The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire … complete!

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.

Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.

Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.

GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.

AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.

Gillian Pink and Alison Oliver.

GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.

AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.

GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.

AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.

GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!

AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!

GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.

AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

First blogged in: The Oxford Polyglot 2021-22, Issue 2, Hilary term 2022.

The problems with translating Voltaire two hundred and fifty years on

Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif in its German translation by Angelika Oppenheimer.

My translation of Voltaire’s first (1764) version of Dictionnaire philosophique portatif appeared in 2020 under the imprint of Reclam. Mine is the first complete translation of this version, previous translators having made their own selections from a text that had been expanded by Voltaire himself on several occasions. The chapters are not written in a severe academic style, but directly address the reader or take the form of dialogues. The book is designed to entertain the reader at the same time as informing him or her, and therein lies one reason for the problems it presents to a translator.

Although we still laugh for nearly the same reasons as people did 250 years ago, the objects of our mirth may have changed, and we have to understand that. If we do not understand the text we cannot be amused. Today we know a lot about science, but Voltaire himself was quite well informed. Despite the differences, in most cases we can understand what he means, and we can smile at the way he explains things. History is another matter. We know more than he did. There have been many archaeological excavations and new finds since he wrote his book, especially in Israel and the so-called Holy Land. Some of his explanations are therefore not clear to us unless we do some research.

Voltaire quotes people and theories from antiquity until his century on the basis of authorities that are largely unknown to us, but which were well known and often quoted in his own time. The most recent edition by the Voltaire Foundation thus contains many footnotes to enable us to understand Voltaire’s meanings. He very often quotes authors ironically in order to amuse his readers with their wrong explanations. But we often do not know these sources today. It is especially difficult when it comes to authors who had written for the Roman Catholic Church, because then he is not allowed to speak bluntly, to mention their real names or functions. His contemporaries knew who was meant by his description but we do not. Even historical events could be quoted and criticized only so long as the historical narrative accepted by the church authorities was not challenged. In general, Voltaire had to be very cautious with his criticism in matters concerning the Pope and the Vatican.

I might quote as an example the article ‘Chinese catechism’, where Voltaire says that the obsession with castrating young boys to serve kings as eunuchs seems to him a major affront to human nature (p.128). He has his king say that he accepts that cockerels are castrated to make them taste better, but that he has not yet known eunuchs to be put on the spit. Then the king continues: ‘The Dalai Lama has fifty of them to sing in his pagoda. I would like very much to know if the Chang-ti (their god) enjoys hearing the clear voices of these fifty geldings?’ When Voltaire wrote these words, his readers knew who was meant and what was really the subject of the conversation. Now, though, when I gave my translation to a really well-informed friend, she asked me what was meant.

Ludovico Magnasco receiving the new constitution for the choir from Pope Paul III in 1545 (Wikimedia).

French intellectuals in Voltaire’s time knew something about China and circumstances in Tibet, and about the Dalai Lama, and so they knew who was meant by Voltaire’s setting. It was of course the Pope, whose choir of 60 eunuchs existed until the end of the 19th century. Voltaire would have had reason to fear that the Pope would act against him. The book was banned by the French parliament on 9 March 1765, and copies of it were burned in Geneva and Bern. When, in a previous sentence, Voltaire speaks of kings who had seven hundred concubines and thousands of eunuchs to serve them, it is an ironic exaggeration and an allusion to Solomon, which might not be understood without a footnote. But this was what he was allowed to write. The reference to Solomon can be found in the footnotes of the French edition. Probably readers in Voltaire’s time had no problem. They had to know their Bible, and so could smile at Voltaire’s account.

Robert Estienne, Dictionarium latinogallicum (Paris, 1538) (Universidad Complutense de Madrid).

Another problem is that words have sometimes changed their meaning during the centuries since Voltaire, and without the Dictionnaires historiques et critiques, whose history begins with the Dictionarium latinogallicum of Robert Estienne (1538), I would have been lost. They enabled me to know what had been the real sense of the words as used by Voltaire. Words in the German language have also sometimes changed their sense. We can find the history in the dictionaries of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the Duden, although what I needed was not knowledge about the development of the German language. The first Dictionnaire l’Académie française was published in 1694, the year of Voltaire’s birth. Its fourth edition was published in 1762, two years before the publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, and may have confirmed Voltaire in his own project: Enlightenment.

Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Paris, 1694) (BnF).

