamphlets, even novellas and short stories dramatizing philosophical ideas and debates.

Reading Voltaire and the other philosophes’ works with Hadot’s metaphilosophical ideas in view asks us to bracket our assumptions as to what they ‘should’ have been doing, and focus on trying to identify just what ‘philosophy’ meant for them in the eighteenth century, and as such what it might still mean on an expanded view. We will also, using such a method, come to see how much closer the philosophes’ senses of what they were doing, and the different aims and types of philosophical writing, were to those of the ancient philosophers whom Hadot studied in great depth.

Many Enlightenment scholars won’t be surprised, in one way, at this last idea. Peter Gay’s two volume series on the Enlightenment is only one of many dedicated texts which have recognized the scale of the debts Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and other lumières owed to ‘the ancients’ they generally revered. The lumières were attracted, at the level of ideas, to the moral uprightness and sound ethico-political principles of the ancient philosophical schools, which did not depend on revealed religion. They saw in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, but also (in Voltaire’s case) ancient China, living examples of worlds in which religious sectarianism and fanaticism had not threatened civil peace, and in which the highest artistic and intellectual creations had been fostered.

Nevertheless, there is also a second dimension to the philosophes’ admiration of the ancient philosophers: one reflecting their continued recognition of the ancient idea of philosophy as a choice of life. Montesquieu and Voltaire revered Cicero in particular, as a philosopher as well as a man of action who served his nation unto death. Voltaire and Diderot continually entertained comparisons between the Socrates of The Apology and their own fates as exiles and prisoners for the sake of their pursuits of wisdom. Diderot compares himself also, at different moments, to both Diogenes the Cynic and Aristippus the hedonist, as in his Regrets for my old dressing gown (Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre). When Voltaire lists those figures who alone have the right to preach good morals in the entry ‘Dogmes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique, the list includes Socrates, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as the Chinese sage Confucius.

If we look at Du Marsais’s famous entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Encyclopédie, again, we find a clear primacy of social and ethical attributes such as Hadot might lead us to expect, over this philosophe’s adherence to any theoretical system. This philosopher is a man of the world whose only deity is civil society, and who wishes to live and enjoy his experiences of this world as fully as possible. Indeed, when the philosopher’s approach to ideas is examined, what comes up for praise is his ability to assess evidence and testimony clearly and carefully, withholding his assent to ideas that are not yet clearly established. But this is an epistemic virtue which reflects old Stoic ideas of ‘non-precipitancy’, and of course, the entire lineage of the ancient sceptical tradition. It is a kind of lived practice of thinking, or what Hadot calls ‘logic as a spiritual exercise’, rather than any specific dogmatic commitment.

Of course, this is not to say improbably that the philosophes wholly reembraced the ancient ideal and practices of philosophy, without change, and that as such, Hadot’s work on the ancients could likewise be ‘transplanted’ into eighteenth-century studies sans phrase. Nevertheless, if we focus in the remainder of this blog on Voltaire, we can say that Hadot’s approach allows us to understand aspects of Voltaire’s work that other philosophical methodologies might sideline, and indeed highlights particular features that other approaches can pass over as insignificant or ‘wholly literary’.

Take Voltaire’s opening description of the task of the philosopher, in his own entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

‘Philosophe, amateur de la sagesse, c’est-à-dire, de la vérité. Tous les philosophes ont eu ce double caractère, il n’en est aucun dans l’antiquité qui n’ait donné des exemples de vertu aux hommes, et des leçons de vérités morales.’ (Philosopher, ‘lover of wisdom’, that is, ‘of truth’. All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one amongst the philosophers of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of moral truth.)

Here, the philosopher is someone who loves something, the truth, rather than necessarily knowing it. He is also someone who gives an example, by his own conduct and way of life, of ethical virtues to others. This surely sounds strange to us today, in a culture which hardly sees its philosophers as exemplars to be emulated by the young.

Elsewhere, like the Epicureans and Stoics in particular, Voltaire will also assign a therapeutic role to philosophy. Philosophical learning and reflection is a means to quell the passions that divide people, and which we see on such destructive display in all forms of fanaticism, theological or secular. No ancient philosopher, Voltaire argues, was ever a sectarian. And whilst several were exiled or killed for their stances, none urged or participated in lynchings, mobbings, or sundry persecutions of those with whom they disagreed. ‘Les sectes des philosophes étaient non seulement exemptes de cette peste [fanaticism]’ (The sects of [ancient] philosophers were not merely exempt from this plague), Voltaire writes, they were antidotes to it, which might cure the disease again today: ‘Car l’effet de la philosophie est de rendre l’âme tranquille, et le fanatisme est incompatible avec la tranquillité’ (for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquility are totally incompatible).

Zadig and Astarte (1782), engraved by J. R. Smith (1751-1812).

Another ancient literary-philosophical trope that recurs in Voltaire is the ‘view from above’. Philosophical reasoning resituates our own egoistic perspectives into a different, larger frame. And once we do this, we can overcome many of the interpersonal and personal issues which, viewed unphilosophically, can potentially overwhelm us. The formula repeats, as a theme for philosophical meditation, across Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic, and even Cynical texts (if we count Lucian of Samosata a Cynic).

Yet Voltaire repeatedly has his characters, or his own narrative voice (as in the Traité sur la tolérance) step backwards or upwards, to describe humans as like ants, and our societies and battles like those of swarming insects. Hadot himself in his book on Goethe cites the moment when Zadig is separated from his beloved Astarte:

Zadig steer’d his Course by the Stars that shone over his Head. The Constellation of Orion, and the radiant Dog-star directed him towards the Pole of Canope. He reflected with Admiration on those immense Globes of Light, which appear’d to the naked Eye no more than little twinkling Lights; whereas the Earth he was then traversing, which, in Reality, is no more than an imperceptible Point in Nature, seem’d, according to the selfish Idea we generally entertain of it, something very immense, and very magnificent. He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes …’

Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.15 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The rightly most famous example of this is the effect produced by having the 24,000 foot giant Micromégas visit our little ‘anthill’, and converse with some of us ‘infinitely small’ humans. Echoing the ancient philosopher-satirist Lucian, Voltaire’s hero soon condemns with disgust the folly of human tribes engaging in bloody warfare for pieces of land no bigger than his heel, at the behest of authorities most of those killed and killing will never so much have met.

Voltaire uses a variation of the same ‘view from above’ Hadot identified as a recurrent ancient philosophical trope at the end of the education of the hapless, defeated would-be sage Memnon. In Memnon, it is an angel from Micromegas’s home planet, Sirius, who delivers the philosophical message:

Your fate will soon change,’ said the animal of the star. ‘It is true, you will never recover your eye, but, except that, you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.’ ‘Is it then impossible?’, asked Memnon. ‘As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy … There is a world indeed where all this is possible; but, in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees’.

Micromégas, engraving by G. Vidal, after Charles Monnet.

