Rousseau et Locke: Dialogues critiques

Rousseau et Locke: Dialogues critiques is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume, edited by Johanna Lenne-Cornuez and Céline Spector, reassesses the legacy of Lockean thought in all areas of Rousseau’s philosophy. This blog post introduces readers to the edited collection by discussing its claims and ambitions.

Après le colloque que nous avons organisé en 2019 à Sorbonne Université, il nous a semblé qu’une réévaluation de l’héritage de la pensée de Locke chez Rousseau s’imposait. C’est ainsi que ce volume est né. Tout en établissant l’étendue de la dette de l’auteur d’Émile à l’égard du ‘sage Locke’ dans tous les domaines de sa philosophie (identité personnelle, épistémologie, médecine, morale, pédagogie, économie, politique), il met en lumière les usages des thèmes et concepts lockiens chez Rousseau – quitte à identifier les distorsions que le philosophe genevois fait subir à son prédécesseur.

D’un point de vue philosophique, la thèse défendue par ce volume est la suivante: Rousseau a élaboré un grand nombre de ses thèses majeures dans un dialogue critique avec la philosophie lockienne. Loin d’être une influence évanescente, les thèses de Locke sont une référence constante pour Rousseau, dont il fait un usage aussi varié que fécond. La philosophie rousseauiste institue une relation singulière à cette source: Locke n’est ni un pur adversaire avec lequel il s’agirait toujours de marquer son désaccord, ni une simple ressource textuelle à laquelle il se contenterait de puiser.

Locke est tantôt un allié, tantôt un adversaire, ou plutôt il n’est ni l’un ni l’autre: la philosophie lockienne est le lieu théorique et méthodologique au sein duquel Rousseau s’inscrit et l’origine des principes auxquels il fait subir de notables subversions. Il s’avère beaucoup plus proche de l’auteur de l’Essai et du second Traité que l’exégèse l’a longtemps perçu. Aussi l’ambition de ce volume est-elle de s’écarter de toute vision réductrice de l’héritage lockien pour redonner aux rapports entre les deux auteurs toute sa profondeur et ses nuances. Interroger l’héritage de Locke par-delà le prisme d’oppositions préconçues – naturalisme/historicisme; matérialisme/dualisme; libéralisme/républicanisme – donne son unité à ce volume.

L’usage de Locke par Rousseau pourrait n’être que stratégique. Derrière l’éloge de ‘l’illustre Locke’, l’auteur en exil brandirait une communauté de principes comme un bouclier défensif. À s’en tenir à un usage stratégique, la dette reconnue à l’égard de Locke ne serait qu’une illusion rétrospective. Cependant, par-delà un usage rhétorique, l’auteur du Contrat social fait de Locke un usage instituant une communauté de pensée contre une autre: celle des partisans de l’inaliénabilité de la liberté contre celle des ‘fauteurs du despotisme’ (CS, I, 5). Cet usage est notamment éclairé dans ce volume par les contributions de Céline Spector, à propos de l’inaliénabilité de la liberté, de Jean Terrel, au sujet de l’institution du contrat, et de Ludmilla Lorrain, sur le consentement à la représentation.

S’inscrivant de plain-pied dans les controverses de son temps, le philosophe fait également un usage polémique de la philosophie lockienne. Au-delà de la critique ouverte de Locke, le volume cherche alors à identifier le point de rupture. Cet usage polémique est notamment éclairé par les contributions de Anne Morvan, à propos du différend qui oppose Locke et Rousseau dans l’utilisation d’arguments naturalistes, et de Philippe Hamou au sujet des implications épistémiques et anthropologiques de leur différend sur la religion naturelle. À l’inverse, Rousseau peut apparaître comme un allié, comme le montre Claire Crignon, à propos de la critique des médecins.

Mais la critique ciblée de Locke peut masquer un héritage conséquent, notamment en matière de pédagogie. Cette dette est éclairée par les contributions de Christophe Martin, à propos de la révolution pédagogique initiée par Locke, et par Gabrielle Radica, à propos de l’usage éducatif des sanctions. Dans le même esprit, une filiation surprenante entre leurs philosophies morales doit être restituée. Par-delà la rupture que constitue la Profession de foi du Vicaire savoyard, c’est la cohérence du projet empiriste qui doit être interrogée. Le dialogue critique est éclairé par Louis Guerpillon, à propos du sens de l’empirisme en morale, et par Johanna Lenne‑Cornuez, au sujet de la définition du citoyen des temps modernes.

Portrait de J-J Rousseau, Ecole anglaise du XVIIIe siècle, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford.

