Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Houdon’s bust of Voltaire still dominates the entrance hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, and last week Voltaire was being quoted on Capitol Hill. In the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Trump, Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin, the House impeachment manager, quoted Thomas Paine on tyranny, and then Voltaire on why people commit atrocities: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

His speech was widely praised, and the quotation of Voltaire evidently struck a chord, being quickly picked up on social media – here is an extract from his speech.

The French ‘original’ of this quotation is easy enough to find on the web: ‘Ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités.’

The quotation has been much tweeted in France, including by the actor Fabrice Luchini in 2017, and a quick search of the web reveals that the quotation can be purchased, in English at least, and with varying wording, on tote bags and bumper stickers, a sure sign that it enjoys popular approval and recognition.

Congressman Jamie Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin.

However a Voltaire specialist writing in the Genevan newpaper Le Temps in 2015 pours cold water on this merchandise, describing the quotation in question as nothing more than a ‘hoax’.

It is perfectly true that the sentence as it stands cannot be found in Voltaire. Tout Voltaire is helpful here. In the whole of Voltaire’s writings we find 117 occurrences of ‘atrocité(s)’ and 311 instances of ‘absurdité(s)’ – these are clearly favoured Voltairean terms – but there is no instance of the two terms appearing in the plural in the same sentence. So where does this quotation come from?

A clue lies in the fact that the quotation is more often found on the web in English than in French, and is most frequently cited in the USA. As Walter Olson has previously suggested, in a blog from the Cato Institute in Washington DC, this quotation seems to derive from Norman Torrey (1894-1980), a distinguished American Voltaire scholar who did pioneering work investigating Voltaire’s library in what was then Leningrad. In his book Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and modern democracy (New York, 1960), he produces an anthology of eighteenth-century extracts, all chosen to resonate with our modern notions of liberal democracy, including this passage from Voltaire (p.277-78, the emphasis in bold is mine):

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag.

‘Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life.

‘In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.’

This passage comes from Questions on miracles, an important and intricate polemical work that has only been fully revealed recently, in the remarkable critical edition by Olivier Ferret and the late José-Michel Moureaux that appeared in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire in 2018.

Collection des lettres sur les miracles

Collection des lettres sur les miracles, title page (Neufchâtel [Genève], 1765).

The passage quoted above is from the eleventh letter – published as a separate pamphlet in 1765 – in what we now properly call Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Here is the French original (OCV, volume 60D, p.290-91; again, the emphasis in bold is mine):

‘Mais, Monsieur, en étant persuades par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c’est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie.

‘Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que ‘nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible, l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de mal faire, la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre cœur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.’

So the quotation that is now received usage seems to have been adapted from an English translation of Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles – and then promptly translated back into French. The position is summed up concisely but accurately in Oxford essential quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe (5th edition, OUP, 2017), which includes under ‘Voltaire’ this entry:

‘“Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust”, commonly quoted as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Questions sur les miracles, 1765).’

Don the Con

Voltaire, like all the philosophes, is preoccupied with prejudice, and fundamentally concerned with clarity of thinking and with the damage done when we think lazily. If we want to reduce injustice in the world, he tells us, then it is important not to give credit to things that are patently absurd. Voltaire had a genius for coining one-liners that sum up exactly an idea that needs to find expression at a particular moment.

So if the idea that ‘anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ has suddenly caught our attention, it must seem necessary to our present moment. And Voltaire understood better than anyone that well-turned phrases catch on and are repeated. A poster designed by Rick Frausto, currently advertised online, and entitled ‘Don the Con’, gives new life to the Voltaire quotation employed in Jamie Raskin’s speech.

Nicholas Cronk

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.

Voltaire in Korea

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

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

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

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

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

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

A study guide to Candide in Korean

A study guide to Candide in Korean.

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

Nicholas Cronk and Minchul Kim

Montesquieu, the Persian Rousseau, and Napoleon’s French Revolution in India

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn. (Rijksmuseum)

The year 2021 marks the tercentenary of the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. At first glance, the philosophe who penned a novel about a fictional Persian’s travels to Paris in the first half of the eighteenth century seems to have little in common with the Corsican who marched his army across three continents at its end. But in fact both men were motivated by the same sequence of events to cast their eyes towards Persia. Pierre Victor Michel’s embassy to Shah Soltan Hosayn in 1708 and Mohammad Reza Beg’s delegation to Louis XIV in 1715 inspired Montesquieu’s peripatetic Persian protagonist and Napoleon’s 1808 treaty with Persia’s Fath-Ali Shah. Napoleon was an avid student of Persian history. His admiration for Persian conqueror Nader Shah ran so deep that he brokered his treaty to continue Nader’s invasion of the Asian subcontinent and bill it as a French Revolution in India.