What we note here, however, is Voltaire’s specifically sceptical orientation, when it comes both to ancient philosophical thought, as well as to any too optimistic assessment of human perfectibility. Memnon in fact has begun by trying to make himself a sage exactly through practising Stoic spiritual exercises, like the disenchanting analysis of seductive appearances:

‘When I see a beautiful woman, I will say to myself: “These cheeks will one day grow wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become flabby and pendant, that head bald and palsied.” I have only to consider her at present in imagination, as she will afterwards appear; and certainly a fair face will never turn my head …’

It is this ambition towards self-perfection that provokes Voltairean fate, as episode by episode undermines his pretentions to complete virtue and wisdom. Another interesting episode in Voltaire of this kind is hence the short text Les Deux Consolés, in which ‘the great philosopher Citophile’ tries to comfort a bereaved women by regaling her with stories of other, more illustrious women who had suffered worse losses. Once more, the Voltairean furies (as it were) descend upon the philosopher-preacher:

‘Next day the philosopher lost his only son, and was entirely prostrated with grief. The lady caused a catalogue to be drawn up of all the kings who had lost their children, and carried it to the philosopher. He read it—found it very exact—and wept nevertheless. / Three months afterwards they chanced to renew their acquaintance, and were mutually surprised to find each other in such a gay and sprightly humor. To commemorate this event, they caused to be erected a beautiful statue to Time, with this inscription: “TO HIM WHO COMFORTS”.’

So, Voltaire was not simply an ‘ancient’, at least if we take ancient philosophy to have been universally committed to the possibility that a philosopher could ever become fully perfect or wise. He clearly worries that this aspiration looks too close to those which fire religious fanaticisms. Here as elsewhere, the ‘(non)sage’ of Cirey and Ferney is far closer to Michel de Montaigne – which also means, as we’ve indicated, to the ancient Sceptical heritage.

What reading Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophers with Hadot allows us to see, however, is how many of the questions and concerns of the ancient philosophers – including this concern with the possibility of anyone ever becoming a sage – are still amongst the philosophes. What will above all distinguish Voltaire or Diderot in particular from the ancients they emulated is the preeminence of specifically social and political concerns in their writings. Philosophers should aspire towards being ethical exemplars, and to use their writings to quell the passions which are the sources of avoidable human misery. But in doing so, they should recognize that many of these sources are sociopolitical in nature, and champion sociopolitical reforms. To write is therefore to act, for Voltaire – but not simply on oneself and one’s understandings. It is also to hope to enlighten the minds and sentiments of one’s contemporaries, with a view as if from above to future generations’ betterment.

– Matthew Sharpe

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.

‘The princely progress of the human race’: Guido Maria Brera’s new Candido

La Nave di Teseo, the François vase (Museo Archeologico, Florence).

La nave di Teseo – The ship of Theseus: that is the name of the publishing house which brought out, no more than a few months ago, Guido Maria Brera’s latest novel: Candido. The ship of Theseus, just like the ship that, as reported by Plutarch, the people of Athens busily renovated agan and again, and which, however, they stubbornly kept claiming to be the very one that bore the son of Aegeus back to Greece. No name would have been more appropriate: Brera’s Candido is at the same time Voltaire’s Candide and something quite different. Animated by a quintessentially Voltairian verve, which Sciascia had also brilliantly rendered in his own, Sicily-set, work of the same name, Brera’s Candido is a profoundly disillusioned reflection on some of the problems affecting modern (Italian) society. It is a harsh critique of a certain model of ‘development’, presented as inevitably leading to increased inequality and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Guido Maria Brera: Candido.

Brera’s Candido is a rider, an English word that the Italians have made their own and use to refer to a (food) delivery person (and, by extension, to any underpaid ‘slaves of the gig economy’). He is a rider in a post-pandemic, post-recession, dystopic, unnamed yet easily recognisable Milan, with its ‘old gothic church’ and its bosco verticale. Much like in Orwell’s London, streets in Brera’s Milan are dotted with telescreens, ceaselessly broadcasting the ruling Party’s propaganda. Pangloss, the Party’s spokesman lecturing from the telescreens, tirelessly repeats ‘tutto è bene, tutto va bene’ (‘all is well, everything is going well’), a sentence that grotesquely mimics the slogan written on many of the banners hanging down Italian balconies at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic: ‘andrà tutto bene’.

He further adds that being pessimistic or negative is a sure way of making the world a worse place, and that work and dedication are sure ways of hitting the big time and becoming free – one might almost be tempted to write this last bit in German. Surrounded by these gigantic telescreens, Candido rides happily on his bicycle to deliver food and drinks to the people in the Inner Neighbourhoods. The more food and drinks he delivers, he cheerfully reasons, the more credits he will earn, and the more credits he earns, the more time he will be able to spend in his little bedroom, chatting with his much-beloved Cunegonda. Little does he care or indeed realise that his Cunegonda is but a hologram generated by Voltaire, the ruling Party’s social network, which, one cannot help but noticing, is somehow reminiscent of another, much-debated Italian online platform, also named after a prominent eighteenth-century thinker, Rousseau.

One of thousands of pandemic banners: ‘All will be well’.

Completely out of place in such a dehumanised social reality, a bit like Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in post-war, booming Turin, Brera’s Candido is, however, fully integrated in the totalitarian system he lives in. Plus royaliste que le roi, plus candide que Candide, he makes the Party’s slogans his own. To his fellow riders complaining about the hardship of their condition, Candido replies with some of Pangloss’s best quotes; he reminds them that to deliver food is to contribute to the wellbeing of humankind, and that they would not complain so much if they only dared to be a bit more positive about life. When they look at him in astonishment, their mouths agape, he smiles and walks away, glad to have imparted some much-needed wisdom. Likewise, when his mother is compelled to sublet her own bedroom to make up for the credits he can no longer earn – he has been spotted in the company of some protesters and unjustly fired – Candido cannot help but rejoice that his old woman is no longer alone in the house.

Italian gig economy workers demonstrate for labour rights (Financial Times).

Eventually invited to take up an internship in the Voltaire headquarters, Candido is finally about to prove the world that he was right all along, and that everything is indeed for the best: he performs brilliantly and is soon promoted to the highest positions. And yet, just as the internship is about to come to a close, a sudden, momentary ‘glitch’ unveils the bleakness and squalor of the world he lives in: much like Alcina’s palace in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the seemingly idyllic Voltaire headquarters are revealed to be the monstrous seat of corruption. Confirmed in his intuition by bookseller Martino, Candido hurries to apologise to his mother and friends. A modern, more proactive, but perhaps equally self-destructive Bartleby, Candido begins to say no and stand up against the system. He joins a massive protest and… well, I am not a huge fan of spoilers and have no wish to hurt any of my four readers. But it is worth noting that other countries are much more advanced than Italy in their race to becoming large gig economies, and that, unfortunately, even academia appears to have been dragged down that direful path. Oh, ‘magnifiche sorti e progressive’!

