The triumph of truth

In my work on the digital Voltaire iconography database, I frequently stumble across portraits of Voltaire which are particularly unexpected, funny, or have an interesting story to them. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Triumph of Truth, which hangs in Marischal College, Aberdeen, is a personal favourite.

The Triumph of Truth is a portrait of James Beattie (1735–1803), a Scottish poet, philosopher, and Professor of Moral Philosophy. The book under his left arm, entitled ‘Truth’, and the title of the painting both refer to the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, which Beattie published in 1770. It was well received, earning Beattie both a royal pension and an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Oxford.

James Beattie, by Joshua Reynolds

Dr James Beattie (1735-1803), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (University of Aberdeen)

Although Beattie is rather splendid in his new doctoral robes, what draws our eye is the glowing Angel of Truth striking down three grotesque, dishevelled figures in the background. It is a powerful image and strong statement; Beattie’s thought becomes a superhuman, heavenly force, striking down the enemies of truth and faith. But who are these three villains? Beattie claimed they represented Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly – and yet, the central figure of the three seems too familiar to be mere allegory. His chin and arms may be a little strong, but his sharp eyes and wry smirk hint at his true identity. On 22 February 1774 Reynolds wrote to Beattie, explaining:

‘there is only a figure covering his face with his hands which they may call Hume, or anybody else; it is true it has a tolerable broad back. As for Voltaire, I intended he should be one of the group.’

It is, then, Voltaire who is being struck down by the angel. This comes as no real surprise; Beattie’s Essay on Truth was heavily critical of both Hume and Voltaire, writing of Voltaire:

‘He has dwindled from a genius of no common magnitude into a paltry book-maker; and now thinks he does great and terrible things, by retailing the crude and long exploded notions of the freethinkers of the last age […] as nothing but the monstrous maw of an illiterate infidel can either digest or endure.’

Beattie was criticised during his career for ad hominem attacks of his opponents; Reynolds’ rather unflattering depictions of Voltaire and Hume with his ‘broad back’ are extensions of that. Beattie’s most unflattering portrait of Voltaire, however, is not to be found on canvas, but in a manuscript.

In the late 1760s, Beattie wrote The Castle of Scepticism, a prose allegory against Voltaire and Hume. Although not published in Beattie’s lifetime, it was circulated privately among British men and women of letters. It is a dream narrative; Beattie falls asleep while reading ‘one of the volumes of Mr Hume’s excellent Essays’ and enters a place known as The Land of Truth. Here he meets a series of increasingly silly and arrogant characters (among them ‘the Earl of Sneer’ and ‘lord viscount Bigwords’, who can be identified as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Viscount Bolingbroke respectively), who sacrifice Common Sense at the Temples of Ignorance, Self-Conceit, Fashion, Licentiousness, Ambition, and Hypothesis, and blindly follow the ‘Great Oracle’ (Hume) and ‘the Orator’ (Voltaire).

Beattie’s Voltaire is ‘a lean little old man, with his face screwed into a strange sarcastic grin’. He does not make the best first impression:

‘“Sir,” replied he, his eye glistening with inexpressible rage and disdain, “my name is Voltaire – you must have heard of me, I suppose; blockhead as you are, you must have heard of the greatest genius that ever appeared upon earth.”’

Despite this overwhelming braggadocio, Beattie’s Voltaire is surrounded by an army of followers, clamouring to hear what he has to say. He recites Candide to the waiting crowd:

‘Here he began a very tedious tale, where it seemed hard to determine, whether obscenity or blasphemy, whether absurd fiction or bad composition, was most prevalent. The audience laughed often, and the speaker almost continually.’

Beattie, unimpressed, soon leaves Voltaire and continues his journey; despite being waylaid by various unsavoury types, not least of all a blunderbuss-wielding Thomas Hobbes, he eventually makes it back to the waking world unscathed.

Beattie’s portrait of Voltaire is, much like Reynolds’, exaggerated and grotesque – yet it is all the more recognisable for it, even (or perhaps particularly) to Voltaire’s supporters. Beattie’s condemnation of Voltaire as an arrogant man, laughing at his own jokes, although critical, may still draw a smile from those who enjoy his work; a keen reader of Candide can certainly imagine a playful author chuckling to himself as he heaps increasingly implausible miseries upon his characters. His lean frame, glistening eyes and sarcastic grin are also instantly recognisable to both supporters and critics; even in his youth, Voltaire describes himself as ‘maigre, long, sec et décharné’ (summer 1716, D37), while Bernstorff’s impression of an older Voltaire is almost identical to Beattie’s: ‘La vivacité de ses yeux et son souris [sic] malin m’ont frappé’ (24 April 1755, D6253).