Nader Shah

Nader Shah. (Unknown artist, Victoria and Albert Museum)

One of the chief architects of this revolution was Jean-François Xavier Rousseau, a forgotten Persian first cousin of another philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike the Citizen of Geneva, who eschewed trans-imperial trade and warned against commercial luxury, Jean-François embraced it. His father Jacques had arrived in Persia as part of Louis XIV’s first official delegation to Soltan Hosayn in 1706. He remained there and became jeweller to the Safavid and Afsharid shahs. Jacques’s son was born in Isfahan in 1738. By the age of eighteen, Jean-François secured a position as chancellor of trade in Basra. Following the deaths of the French consuls of Baghdad and Basra in the Great Persian Plague Epidemic of 1773, he assumed their consulships for three decades. Across the reigns of the Zands and the Qajar shah Fath-Ali, Jean-François lobbied Persian rulers, French kings and revolutionary governments to establish alliances while he organized plans for their joint conquest of India.

Jean-François’s project ran contrary to the French Bourbon monarchy’s long-standing partnership with the Ottomans. But from the late seventeenth century, missionaries and entrepreneurs who hoped to enrich themselves and grow French influence further east had peddled the idea of negotiating trade agreements with Turkey’s adversary, Persia. Following Michel’s commercial treaty with Soltan Hosayn in 1708, abbé Martin Gaudereau, Jean Billon de Canserilles, and Greek-French drogman-turned-consul Etienne Padéry attempted to convince Louis XIV, the duc d’Orléans, and Louis XV to secure more privileges by providing weapons and ships that the Safavids and their successors needed to suppress tributary populations and imperial competitors. Persia’s borderland violence intensified as famine and plague forced the Baluch, Kurdish, Ghilji, and Abdali tribes to migrate into the empire and the Omani Ya’rubids fought for control of the Gulf. Having exhausted English and Dutch aid, the Persians increasingly turned to France.

French rulers who sought to repair their global reputation following the disastrous Seven Years War found Persia’s entreaties enticing. Louis XV’s foreign minister, Etienne François, duc de Choiseul, toyed with the idea of colonizing Egypt and weighed opportunities in Basra and Baghdad to weaken Britain’s India trade. Under his direction, Jean-François Rousseau negotiated an agreement with Shah Karim Khan Zand to support French shipping through the Persian Gulf. Plague, borderland conflicts, and succession crises frustrated these plans. But Jean-François continued to lobby for a belligerent anti-British policy in western and south Asia. Following the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, he repackaged his project for a Franco-Persian offensive on India as a logical continuation of the French Revolution.

Napoleon breathed new life into Jean-François’s plans. Imagining a French corridor from Africa across the Indian Ocean and fantasizing being crowned emperor in Asia, he corresponded with Fath-Ali Shah, promising military aid against the Russians in exchange for a joint assault on India. Jean-François submitted a Tableau général de la Perse to Charles de Talleyrand, co-authored with his son Joseph and outlining plans for French marines to join Persians, Afghans, and Sikhs in the Gulf of Sindh, march on Delhi, and seize ‘the places that have knelt under the yoke of British domination’ (see ‘References’ below, no.1). The ‘liberation’ of the subcontinent would allow Napoleon and his Persian ally to surpass Nader Shah as warriors of the century.

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard (1810).

But as soon as Napoleon signed his Treaty of Finkenstein with Fath-Ali’s ambassador Mirza Mohammed Reza Qasvini in 1807, he abandoned Persia and set his sights on Eastern Europe. Jean-François died in Aleppo the same year. While the subcontinent was spared a French offensive, Napoleon’s about-face reignited the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13. Without French aid Fath-Ali could not prevent carnage in the disputed northern frontier as Tsar Alexander drove a wedge into the Caucasus.

So the French Revolution in India never materialized. Then why remember another of Napoleon’s failures? Historians who studied eighteenth-century political ruptures traditionally ignored Asia, focusing on the three revolutions in England, France, and North America. But these were just a few of many political earthquakes that shattered old regimes during the Age of Revolutions. European contemporaries who witnessed the Siamese Revolution of 1688, the janissaries’ revolt against Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (1703), Mahmud Hotaki’s siege of Isfahan (1722), and Nader Shah’s conquest of India (1738-40) described them as Asian ‘revolutions’, reflected on their causes, and mused over their effects on politics at home.