– Ruggero Sciuto

Casanova and medicine

Casanovas’s Guide to Medicine, by Lisetta Lovett (Pen and Sword Books, 2021).

Forget the stereotype! Most people on hearing the name Casanova immediately think of a libertine and debauched figure, tropes peddled by numerous films (of which the 1976 Fellini version was particularly vicious), television series, plays, books and even music from the early 20th century. What would a man like that have to say about the serious subjects of illness and medical practice? ‘Is it all about venereal disease?’ was a common question from acquaintances during the six years or so that I was researching my book.

Whilst it is true that Giacomo Casanova was captivated by women and that he suffered with venereal disease several times in his life, his legacy is much more important than these reductive facts. He was a scholar, prolific writer, linguist, mathematician and philosopher, whose Memoirs have given researchers rich pickings on social, political and cultural aspects of his times. However, insights about medical practice and the lived experience of disease have been somewhat neglected, which is why I wrote this book. In doing so I grew to feel more sympathetic to the man even though I am a product of 1970s feminism. In particular I realised an important lesson, which is not to judge the behaviour of past eras by our current moral standards. This book is not about Casanova, which is why I have not focused on character judgements. Rather, this is a book about disease and medical practice in the 18th century, an era when contagious diseases were a frequent challenge to normal life. Although plague was less rampant than in previous centuries it was still much feared, as were smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid and even influenza. The exact mechanisms of spread and how to treat them were both unknown. Life was a lottery, a situation that in a corona-virus world, we can all probably understand better.

‘The Gout’, by James Gillray (1799) (Wellcome Collection of Images CCBY).

Casanova wrote on a number of conditions apart from the pox. These range from duelling injuries to piles, skin complaints to stroke, cataract operations to gout; this last remains as painful now as was the case then. His descriptions provide alternately grim and amusing insights into public health measures, the doctor-patient relationship, medical etiquette and the dominant medical theories of the era. To help the reader understand the historical significance of the medical subjects covered, I have integrated throughout the book an extensive historical context drawn from contemporary sources of information and current literature on the history of medicine. I have also tried to make the book as jargon free as possible, taking care to explain medical terms when they arise because I wanted the book to appeal to a non-medical readership. It was my hope that readers would find these medical subjects animated and memorable thanks to encountering them through the prism of Casanova’s stories.

Casanova’s interest in medicine started as a teenager. He had wanted to study the subject at university in Padua, but his guardian the abbé Grimaldi and his mother would not hear of it. Instead he was directed to study ecclesiastical law and become a cleric. However, he maintained an interest throughout his life, kept himself informed and at times gave medical advice. Like most of contemporary society, he felt obliged to take an interest in his own health because ancient Greek medical theory, which still dominated medical understanding, stressed the importance of taking responsibility for one’s health through attention to life style, or regimen.

While Casanova was a librarian in Dux in the last years of his life, his doctor recommended that he write his Memoirs to control his black melancholy. It is thanks to this advice that we have his memoirs. They consist of 3800 folio pages organised into twelve bundles that start with his birth and continue to 1774, when they abruptly end because of his death in 1798 aged 72 years. The story of how the manuscript was preserved, edited and published subsequently is almost as colourful as Casanova’s life.

First page of Chapter II, Vol. X (later published as Vol. XII) of Giacomo Casanova’s manuscript of Histoire de ma vie (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The lived experience of disease and medical understanding and practice in the 18th century may not seem to be of any relevance to us now. After all we have come a long way from the ubiquitous practice of bloodletting or purging patients. But on closer examination many of the episodes that Casanova describes relating to himself or others contain resonances. For example, avoidance of quarantine through foiling the Venetian cordon sanitaire, established to stop the spread of plague; support but also significant suspicion about inoculation for smallpox; the distress and stigma of having an itchy skin condition; the shame of suicide; the dangers of childbirth; patient ambivalence about their doctors’ advice; the absence of medical understanding about either the cause or mechanism of disease and therefore how to treat it. Of course medical science is so much more sophisticated today but the last year has illustrated that humanity can be as confused and vulnerable in the face of a disease as it was then. Medical hubris both from practitioners and a public that thinks medicine can treat everything has taken a tumble.

I have always been interested in history. As a medical student I persuaded my Medical School, then called Guy’s Hospital, to allow me to take a year off in order to study, amongst other things, a diploma course on history of medicine, run by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. A busy NHS career followed, eventually as a consultant psychiatrist, and a few years later I also took up an academic post in the medical school at Keele Univesity. There was little time to pursue my early interest although amongst the many psychiatric papers I published there were forays into history of psychiatry. One was a paper on Thomas Bakewell, who ran a small asylum on ‘moral therapy’ lines during the first decades of the 19th century. As a medical educationalist, I introduced into the undergraduate curriculum opportunities for medical students to undertake a project in a range of humanities subjects; many chose to do history, supervised by me or my colleague, an academic historian called Alannah Tomkins. Together we published a textbook on history of medicine with bite-sized chapters, designed to be easily accessible to busy medical tutors who wanted to introduce a historical perspective into their teaching.

Retirement has allowed me to pursue a second career as a medical historian. My interest in Casanova started whilst I was in Malawi on a volunteer psychiatric teaching programme shortly after I retired. The long, free evenings allowed me to read all of Casanova’s twelve volumes on my kindle, and thus the seed of an idea for a book was planted.

If you would like a foretaste of the book please go to my website.

– Lisetta Lovett

A version of this item was published on the Pen and Sword blog in February 2021.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a Voltaire fan?

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France (Amsterdam, 1773) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre returned to France in 1771 following an unhappy posting to Mauritius. In Paris he made new acquaintances, D’Alembert, Julie de Lespinasse, Condorcet and, most significantly in the eyes of posterity, he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This intimacy has ossified critical opinion as it was D’Alembert who aided the publication of his first book, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773) by a printer whom Voltaire termed ‘l’enchanteur Merlin’. Drafted in part in the Indian Ocean, the work was published anonymously with a permission tacite as it criticized French colonial practices. In it Bernardin claimed that his travel writing was innovative as Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon and Rousseau had not provided a model. He demonstrated his extensive reading by asserting: ‘Je sais bon gré à M. de Voltaire d’avoir traité de barbares ceux qui éventrent un chien vivant pour nous montrer les veines lactées’ (a reference to the article ‘Bêtes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Like Voltaire, Bernardin was educated by the Jesuits. He too liked citing Latin authors, particularly Virgil, and also frequently quoted from memory. He stated that D’Alembert had suggested that he compose histories and claimed that he had read Voltaire’s historical writings. He shared the patriarch’s alarm at d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and wrote against it. Despite a staunch belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical and loathed superstition. Like Voltaire, he mocked fears about a comet in 1773, telling Mme Necker: ‘On attend ici la comette pour demain; il y a des églises dont les confessionaux ne désemplissent pas; le peuple est fort inquiet de sçavoir si la terre sera brûlée ou noyée’ (Electronic Enlightenment, BSP_0244). He too was intrigued  by the possibility of ‘éléphants’ (i.e. mammoths) in Siberia. The Revolution saw him produce short works advocating tolerance and social harmony.

