A plurality of inhabited worlds: life on other planets from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Galileo with his telescope in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. Wood engraving (Wellcome Collection).

During the Early Modern period, the learned community widely believed in the existence of anthropomorphic extra-terrestrials (Brake, 2006). Nevertheless, scholars disagreed on pretty much every other aspect of the topic, from the form that such extra-terrestrial societies might take, to their natural laws, languages, fauna and flora, theological status, forms of worship and governments. This blogpost explores this little-known dimension of Early Modern culture, and its evolution from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.

The wider question of how the Western world transitioned within a century from a view where the existence of extra-terrestrial life was the norm to a contemporary one where life on Earth is possibly an exception has been the focus of renewed historical discussion in the last thirty years. This transition has been attributed to the joint advancement of astronomical knowledge and Western secularisation, which meant that traditional arguments about the plurality of inhabited worlds started to lose ground at the end of the Enlightenment period. This is not to say however that such ideas disappeared completely: contemporary historians such as Gabriel McKee have shown the enduring, influential presence of religion within contemporary science fiction (McKee, 2007). More broadly, beyond the field of history, the natural sciences have seen the apparition of exciting disciplines such as exobiology, while the growing interdisciplinary field of space humanities allows intellectual history, history of science, theology and literature to provide longue durée insights into those debates.

William Derham, Astro-theology, or a demonstration of the being and attributes of God from a survey of the heavens (London, 1715) (Heritage Auctions).

From the late Renaissance to the Enlightenment period, the debate about life on other planets was commonly known as the plurality of worlds. A sub-discipline of theology even emerged to deal specifically with the religious implications of the debate: the English bishop William Derham called it ‘Astro-theology’. The Early Modern taste for the plurality of worlds stemmed from the period’s renewed engagement with classical literature on the subject. Harking back to the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata, travelogues to the moon had been common since Antiquity. According to Mark Brake, extra-terrestrial life was widely believed amongst the early Greek philosophers, particularly Epicureans. In Early Modern times ‘Every important cosmology of the seventeenth century and later holds Copernicanism, and pluralism, as a fundamental notion’ (Brake, 2006). This consensus was based on four main arguments.

The four main points of consensus within the plurality of worlds debate were concerned with arguments of teleology, plenitude, probability, and anthropomorphism. The argument of teleology was derived from Aristotelian scholasticism and postulated that the function of a world is to shelter life. Since the universe is filled with worlds, therefore these worlds must be filled with life.

The second argument of plenitude derived from the first: if the function of a world was indeed to shelter life, then God would most likely populate all the planets of the universe with life, as a universe filled with lifeless worlds would have no function.

The third argument of probability is the most familiar to us today: although Early Modern scholars clashed vividly about whether the universe was finite, indefinite (René Descartes) or infinite (Giordano Bruno, Henry More), most agreed that the universe contained so many worlds that the idea of life being present on only one planet verged on the absurd.

The argument of anthropomorphism finally discussed the forms that extra-terrestrial life would take. Strikingly, no one in the Early Modern period seemed to believe that extra-terrestrials could have a non-human form – although disagreements about size, height, skin colour, savagery and gait were common. This was largely because of the dominant Christian framework which held that God had made man in his image (Genesis 1:27), a consideration generally present in other Abrahamic religions, such as Islam and Judaism (Goushey, 2022).

Let us not be naive however: although natural philosophers might have agreed on basic arguments of teleology, plenitude, probability and anthropomorphism to support the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life, they still disagreed on pretty much everything else. Philip Almond summed it well by underlining that it was a debate in which, on its religious side, ‘only the most theologically brave ventured to go’ (Almond, 2006). On one hand, scholars like Johannes Kepler, Christian Huygens, Isaac Newton and Emanuel Swedenborg did see life on other planets as more than compatible with Christianity: for them it was yet another proof of the existence of God. Yet the theological issues it raised for Christianity were numerous: Giordano Bruno got burned for various reasons, including the wider arguments he inferred from his belief in the plurality of worlds. Major disagreements amongst the learned included whether anthropomorphic extra-terrestrials belonged to the Adamic race or to another variety of human (polygenesis); had there been a primordial couple on every planet? Had God incarnated himself under human form on other worlds as well? Or was there only one Messiah for the whole universe? If so, how could the Gentiles from outer space ever be saved? Would they ever go to heaven, or hell? If so, would it even be the same heaven as Earthlings?