But as western powers jockeyed for global dominance, European elites consolidated a view, made famous by Montesquieu, that in Asia ‘power is always despotic’ and ‘liberty never grows’ (see ‘References’, below, no.2). The more they associated ‘revolution’ with a modern, democratic experiment, they saw its ideals as exclusively European. Asia was written out of the history of revolutionary progress, and labelled a political aberration. It is time to insert it back in. When we reconsider the Age of Revolutions globally we can better understand how two of the most significant processes of the century – competition among Eurasian empires and the development of democratic revolutions – were more intertwined than scholars have allowed.

Iran and a French empire of trade, 1700-1808: The other Persian letters is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


  1. Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères (La Courneuve), Correspondance politique Perse [AE CP] 8.64, f.182-89v, Jean-François Rousseau to Talleyrand, 28 vendémaire An XII (October 20, 1804); AE CP Perse 8.89, f.236, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 25 ventôse An XIII (March 20, 1805).
  2. Montesquieu, ‘Cause de l’immutabilité de la religion, des mœurs, des manières, des loix, dans les pays d’orient’, De l’esprit des lois, book 14, ch.4, p.288.

Junko Takeda, Syracuse University

A version of this text appeared on the Liverpool University Press blog.

Albert et Zemmour contre Voltaire. L’extrême droite contre Voltaire: mensonges et falsifications

Faut-il brûler Sade?’ demandait Simone de Beauvoir en 1955 quand les livres du ‘divin marquis’ pourrissaient encore dans l’Enfer de la Bibliothèque nationale. Certains, de nos jours, aimeraient bien y précipiter tous les livres de Voltaire, au moment même où la première collection véritablement complète de ses œuvres vient d’être publiée à Oxford au terme d’un travail de plus de cinquante ans. Tandis que Boulevard Voltaire et autres Réseau Voltaire se réclament contre toute vraisemblance de sa liberté d’esprit, les champions de l’antiracisme s’unissent aux défenseurs de l’Europe chrétienne pour le vouer aux gémonies: au Panthéon des hommes infâmes, Voltaire occupe désormais une place de choix. Antichrétien et islamophobe, raciste et esclavagiste, capitaliste et méprisant envers le peuple, il aurait confondu sa justice avec la Justice et imposé la civilisation du bourgeois blanc français mâle au nom de l’universalisme des Lumières. Sans compter que de sa tombe au Panthéon, son hideux sourire empêche son voisin d’en face de dormir.

Le tombeau de Voltaire au Panthéon

Le tombeau de Voltaire au Panthéon. (Photo: Yann Caradec, Wikimedia Commons)

Aujourd’hui, c’est Valeurs actuelles qui s’y met, dans un long article de l’historien Jean-Marc Albert publié le 8 août 2020 sur le site web du magazine (voir ci-dessous, note 1). Deux ans plus tôt, c’est l’essayiste Eric Zemmour, qu’on ne présente plus, qui publiait un portrait au vitriol de Voltaire dans Destin français (Albin Michel, 2018). Pourquoi tant de haine? se demande, incrédule, le Français moyen qui a probablement lu Candide dans sa jeunesse et acheté le Traité sur la tolérance après les attentats de janvier 2015. La réponse se tient en trois mots: la haine des Lumières. ‘La raison’, éructe Zemmour, ‘corrode tout, mine tout, détruit tout. La tradition est balayée. Le dogme religieux ne s’en remettra pas. La monarchie suivra.’ Derrière l’entreprise de démolition de Voltaire se cache la haine de 1789, ‘la grande saturnale de la Révolution française’, toujours selon l’inénarrable Zemmour. Une fois de plus, l’hallali contre l’esprit des Lumières est sonné. Une fois de plus, on conspue Voltaire, la ‘figure tutélaire’ des intellectuels engagés, ‘icône de l’idée républicaine’ selon Albert.

Traité sur la tolérance

Traité sur la tolérance (1753), p.1.

Entendons-nous bien. Personne n’est obligé d’aimer Voltaire, ni l’homme ni l’écrivain. De toute façon, il ne reste pas grand-chose de ses œuvres: Candide et quelques autres contes philosophiques, les Lettres philosophiques et le Dictionnaire philosophique, deux œuvres emblématiques qu’on étudie encore à la fac, et bien sûr le Traité sur la tolérance dont tout le monde a entendu parler. On peut légitimement préférer à ces écrits La Nouvelle Héloïse de Rousseau, la Recherche de Proust ou tout Houellebecq. On peut tout aussi légitimement dénoncer les indélicatesses de l’homme Voltaire, ses mensonges, ses flagorneries, ses jalousies, voire ses contradictions; on peut déplorer qu’il ait méprisé la ‘multitude’, on peut fustiger son anticléricalisme, et pourtant s’exclamer avec lui à la lecture d’Albert et Zemmour: ‘Est-il possible que ceux qui pensent soient avilis par ceux qui ne pensent pas?’ (lettre à Duclos du 22 octobre 1760, D9340). La question n’est pas là. Il ne s’agit ni de promouvoir l’œuvre de Voltaire ni de réhabiliter l’homme; il s’agit de dénoncer les contre-vérités et les mensonges proférés à son encontre par un historien et un essayiste en vue qui détestent Voltaire sans l’avoir lu ni s’être donné la peine de faire le minimum de travail de recherche qu’on est en droit d’attendre de n’importe quel titulaire d’une licence, même réactionnaire. Il n’est pas interdit de déverser sa haine sur des personnes mortes depuis longtemps, mais encore faut-il que les arguments soient irréprochables. Or c’est loin d’être le cas.