Invitation à la Concorde, pour la Fête de la Confédération, du 14 juillet 1792 (Gazette Drouot).

His Invitation à la concorde (1792) appeared in print and as a poster. It proclaims that discord will destroy France but Catholics, Protestants and Jews will thrive ‘autour de l’autel de la patrie’ where ‘chaque religion deviendra citoyenne’. He composed contes in a manner reminiscent of Voltaire. The Café de Surate (1792), depicting often religious prejudices, may have been inspired by a chapter in Zadig, ‘Le Souper’. He read his fictional Voyage en Silésie, with its message of reconciling quarrelsome multinational travellers, in his capacity as professeur de morale républicaine to instituteurs at the Ecole normale in 1795. In the foreword to the first printed edition, he asserted that ‘Mon but était d’inspirer aux hommes, qui sont les mêmes quant au fond, de la tolérance pour les opinions diverses.’

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage en Silésie (Paris, 1807) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin returned to a controversy treated by Voltaire in Lettre XI of the Lettres philosophiques, inoculation. In the Harmonies de la nature (begun in the 1790s), he writes: ‘On a longtemps agité la question, si l’inoculation était utile. J’observerai ici que Jean-Jacques n’a pas osé la décider dans son Emile.’ While acknowledging risks, Bernardin is decisive: ‘Il me semble […] que pour détruire tant d’intérêts particuliers qui s’opposent à l’intérêt général on devrait faire inoculer à la fois tous les enfants […] l’inoculation contribuerait à resserrer entre eux les liens de la fraternité.’ Despite his antipathy to the scientific establishment and, unlike Voltaire, opposed to Newtonian ideas of attraction, Bernardin is generally in favour of scientific advances.

Voltaire loved publishing texts anonymously or with fictional authors. Bernardin, after the Voyage, demanded his name on the title page. Yet, in a text not printed in his lifetime which I am editing for his Œuvres complètes (Garnier), the Fragment sur la théorie de l’univers, he too adopted a ludic pretence. The narrator, a ship’s pilote, recounts Bernardin’s views to a passenger without naming him. All he will reveal is that: ‘Le système dont je vais vous entretenir est d’un Français.’ Subsequently he speaks of ‘l’auteur de la nouvelle théorie’, ‘mon auteur’, ‘Notre auteur’.

Simon Davies, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: colonial traveller, Enlightenment reformer, celebrity writer, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2021).

Bernardin often omits the sources of his references. In a manuscript that I am also editing for his Œuvres complètes, he writes ‘Un de nos poètes a dit: “Dieu mit la fièvre en nos climats et le remède en Amérique.” C’est une pensée de bel esprit.’ The line had appeared in a poem to Frederick the Great (OCV, t.32A, p.412) and in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, t.41, p.394). Bernardin probably found it in the latter as it is mentioned in the Harmonies de la nature.

While Bernardin sympathised with ‘l’infortuné Jean-Jacques’ and knew that his public renown benefited from that association, he believed that sociability was natural. He thought that reform was needed, hence his acceptance of appointments at the Jardin du roi (where he championed initiatives), the Ecole normale and the Institut. He disliked Voltaire’s relations with crowned heads (although he had met Catherine the Great, praised her in his Voyage ‘porté par tout le vent des philosophes qui étaient dans sa faveur’), but was far more sociable than his clichéd reputation. To label him as simply a disciple of Rousseau is misleading. He owed as much to Voltaire as to Rousseau and he supplies an even-handed comparison in his Parallèle de Voltaire et de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrity in the Ancien Régime and the Revolution and the accessibility of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment make him an excellent point of reference for questions still raised about the role and impact of the so-called philosophes in scholarly publications and recently at the Enlightenment Workshops in Oxford. In sum, Bernardin reacted to the challenges of his age and responded in his own distinctive fashion.

– Simon Davies

Il faut des romans aux peuples corrompus: le romanesque républicain dans la Suisse des Lumières

En 1753, Voltaire, à la suite de différents événements désagréables, quitte le royaume de Prusse où il avait été appelé par le roi Frédéric II. Voltaire est alors âgé de 59 ans, il a déjà une vie riche derrière lui, ponctuée de multiples expériences, de beaucoup de publications et de très nombreuses rencontres. Il hésite sur la direction à prendre. Il sait qu’il n’est pas le bienvenu en France où il sera surveillé et censuré. Il devra vivre loin de Paris ce qui ne l’enchante guère. L’Angleterre est un séjour exotique, et si l’île offre de nombreux avantages, elle n’est pas dominée par la culture française. Pire, les hostilités se font de plus en plus précises entre la France et l’Angleterre, les deux nations cherchant à étendre leur commerce et leur domination coloniale. Voltaire a alors l’idée de se tourner vers un petit pays à la fois indépendant, mais suffisamment proche des grands centres de culture: la Suisse et ses satellites, dont Genève. Voltaire décide de se fixer d’abord à Lausanne et ensuite dans la cité de Calvin. Grâce à l’intermédiaire de Jean-Robert Tronchin, Voltaire loue une propriété à Saint-Jean qui deviendra les ‘Délices’.

‘Les Délices’, dessinée par F. Philipesenn et gravée par G. Charton (1775-1853) (BGE, Centre d’iconographie genevoise).

A Lausanne, avec sa cathédrale gothique et son château où siègent les baillis bernois, c’est grâce à l’intervention de Georges François de Giez, jeune banquier, qu’il peut louer la propriété de Montriond à l’entrée de la ville (voir François Jacob, Voltaire, Paris, 2015, p.193). ‘Les Délices seront pour l’été, Montriond pour l’hiver’ (Voltaire à Clavel de Brenles, 10 février [1755], D6150).

Voltaire adhère ou feint d’adhérer à l’image idyllique que les visiteurs européens diffusent de la Suisse. Il loue, dans l’Epître de l’auteur, en arrivant dans sa terre près du lac de Genève, en mars 1755, ses mœurs républicaines, la douceur de son climat, la beauté du Lac Léman que l’on peut contempler depuis les coteaux lausannois:

‘On n’y méprise point les travaux nécessaires;
Les états sont égaux, et les hommes sont frères.
Liberté, liberté, ton trône est en ces lieux.
La Grèce où tu naquis, t’a pour jamais perdue.’

Mais contrairement à d’autres visiteurs européens, Voltaire ne se contente pas d’admirer l’austérité des mœurs suisses. Il souhaite répandre la passion du théâtre. Il dirige différentes pièces au théâtre de Mon-Repos. La noblesse lausannoise y accourt soit pour jouer sur scène soit pour assister aux représentations en public averti. La famille Constant s’illustre dans cette activité, David Louis Constant d’Hermenches deviendra l’âme des activités théâtrales de Lausanne après le départ de Voltaire pour Genève.