These same features – bright eyes, wry smile, a biting sense of humour – seem to crop up again in both written and visual portraits of Voltaire, not just in the flattering, even reverent works of the likes of La Tour and Pigalle, but in the satirising depictions of critics like Reynolds, Beattie, and Gillray. It is this that makes Beattie and Reynolds’ depictions of Voltaire, like many critical portraits of Voltaire, so interesting and so familiar; these recurring traits of intelligence, sarcasm, and sharp wit, acknowledged by Voltairophiles and Voltairophobes alike, begin to hint at a consistent thread of character and of physiognomy which can be identified across the depth and breadth of his iconography.

Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

(Josie is a research assistant in the Digital Enlightenment. She is currently building on existing research by Professor Samuel Taylor (St Andrews) to create a digital Voltaire iconography database.)

Over her dead body: tears and laughter in L’Ingénu’s final scene

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal, in Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2. (BnF/Gallica)

‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Bloggers and other would-be beaux esprits routinely reach for Oscar Wilde when confronted with depictions of uncomfortable sentimentality, but we risk coming away empty-handed. With Nell’s death never actually depicted in The Old Curiosity Shop, Wilde’s quip seems less a skewering of Dickens’s prose and more a celebration of his own. Nevertheless Wilde – in linking pathos, humour and self-consciousness – may be on to something that can help when we come to the puzzle of Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death in L’Ingénu.

The early chapters of L’Ingénu have a forthright ‘gauloiserie’ about them, such as the bawdy allusions to the hero’s penis, anticlerical digs, and depictions of earthy rural folk. In stark contrast stands the heroine’s death. When Mlle de Saint-Yves eventually dies after several pages on her deathbed, her demise provokes widespread despair as well as a kind of madness in the hero: ‘Lorsque le moment fatal fut arrivé, tous les assistants jetèrent des larmes et des cris. L’Ingénu perdit l’usage de ses sens.’[1] As Roger Pearson asked in his splendid biography Voltaire Almighty (2005), should we take this sentimentality at face value? Is Voltaire not taking a swipe at the protracted deaths of Richardson’s Clarissa and, in particular, Rousseau’s Julie? This is in part doubtlessly true, for L’Ingénu was composed around the same time as the critical Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire au docteur Jean-Jacques Pansophe and Lettre de M. de Voltaire à M. Hume (1766-1767).

Voltaire treats his readers to more than just Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death. He presents a series of lugubrious scenes, in one of which the Ingénu entirely displaces his godmother as an object of fascination:

‘Le morne et terrible silence de l’Ingénu, ses yeux sombres, ses lèvres tremblantes, les frémissements de son corps, portaient dans l’âme de tous ceux qui le regardaient ce mélange de compassion et d’effroi qui enchaîne toutes les puissances de l’âme, qui exclut tout discours, et qui ne se manifeste que par des mots entrecoupés. L’hôtesse et sa famille étaient accourues ; on tremblait de son désespoir, on le gardait à vue, on observait tous ses mouvements. Déjà le corps glacé de la belle Saint-Yves avait été porté dans une salle basse, loin des yeux de son amant, qui semblait la chercher encore, quoiqu’il ne fût plus en état de rien voir.’

Mlle de Saint-Yves’s body comes back into view, only to be ignored; her corpse is displayed by the front door while two priests distractedly recite prayers; some passers-by lazily sprinkle holy water while others blithely walk on; and Père de La Chaise averts his eyes from the casket. The characters’ reactions proceed/decline (take your pick) from profound grief to indifference and then to rejection. Where does this leave the readers? Are we meant to weep, breeze along, or even laugh? Must one have a heart of stone to read the death of Mlle de Saint-Yves without laughing?

One way into thinking about those final pages of L’Ingénu might be suggested by the moment in chapter 18 when the heroine arrives at the Bastille:

‘Confuse et charmée, idolâtre de l’Ingénu, et se haïssant elle-même, elle arrive enfin à la porte de
… cet affreux château, palais de la vengeance,
Qui renferme souvent le crime et l’innocence.
Quand il fallut descendre du carrosse, les forces lui manquèrent; on l’aida; elle entra, le cœur palpitant, les yeux humides, le front consterné.’

Just as Wilde celebrates his own writing, so does Voltaire, who quotes here from the fourth canto of La Henriade. By moving into the literary realm, Voltaire asks his readers to be more conscious about the way fiction sets us up for particular response. Fiction, as Rita Felski so persuasively argues, can provoke and unsettle us in unexpected ways: ‘We can be taken hold of, possessed, invaded by a text in a way that we cannot fully control or explain and in a manner that fails to jibe with public postures of ironic dispassion or disciplinary detachment.’[2] And L’Ingénu does just that, inviting its readers to commiserate, weep and even laugh over the death of its heroine.