Statue de Voltaire à Paris vandalisée en juin 2020

Statue de Voltaire à Paris vandalisée en juin 2020. (Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes)

Zemmour est sincèrement scandalisé du prétendu mépris de Voltaire pour ses contemporains, à commencer par les pauvres: ‘Les frères de la doctrine chrétienne’, lui fait-il dire, ‘sont survenus pour achever de tout perdre: ils apprennent à lire et à écrire à des gens qui n’eussent dû apprendre qu’à dessiner et à manier le rabot et la lime, mais qui ne veulent plus le faire.’ Ce qui est réellement scandalisant, c’est que Zemmour a lu trop vite sa source, probablement l’Histoire des guerres civiles de France de Laponneraye et Hippolyte Lucas (1847). La phrase ne se trouve pas chez Voltaire, mais dans l’Essai sur l’éducation nationale (1763) de La Chalotais. Après le mépris des pauvres, le mépris du peuple: ‘C’est une très grande question de savoir jusqu’à quel degré le peuple, c’est-à-dire neuf parts du genre humain sur dix, doit être traité comme des singes’, lit-on dans Jusqu’à quel point on doit tromper le peuple (1756). Zemmour cite cette phrase sans (vouloir) se rendre compte qu’elle est ironique: ce sont les prêtres de tout poil, insinue Voltaire, qui traitent le peuple de singes en les trompant avec des superstitions révoltantes. Mépris des Français, enfin, la ‘chiasse du genre humain’. Arrachée de son contexte, l’expression est choquante. En réalité, Voltaire se désole qu’à cause de la conduite désastreuse de la guerre de Sept Ans, ‘toutes les nations nous insultent et nous méprisent. […] Pendant que nous sommes la chiasse du genre humain, on parle français à Moscou et à Yassy; mais à qui doit-on ce petit honneur? A une douzaine de citoyens qu’on persécute dans leur patrie’ (lettre à d’Argental du 4 avril 1762, D10404). Voilà comment, à coup de citations tronquées, faussement attribuées ou arrachées de leur contexte, un essayiste sans grand talent fait dire à Voltaire le contraire de ce qu’il pensait.

Passons à Jean-Marc Albert, la voix de son maître. A en croire l’historien, Voltaire se révèle tellement ‘cupide, misogyne, homophobe, hostile aux Juifs et à Mahomet’ dans son Dictionnaire philosophique que celui-ci a été ‘soigneusement épuré depuis’. Voltaire expurgé par nos ‘bien-pensants’ modernes? Albert a déniché cette allégation absurde dans un article de Roger-Pol Droit paru dans Le Point du 2 août 2012 où le philosophe nous présente, sous le titre ‘La face cachée de Voltaire’, un Voltaire inconnu, antipathique, abject’ (voir ci-dessous, note 2), antisémite et misogyne à tel point que les articles ‘Femme’ et ‘Juif’ ont été bannis des éditions modernes de son Dictionnaire philosophique. Or l’explication de cette ‘disparition’ est simple: les deux articles en question ne se trouvent pas dans les différentes éditions du Dictionnaire parues du vivant de Voltaire. Comme bien d’autres avant lui, Roger-Pol Droit a confondu le texte original du Dictionnaire philosophique portatif avec un Dictionnaire philosophique publié après la mort de Voltaire, véritable monstre éditorial concocté sans la collaboration de l’auteur, récemment réédité (Bompiani, 2013) sans qu’une seule virgule en soit supprimée. Un regard jeté dans une édition moderne du véritable Dictionnaire philosophique aurait immédiatement dissipé l’erreur, mais encore fallait-il s’en donner la peine.

Dictionnaire philosophique portatif

Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (Londres, 1764).