Voltaire applaudit ces succès qu’il s’empresse de rapporter à ses amis parisiens, plaçant les Lausannois sur un pied d’égalité avec les Français: ‘On ne se douterait pas, monsieur, qu’un théâtre établi à Lausanne, des acteurs peut-être supérieurs aux comédiens de Paris, enfin une pièce nouvelle, des spectateurs pleins d’esprit, de connaissances et de lumières, en un mot tous les soins qu’entraînent de tels plaisirs, m’ont empêché de vous écrire plus tôt’ (à Jean Lévesque de Burigny, 20 mars [1757], D7207). Les Parisiens font semblant d’être dupes.

Pourtant des voix s’élèvent pour dénoncer la pratique de la comédie, amusement qui nous paraît aujourd’hui bien innocent, et les arguments des détracteurs sont puisés dans la tradition républicaine. On se rappelle que Platon dans La République dénonce les artistes et les arts en général. Cette accusation vaut certes pour les beaux-arts, mais en Suisse elle touche également le théâtre, car sa pratique par les gens de la bonne société démontre leur oisiveté et leur luxe. Or les auteurs républicains, d’Aristote à Machiavel et de Platon à Rousseau n’eurent de cesse de condamner leurs effets socialement pernicieux et moralement corrupteurs.

Dans l’Aristide ou le Citoyen, journal lausannois paru de 1766 à 1767, un étranger de marque, le Prince Louis-Eugène de Wurtemberg, reproche à la comédie de ‘flatter le goût général’ et non de le ‘redresser’. Quant au général vaudois Warnery, celui-ci écrit que ‘le luxe, la délicatesse et la dépravation des mœurs ont fait des progrès en Suisse avec la Poésie’ (Remarques sur l’Essai général de tactique de Guibert, Varsovie, 1782, p.59-60).

Aristide ou le citoyen (Lausanne, Grasset, 1766) (Réseau vaudois des bibliothèques).

Au dix-huitième siècle, dans les républiques helvétiques, ces arguments sont très répandus. Les spectacles avaient été interdits à Genève par une ordonnance datant de 1617 (cette interdiction avait été renouvelée en 1732 et en 1739). Le théâtre se voyait reprocher de détourner l’intérêt des individus des affaires de la cité. Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), J.-J. Rousseau s’inquiète également de l’arrivée des spectacles à Genève. Il oppose à l’intérieur des salles de théâtre, où chacun s’amuse individuellement en imagination, l’activité sociale des cercles de Genève où les hommes peuvent se retrouver pour discuter, écouter des conférences, boire et se divertir. Pour Rousseau, les cercles sont le terreau de la vie citoyenne, l’antichambre d’où partent les compagnies bourgeoises qui défilent en ville et en assurent la sécurité aux temps troublés. Pour Voltaire au contraire, le théâtre aide à policer les mœurs, il ‘dégrossit’ les rustres suisses. De plus, le théâtre est une activité où les deux sexes se mêlent, ce qui pour Voltaire est un gage de galanterie et de politesse. Pour Rousseau ce mélange corrupteur des deux sexes, qui ‘dénature’ proprement leurs qualités intrinsèques est signe d’une décadence civique et morale. Une société ‘molle et efféminée’ ne pourra résister efficacement aux envahisseurs étrangers. Curieusement, Voltaire et Rousseau se retrouvent sur le terrain de la culture: Voltaire souhaite que le théâtre transforme les Lausannois et les Genevois en Français alors que Rousseau lutte contre cette altération culturelle par crainte d’une détérioration de patriotisme.

J. J. Rousseau citoyen de Genève, à Mr. D’Alembert (Amsterdam, 1758).

Déplacé à Genève, aux Délices, dès 1755, Voltaire se rapproche de ses éditeurs Gabriel et Philibert Cramer, mais aussi d’une scène plus brillante et d’un public dont la réputation européenne est excellente.

Là il se retrouve toutefois confronté aux mêmes contrariétés qu’à Lausanne. L’idéologie républicaine est très forte parmi les bourgeois, en particulier dans le groupe de ceux qui s’opposent aux décisions des Conseils restreints dominés par un ensemble de vieilles familles. Cependant là aussi, Voltaire croit au rôle civilisateur du théâtre, les bons spectacles poliront le reste de sauvagerie que les Genevois conservent. D’où l’intrigante remarque de l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par D’Alembert, mais soufflé par Voltaire: associer ‘à la sagesse de Lacédémone la politesse d’Athènes’. Les travaux de Rahul Markovits qui documentent les réactions genevoises à l’introduction des théâtres dans la ville – constructions éphémères accompagnant l’arrivée des médiateurs français lors de chaque grande crise politique et sociale – montrent que toutes les couches de la société étaient séduites par les spectacles. Les chefs du parti bourgeois (communément appelés Représentants, à cause des ‘pétitions’ qu’ils adressaient aux Conseils restreints assurant le gouvernement) ont beau dénoncer l’effet pernicieux provoqué par les spectacles, le peuple en général s’y rendait malgré tout.

Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles, les idées de J.-J. Rousseau reflètent ou sont similaires à celles des Représentants de Genève, dont un des chefs de file est Jacques-François Deluc. Horloger dans la cité de Calvin, De Luc cultive les valeurs républicaines. Il pense que la ‘pureté’ des mœurs genevoises est le résultat des ‘Lois’ et des ‘usages’ d’un petit Etat dont les habitants n’ont pas été ‘dégradés’ par les rapports d’argent et la bassesse qui règne dans les grandes villes, où le fort opprime le faible. Les Remarques sur le paragraphe de l’article Genève, dans l’Encyclopédie, qui traite de la comédie et des comédiens datent du 26 avril 1758 et ont été écrites en parallèle à la Lettre à D’Alembert. Pour Rousseau, la comédie induit la diffusion des mœurs de Paris dans les villes rurales ou à la campagne, ce qui se heurte cependant à l’incapacité anthropologique des individus à adopter d’autres mœurs et d’autres manières de sentir: ‘Les habitants de Paris qui croient aller à la campagne, n’y vont point; ils portent Paris avec eux’ (La Nouvelle Héloïse in Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1961, p.602).

Jacques-Francois De Luc (1698-1780), attribué à Robert Gardelle (1682-1766) (Bibliothèque de Genève).