Engraving by Bernard Picart for the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686) in Œuvres diverses de Monsieur de Fontenelle, 3 vol. (La Haye, Gosse et Neaulme, 1728-1729), vol.1, between pages 148 and 149 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Because of these tensions, David Dunér has argued that a large consensus on extra-terrestrial life only fully emerged in the eighteenth century, as the question of life on other planets became claimed by physico-theologists, while in earlier periods it was a more divisive theological issue, as exemplified by the case of Giordano Bruno (Dunér, 2016). However, the possibility of an earlier widely held belief from the late Renaissance onwards might still be regarded as a possibility. Why? Because the plurality of worlds debate extended beyond astronomical and theological debates into a popular literary, satirical and philosophical genre derived from the classical tradition of Lucian of Samosata. This included works such as Kepler’s Somnium (1608), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638), Athanasius Kircher’s Itinerarium ecstaticum (1656), Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des États et Empires de la Lune (1657), Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666) and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1686). These works show that popular belief in extra-terrestrial life found a widespread readership beyond specialist scientific or theological circles during the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the topic became commonly discussed in the salons as a pleasant thought-experiment linked to travel literature, natural law or soul-body debates — Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) discussed the two debates in the same story.

Finally, many travelogues to the moon and other planets, from Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolaii Klimi (1741) to Swedenborg’s De telluribus in mundo nostro solari (1758) exhibited common features with descriptions of indigenous people present in travel literature. This highlights the wider similarities between discussions of life on distant planets and life in distant lands, where the plurality of worlds served as an extension of Early Modern travelogues to reflect critically upon Western society.

Vincent Roy-Di Piazza

Readers interested in learning more about the history of the plurality of worlds can read Vincent Roy-Di Piazza’s open access article in the Annals of Science (2020).

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.

The Taste of deception: plague, food, and medicine in seventeenth-century England

Today we are making a foray into the seventeenth century with Claire Turner. Claire is a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research, which builds on her recent MA dissertation, focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England.

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800. (Wellcome Images)

How well do you know your food, drink, and medicines? Do you trust their ingredients, appearance, and their taste? Recent research has demonstrated the importance of a balanced diet for convalescents in the early modern period. These concerns were equally prominent during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. People have always used their senses to decipher whether foods are pleasant or unpleasant, safe or unsafe. However, the senses could be easily deceived, no more so than in seventeenth-century discourses of food, drink, and medicine.

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878). (Wellcome Images)

In 1665, the plague visited London for the final time. Known as the Great Plague, this outbreak was arguably the most severe to visit the city in the seventeenth century. Concerns over the quality and wholesomeness of foodstuffs were paramount. In particular, Margaret Dorey has noted how contemporaries of plague outbreaks were suspicious of food traders such as butchers. A tract published in response to the outbreak included a warning to its readers. Roger Dixon highlighted the dangers of consuming meat which had been modified by the butchers who were selling it. The meat was blown into by the butchers with their ‘…filthy Pockey, Stinking, Putrified Breath, whereby they putrifie the flesh’. The practice of blowing meat was used by butchers in the early modern period to make their meat look plump, healthy, and fresh. In this way, butchers were deceiving the sense of sight. By making their foul meat look healthy, they actually further contaminated the meat by depositing their foul-smelling and potentially contagious breath into it.

Another significant outbreak occurred in London in 1625. At around the same time, Lady Frances Catchmay completed her compilation of medical recipes in A booke of medicens. One of these recipes concerned the plague. It advised the use of sugar to counteract the unpleasant taste of the remedy. Here, the use of sweet-tasting substances disguised the bitter and unsavoury taste of the medicine. As well as deceiving the sense of taste, the author of the recipe invoked the sense of sight by encouraging the addition of ‘three spoonefulls of white vinegar’. Derived from ancient European thought, the colour white was associated with purity. Research by Sidney W. Mintz has outlined that substances such as sugar and vinegar were deemed particularly effective when they were especially white. By influencing the colour and taste of the remedy, the author made the medicine appear even more effective and wholesome.

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Etching by J. Franklin (1800-1861). (Wellcome Images)

Issues concerning sensory deception in diet and physick were evident across numerous plague epidemics. In both 1625 and 1665, authors of plague tracts focused on the hazards of consuming pleasant-tasting food and the benefits of eating seemingly unsavoury food. In 1625, London physician Stephen Bradwell advised his readers not to consume sweet-tasting foods because it ‘betrayes their vnfitnesse in times of Contagion’. Similarly, in London, in 1665, an anonymous tract encouraged the consumption of sharp-tasting sauces and juices alongside meats which did not putrefy and were easily digestible.