Enfin, Rousseau utilise parfois Locke comme source d’arguments d’autorité. C’est le cas du fondement mémoriel de l’identité personnelle ou encore de l’inquiétude qui motive nos actions. Pourtant, cette reprise ne saurait être une simple redite. Concernant le rapport entre mémoire et identité subjective, l’appropriation de Locke par Rousseau est bien plus complexe qu’il n’y paraît. La question des mobiles de l’action suppose quant à elle de revenir à la lettre du texte de Locke. Ces usages qui n’échappent pas à la dimension critique seront éclairés par Stéphane Chauvier, à propos du fondement de l’identité personnelle, et par Christophe Litwin, à propos de l’inquiétude comme mobile de l’action.

Pour chacun de ces trois types d’usages – usage stratégique, usage polémique et appropriation critique –, le terme de dialogue critique est pertinent: dialogue, parce que Rousseau se situe d’abord sur un terrain qu’il identifie comme lockien, critique, parce que l’usage que Rousseau fait des idées lockiennes n’en est jamais la simple répétition. Aussi peut-on parler de critique menée de l’intérieur de thèses héritées de Locke.

– Johanna Lenne-Cornuez (Sorbonne University/CNRS) and Céline Spector (Sorbonne University)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s surprising ‘cosmopolites’

Reading the recent blog, ‘Voltaire, the Lettre sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism’ I was reminded that Bernardin de Saint-Pierre employed ‘cosmopolite’ as an adjective. I had always assumed that the term was utilised exclusively as a noun – for instance, we read early on in ‘Livre I’ of Rousseau’s Emile: ‘Défiez-vous de ces cosmopolites qui vont chercher dans leurs livres des devoirs qu’ils dédaignent de remplir autour d’eux.’ As the general editor of Bernardin’s Harmonies de la Nature (Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.4, Paris, Classiques Garnier, forthcoming), I came across this adjectival usage on several occasions, moreover describing the natural world. Bernardin’s monumental work in nine ‘Livres’ was probably begun in 1790 and then recast in several versions for the next fifteen to twenty years without being published in its author’s lifetime. In ‘Livre I’ we read regarding plants (the italics are mine):

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, engraving by Etienne Frédéric Lignon (1818).

‘Le blé a des harmonies avec la terre par ses racines, divisées par filaments, qui en y pompent leur nourriture. Elles ne sont ni longues ni nombreuses mais elles y adhèrent si fortement qu’on ne peut les enlever sans emporter une portion du sol ni rompre la paille à cause de sa dureté. Voilà sans doute les raisons qui obligent les laboureurs de le scier plutôt que de l’arracher. Ces rapports terrestres lui sont communs avec beaucoup d’autres végétaux, mais ce qu’il a de particulier, c’est qu’il n’y a aucune partie du globe où ne puisse croître quelqu’une de ses espèces, depuis le riz du Gange jusqu’à l’orge de la Finlande. Il est cosmopolite comme l’homme […].’

In the same ‘Livre’ one finds:

‘Les plantes cosmopolites croissent en général le long des grands chemins. Ce sont des espèces d’hospices que la nature y a établis pour les animaux domestiques voyageurs.’

Birds are endowed with this capacity in ‘Livre II’:

‘L’organisation des volatiles, leur instinct et leurs vols, peuvent se rapporter à une infinité de besoins de la vie sociale. Ils peuvent servir à découvrir les propriétés des végétaux, à annoncer l’arrivée des orages, le changement des saisons, et les îles qui sont hors de la vue des navigateurs. Les volatiles sont les premiers habitants des terres, de tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le leur est seul cosmopolite.’

The utility of floating vegetation is illustrated in ‘Livre III’:

‘Ces végétations flottantes forment quelquefois des tribus si nombreuses, qu’elles arrêtent la course des vaisseaux: telles sont celles de la Floride. D’autres semblent poser des limites stables et tracer des lignes de démarcation sur les plaines liquides de la mer: elles peuvent déterminer les bornes des diverses puissances maritimes, et donner aux navigateurs des points plus sûrs que leurs longitudes estimées. D’autres font comme eux le tour du globe, et circulent d’un pôle à l’autre avec l’océan. C’est peut-être parmi ces espèces voyageuses et cosmopolites, que de malheureux marins, naufragés sur un écueil, peuvent choisir des trajectiles propres à annoncer leur infortune sur tous les rivages.’