Le déisme représente un autre point de divergence entre Voltaire et les bourgeois, citoyens de Genève. C’est sans doute le point de divergence le plus important et celui qui oblige Voltaire à quitter la ‘parvulissime’ république, comme il l’appelle, pour Ferney. On l’oublie facilement, mais la Lettre à D’Alembert est aussi une défense de la sincérité des pasteurs de Genève accusés de socinianisme dans l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie. Par la suite cependant, Rousseau se distancie de l’opinion des pasteurs genevois: les Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764) portent trace de ces tensions. Mais dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau tentait de concilier ses doutes sur la nature de la foi chrétienne dans une grande synthèse embrassant le monde rural, la mystique, la vertu civique et l’utopie. Il peut paraître étrange que Rousseau, critique violent du théâtre, s’abandonne à l’écriture et à la publication d’un vaste roman dès son installation à l’Ermitage en 1756, alors qu’il souhaitait consacrer son temps à ses institutions politiques et à d’autres ouvrages qu’il considérait sérieux. Mais si l’aspect social du théâtre le rebute, il conçoit la littérature épistolaire comme une grande communion dialogique où les différents points de vue coexistent et se tolèrent. Plus qu’une intrigue avec des personnages ridicules, le roman permet de construire progressivement une psychologie, de montrer des personnages dynamiques qui évoluent avec leurs doutes et leurs fêlures. Cette leçon littéraire de Rousseau, les Suisses – qui jusqu’alors s’étaient méfiés de la littérature fictionnelle, car mensongère et non-vertueuse – la retiennent et l’enrichissent.

Le roman Confidence philosophique (1ère édition en 1771) du pasteur Jacob Vernes offre un espace littéraire où contre-attaquer les thèses de Voltaire sur la religion et les mondanités. Dans ce roman épistolaire à thèse, Jacob Vernes, pourtant ami de l’auteur de Candide, fait du Voltaire à rebours. Il use des mêmes armes rhétoriques que les philosophes et il tourne en ironie les critiques contre la religion exposant le grand vide ontologique qu’elles laissent. La correspondance qui continua entre les deux hommes ne laisse pas penser que Voltaire ait pris ombrage des procédés narratologiques du pasteur genevois. Cependant ceux-ci illustrent de nouveau les tensions politiques et religieuses qui existeront toujours entre Voltaire et les élites suisses et genevoises. Là où Voltaire critique la religion au nom de la liberté en dénonçant la superstition, les seconds défendent le protestantisme en insistant sur son cadre moral et sa philosophie pratique réconfortante. D’un point de vue politique, là où Voltaire valorise la force législatrice et culturelle d’un grand roi, capable de guider son pays dans une direction nouvelle et progressiste, les élites suisses défendent l’austérité républicaine, mais aussi l’esprit de simplicité et d’égalité qui doit présider aux décisions collectives.

L’apport de mon livre, Rêves de citoyens, dans cette querelle à la fois esthétique, littéraire, politique et religieuse est d’avoir mis en évidence que les Suisses, sans délaisser le théâtre, vont utiliser d’autres médias fictionnels pour exprimer leurs idéaux républicains. La Nouvelle Héloïse est le détonateur qui amorce une série de récits sentimentaux qui explorent les facettes d’un idéal-type républicain (au sens wébérien), c’est-à-dire une utopie. Si à l’époque des Lumières, les écrivains suisses délaissent le genre de l’utopie littéraire, ils trempent leur plume romanesque dans un utopisme assumé. Grâce aux travaux de Bronislaw Baczko, nous savons que le dix-huitième siècle est une époque ‘chaude’ de l’imaginaire utopique. L’esprit de réformes, radical ou non, s’empare des sociétés d’Ancien Régime. En rédigeant La Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau se dote d’un espace littéraire qui offre à son imaginaire républicain une riche gamme de possibilités. Ainsi Rousseau reconstruit grâce à la lettre sur le Valais les sources idéales d’un républicanisme supposé naturel comme il représente dans la microsociété de Clarens, animée par Julie, les diverses interrogations qui assaillent quotidiennement citoyens et citoyennes. Quel cadre offrir à la morale politique et religieuse? Comment exploiter un domaine qui assure à la fois une certaine aisance familiale, qui permette que les terres soient bien cultivées et qui fournisse aux environs des emplois nécessaires à la préservation des individus dans les campagnes en leur évitant de rejoindre les villes corruptrices? Comment former l’esprit des citoyens pour que ceux-ci soient sensibles aux inégalités sociales et au respect des formes démocratiques? De même, comment rendre l’homme suffisamment sensible pour que dans le ‘tableau de la nature’ il perçoive et respecte l’œuvre du créateur? Ces questions, que les personnages du roman de Rousseau discutent longuement, avec des opinions contradictoires, sont reprises par les romans sentimentaux helvétiques, qui les explorent à leur tour. Il n’y a pas d’opposition frontale dans ces textes à la pratique du théâtre; au contraire dans le roman fleuve (en 7 volumes!) de Samuel Constant de Rebecque, Laure ou lettres de quelques femmes de suisse, les personnages s’amusent à monter et à jouer une pièce; cependant la tonalité du discours romanesque reflète un éthos républicain équivalent à celui qu’Albrecht von Haller peint dans Les Alpes ou que Jean-Jacques Rousseau, avec ses Montagnons du Jura, dessine dans la Lettre à D’Alembert.

Dans la deuxième moitié du dix-huitième siècle, le roman sentimental chemine avec l’utopie littéraire, il exploite, par exemple, la narration en tableaux, comme Louis-Sébastien Mercier dans L’An 2440. Rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) et dans Le Tableau de Paris (1772). Comme les utopistes, les romanciers sentimentaux font l’éloge de la simplicité, de la transparence et de la vertu civique. Dans l’utopie, la religion naturelle fusionne avec la sensibilité: l’homme est bon par nature et de sages lois peuvent le rendre meilleur; la tonalité est la même dans les romans sentimentaux. Dans les textes utopiques, malgré leur communisme à la fois social et économique, les femmes allaitent et les législateurs valorisent leur supposée pudeur naturelle pour mieux leur assigner un rôle inférieur. Rares sont les femmes qui participent au gouvernement dans les sociétés utopiques. Dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie se plaint que Saint-Preux adresse les ‘réflexions graves et judicieuses’ à Milord Edouard et qu’il l’entretienne de sujets plus légers comme l’opéra ou les femmes françaises, mais elle se cantonne elle-même dans un rôle secondaire: ‘J’avoue que la politique n’est guère du ressort des femmes’ (p.305).

Animés par un éthos républicain classique, les romans sentimentaux helvétiques investissent un espace littéraire similaire à celui occupé par les utopies en France. Cette perspective romanesque permet également de représenter des citoyens en action, ce qui concilie les exigences patriarcales héritées du protestantisme avec les courants civiques et intellectuels des Lumières. Quant au théâtre, si celui-ci connaît un succès croissant, à Lausanne comme à Genève, ses effets de propagande et son impérialisme français sont observés avec suspicion. Les caractéristiques nuisibles du théâtre nourrissent la création d’une identité républicaine que les romans sentimentaux contribuent à définir et à élaborer.