Some of the expressions used by Voltaire cannot be found before the edition of 1762. One of these is the plural of hell, ‘les enfers’, as the term for the ancient underworld. There was only one Jewish-Christian Hell, but several pagan kingdoms of the dead. These differed depending on where they had existed, whether in Egypt, in Babylon, or in Greece and Rome. The Europeans even had some knowledge of Chinese ideas about life after death. Some monks had been in China in the 17th century and had written about their experiences. The expression mostly used in German for the kingdom of the dead in antiquity was ‘Hades’, which in France was understood as the name of the god. It is the same with some other words with which we are not very familiar, and sometimes cannot find in our normal dictionary.

The Dictionnaires d’autrefois are highly informative about usage in former times. The many examples quoted from different writers in Voltaire’s time help us to strike the right note in translating him. I myself had sometimes failed to see where the irony of a comment lay because I knew the critical word only from another context. Perspectives may change with the passing of time, so that at first sight we do not see what is meant. Which brings me to one of Voltaire’s own themes. Some people and institutions have an interest in changes in the social perspective, and, in some ways, not so much has changed since Voltaire’s time. However, speech patterns were developed that drew people’s thoughts in particular directions. This was already beginning in Voltaire’s time, and Voltaire noticed and criticized it. His Pocket Philosophical Dictionary is designed to be thought-provoking, to bring us to a proper understanding as to who is attempting to exert influence and the ways such attempts may be made, so that we may become able to resist them. The book has occasionally borne the alternative title: Reason in alphabetical form (La Raison par alphabet, 2 vols, [Genève], 1769).

The Enlightenment philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac thought that it is only by knowing what we have been seeing wrongly that we can learn to do things better. The Pocket Philosophical Dictionary contains so much that we do not know any more: a look inside and we will become ‘enlightened’. It is for this very reason that I want Reason in alphabetical form to be read by as many people as possible.

– Angelika Oppenheimer

Endings and new beginnings: Voltaire’s seemingly infinite writings

Robert Darnton.

This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.

Œuvres compètes de Voltaire.

But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.

The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.

And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment

New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.

So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.

– Nicholas Cronk

Cramer, Voltaire et les Lumières: la librairie entre deux ères

Lettre de Voltaire à Gabriel Cramer (Institut et Musée Voltaire,

Pourtant serviteurs fidèles de la plume du philosophe depuis l’installation de ce dernier à Genève en 1754 et jusqu’à l’édition dite ‘encadrée’ de 1775, Gabriel et (dans une moindre mesure puisqu’il quitte la librairie en 1762) Philibert Cramer nous sont relativement peu connus. D’ailleurs, ce que l’on sait d’eux provient essentiellement des innombrables billets, corrections et plaintes en tout genre que leur adresse Voltaire. Tantôt paresseux, tantôt dissipés, voire parfois un peu filous, ils se montreraient, en général, incapables de satisfaire les exigences de Voltaire en matière d’impression de ses ouvrages. Asymétrique, incomplète, et en partie tournée pour dérouter les lois de censure, cette seule correspondance ne permet pourtant pas d’apprécier à sa juste valeur la collaboration entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois, ni de se rendre compte de ce qu’est la maison Cramer à Genève et dans l’Europe du livre au XVIIIe siècle.

Premièrement, focaliser l’histoire de la librairie Cramer sur ses seules années voltairiennes, aussi florissantes fussent-elles, ne conduit-il pas à négliger ce que Voltaire doit à ses librairies, et donc à minimiser l’importance de la maison Cramer avant Voltaire? Deuxièmement, tant par sa durée que par sa qualité – après tout, les Cramer font partie du cercle de Voltaire pendant plus de vingt ans – celle-ci ne peut se réduire à un rapport de force compliqué entre un auteur tyrannique et ses imprimeurs paresseux. Au contraire, n’évoque-t-elle pas jusqu’à une forme de connivence entre les deux parties? Troisièmement, c’est surtout par sa nature que la relation entre Voltaire et les Cramer doit être reconsidérée. En misant l’essentiel de leur activité sur la plume d’un seul auteur, aussi célèbre et productif soit-il, n’ont-ils pas fait œuvre de pionniers et anticipé le modèle éditorial des siècles suivants? Ce sont ces questions qu’aborde l’ouvrage De l’encre aux Lumières, récemment paru aux éditions Slatkine.

Portrait de Philibert Cramer, c.1758, par Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789).