‘Livre IX’ offers a further example:

‘Tels sont les principaux genres physiques qui se subdivisent en moraux, les uns vivant fraternellement comme les moineaux. Tous se divisent en deux sexes. Quelques-uns vivent conjugalement comme les tourterelles, d’autres maternellement ainsi que les abeilles qui travaillent en familles sous le gouvernement d’une mère. Des familles les unes se rassemblent en tribus ainsi que les castors, quelques tribus se réunissent en nations telles que plusieurs espèces de poissons. Enfin d’autres sont cosmopolites et vivent pour ainsi dire sphériquement en parcourant le globe. Telles sont les espèces voyageuses comme les hirondelles.’

I wondered whether this extended use could be found elsewhere. The search facility of Electronic Enlightenment offered an excellent resource. It registered 29 occurences. Voltaire writes towards the end of a letter to Frederick II, c.15 July 1742: ‘Mais j’ay essuyé une des plus illustres tracasseries de ce monde. Mais je suis si bon cosmopolite, que je me réjouiray de tout.’ On 29 April 1752 he chides La Condamine: ‘mon cher cosmopolite, ne me croyez pas assez ignare pour ne pas savoir où est Cartagene; j’y envoie tous les ans plus d’un vaisseau, ou du moins je suis au nombre de ceux qui y en envoient […].’ Moultou told Rousseau on 13 October 1762: ‘R[oustan] n’a pas compris vôtre dernier chap. du Contrat social, au moins il ne l’a pas compris come moy. Quand vous dites que le Xanisme est contraire a l’esprit social, il me semble que cette assertion revient a celle cy, que la bienveillance se relâche en s’etendant, & que le Xanisme nous fesant envisager touts les homes come nos fréres, nous empêche de mettre une grande difference entre eux, et nos concitoyens. De la le Systéme du Xanisme est plus favorable a la société universelle des homes qu’aux societés particuliéres: le Xen est plus cosmopolite que patriote.’

However it is the abbé Morellet who appears the greatest fan of the term ‘cosmopolite’. He tells David Garrick on 21 April 1765: ‘N’ai je pas fait là un petit sacrifice à l’utilité publique qui merite de la part des amis du genre humain quelque reconnoissance. Je dis de la part du genre humain car je ne crains pas de vous avoüer que ce n’est pas pour mon pays que je travaille. On ne profitera pas de longtemps de ce que je pourrai avoir dit de bon dans ce pays cy et on ne m’en saura peut-etre pas grand gré. Mais je suis cosmopolite et si je puis en développant les principes d’une science aussi vaste et j’ose dire assés inconnue jusqu’à present etre utile à quelque nation que ce soit[,] fut elle notre ennemie[,] je me croirai bien payé de mes travaux.’ He tells Pietro Verri in a missive composed between 14 and 15 March 1767: ‘Dites moi, Monsieur le Comte, si vos occupations et celles de M. le Comte Carli vous empêchent d’écrire sur ces objets intéressans. Devenus des hommes d’état, vous ferez les meilleures choses du monde dans votre Milanois, cela est bien. Mais je suis cosmopoliteet je voudrois bien que vous travaillassiez un peu pour le genre humain.’

He further champions the idea of being ‘cosmopolite’ in letters of 4 September 1775 and c.30 December 1777 to the 1st marquess of Lansdowne and on 30 October 1785 to Benjamin Franklin. The term is not found in Bernardin’s own letters but exists in a communication to him dated c. October 1789. The correspondent is a fellow Norman and a fervent admirer, Mme Le Pesant de Boisguilbert. She is now an émigrée in Margate: ‘il n’est point de bonheur pour moi sachant La France agiteé de troubles et de divisions et travaillant elle même a sa ruine. personne pour mon malheur n’est moins cosmopolite que moi; je tiens fortement à ma patrie […].’ Here the word has clearly negative connotations unlike the resonances in the other quoted letters.

Evidently ‘cosmopolite’ has no linkage with the non-human world in the above quotations. I wondered therefore whether the seemingly new usage might be found in contemporary reference books. The word was clearly in circulation in the early decades of the eighteenth century with its ‘citizen of the world’meaning. Yet it is absent from the 1694, 1718 and 1740 editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. It appears however as a noun in the 1762 version: ‘Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie. Un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.’ The 1798 edition is arguably more positive: ‘Citoyen du monde. Il se dit de celui qui n’adopte pas de patrie. Un cosmoplite regarde l’univers comme sa patrie.’ (The 1835 edition follows similar lines.) The Encyclopédie article in volume 4 of the 1751 edition offers: ‘COSMOPOLITAIN, ou COSMOPOLITE, (Gram. & Philosoph.) On se sert quelquefois de ce nom en plaisantant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui n’est étranger nulle part.’ In volume 2 of its edition in 1771 the Dictionnaire de Trévoux suggests: ‘Cosmopolitain, aine. On dit quelquefois ce mot en badinant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui nulle part n’est étranger […].’ The abbé Féraud supplies nothing new in his Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787): ‘Cosmopolite, Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie; citoyen de l’univers. “Il se fait honneur d’être cosmopolite, mais un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.”’