– Thomas Wynn

[1] For an English translation of this and following quotations, please see p.159-60.

[2] Rita Felski, ‘After suspicion’, Profession (2009), p.28-35 (p.33).

Writing the imagination

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s drawing L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773) shows us the artist in the act of conceiving an artwork. Before embarking on the material process of creation, he shuts his eyes to the outside world and unleashes the power of his imagination. Various fantastic figures, both sublime and grotesque, emerge from an amorphous background and gradually take shape. Whereas the artist is overwhelmed by his inner fancies and seems plunged into a state of ecstasy, the spectator of the image witnesses how the empirical world gradually gives way to the imagination. It seems as if we were observing the moment just before the eclipse of reality, and that a second later the emerging fantasies might continue to swallow up the island of sensory perception in the centre of the stage. Instead of seeing only the finished picture, we are made to see the very process of imagination that produces it.

L’inspiration de l’artiste, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

I would argue that this scene can help us to reconsider other eighteenth-century reflections on the imagination. Fragonard’s drawing is not only a product of the imagination, it simultaneously strives to stage the power of the imagination itself. The mode of representation and the represented object are made to converge. The imagination is used as a tool to explore its own workings.

Self-reflexive moves of this kind can also take place in texts that are engaged in one way or another with the imagination. A writer can explicitly say something about the imagination, but he or she also always does something with the imagination, be it explicitly by using a fictional mode of representation, or implicitly through the metaphorical underpinnings of his or her thought. Even though these two dimensions – theory and practice of the imagination – may be present to different degrees, they are usually inseparable. Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert is a case in point. The interlocutors of this dialogue repeatedly make statements concerning the imagination, but at the same time the reader becomes involved in an imaginative process: a flow of collective associations, stunning analogies and metaphors, fantastical creatures.

The eighteenth century has often been described as the crucial turning-point in the history of the imagination, as the pivotal moment in which an inferior faculty becomes an anthropological force of fundamental importance. It is also the period that puts into question the Cartesian idea that there is a purely rational standpoint beyond the imagination (the cogito). My recent book Die Kraft der Figuren (The Power of Figures) reassesses this process by focusing on the interaction between theoretical claims and practices of writing. This approach turns out to be most productive in the case of authors who explicitly take into account the power of the imagination as a part of their own writing, such as Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot, who are at the centre of the study.

One could say that the desk of these philosophers, like that of Fragonard’s inspired artist, is placed in the midst of the imagination, and not opposed to it. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot conceive the imagination as a process they are always already involved in. As Fragonard teaches us, though, this also entails the risk of coming into touch with the imagination’s dangerous side, represented by the dark hybrid creature in the lower left-hand corner of the drawing…

– Manuel Mühlbacher

The phenomenon of the ‘amateur’

The September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières, studies the phenomenon of amateurship in several disciplines and cultural backgrounds. It aims to articulate sociological, rhetorical and poetical perspectives, as the term ‘amateur’ is considered to refer to a social type or role, to a discursive figure and to a creator at the same time. In this blog post, Enrico Mattioda explores how the very definition of the word amateur sparked confusion, controversy, and clashes throughout the 18th century.

The amateur has been the subject of new interest in recent years, not only in the German sphere, where attention to this theme has never been lacking, but also in France, thanks in part to Charlotte Guichard’s studies in the discipline of fine arts. The eighteen essays included in the present volume, edited by Justine de Reyniès and Bénédicte Peslier Peralez, are the result of contributions made by distinguished experts in the field, and all offer a vision of the phenomenon in Europe as never seen before. The book does not claim to solve all the problems related to the amateur; rather, its importance lies in its ability both to challenge the notion itself and to offer different arguments and perspectives.

L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is the September 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The investigation of the figure of the amateur is not limited to the classical fields of the arts and sciences. Instead, a vision of the concept of amateur is expanded, extended into other human activities ranging from literature to journalism, from sociabilité to coups d’œil, and continuing into the subject of women who express themselves in music or literary judgements.