Albert a raison de dire que la fameuse phrase ‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrais toujours pour que vous puissiez le dire’ n’a jamais été prononcée par Voltaire. Mais faut-il pour autant le calomnier à outrance? Cet apôtre de la tolérance, nous informe-t-il, aurait tenté d’‘étrangler’ le libraire genevois Grasset! Agé de 61 ans à l’époque des faits et de constitution fragile, cela est peu probable. Il est vrai qu’au cours d’une mémorable scène, Voltaire a tenté d’arracher au jeune Grasset un extrait de La Pucelle d’Orléans que celui-ci, venu aux Délices probablement dans l’intention de faire chanter son auteur, tenait dans sa poche. Exilé à Genève, Voltaire craignait que son poème burlesque sur la jeune Lorraine, que des éditions pirates ont augmenté de détails piquants auxquels il n’avait aucune part, tombassent entre les mains du roi, qui le tenait alors arbitrairement éloigné de la capitale. On comprend que Voltaire fît déférer le maître-chanteur devant les magistrats. Mais sous la plume d’Albert, la victime n’est pas celui qu’on croit: Voltaire ‘fait emprisonner le malheureux qui sera banni’. Calumniare audacter…

Aucun écrivain n’eut davantage à souffrir de la calomnie que Voltaire. Dès son vivant, on lui attribua des lettres fabriquées de toutes pièces visant à nuire à sa réputation. Voltaire s’en plaignait amèrement, tout comme il s’insurgeait contre les fausses lettres publiées sous le nom de Madame de Pompadour par des folliculaires sans scrupules ‘pour gagner un peu d’argent’ (lettre au duc de Richelieu du 13 juillet 1772, D17826). C’est dans cette circonstance précise que Voltaire écrit la phrase suivante qui, arrachée de son contexte, est brandie par Zemmour pour prouver la ‘face noire’ de l’écrivain qu’il abhorre: ‘Nous avions besoin autrefois qu’on encourageât la littérature et aujourd’hui il faut avouer que nous avons besoin qu’on la réprime.’ Après la lecture d’Albert et Zemmour, on est tenté de s’écrier avec Voltaire: ‘Est-il possible que tant de gens de lettres soient coupables d’une telle infamie?’

Gerhardt Stenger, Maître de conférences émérite à l’Université de Nantes


  1. L’article Wikipédia qui est consacré à Albert nous apprend qu’il est ‘spécialiste de l’histoire culinaire et des comportements alimentaires de l’Antiquité à nos jours’. Excellente prédisposition pour écrire un article sur Voltaire.
  2. Roger-Pol Droit vient de publier un roman sur Voltaire et Rousseau, une amitié impossible (Albin Michel, 2019), où on découvre un ‘Voltaire adulé et mondain, affairiste et généreux, candide et manipulateur’.

Une version de ce texte parut dans Mediapart blog en janvier 2021.

‘A la manière de Voltaire’ – contrefaçons et découvertes

La Henriade

La Henriade (Londres, 1741), page de titre. (BnF)

On ne prête qu’aux riches. Ce proverbe chaque jour vérifié éclaire les origines du volume le plus étonnant de la collection des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Complete works of Voltaire), publiée à la Voltaire Foundation d’Oxford, volume 146. L’entreprise paraît marginale, quand on songe que ce volume va figurer sur les rayons à côté de La Henriade et du Dictionnaire philosophique. Or elle n’appelle pas seulement l’admiration à cause de la prodigieuse enquête et des multiples éclaircissements qu’elle a exigés des éditeurs. Elle invite à une découverte passionnante. Il s’agit du recueil, aussi complet que possible, des vers attribués à Voltaire sans qu’ils soient toujours en réalité de sa plume.

Il est paradoxal qu’une entreprise comme celle des Œuvres complètes, qui a pour premier objet de donner à lire toutes les œuvres de l’écrivain sous leur forme la plus authentique, débarrassée de toutes les altérations qu’elles ont pu subir au cours des temps, des suites apocryphes, des atténuations et des adaptations, se donne pour tâche, alors qu’elle atteint presque son achèvement, de fournir le texte magnifiquement édité de poèmes fabriqués par des inconnus ou obscurs plumitifs à la manière de Voltaire. C’est donner à la contrefaçon le sacre de l’édition critique, le label de la plus célèbre des entreprises modernes consacrées à la célébration du génie voltairien. C’est travailler au rebours de la longue suite d’érudits qui, depuis la Renaissance, s’attachent à nettoyer les traditions incertaines pour livrer à l’imprimerie, dans toute sa splendeur, dans toute sa pureté, le texte même sorti du stylet, puis de la plume de ces grands hommes, les auteurs consacrés par des générations d’admirateurs.

Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire

‘Elle a su m’enseigner ce que je dus écrire’, manuscrit de la collection Doubrowski de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie, Saint-Pétersbourg.