Si la librairie Cramer nous est connue, c’est certes d’abord, grâce à Voltaire. Pourtant, Gabriel et Philibert Cramer sont les héritiers d’une maison solidement ancrée à Genève, issue d’une famille protestante présente dans la cité de Calvin depuis 1634, date de l’arrivée de leur ancêtre Jean-Ulrich Cramer. C’est d’ailleurs ce dernier qui, après avoir été reçu bourgeois en 1668, dirige son fils cadet Jean-Antoine (1655-1725) vers un apprentissage d’imprimeur-libraire auprès de la célèbre maison Chouet. Aussi étonnant qu’il puisse paraître, ce choix rappelle l’importance grandissante de l’industrie du livre à Genève, à partir du XVIIe siècle. La cité de Calvin, qui repose sur un territoire étroit, indépendant politiquement, protégé géographiquement des grandes puissances, se nourrit cependant de son commerce avec l’extérieur, notamment via le Rhône. Terre d’accueil de nombreux protestants en exil durant les XVIe et XVIIe siècles, Genève se spécialise dans l’industrie de la draperie, de l’orfèvrerie, de l’horlogerie, ainsi que, plus tardivement, de la librairie. Commerce ouvert sur l’Europe, la librairie contribue à la circulation des savoirs et des capitaux à partir de Genève, favorisant l’enrichissement de la cité-République; en retour, la censure y est modérée par rapport aux pays voisins. Les libraires peuvent même gravir les échelons de la très hiérarchisée société genevoise, tout en fournissant l’Europe en livres parfois interdits ailleurs. Ils étendent, dans le même temps, leur réseau vers des marchés toujours plus éloignés. Ainsi Jean-Antoine n’arrête-t-il pas son apprentissage au métier d’homme de plombs: son statut est bien celui d’un marchand, et sa carrière le conduit à sillonner les foires de livres de toute l’Europe.

Marque typographique de Léonard Chouet (image Universitat de Barcelona).

C’est sans doute dès cette époque que se construit l’impressionnant réseau de correspondants européens de la future librairie Cramer, dont témoigne encore aujourd’hui le ‘Grand Livre’ conservé aux Archives d’Etat de Genève. Jean-Antoine Cramer ne tarde pas, de son côté, à se rendre indispensable auprès de son maître Léonard Chouet (164?-1691), qui en fait même son associé en 1680 pour fonder l’enseigne ‘Léonard Chouet et Cie’. A la mort de Chouet, Cramer s’associe à Philibert Perachon (1667-1738) pour racheter le fonds de son ancien maître et faire prospérer la maison: pour cela, il fait notamment évoluer le catalogue, publiant moins d’ouvrages de théologie réformée, contre davantage d’ouvrages de droit, de médecine, de chimie ou d’anatomie. Malgré des temps difficiles, notamment au tournant des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle, le succès est au rendez-vous et voit l’entreprise quitter les Rues Basses pour la fameuses Grande Rue de Genève.

A la mort de Jean-Antoine en 1725, c’est à son fils Guillaume-Philibert (1693-1737) que revient la tâche de reprendre le commerce, toujours avec Perachon. Epoux depuis peu de Jeanne-Louise de Tournes, elle aussi issue d’une importante famille de libraires genevo-lyonnaise, et héritier du fonds de Chouet et des contacts noués par son père, il dispose d’atouts solides à Genève et à l’étranger pour rendre son commerce incontournable. Son décès jeune, auquel s’ajoute une année après celui plus attendu de Philibert Perachon, accélère la transition vers l’ère de Gabriel et Philibert Cramer. Les deux fils de Guillaume-Philibert sont trop jeunes pour diriger l’entreprise. Ils sont d’abord placés sous la tutelle de leur mère, laquelle cède une part de l’entreprise aux frères Claude et Antoine Philibert le temps que ses fils accomplissent leur apprentissage et atteignent la majorité. La Société ‘Héritier Cramer et frères Philibert’ est créée en 1738. Elle devient ‘Frères Cramer et Claude Philibert’ en 1748, puis, enfin, ‘Frères Cramer’ en 1753. Durant ces quinze années, Gabriel Cramer fait évoluer son catalogue: en plus des classiques édités déjà du temps de son grand-père – comme les Opera Omnia de Cicéron – et de la littérature scientifique et religieuse en latin, à destination surtout des jésuites d’Espagne, on commence à trouver sous ses presses des livres en français, et même, dès 1749, un Zadig placé au milieu d’une Bibliothèque de campagne.