The impetus to extend the concept of amateur to other human activities may perhaps be located in the limitations to be found in Alexander Rosenbaum’s book, Der Amateur als Künstler, published in 2010. From a personal point of view, I do not agree with Rosenbaum’s anti-historical approach, which seeks to define amateurs starting from the Italian Renaissance and trivializes the concept of sprezzatura developed by Baldessar Castiglione. It should be remembered that in the 15th and 16th centuries, the distinction between professional and amateur was not recognized in Italy: it was only in 1620, when the Accademia di San Luca in Rome received permission from Pope Urban VIII to establish who was an art professor and who was not, that the distinction between the fields began to be defined. Historical dictionaries indicate that the first attestation of the word ‘amateur’ was seen from 1682 onwards; my own research pushes the date to 1660, but certainly not any earlier.

These considerations lead us to a more general problem. For too long it has been claimed that there are synonymous terms to define the phenomenon within the various European countries; instead, we must accept the fact that these terms are false linguistic friends and do not cover the same semantic field. Confusion already reigned in the 18th century: the entry amateur in the Encyclopédie linked the French word to the Italian word ‘virtuoso’; Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de musique stated, instead, that the French word is a translation of the Italian word ‘dilettante’. These are two very different concepts, and neither of them grasped the great semantic difference imposed in France with the creation of the amateurs honoraires within the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, wherein these amateurs honoraires came to establish the taste in the artistic field and to dominate the art market. In 1757 the Encyclopédie initiated a violent backlash, which then continued with direct clashes between Caylus and Diderot and with a series of art dictionaries published by the amateurs.

This controversy surrounding the definition was immediately acknowledged in Germany, where we first see the use of ‘Dilettant’ starting in 1759. The term held negative connotations in all fields except music, where the Italian word was used to mark a clear distinction with respect to the previous ‘Liebhaber’. From the French controversy, the critique of amateurism developed in Germany. The new negative concept of the dilettante was established. No longer was it the amateur who limited himself to the knowledge of an art-form or who presented himself in private and non-profit spheres; it was now the bourgeois amateur who worked in an art-form and presented himself in public without knowing the rules of the art itself and without precise know-how. While we can find a fundamental document in the notes written by Goethe and Schiller in 1799 for an article that was never finished, entitled Über den Dilettantismus, in France the controversy had already come to a close in 1788 with the publication of Amateur, an entry by Claude-Henry Watelet for the Encyclopédie Pancoucke. Here Watelet proposed two alternative solutions: to open the category of amateurs to the female world and to sociabilité, or, in the opposite direction, to withdraw from society and ensconce oneself in a utopia of solitary refuge in classical values. The following year, the French Revolution would bring an end to the amateur Ancien Régime.

The strongest merit to be found in L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is in the volume’s drawing of attention to this cultural and social phenomenon – one which was fundamental to the culture of the eighteenth century – through its presentation of the different achievements of the amateur and its suggestions of updated readings of the various fields of knowledge and social sciences.

– Enrico Mattioda, Université de Turin

Enrico Mattioda is a contributor to the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Baron d’Holbach brought back to the motherland by a ‘joyous sett’

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk.

He was ‘the most learned nobleman’ in Paris according to Laurence Sterne, ‘un des hommes de son temps les plus instruits, sachant plusieurs des langues de l’Europe’ for the abbé Morellet, ‘le vrai cosmopolite’ in Diderot’s words: there is no doubt that Baron d’Holbach won the affection and the esteem of those who met him.

Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as ‘the Bible of atheists’, an idéologue, a populariser of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as a producer and circulator of clandestine literature and as the centre of a wide intellectual network. All over Europe he was known as the ‘maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’ (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as ‘the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits’ (in those of Sterne). D’Holbach’s house in the rue Royale in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan literary circles of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, it was ‘a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity’, and it was dubbed ‘the joyous sett’ by Sterne: this is where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society.

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism.

German by origin (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), Dutch through his academic training (he studied in Leiden), French by adoption, and cosmopolitan by choice, d’Holbach spoke several languages and translated scientific works from the German and philosophical and irreligious works from the English.

For three days, 9-11 May 2019, the Institute of Advanced Studies of Göttingen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg hosted ‘The Great Protector of Wits. D’Holbach 1789-2019’, the first international conference entirely dedicated to Baron d’Holbach, organised by Dr Laura Nicolì and Prof. Franziska Meier. Our own ‘joyous sett’ of Enlightenment scholars gathered to discuss the Baron’s works, as well as his figure and his legacy. Speakers engaged with the complexity of d’Holbach’s intellectual agenda, with d’Holbach the philosopher and the philosophe, but also the encyclopédiste and the scientist, the strategist and the ‘metteur en scène’, the translator and the creator of ‘fictions d’autorité’, the clandestine author and the centre of intellectual networks, the pessimistic skeptic and the inspirer of a revolutionary consciousness.

Charlotte-Suzanne and Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle, 1766.