Publier les Poésies attribuées à Voltaire, c’est dans une large mesure édifier un musée de la contrefaçon au sein même du Musée du Louvre. Mais dans une certaine mesure seulement. Car le travail minutieux des éditeurs, sous la direction de Simon Davies, a permis de retrouver parfois des vers authentiques de Voltaire, qui avaient échappé aux éditions de ses œuvres, et qui n’étaient conservés qu’en copies manuscrites. Par exemple, nous sont révélés grâce à cette enquête immense dans les périodiques, dans les recueils, dans les fonds manuscrits cinq vers inédits, retrouvés dans les papiers de Cideville, l’ami rouennais de Voltaire, ou un poème à Mme Du Deffand, inséré dans une lettre. Beaucoup d’autres petits poèmes, un tiers environ du total des 170 textes rassemblés, peuvent être attribués à l’écrivain avec certitude ou probabilité, et ont été imprimés de son vivant sous son nom, sans avoir été recueillis en volumes. Le reste est probablement apocryphe.

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis

Sur l’opéra de Sémiramis, Papiers Cideville, Rouen.

N’attendons pas la révélation du chef-d’œuvre inconnu. L’intérêt puissant de cette masse de poèmes, brefs ou longs, qu’on a lus jadis pour des vers du célèbre écrivain, est ailleurs: elle permet de saisir ce qui, au XVIIIe siècle, correspondait dans l’idée du public au style de Voltaire, ce qui avait l’air de porter la marque de son génie propre. Par là ce volume si particulier constitue un apport original et significatif aux études de réception de son œuvre, à la connaissance des attentes du public pour ce qui le concerne. (Sur cette question, voir mon livre sous presse chez Droz, Genève, Voltaire et son lecteur: essai sur la séduction littéraire.) Il est certain que le public du temps, contrairement à la postérité, attend de Voltaire avant tout des œuvres en vers; la fameuse formule du Neveu de Rameau, ‘un poète, c’est de Voltaire’, reflète une évidence pour les contemporains. Jusqu’à Candide au moins, dicté par un écrivain qui atteint l’âge de nos retraites, le public attend de Voltaire des œuvres en vers, le reste ayant un statut marginal, et ces œuvres, il les lit et les connaît familièrement, souvent par cœur. De là la prolifération des imitations, fondement principal de ces ‘vers attribués’.

Opuscules poétiques

Un livre témoin de la passion populaire pour la poésie de Voltaire, les Opuscules poétiques (Amsterdam, [1773]). (BnF)

Pour qui est familier de l’ensemble de l’œuvre de l’écrivain, cet ensemble offre un visage vaguement familier, ressemblant mais déformé. La ressemblance naît de la communauté des thèmes: la satire antireligieuse, les réflexions sur la sagesse et le bonheur, mais surtout de la recherche d’une parfaite élégance dans des petits genres inspirés par la galanterie et la sociabilité, du madrigal aux épîtres et aux bouts-rimés. Les pièces brèves sont les plus nombreuses, mais une Apothéose du roi Pétaut ou une Ode au roi de Prusse rappellent aussi les grands poèmes philosophiques ou satiriques qui ont tant contribué au succès et à la gloire du ‘poète-philosophe’. Toutefois la ressemblance se perd presque partout dans les imperfections de l’exécution. C’est en feuilletant les vers de ses imitateurs, qui furent ses admirateurs, que l’on mesure la supériorité du poète Voltaire en son siècle: un maître des moyens poétiques à la française, des rimes, du jeu des vers mêlés, du choix des mots ‘mis en leur place’, de l’éloquence et des chutes foudroyantes. Par cette étonnante somme de vers retrouvés, d’authenticité incertaine pour la plupart, témoignage éclairant de l’admiration de ses contemporains, la stature du grand homme sort grandie.

– Sylvain Menant

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

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

Gustave Lanson

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

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

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

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson (1909).

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

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

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

Lettres philosophiques, ed. Gustave Lanson

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

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

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

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

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition

Letters concerning the English nation, first edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Cronk

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


Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.

Jacques Pierre Brissot and Charles Burney: unpublished letters reveal a dance to society’s music

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds. (National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Burney (1726-1814), eminent music historian and man of letters, son of a musician and dancer, was a central figure in the literary, artistic and musical world of late eighteenth-century London, regularly to be found at Joshua Reynolds’ dining club among the leading figures of the day.