This awareness of the benefits of sharp-tasting foods was also present in tracts relating to plague outbreaks outside of London. In Oxford in 1644, Lionel Gatford informed his readers that often the most unsavoury and sharp tastes were ‘undoubtedly the most wholsome’. Therefore, these writers warned their readers not to let their sense of taste deceive them. To a certain extent, theories of food consumption and plague in the seventeenth century reinforced the notion that sensory ‘opposites attract’.

Ideas about illness and taste are once again at the forefront of our minds in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts have reported that a proportion of COVID-19 sufferers experience an absence of the senses of taste and smell. It is clear, then, that the sense of taste will always remain a key indicator in experiences of illness and recovery. Alongside the other senses, taste in the seventeenth century was deceptive and hazardous. Today, its absence is just as menacing.

– Claire Turner

La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière mentionnée plus haut, il suffit d’ouvrir les Satires de Boileau pour y découvrir tous les personnages caractéristiques de ce type de pièces: le financier indûment enrichi, le médecin assassin, le laquais parvenu, le procureur fourbe, le noble désargenté et prêt à se mésallier, la coquette.

En changeant de genre, on lit dans L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaules plusieurs scènes dignes de la comédie de mœurs, que Bussy-Rabutin donne pour ‘vraies’, mais qui semblent surtout avoir beaucoup emprunté au théâtre, avant de l’inspirer en retour. Pour ne donner qu’un exemple, on peut mentionner l’épisode de la séduction par l’argent, que Lesage devait avoir en tête en écrivant son Turcaret: le financier Paget, significativement désigné par le sobriquet ‘Crispin’, se fait précéder chez Ardélise par une lettre accompagnée d’une généreuse ‘subvention’, et qui lui ouvre à coup sûr le cœur et surtout le chemin du lit de la belle dame. L’ensemble du roman relève d’une esthétique de la médisance, Bussy expérimentant ainsi, avant les auteurs de la comédie de mœurs, une écriture qui crée un univers littéraire à partir d’une vision a priori, comme un pur exercice de l’esprit. L’enjeu n’est pas de fournir une lecture juste de la réalité, mais de faire illusion, en canalisant le regard du lecteur ou du spectateur uniquement vers les éléments qui confirment la perspective noire posée, sans tenir compte de tout ce qui l’infirme ou la nuance.

Ainsi, il est peut-être plus légitime de voir dans la comédie de mœurs non pas le résultat d’un déclin des mœurs et des goûts, mais la continuatrice d’une pensée classique. Celle-ci reprend à son compte d’anciennes critiques sur la modernité corruptrice, la couple avec la vision chrétienne du monde comme vallée des larmes, et décide de porter jusqu’à ses limites cette lecture sombre de l’humanité, en lui donnant une tournure décidément comique. Mettant au service de la satire son arsenal de types et de procédés, elle élabore une version policée, recevable si l’on peut dire, d’un jeu que l’on avait reproché à Bussy-Rabutin et à Boileau de pratiquer comme une attaque ad hominem. La représentation d’un monde d’où les principes moraux et la vertu ont généralement et définitivement disparu, à tous les échelons de la société, dilue les responsabilités et étouffe le scandale. Avec son côté absurde de neverland, la comédie de mœurs tire la représentation vers la farce. Sur fond d’essoufflement de la machine à caractères de premier plan, elle est certainement apparue aux comédiens comme une alternative de nature à relancer le théâtre et à renouveler le plaisir du spectateur.

Ioana Galleron

Bayle against the Brexit Blues

Feeling hemmed in by narrow frontiers? Harassed by the ‘natives’ for being interested in the world outside? Feeling cut off from Europe, not to speak of bleak political circumstances and ominous financial predictions?