The first reference that I have encountered which records Bernardin’s practice is in the Dictionnaire Littré (1873-1877). Its entry begins with the customary definition: ‘Celui qui se considère comme citoyen de l’univers’ but suggests also ‘celui qui vit tantôt dans un pays tantôt dans un autre; qui adopte facilement les usages des divers pays. C’est un cosmopolite.’ It goes on to list: ‘Adjectivement. Un philosophe cosmopolite. Une existence cosmopolite. “De tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le genre des insectes est seul cosmopolite”, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Harm. liv. II, Anim.’ Bernardin’s is the only source cited although the quotation is slightly incorrect as it should be ‘volatiles’ and not ‘insectes’ (see the quotation from ‘Livre II’ above). Could Bernardin thus be the initiator of this adjectival extension of ‘cosmopolite’ to the non-human world? Intriguingly the old but still valuable study of changes in the French language by Ferdinand Gohin in the final decades of the eighteenth century would seem to support that possibility. In a section entitled ‘On applique aux choses ce qui ne se disait que des personnes’ he provides an entry for ‘cosmopolite’: ‘B. de St-P., Et., II. 383; […]. – Ibid, I, 71 […].’* The reference is not to the Harmonies de la Nature but to the Etudes de la Nature (first published in 1784).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Etudes de la Nature, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

I have omitted above Gohin’s quotations from Bernardin (in the square brackets) for clarity. I shall quote the second one first: ‘[La nature] a donné aux plantes qui lui [à l’homme] sont les plus utiles, de croître dans tous les climats; les plantes domestiques, depuis le chou jusqu’au blé, sont les seules qui, comme l’homme, soient cosmopolites’ (Etudes de la Nature, ed. Colas Duflo, Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.3, Paris, 2019, p.131). Bernardin believed in a divinely ordered universe which is governed by providence where everything was primarily geared to the benefit of ‘le genre humain’. The other quotation (which I cite at greater length) could be considered as very revealing: ‘C’est dans cette famille, si j’ose dire cosmopolite, que la nature a placé le principal aliment de l’homme; car les blés, dont tant de peuples subsistent, ne sont que des espèces de graminées. Il n’y a point de terre où il ne puisse croître quelques espèces de graminées’ (ibid., p.700). It is the insertion of the phrase ‘si j’ose dire cosmopolite’ which is telling. It surely implies that Bernardin recognises that he is not following standard usage and that his readers may disapprove of such linguistic licence.

Those familiar with Bernardin’s works are well aware of his vast range of vocabulary. Unless possessing specialist knowledge, his early readers (and doubtless their twenty-first century successors) can only regard his terminology for flora and fauna in the lands of the Indian Ocean as exotic and evocative without comprehending their precise meaning. In common with his contemporary acquaintance, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, he championed the invigorating value of new words. Jean-Claude Bonnet claims that ‘Bernardin s’est révélé hardiment néologue.’** In ‘Livre IX’ of the Harmonies de la Nature Bernardin includes ‘propulsation’ three times, a word unknown to any dictionary, in effect a ‘barbarisme’. The final letter of his first publication, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773), states: ‘L’art de rendre la nature est si nouveau, que les termes même n’en sont pas inventés’ (ed. A. Gigan and V. Kapor, Œuvres complètes, t.2, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2019, p.854).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’île de France, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

Editors of his Œuvres complètes frequently fail to find words that he employs in eighteenth-century dictionaries. Indeed when they are found in nineteenth-century listings, examples of usage are often derived from Bernardin’s works, particularly the Harmonies de la Nature. With reference to ‘cosmopolite’ one can speculate that Bernardin adapted the positive implications of the term to an adjectival context to consider nature in a wider focus – its productions can be admired and consumed across the planet. People benefit from the presence and exchange of plants etc on a global scale just as they benefit from the sharing of ideas and experiences – we live in a joined-up world.

* Les transformations de la langue française pendant la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1903), p.302. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé in its entry for ‘cosmopolite’ suggests its first appearance as an ‘adj. bot.’ was in the Etudes de la Nature edition of 1784 and cites Gohin as its source. It defines its modern meaning as ‘Qui connaît une très large répartition géographique.’