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville, c.1790. (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

In February 1783 the French philosopher and politician Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), known as Brissot de Warville, moved to London with his wife, Félicité Dupont, a year after their marriage. Shortly after his arrival Brissot met Burney at the home of the lawyer and pamphleteer Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736-1794). About a month later, on 16 March 1783, Brissot wrote to Burney, in French, from his lodgings in Brompton Row, initiating a correspondence that would continue for several months. In his letter, intended to renew their recent acquaintance, Brissot expressed his high esteem for Burney’s General history of music (1776-1789), of which the first two of four volumes had been published, and indicated his eagerness to meet Burney again. Enclosed with the letter was a prospectus for a forthcoming periodical, in which Brissot hoped to reproduce a portrait of Burney’s daughter Frances (1752-1840), whose bestselling first novel Evelina (1778) had recently been followed by the much longer and also highly successful Cecilia (1782).

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

This intriguing letter, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, has never been published, although it is briefly summarized in the notes to the first volume of Burney’s letters, the only one published to date. (The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, vol. 1, 1751-1784, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., Oxford, 1991, p.357. Five further volumes of this edition are now in progress, under my general editorship; Burney’s letters to Brissot will be published as an appendix to volume six.) This volume does include an undated draft of Burney’s reply, which he wrote, in laboured French dictated to Frances, on the verso of the second page of Brissot’s letter. Burney here tells Brissot that although his daughter is flattered by the request, she cannot grant it. Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia, had also wished to reproduce her portrait as the frontispiece to the fourth edition, ‘mais y ayant une répugnance invincible, elle lui a donné un refus absolu’ (p.358). Unknown to Ribeiro, the fair copy of this letter, in Charles Burney’s hand and dated 25 March 1783, is also extant, in the Fonds Brissot of the Archives nationales de France. This copy contains a concluding paragraph, absent from the draft published by Ribeiro, in which Burney cagily tells Brissot that while he would like to invite him for a visit to the Burneys’ home on St Martin’s Street, ‘je suis si rarement au logis, qu’il m’est à cet heure impossible de trouver un moment pour entretenir mes amis les plus intimes’.

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney. (National Portrait Gallery)

Brissot’s reply to Burney’s letter, probably sent in late March, is missing. But Burney’s response to that letter, written on 2 April 1783, is also in the Fonds Brissot, together with three further hitherto unknown letters by Burney. This cache of material was discovered by the historian of eighteenth-century Anglo-French relations Simon MacDonald, to whom I much indebted. I am also grateful to the Burney scholar Lorna Clark, for providing me with photographs and draft transcriptions of the letters.

In his April letter to Brissot, Burney addresses his new correspondent in English, in preference to what he terms ‘the miserable French I am able to write’. He thanks Brissot for the interest he has taken in Frances Burney’s novels, and ‘the frank manner in which you have spoken of their merits & defects’; in the absence of Brissot’s letter, regrettably, the nature of these criticisms remains unknown. Burney next alludes to remarks that Brissot has made about Voltaire, who, ‘with all his wit & reputation, has never been able to convince the English that Shakespeare was a Barbarian, any more than many eminent Writers among my Countrymen, have been able to persuade the French that their taste in many things is false and frivolous’. He looks forward, he claims, to discussing ‘Literary projects’ mentioned by Brissot, but cannot spare time for a meeting at present, since he is immersed in volume three of the History of music.

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763. (Fonds Brissot, Archives nationales de France)

The third letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot is a note dated Saturday 12 July, sent from St Martin’s Street to Brissot at Brompton Row. Here Burney invites Brissot and his wife for a visit ‘next Friday afternoon’. Another note by Burney in the Fonds, dated 23 July, reveals that the visit had not materialized; instead Burney proposes another afternoon visit to take place on the following day. Brissot, however, somehow mistook the date for this second invitation. In a letter to Burney of 29 July, held by the Beinecke Library, he apologizes for the misunderstanding, and hopes to make amends by enclosing a copy of the Mercure d’Allemagne containing his review of Cecilia, of which a German translation had been published in Leipzig earlier that year. (See Catherine M. Parisian, Frances Burney’s Cecilia: a publishing history, Burlington, 2012, p.336.)

A fifth and final letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot, written on 1 August 1783, reveals that the Brissots had made a visit to St Martin’s Street but without finding the family at home. Burney was ‘extremely mortified & concerned’ at having missed them, but hoped that they would still be able to meet, either at his home or at the Brissots’ lodgings. In the event, the Brissots did eventually come to St Martin’s Street, as an extensive note appended by Frances Burney to Brisot’s letter of 29 July reveals. Writing long after the event, Frances reports that there was an ‘Evening Rendez-Vous’. Brissot was ‘rather agreeable, from fullness of literary information’, while his wife was ‘very young, & very civil, & a sort of flaming beauty, by the dazzling crimson of her natural complexion, & lustre of her Eyes’. Brissot, however, then made the fatal mistake of leaving London to join the ‘dreadful Duke d’Orleans’, and ‘Ten years after this peaceful meeting … he was Guiliotined [sic], with 20 other Members of The Convention!’