Helder Mendes Baiao

‘What can we know?’ – The prize questions of the French academies as media of knowledge reflection

Discours qui a remporté le prix à l’Académie de Dijon en l’année 1750 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

‘Is the wisdom that stems from temper as reliable as that stemming from reason?’ (‘Si la sagesse qui vient du tempérament est aussi sûre que celle qui vient de la raison’, Académie des Jeux Floraux, 1725), ‘How much are the sciences indebted to poetry and literature?’ (‘Combien les sciences sont redevables aux belles-lettres’, Académie des Jeux Floraux, 1753), ‘Is the multiplicity of scholarly works in all genres more useful or more harmful to the progress of science and literature?’ (‘Si la multiplicité des ouvrages en tout genre est plus utile que nuisible aux progrès des sciences et des belles-lettres’, Académie de Pau, 1754), ‘What does the philosophical spirit consist in?’ (‘En quoi consiste l’esprit philosophique?’, Académie française, 1755) and, of course, Rousseau’s revelation: ‘Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals? (‘Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs’, Académie de Dijon, 1750) – those questions are just a few examples taken from the prize contests of the French academies. They clearly indicate that the self-reflective turn of knowledge, most famously articulated in the first Kantian question: ‘What can I know?’ not only arose at the end of the 18th century in the sublime work of a (German) professor of philosophy, but already in the 1730s in a very popular medium of the enlightened republic of letters.

The academic prize questions in France and beyond should indeed be considered a popular medium as, at the time, they attracted more and more participants from virtually all strata of society and, especially, authors of average intellectual backgrounds. The competitors were typically members of the lower clergy, of the parlements or the artes faculties of the universities, as well as lawyers and physicians. But even artisans and peasants picked up their quill pens. When the concours was abolished by the Convention nationale in 1793, that meritocratic institution of the French academies had mobilized altogether more than 12,000 participants. This was above all due to the fact that the contests, judged on the basis of strict anonymity, were open to the general public without any restrictions regarding social rank, gender, money, or institutional membership, or, to quote the regulations of the concours at the Académie française: ‘All sorts of persons, of whatever nature they may be, will be invited to take part in this prize contest (‘Toute sorte de personnes de quelque qualité qu’elles soient, seront reçues à prétendre à ce prix’).

Recueil de plusieurs pièces d’éloquence et de poésie (Paris, 1696).

This self-reflective turn is particularly striking when one considers the historical evolution of the prize questions at the French academies. The genre seemed hardly predestined for such epistemological investigations. Established in 1670 at the Académie française in the disciplines of poésie and éloquence the concours académique was first of all the medium of the panegyric on Louis XIV and a forum for the discussion of traditional theological and moral topics. It was only in the course of the eighteenth century, in the wake of the second wave of academy foundations after the 1720s, that new fields of knowledge were explored and that the range of subjects treated in the prize competitions started to increase. This was mainly due to the new disciplines of the concours académique, the scientific prize questions (established at the Académie royale des sciences in 1720, five years after the Académie de Bordeaux) and the historical contests held at the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres since 1734. What is more, with the prix des sciences the new empirical knowledge of nature found its way into a genre that had originally been established for cultivating the tradition of poetry and eloquence and hence the knowledge of the textual tradition.

Programme for the ‘prix de morale’ of the Dijon Academy of sciences 1743.

In the course of the 18th century the rhetorical prize questions, which remained one of the pillars of the genre, also underwent an important change, both regarding the modes of argumentation and the subjects proposed. Under the influence of Enlightenment discourse the contests, notably at the provincial academies, dealt more and more with the new philosophical topics of the time, in particular with the changing role of the arts and sciences and the epistemic status of rhetorical knowledge in relation to the observational insights of the flourishing natural sciences. Hence, since the 1730s, the questions set aimed explicitly at launching a debate on the contemporary development of knowledge in the republic of letters. This led to what one can call self-reflection of knowledge; self-reflection based, amongst other things, on the emerging specialisation of knowledge and further stimulated by the appearance of the Encyclopédie in the 1750s. This tendency was also very present, of course, in the philosophical competitions of the Berlin Academy of Sciences starting in 1747 with a question on Leibniz’s theory of monads. What is particularly interesting (and charming) about the French contests, however, is the fact that here the philosophical insights resulted from a deepened reflection on classical rhetorical topics such as ‘Is it of more use to study men or books?’ (‘Est-il plus utile d’étudier les hommes que les livres?’, Académie de Dijon, 1757).

Discours qui a remporté le prix en l’année 1755 (Académie française).

The rhetorical prize questions thus became a textual medium in which the crucial epistemic transformations within the republic of letters since the 17th century were reflected. They mirrored the changes that accompanied the shift towards written communication and towards the periodical production and accumulation of factual knowledge. What is more, several of the prizewinning essays put forward a fundamental critique of the claim to universal knowledge asserted by the exact sciences. This critique of science and of its belief in method argues, as does the Jesuit Father Guénard in his discourse on the esprit philosophique (Académie française, 1755), that reason unaware of its own limitations becomes dogmatic and finally turns into the opposite of what it set out for.

The recognition of the boundaries of technical rationality and of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ are phenomena uncovered in the 20th century, but they are also contemporary to the age of the ‘Lumières’ itself, one can argue, and developed in the plain public light of its most popular medium.

Martin Urmann, Collaborative Research Center Episteme in Motion, Freie Universität Berlin

This blog first appeared in Café Lumières: 18th-century research in dialogue, October 2020.

Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

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

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

Martin Folkes and Voltaire

John Smith, Martin Folkes after Jonathan Richardson Senior, mezzotint, 1719 (1718), 340 x 249 mm paper size, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Qui sera sera, ‘Who or What will be, will be’ is the opening phrase that Martin Folkes (1690-1754) chose as his personal motto and inscribed in his travel diaries of his Grand Tour in the 1730s. Folkes was Sir Isaac Newton’s protégé, an antiquary, freethinker, mathematician, numismatist and astronomer and the only simultaneous president of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. Due to his Grand Tour and a subsequent voyage to France in 1739, Folkes became a member of the Académie royale des sciences, participant in French salon culture and a correspondent of one of its doyennes, Madame Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin.

Folkes also had a wide circle of friends, including Voltaire with whom he corresponded. On 10 October 1739 Voltaire wrote to Folkes from Paris in reference to his Réponse aux objections principales qu’on a faites en France contre la philosophie de Newton, a tract he wrote in support of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Voltaire conceived of the Eléments as a ‘machine de guerre directed against the Cartesian establishment, which he believed was holding France back from the modern light of scientific truth’. Voltaire and Emilie Du Châtelet engaged in a campaign on behalf of Newtonianism, putting in their sights ‘an imagined monolith called French Academic Cartesianism as the enemy against which they in the name of Newtonianism were fighting’, the main artillery of their battle being Voltaire’s Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. Voltaire’s letter was written in a fit of pique (Voltaire, Correspondence, D2088):

Portret van Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, anonymous, engraved by veuve Delpech (Naudet), between 1818 and 1842, 273 x 180 mm paper size, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

“Sir, I Do my self the honour to send you this little answer I was oblig’d to write against our antineutonian cavillers.

“I am but a man blind of one eye expostulating with stark blind people who deny, there is such Thing as a sun.

“I’ll be very happy if this conflict with ignorant philosophers may ingratiate my self with a such a true philosopher as you are.”