Thanks to the participants’ contributions and through the ensuing debate, there emerged a more nuanced, multifaceted understanding of d’Holbach than is typically conveyed by the secondary literature.

Left: Gerhardt Stenger, Emilio Mazza, Alain Sandrier. Right: Iryna Mykhailova and Tony La Vopa.

For everyone present, this conference on one of the most important yet neglected figures of the eighteenth century amounted to full immersion in a true microcosm of the European Enlightenment!

– Laura Nicolì

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’: ‘Beaucoup de disputes, jamais de querelles’ (Morellet on the salon in the rue Royale).


Digital d’Holbach

Grâce à un don de la Mellon Foundation, la Voltaire Foundation a entamé une édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach, l’un des penseurs clés des Lumières radicales françaises.

Le baron d’Holbach, par Louis Carmontelle.

‘Vivre heureux’ et ‘faire des heureux’. Ce sont là, d’après le baron d’Holbach, les deux seuls objectifs que tout être humain doit poursuivre dans la vie. Comment les atteindre? Il suffit de suivre la nature et de se tenir fermement au ‘flambeau de la raison’. Sauf que… sauf que des ‘fantômes effrayants’, engendrés par la superstition, viennent souvent nous détourner de la ‘voie du vrai bonheur’. Et quand on est soi-même malheureux, il est bien difficile de s’occuper du bonheur des autres. Il faut donc saper les fondements de toute religion, démasquer les ‘imposteurs’ qui nous rendent malheureux, et ramener ‘les esprits égarés à la raison’.

Une telle entreprise, d’Holbach le répète à plusieurs reprises, n’est pas sans risque, car présenter la ‘vérité’ aux êtres humains, comme le dit Diderot, c’est ‘introduire un rayon de lumière dans un nid de hiboux’. Néanmoins, dès le début des années 1760, le baron saisit la plume et commence à bombarder ‘l’édifice ruineux de la religion’. Pendant presque quinze ans les attaques se succèdent sans interruption. Ce sont des traités de morale et de politique, des dictionnaires de jargon théologique, des livres qui prêchent le matérialisme et le déterminisme. Tous ces textes paraissent de façon soit anonyme, soit pseudonyme. Seul un petit nombre de gens de lettres, y compris – fait remarquable! – quelques hommes d’église, savent qui se cache derrière le Système de la nature et Le Bon SensFait encore plus remarquable, ils gardent tous le secret, et lorsque d’Holbach meurt au mois de janvier 1789, il est enterré dans l’église Saint-Roch à Paris, à coté de Diderot.

Depuis lors, des chercheurs se sont essayés à définir les limites du corpus des œuvres du baron d’Holbach, tâche ardue, bien sûr, étant donnée la fâcheuse (mais compréhensible) habitude du baron de ne rien signer. D’ailleurs, un autre facteur vient compliquer la situation: c’est que d’Holbach ne travaillait pas isolément. En effet, on sait par diverses sources que Diderot et Naigeon se donnaient tous deux beaucoup de peine pour blanchir les ‘chiffons sales’ du baron avant l’impression. D’ailleurs, on ne saurait dissocier le baron de la société de gens de lettres qui se réunissait chez lui, sa ‘coterie’ ou ‘boulangerie’: comme il l’écrit lui-même dans l’une de ses lettres, son existence au sein de la république des lettres était une ‘existence collective’.

Grâce à un don généreux accordé à la Voltaire Foundation par la Mellon Foundation, nous travaillons depuis quelques mois à un projet d’édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach (si tant est que l’on puisse parler d’œuvres ‘complètes’ pour un corpus aux contours aussi difficiles à délimiter). Ce projet nous aidera à jeter quelque lumière sur des ouvrages longtemps oubliés par les chercheurs, et nous permettra de mieux comprendre la genèse et l’évolution de la pensée de l’un des plus importants philosophes du dix-huitième siècle.

Image BnF/Gallica.

Nous avons décidé d’entamer notre édition par les Lettres à Eugénie, un traité sous forme de lettres qui s’adresse aux femmes en tant qu’agents fondamentaux de changement social et culturel. Parallèlement, nous travaillons également à une édition de la correspondance du baron, dont un catalogue est désormais disponible sur le site internet d’Early Modern Letters Online (j’y reviendrai ultérieurement dans un nouvel article de blog). Nous invitons tous ceux et celles qui veulent en savoir plus à venir nous rejoindre à Edimbourg, le lundi 15 juillet à 16h15 (panel 88, voir ici, p.24)!

– Dr Ruggero Sciuto, Hertford College/Voltaire Foundation, Université d’Oxford

Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.