No further correspondence between Brissot and Burney is known to be extant, but in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) the eighty-year old Frances, now the widowed Mme d’Arblay, provides a four-page account of the letters and meetings of 1783. Over the years she had turned against Brissot, and her portrait of him is distinctly hostile. He had, she claims, ‘a certain low-bred fullness and forwardness of look, even in the midst of professions of humility and respect, that were by no means attractive to Dr. Burney’. Her father thus avoided ‘this latent demagogue’, whose ‘jacobinical harangues and proceedings, five years later, were blazoned to the world by the republican gazettes’. Brissot’s ‘pretty wife’, she added, seemed unobjectionable, but Burney ‘always regretted that he had been deluded into shewing even the smallest token of hospitality to her intriguing husband’ (Memoirs, II, 336, 337). Thanks to the newly discovered letters in the Fonds Brissot, we can now, for the first time, compare Frances Burney’s harsh retrospective account of 1832 with the delicate social manoeuvring revealed by surviving correspondence between Brissot and Dr Burney in 1783.

Peter Sabor


What can abbé de Saint-Pierre tell us about the political Enlightenment?

Can an author wishing to establish the monarchy in the first decades of the 18th century belong to the Enlightenment, which associated itself with human rights, political freedom and popular sovereignty? In La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre: une science politique des Modernes I wanted to emphasize that the writings of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre (1645-1730), invite us to question the chronology, the themes and the areas of influence of a polymorphic emancipatory movement whose legitimizing function leads to a neglect of its complexity and points of tension.

Abbé de Saint-Pierre

Abbé de Saint-Pierre, after François de Troy. (Institut de France)

Saint-Pierre defends the indivisible power of the monarch, redefines access to the nobility and its prerogatives, and assigns religion and the Church an essential role of education and assistance. He thus maintains the pillars of the Ancien Régime, which the French Revolution was going to destroy, rejecting the attempts to reform the monarchy on the side of a bygone world. To interpret what preceded from what followed feeds a retrospective and teleological point of view which has recently been reinforced by the application of the concept of radical Enlightenment to the political arena. Defined as republican, democratic and egalitarian, the Enlightenment, presented as the guarantor of the values of Western modernity, overshadows what has been called ‘the royal thesis’, which made monarchical authority a means of carrying out reforms. Is this thesis contrary to the political Enlightenment; is it an unfinished, incomplete form, or one of its aspects? I ask these questions in my book, not to make the Enlightenment a criterion by which we should judge or rehabilitate the projects of Saint-Pierre, but to examine certain little-known aspects and contradictions.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

La Monarchie éclairée de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:11.

The abbé de Saint-Pierre condemned the hereditary dignities and the venal offices, the recommendations, the clienteles, which structured the society of his time and which played an essential role in the exercise of power, whereas other undisputed representatives of the Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu, defended the venality of offices, the role of parliaments and the nobility as a counterweight to the power of the sovereign. Within the framework of the monarchy, Saint-Pierre supposes a social contract that guarantees the well-being of everyone, with a duty, if not of results then of means. For him, the general interest cannot be protected by the compromising of particular interests, opposed in their principle to the ethics of reciprocity, but rather by a single power, which must answer to public opinion and assume sole responsibility for its decisions when exposed to criticism. Education, the social control disciplining subjects without integrating them into political decision – if Saint-Pierre promotes the education of the common people, the State must ensure the slow progress of universal reason through political stability, sustaining the autonomy and the authority of the able and scholarly elites.

In this interrogation of the political Enlightenment, my work looks towards the East, the proponents of a ‘good police’ and an authoritarian welfare state, studying the connections forged by Saint-Pierre to Germany and Prussia. A monarchical framework perceived as the guardian of efficiency and rationality, the promotion of social discipline with a paternalistic tendency, seemed to be compatible with the public use of reason and independent political thinking. This imposes a higher duty of telling the truth and spreading one’s ideas publicly in print, which earned the abbé his eviction from the Académie française and left him no choice but to publish abroad in Holland.

The ambivalence of reason, between despotism and light, which fully belongs to the heritage of the Aufklärung, as Antoine Lilti points out in his latest book on Michel Foucault, seems to perfectly apply to the writings of Saint-Pierre. (See Antoine Lilti, L’Héritage des Lumières, Ambivalences de la modernité, Paris, 2019, p.380.)

– Carole Dornier, University of Caen Normandy, France

A version of this text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog for November 2020.