Cicéron, Opera Omnia (Basileæ, 1687) (Université de Basle).

Dresser, même succinctement, le parcours de la famille Cramer dans la librairie genevoise jusqu’à ce premier rendez-vous avec Voltaire, permet déjà de rappeler que, au moment où ils adressent une première lettre à l’auteur de Zadig, le 15 avril 1754 (D5575), Gabriel et Philibert ne se présentent pas en victime expiatoire. C’est autant leur connaissance du marché du livre que leur ascendance qui leur donnent des arguments pour tenir tête au patriarche. Imprimeurs-libraires avisés, au bénéfice d’un savoir-faire reconnu, bien ancré dans le tissu local, et disposant d’un solide réseau de diffusion dans l’Europe du livre du XVIIIe siècle, ils offrent en outre exactement ce que cherchait Voltaire après son échec à Potsdam: une presse à portée de main, à proximité de la France, habile à déjouer les autorités politiques et religieuses. Les Cramer trouvent de leur côté en Voltaire un auteur à la fois sulfureux, prolifique et célèbre, qui assure la prospérité de la maison. Bien plus, ce dernier développe avec Gabriel – qui se fait appeler ‘Caro’, ‘Frère’, ‘Prince’ ou ‘gros’ selon les humeurs de Voltaire – une véritable familiarité, nourrie par une passion commune pour le théâtre et les mondanités. L’un et l’autre maîtrisent parfaitement les rouages propres aux mondes du livre sous l’Ancien Régime et s’entendent à tirer les ficelles utiles au bon déploiement des activités de la presse. C’est à l’aune de cette relation particulière que se dévoile un rapport, inédit pour l’époque, entre un auteur et celui qui agit comme un véritable éditeur, au sens commercial du terme.

Gabriel Cramer, Introductions à l’analyse des lignes courbes algébriques (Genève, 1750).

Cette approche de la relation Cramer-Voltaire par le biais de l’histoire du livre permet de reconsidérer les forces en présence. Elle permet également de nuancer le récit de la fin de l’aventure éditoriale entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois. Souvent pensée comme la conséquence de la supposée paresse de l’‘éditeur’ ou de l’insatisfaction de l’auteur, ce récit gagne en consistance si on la replace dans la perspective de histoire de la librairie sous l’Ancien Régime. Il faut ainsi prendre en considération celui qui en est aussi un des principaux protagonistes: Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, libraire lillois, dont le but est de redonner à la librairie française la place qui lui revient dans un marché jusque-là dirigé par les presses clandestines étrangères. Force montante de la librairie en France depuis les années 1760, il s’immisce progressivement entre Cramer et Voltaire à partir des années 1770, au sein de deux collaborations importantes: une édition in-4o des œuvres de Voltaire qu’il subtilise à Cramer et un projet (avorté) de réédition de l’Encyclopédie entament en effet leur relation. Parfaitement décrit par Suzanne Tucoo-Chala, ces épisodes contribuent à éloigner Cramer de ses activités voltairiennes; le poussent à s’endetter fortement, en papier, mais aussi en presses destinées à imprimer les planches en taille douce; le conduisent à révéler à Panckoucke son réseau de diffusion. Fragilisé, Cramer a-t-il encore les ressources pour lutter avec Panckoucke? Sans compter que la perspective d’une dernière édition publiée en France paraît aussi séduire un Voltaire alors âgé et soucieux de sa postérité littéraire, et joue indubitablement en faveur du lillois lorsque celui-ci vient, accompagné de Decroix, proposer un nouveau plan de ses œuvres complètes. C’est symboliquement sur la dernière édition publiée par Cramer, l’édition dite ‘encadrée’, que Voltaire corrige les textes destinés désormais à Panckoucke.

En devenant les imprimeurs-libraires attitrés de Voltaire, les frères Cramer ont renouvelé la façon d’envisager le métier d’imprimeur-libraires. En misant presque toute leur activité sur un seul auteur, ils ont su s’appuyer sur un savoir faire et un réseau solidement ancré pour révolutionner le métier pratiqué par leurs ancêtres. Mais n’ont-ils pas dans le même temps contribué à façonner le modèle de l’éditeur qui s’implante, dès la fin du siècle, de façon plus aboutie, avec Panckoucke? Leur histoire s’achève bien là où commence L’autre histoire de l’édition française présentée par Jean-Yves Mollier, et qui conduit des débuts de Panckoucke à l’avènement des grandes maisons du XIXe siècle.