** ‘Bernardin néologue à l’épreuve de l’océan Indien ou “l’art de rendre la nature”’, in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre et l’océan Indien, ed. Jean-Michel Racault, Chantale Meure and Angélique Gigan (Paris, 2011), p.405.

Simon Davies

Voltaire… True or false?

Art historians have developed sophisticated techniques to detect forgeries. Sotheby’s has its own ‘fraud-busting’ expert. Most of the world’s leading museums have whole departments devoted to distinguishing the real from the fake. Thanks to modern research methods, scores if not hundreds of famous paintings have been re-classified. Many pictures believed to have been painted by Rembrandt, for instance – several in national collections – are now re-labelled school of or follower of. Similarly, some paintings that were believed to be by an obscure master are now deemed to have been painted by the great Rembrandt himself. Documentary records such as inventories, letters, catalogues, or invoices, chemical analysis of canvas and paint, X-ray imaging, and carbon dating can all be valuable tools and precious auxiliaries to the museum curator. The style and quality of a painting are generally the strongest arguments for its authenticity. When material evidence supports the expert’s eye, the case is sealed. The same criteria apply, mutatis mutandis, to literary history and to the establishment of authorship.

Title page of Candide, deuxième partie (n.p., 1760) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Researching Candide, seconde partie, several years ago, I came across an index card in the old, printed catalogue at the British Museum Library with the handwritten note ‘spurious’ scrawled across the top. I was puzzled. It was the first time that I had encountered that word in the context of Voltaire’s writing. The word ‘apocryphal’ appeared on another card. Something was amiss. In all the eighteenth-century editions of Candide, seconde partie I consulted, the second part was bound alongside the first. Moreover, it was translated under Voltaire’s name into several languages. Both parts, 1 and 2, were printed together in the popular Modern Library edition. Countless undergraduates had read it. Had no one noticed that Candide, seconde partie was not the genuine article? I began wondering about the status of this bizarre continuation, which includes, in its second chapter, a scene of brutal homosexual rape. I soon perceived that in terms of style the second part had little in common with the original. Voltaire’s distinctive tone, combined with his verbal sophistication, his brush strokes as it were, are not easily mimicked. Unlike his imitator, Voltaire suggests obscenity without being vulgar.

Title page of H.-J. Dulaurens, Le Compère Mathieu, vol.1 (London, 1761) (Taylor Institution Library).

My research (conducted with the assistance of Gillian Pink) confirmed the hypothesis originally floated by Emile Henriot in 1925 that Candide, seconde partie was in fact written by the unfrocked monk Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (‘La seconde partie de Candide, Le Temps, 17 février 1925). Voltaire was aware of Dulaurens, whose satirical poem Les Jésuitiques (1761) must have caused him to chuckle when he read it. He commented on another work by Dulaurens, Le Compère Matthieu (1766), which he noted was written in the style of Rabelais (D14938): ‘Il y a un théatin qui a conservé son nom de Laurent qui est assez facétieux, et qui d’ailleurs est instruit: il est auteur du compère Matthieu, ouvrage dans le goût de Rabelais, dont le commencement est assez plaisant, et la fin détestable.’ But reading Voltaire is sometimes akin to entering a hall of mirrors. The distorted images flee before our eyes. Now and then we nevertheless catch his gaze. By way of a joke, he attributed his own Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine (1768) to ‘l’auteur du Compère Matthieu’ (D14915 to Charles Bordes). Et rira bien qui rie le dernier!

Title page of Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine (Amsterdam, 1768) (Taylor Institution Library).

The late Patrick Lee averred that every collected edition of Voltaire’s writings from 1728 until the last one printed before his death includes spurious, apocryphal, and misattributed works (‘The apocryphal Voltaire: problems in the Voltairean canon’ in: The Enterprise of Enlightenment. A Tribute to David Williams from his friends, ed. Terry Pratt, David McCallam, David Williams, Oxford, 2004, p.265-73). Voltaire himself noted with characteristic flamboyance: ‘On ferait une bibliothèque des ouvrages qu’on m’impute. Tous les réfugiés errants font de mauvais livres et les vendent sous mon nom à des libraires crédules. […] On me répond que c’est l’état du métier. Si cela est le métier est fort triste’ (letter to Damilaville, 17 December 1766, D13744). But what of the hundreds of works that Voltaire published under an assumed name? And what of those that appeared anonymously? And what of those that, for one reason or another, he did not include in his collected works. And what of his persistent denials and obfuscations? And what of his works published posthumously? Questions like these take us to the heart of Voltaire’s psychology as a literary artist. His protean nature both as a writer and a public figure has meant that every utterance must be approached warily. Take for instance his presumed denial over the authorship of Candide, seconde partie contained in the following paragraph, though this is not in fact deemed to have been written by Voltaire. The claw emerges from beneath the soft pad. At best, it would appear to bear the stamp of his ‘circle’.