You are in urgent need of a slice of intellectual life from the 17th and 18th centuries – and Pierre Bayle can bring you a big slice of the Republic of Letters. You will find all you can comfortably handle in the 15 volumes of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle published by the Voltaire Foundation.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

In the 22,500 unusually erudite notes of this edition, discover Bayle’s international network of some 16,500 contacts (ideal for crowd-funding and name-dropping), his reference library of some 40,000 books (excellent for scholarly articles and cocktail conversation), his close relations with influential British politicians such as William Trumbull, the third earl of Shaftesbury, the duke of Sunderland, James Vernon – and even with the notorious Antoine de Guiscard, shortly before his attempt to assassinate Robert Harley. Discover with horror Shaftesbury’s feeble arguments against the “infestation” [sic] of our fair Isles by hordes of Huguenot refugees Letter 1751]! Accompany Fatio de Duillier on his travels between London and Cambridge to visit Newton [Letter 1300,
n.5]. Follow the two fellows named Alexander Cunningham [Letter 1359, n.1], who both wander around Europe and visit Leibniz, and see if you can tell them apart.

Was Bayle a sceptical historian of philosophy who kept out of mischief by never adopting a definitive position himself ? Was he a covert Epicurean atheist, denouncing religious fanaticism and bigotry ? Or was he a sincere believer with a very modern form of fragile faith? You must read between the lines and make up your own mind! Immerse yourself in the 15 volumes of his correspondence and gain an insight into the real goings-on at the heart of the Republic of Letters, precursor of a much-maligned modern Europe.

Antony McKenna

Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.

Progrès et passé: vers une fabrique de la modernité scientifique


Il m’a toujours semblé que l’idée de progrès était l’une des plus importantes de la modernité, parce qu’elle lui avait permis de se définir. Corollaire de la conception d’un homme perfectible, elle a contribué, par le passage de l’individuel au collectif, à l’avènement des philosophies de l’histoire. Pourtant, l’idée de progrès a hésité longtemps entre une ‘valeur euphorique’ et une ‘valeur critique’– on n’a qu’à lire les Discours de Rousseau pour le constater.

Le progrès est présenté le plus souvent comme une succession sans retour d’acquis, une chaîne de dépassements de stades antérieurs et de métamorphoses qualitatives ouvrant l’histoire vers l’avenir. Une conséquence inattendue de ce discours est que le progrès produit lui-même le passé avec lequel il entend prendre ses distances. Dans sa dynamique de rupture avec le préjugé, avec le tâtonnement, avec l’erreur, le progrès apparaît comme une sorte de curseur, amoncelant derrière lui des réserves toujours plus abondantes d’inactuel, de tout ce qui n’est plus le savoir admis.

L’un des enjeux de notre ouvrage La Fabrique de la modernité scientifique: discours et récits du progrès sous l’Ancien Régime est sans doute d’explorer, dans le cadre spécifique d’une histoire du discours sur les sciences et la médecine, la transition capitale entre l’ambivalence classique face au progrès et son axiologie claire au XIXe siècle. Ainsi, Bordeu, d’abord ‘réformateur’ de la médecine, sera-t-il peu à peu déclassé, ramené à mesure que la ‘fine pointe’ du progrès se déplace, au rang de simple précurseur, puis à celui d’écrivain, expulsé des lieux du savoir. Cette destinée impitoyable et dont on pourrait croire qu’elle est en dernière instance celle de toutes les icônes du progrès, tarde longtemps parfois, et parfois se précipite, frappant même l’homme de son vivant, comme Buffon.

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920 (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Je ne puis m’empêcher à ce propos de penser au commentaire de Walter Benjamin sur le tableau de Klee intitulé Angelus novus: “Il représente un ange qui semble sur le point de s’éloigner de quelque chose qu’il fixe du regard. Ses yeux sont écarquillés, sa bouche ouverte, ses ailes déployées. C’est à cela que doit ressembler l’Ange de l’Histoire. Son visage est tourné vers le passé. Là où nous apparaît une chaîne d’événements, il ne voit, lui, qu’une seule et unique catastrophe, qui sans cesse amoncelle ruines sur ruines et les précipite à ses pieds. Il voudrait bien s’attarder, réveiller les morts et rassembler ce qui a été démembré. Mais du paradis souffle une tempête qui s’est prise dans ses ailes, si violemment que l’ange ne peut plus les refermer. Cette tempête le pousse irrésistiblement vers l’avenir auquel il tourne le dos, tandis que le monceau de ruines devant lui s’élève jusqu’au ciel. Cette tempête est ce que nous appelons le progrès” [1].

– Frédéric Charbonneau, Université McGill

[1] Walter Benjamin, Sur le concept d’histoire, IX, (1940; Gallimard, Folio/Essai, 2000), p.434.