In 1743, upon his election to the Royal Society, three years before he was elected to the Académie française, Voltaire wrote to Folkes, again in some frustration with his continued fight for Newtonianism and against those irritatingly persistent Cartesian vortices. Voltaire also reminded Folkes of his visit to England fifteen years earlier and his acquaintance with Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond, James Jurin, scientist and physician, and ‘Mr Turner’, who was Shallet Turner, Regius professor of modern history and modern languages at Cambridge. For all his support of Newton, and his comments about Newton’s funeral and monument in Westminster Abbey, Newton and Voltaire had not met before Sir Isaac died in March 1727. During his stay in England from May 1726 until the autumn of 1728, Voltaire did, however, meet Newton’s niece Catherine Barton Conduitt, who told him the apple story, a story that Folkes also related, and Voltaire related twice in his writings.

William Hogarth (attributed to), Examining a watch; two men seated at a table, the older (Martin Folkes) looking through his eyeglasses at a watch, a paper headed ‘Votes of the Commons’ (?) on the table. Pen and brown (?) ink and wash, over graphite, c. 1 (British Museum).

The correspondence between Voltaire and Folkes, Newtonian to Newtonian, suggests a long acquaintance, though the letters were not frequent, as was also the case with Voltaire’s correspondence with other English philosophers. Was Voltaire introduced to Folkes before the 1730s, perhaps during Voltaire’s visit to London in 1726-28? It is possible. Lennox and Jurin were close friends of Folkes. As Norma Perry showed, Voltaire lived at the White Wig (known also as the White Peruke) on Maiden Lane, and was said to have dined at the Bedford Head Tavern, one of the places in the 1720s in which Folkes attended Masonic meetings as a Deputy Grand Master. As J. B. Shank has indicated, ‘given his other activities, it is also likely that Voltaire frequented the coffeehouses of London even if no firm evidence survives confirming that he did’.

Nicolas de Largillière (1656–1746), Voltaire, oil on canvas, c.1718-24, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (detail).

And at one of the coffee-houses, called Button’s, which was near Covent Garden Piazza on Russell Street, we may have some firmer evidence that Voltaire met Folkes. A sketch attributed to Hogarth c.1720 at Button’s depicts Martin Folkes examining a watch (he was a known collector of watches) with an unknown gentleman sitting beside him, handing him an obscure object, perhaps a knife to pry the watch open, a coin, or another timepiece. (For a discussion of this sketch, see note below.) In 1786, Samuel Ireland did an aquatint of Hogarth’s work, where he identifies the figures as Martin Folkes and playwright, author, and journalist Joseph Addison. Folkes’s physiognomy is readily discernible, but the latter identification is impossible, as Addison died in 1719.

The sketch of the unknown man sitting with Folkes does, however, have similarity to an oil portrait (and its copy) of the young Voltaire painted by Nicolas de Largillière done immediately before Voltaire’s visit to England. I had the great pleasure of examining the original drawing in the British Museum’s Print Room with Nicholas Cronk. With the proviso that likeness is not proof, the sketch and Largillière’s portrait both portray a heart-shaped face with defined cheekbones, straight eyebrows, a dimpled chin, and pronounced nose, with the same facial proportions. The artist was also known for his character studies, in which he skilfully delineated the salient features of the figure.

Closeup and reverse of the anonymous figure in the Hogarthian sketch.

The Hogarthian sketch also shows a young man of very slender body, a physiognomy borne out by Voltaire’s acquaintances when he was in London. As Ballantyne remarked, Voltaire ‘seems undoubtedly to have been in a sickly state of body during the whole period of his residence in England’; in a letter to Nicolas-Claude Thiriot of February 1729 (D344), Voltaire proclaimed: ‘j’y ai été très mal. J’y suis arrivé très faible.’ At the Palladian mansion of Eastbury in Dorset Voltaire had met Edward Young, the author of Night thoughts, who wrote the famous description of him after a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘You are so witty, profligate and thin, At once we think thee Milton, Death and Sin’.

As Voltaire did not speak English when he came to England, he spent a large portion of his time with the London Huguenot refugee community, with whom Folkes was well acquainted through the mathematician Abraham de Moivre, his childhood tutor, and he natural philosopher and clergyman John Theophilus Desaguliers, both of whom he also knew from his work in The Royal Society. Folkes also spoke fluent French and was intimately familiar with French natural philosophy. As Voltaire wished to publish his La Henriade, he also sought out Huguenot printers, who ultimately published it. Voltaire had presented a copy of his Essay upon the Civil Wars of France (1727) to Sir Hans Sloane, inscribing it in his own handwriting, indicating they had been acquainted; Folkes and Sloane, of course, knew each other intimately, serving together in The Royal Society. The evidence suggests that Voltaire and Folkes may have met in London and if so, Folkes would have been pleased that the relatively unknown young man he encountered in the 1720s had so distinguished himself to be admitted to The Royal Society two decades later. Whatever the case may be, the sketch presents an intriguing picture of eighteenth-century coffee-house life, and Folkes as an intriguing figure in intellectual history.

Cover of Anna Marie Roos, Martin Folkes (1690-1754): Newtonian, antiquary, connoisseur (Oxford, April 2021).

If you’d like to read more about Folkes, see my recently published book with Oxford University Press: Martin Folkes (1690-1754): Newtonian, antiquary, connoisseur. The portrait on the cover is by William Hogarth, presented by Folkes to The Royal Society in 1742.

Note on the Button’s sketch:

This drawing is part of a set of four owned by engraver and prints dealer Samuel Ireland, described in his Graphic illustrations of Hogarth (1794-1799) as a series of characters in Button’s coffee-house. Although Ireland is known for spurious attributions of characters portrayed in Hogarth’s works, Lawrence Binyon thought ‘the most plausible of Ireland’s identifications is that of Martin Folkes’, due to its similarity with the later Hogarth oil portrait; Binyon also firmly considered the drawings by Hogarth (Lawrence Binyon, Catalogue of drawings by British artists and artists of foreign origin working in Great Britain preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 4 vols, London, 1898-1907, vol.2, p.321). In the catalogue raisonné of Hogarth’s drawings, A. P. Oppé also mentions Ireland’s problematic attributions, but Hogarth is still identified by him as the artist due to the ‘careful, sensitive treatment of the faces’ and the clumsy bodies typical of Hogarth’s other works done at the time. He does note, however, that the drawing style and use of media are different from Hogarth’s early drawing style (A. P. Oppé, The Drawings of William Hogarth, New York, 1948, p.30-31). On the other hand Sheila O’Connell, retired assistant keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, believes the set of drawings suspicious because of the Hogarthomania of the later eighteenth century (email of 15 August 2020). See also Sheila O’Connell, ‘Appendix: Hogarthomania and the collecting of Hogarth’, in David Bindman, ed., Hogarth and his times: serious comedy (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997), p.58-61, on p.59. However, if the drawing is not by Hogarth, that does not mean it is not Folkes and Voltaire sketched by a contemporary. My thanks to Sheila O’Connell and Elizabeth Einberg for discussing the drawing with me.

Anna Marie Roos