Let us quote it and let the reader decide (Journal encyclopédique, août 1761, p.144): ‘Il y a quelque tems qu’il a paru en France une seconde partie de Candide: on n’en a pas lû quatre lignes, qu’on voit très-clairement que cette suite n’est pas de la même plume que la première. Quelle différence! ce seroit bien là le cas de dire: non licet omnibus adire Corinthum, mot usé à la vérité, mais trouve ici très-bien sa place. Quelques personnes malintentionnées, sans doute, ont fait courir le bruit que cette brochure étoit de Mr. Campigneulles. Il la désavoue formellement, mais il dit dans son désaveu que quelques Gens de Lettres l’ont trouvée assez bien pour parier qu’elle étoit d’un homme très-illustre en Europe: ces prétendus Gens de Lettres sont des imprudents à qui nous conseillons de retirer promptement leur enjeu.’

The monumental task of publishing Voltaire’s writings has been undertaken several times since his death in 1778. Each generation has approached the project with the resources at its disposal and with the most up-to-date scholarship; and each built on the successes (and shortcomings) of the last. Over time, many works have been added to the canon, and others removed. It was Gustave Lanson early in the last century who summarized the scientific approach to literary history in his ground-breaking article Comment Voltaire faisait un livre (1908). His method, briefly stated, consisted in the painstaking gathering and interpreting all the documents that have come down us to reconstruct plausibly, and coherently, the story of how each work was written.

Establishing the Voltairean canon along scientific lines has been the objective of the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (OCV) these past fifty years. It has been an ambitious enterprise. But since the early 1950s exciting new tools have become available, some due to the drive and energy of Theodore Besterman. For the first time it was possible to apply the scientific method rigorously to Voltaire’s entire œuvre. Et quel œuvre! No writer wrote as much as Voltaire. This month the most extensive publishing venture in Europe (et par conséquent de toute la terre!) draws to a close with the publication of the final volume in the collection: Textes attribués à Voltaire, numbered 147. In all, 205 volumes have been printed, representing the collaboration of scores of eminent scholars from around the world.

In his Epître à Horace, Voltaire wrote, ‘J’ai fait un peu de bien: c’est mon meilleur ouvrage.’ Volume 147 of the OCV is a tribute to the great man, his massive corpus of writings, and enduring presence in the modern mind. The Œuvres complètes is a monument to the European Enlightenment and to scholarship at its best.

Edouard Langille

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography

As I type this, experts reach out to us by all means available, on Twitter and talk-shows, to explain the best course of actions to curb a worldwide pandemic. We, lay people of a society as interconnected and literate as ever, have to navigate the flow of information and distinguish the dubiously self-appointed experts from those who are adequately equipped to steer decision-making at both state and individual level.

Epidemiology and social media were light years away from Paul Rapin Thoyras, the expatriate Huguenot historian whose œuvre is at the centre of my book Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography. Yet, in the early eighteenth century, scholars also debated about how to discern and acknowledge a certain kind of expertise: who could produce reliable historical accounts. I reconstruct Rapin’s crafting of the persona of a historian as an ‘expert’ who weighed all available evidence and eventually emitted a plausible verdict, which others could in turn take up and challenge. The book accounts for how history-writing earned Rapin a badge of membership in the Republic of Letters, a self-appointed community of scholars who strove to advance learning in all domains. Such a Republic had to juggle emerging media (the periodical journals); editorial formats (serializations, abridgements, popularizations); and writers (journalists, hack writers, editorial all-rounders) to steer the reception of printed works beyond a narrowly envisioned scholarly circle to an audience that was increasingly literate and hungry for historical accounts.

Chapters One and Two survey how skeptics at the turn of the eighteenth century doubted that history could be a magistra vitae as it had always been conceived: personal bias stood in the way of an impartial reconstruction and history-writing seemed unable to attain the allegedly unequivocal knowledge of physics and mathematics. Rapin drew his pen to fight the mounting skepticism and rehabilitate history-writing as a discipline of probable reconstructions. This resulted in what I call the Histoire-project: commented abridgments of English primary sources (1714-1725); an essay on the English political parties (1717); and the a ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre (1724-1728) which represented the culmination of his twenty-year enterprise.

Rapin’s historiographical trials are put to test in Chapter Three, to see how his musings on the Anglo-Saxons or the disentanglement of the Popish Plot also responded to ongoing political and religious debates in England. Striving for impartiality did not – does not? – equate to being neutral in things political. Rapin thought of history-writing as a means to understand the deep-seated roots of present issues and advocate for religious toleration.

Rapin’s achievements were extraordinary, yet his strategies and ambitions were common within the Republic of Letters – as were his previous occupations as soldier and tutor, and his multiple displacements: to England, the Netherlands, and ultimately Germany. His personal trajectory thus illuminates how scholars reconsidered the boundaries of their community in the face of the booming printing industry and the interconnected growth of a readership among the general public (chapters Two and Four). Fellow scholars provided Rapin with primary sources, intellectual support and publicity in a common effort to make history-writing a worthy scholarly endeavour.

Paul Rapin Thoyras, Histoire d’Angleterre, 10 vols. (La Haye, A. de Rogissart, 1724-1727), vol.1, title page.

Chapter Four follows the many afterlives of Rapin’s œuvre – continuations, translations, adaptations – to show how knowledge of the past was becoming a ‘widespread cultural currency’ (see note below). The impact and spread of Rapin’s œuvre are further gauged through English political newspapers: Whig and Tory party-writers quarried the history written by a foreigner for their domestic political crossfire. The Histoire was thus brought from the royal and scholarly cabinets also to an audience assembled in coffee houses for their daily news. Commentators on opposing sides of the religious and political spectrum equally strove to guide lay readers’ reception of Rapin, criticizing his works either for being ‘too French’ (in England), ‘too Anglophile’ (in France), or even the product of a motley crew of Dutch pamphleteers. History, traditionally written by retired gentlemen for the edification of their peers, was turning into a popular reading genre; and the Republic of Letters felt compelled to mediate the unscholarly in approaching the past.

This guiding was boldly taken up by authors of Enlightenment narratives, who through history-writing traced the emergence of a modern society from a supposed state of barbarity. Rapin’s crafting of historical expertise is compared in Chapter Five with Hume’s and Voltaire’s histoires philosophiques. Both avid readers of Rapin, they brandished his erudition in their respective historiographical works but claimed an expertise decidedly beyond that of the Republic of Letters. While Rapin detected biased interpretations of events by previous historians, Hume and Voltaire detected the change of mankind through the eras to dispense cures for the evils of current society. The Enlightenment pair hoped to eventually dispel all traces of superstition and intolerance by offering their counselling at royal courts and by widely distilling their wisdom through printed matter.

Clio’s altar, the frontispiece of vol.1 of the Histoire d’Angleterre.

Praising Hume’s History of England – written to challenge Rapin’s – Voltaire admired how the Scotsman ‘talked of barbarity as if it were an epidemic disease’. I wonder how Hume and Voltaire would react at seeing superstitious knowledge about the current pandemic spreading at pandemic speed. Rapin might have spoken his mind clearly only within a restricted circle of friends or in private correspondence, while he would painstakingly weigh evidence in the public arena. Despite the increasing pace of print and scholarship, in Rapin’s view knowledge was still manageable by scholars through ink skirmishes. The same that earned him a place on Clio’s altar in the eighteenth century, and a cover in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series almost exactly 314 years after the signature of his contract for the Histoire d’Angleterre (23 December 1701).

Note: Daniel R. Woolf, ‘From hystories to the historical: five transitions in thinking about the past, 1500-1700’, Huntington Library quarterly 68:1-2 (2005), p.37.

–  Miriam Franchina (University of Trier)

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Marketing Voltaire: Tobias Smollett and the first edition of Voltaire’s works in English translation

Authors – or rather authorial brand names – sell books. They also sell translations. From the 1730s onwards, the name ‘Voltaire’ was well enough known in England to ensure that translations of his work were many and various, even if their reception was mixed. By the 1760s, as the prefatory Advertisement in The Works of Mr de Voltaire suggests, Voltaire’s reputation across Europe and the sheer quantity and complexity of his writings made a ‘complete and regular translation’ of his works an attractive prospect for booksellers. It was also an ambitious and risky one.

Tobias Smollett (unknown artist, c.1770, National Portrait Gallery).

The circumstances of Smollett’s involvement in the project are unclear. Unlike Voltaire, he did not oblige posterity by leaving a voluminous correspondence. However, the ‘learned Doctor Smollett’, as he was wryly dubbed, was an obvious choice as editor. He was a successful novelist and historian, as well as the translator of Gil Blas and Don Quixote. Crucially, as founding editor of the Critical Review, he was also an influential literary ‘gate-keeper’ in the London book business. The lustre of the Smollett name on the title page beneath that of Voltaire would maximise the prestige and credibility of the initiative and reduce the risks. It seems probable that Smollett was approached by the conger of seven booksellers whose names appear in all the volumes of the first edition. If that was indeed the case, their gamble paid off handsomely. A second edition of volume 1 followed hard on the heels of the first, of which few copies survive, suggesting that demand quickly outstripped the booksellers’ expectations. Some volumes appeared in as many as 6 editions by 1781, while further translations claiming to extend the edition were published well after Smollett’s death in 1771. To this day, however, the 36 volumes of The Works of Mr. de Voltaire published between 1761 and 1769 are commonly called the ‘Smollett edition’.

Title page of volume 1 of the second edition, which appears as vol.1 in most sets of the 1st edition.

As anyone familiar with the Voltaire Foundation will know, the production of Voltaire’s collected works, translated or otherwise, is a vast collaborative enterprise. And Smollett was no Besterman. He was neither the prime mover, nor the sole editor of the edition. Nor did he claim to be. In a letter to an American admirer in 1763 he admitted only to ‘a small part of the translation’, while his editorial notes in the 19 volumes of prose works that he oversaw suggest that his enthusiasm for ‘our author’, as he called Voltaire, was (at best) qualified. Although the title page in volume 1 of the 1761 edition attributes it solely to ‘Dr. Smollet [sic], and others’, by volume 2, the name T. Smollet, M.D. is joined by that of T. Francklin, M.A., one of the four ‘gentlemen of approved abilities’ who had worked with Smollett to launch the Critical Review. According to Eugène Joliat, the editors worked independently, and The Works of Mr de Voltaire were divided into two sets of volumes: Smollett took on the prose works, Francklin, a minor dramatist and successful translator, oversaw the set devoted to plays and poetry. But the active involvement of both men ceased in 1763, long before the first edition was completed.

The ‘Smollett edition’, therefore, is something of a misnomer. But that is not to belittle Smollett’s active editorial contribution. In a letter to Richard Smith, a month before he left for France in June 1763, Smollett indignantly declares himself ‘mortified’ by the rumour that he had merely lent his name to booksellers: ‘a species of Prostitution of which I am altogether incapable’. The charge was repeated, however, in the Monthly Review the following October in a bilious critique of the enterprise by William Kenrick, who had a score to settle with ‘the forehorse in the team of dulness’. ‘Poor’ Voltaire, lamented Kenrick, was the ‘mangled and expiring victim’ of ‘unknown and desperate bravoes’ whose intertextual butchery was endorsed by ‘men of character’ ready to make ‘a strange, and most illiberal sacrifice to Mammon’.

Monthly Review, October 1763.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground. Despite his success, Smollett was perennially short of money and doubtless exacted a substantial reward for his services from the booksellers. Moreover, he took care to distance himself from the translations themselves. But, as Chau Le-Thanh has shown, the copious ‘notes historical and critical’ in 19 volumes of the prose works are certainly his, and his role as editor (perhaps Francklin’s too) probably extended beyond that. Alexander Carlyle, describing a meeting with Smollett in 1758, hints at a possible scenario. He found Smollett in a coffee house among ‘minions to whom he prescribed tasks of translation, compilation, or abridgement, which, after he had seen, he recommended to the booksellers’.  It seems likely that Smollett turned to this atelier of ‘understrappers [and] journeymen’, as he describes them in Humphry Clinker, and set them to work on the laborious ‘business of book-making’ involved in this complex translation project.

Pages 5-6 of the Advertisement to the ‘Smollett’ edition (2nd edition).

Booksellers are not alone in being attracted by the aura of an author’s name. Scholars are similarly beguiled. Interest in the so-called ‘Smollett’ edition has come almost entirely from the field of English Studies and focuses primarily on Smollett’s part in it. Voltaireans have largely echoed Kenrick’s undifferentiated disdain for texts not penned by ‘their’ author. This is a missed opportunity. The edition is a remarkable example of ‘multiple translatorship’, and it was very successful throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. Its aim, as the Advertisement tell us, was not simply to assemble translations, but to ‘correct’, ‘elucidate’ and ‘explain’. The texts, peritexts and long afterlife of The Works of Mr de Voltaire have much to tell us about how Voltaire’s œuvre was represented, re-presented, and received by generations of English readers who wanted and needed to discover ‘Voltaire’ in their own tongue.

Adrienne Mason

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.

Conclusions

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.)

Note

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.