– Nicolas Morel

Voltaire… True or false?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edouard Langille

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.


The history of the book that never was: Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Louis XV in 1748, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). (Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia commons)

‘Je doute qu’il y ait à présent un homme dans l’Europe aussi bien au fait que moi de l’histoire de la dernière guerre’, wrote Voltaire in June 1752 about what he describes a few lines later as the ‘plus difficile de mes ouvrages’ (D4907, to the duc de Richelieu). The work was never published by him, however, so what went wrong? Voltaire sometimes delayed publication of his work until the time was ripe, or after a water-testing first draft that found the water chilly, but he rarely abandoned an entire book-length work. Yet this was the sad fate of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 (War of the Austrian Succession), now entering Voltaire’s complete works for the first time (OCV, vol.29C). Circumstances were against him all along, so that the time, the place and the loved one never did come together.

In 1745 the ‘loved one’ was Louis XV – ‘le bien aimé’. Louis’s personal presence during the Flanders campaigns of 1744 and 1745 showed him at his best, and so he is portrayed by Voltaire, writing as newly appointed historiographe de France in what became the relevant chapters of the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. The first thing to go wrong was the time. Had an honourable peace for France been agreed at the end of 1745, as there was every reason to hope once the succession question had been resolved, the time would have been ripe for Voltaire, still living in Versailles, to have put down his pen and published his account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’, of which a manuscript had been sent to the king in 1746.

Stanislas Leszczynski by Jean Girardet

Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766) by Jean Girardet (1709-1778), court painter in Lunéville.

The war dragged on, however, until 1748, by which time Voltaire, disillusioned by life at Versailles, was on a protracted visit to King Stanislas Lesczynski at Lunéville where he still was when Mme Du Châtelet died in 1749. This catastrophe induced Voltaire to accept a long-standing invitation from Frederick II to stay in Potsdam. Here the Guerre de 1741 was eventually completed, but Voltaire never returned to live in Paris or Versailles, the sources of his inspiration and material and the natural springboard for his history.

Voltaire was evidently keen to test the waters in Paris with a revised version of the first part, up to the battle of Fontenoy, but his principal adviser, the comte d’Argental, warned him – ‘sans être obligé d’entrer dans les détails’ – on no account to publish it without approval (see D4843; 19 March 1752).

Although the war was no doubt still a sore subject with the king, d’Argental’s oblique hint shows that Voltaire was already aware of the justified criticisms that he had unduly flattered his friends, in particular by exaggerating the part played at Fontenoy by his friend and hero the duc de Richelieu and consequently downplaying that of the true victor, the maréchal de Saxe. Voltaire had been carried away, one might almost say that he had replaced one loved one with another.

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain

Plan of the battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745, by Jean de Beaurain (1696-1771). (Bibliothèque nationale, public domain)

Maurice de Saxe by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748). (Public domain)

Voltaire evidently cut his losses. From his base in Potsdam he had another string to his bow – publication of the full manuscript by Conrad Walther in Dresden. The idea had been mentioned in March (see D4841) but in August Voltaire was nervous, telling Walther that he would want a small printing in anticipation of an early second edition, as happened with the Siècle de Louis XIV on which Walther was then engaged (D4994). This unpromising request would explain why the work was not printed by Walther, if indeed the final manuscript was ever sent, but it is hard to account for Voltaire’s unease other than fear of mockery about the flattery of his friends.

So when three years later in 1755 the manuscript of the first part of the Guerre was ‘stolen’ and published under Voltaire’s name with an Amsterdam title-page, had he jumped or was he pushed? His disclaimers were not seriously believed either then or now. More interesting, and curious, is the fact that Voltaire did not proceed to publish his own authorised edition, nor did he take steps to publish the complete text to 1748 as promised to Walther. Once more he bided his time, but for what?

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un

Histoire de la guerre de mil sept cent quarante et un, title page of part 1 (Amsterdam [Paris], 1755). (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

By late 1755 Voltaire was already in the process of preparing the edition of his complete works of 1756, where he was joining the Siècle de Louis XIV to the end of what became the Essai sur les mœurs […] depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours. What better solution than to tack on as well the early chapters of an abbreviated Guerre de 1741? The decisive nail in the coffin of the Guerre de 1741 may well have been the reversal of alliances in 1755 which transposed Austria, the adversary of 1745, into France’s new ally. At a stroke the Guerre was relegated to the status of a redundant curiosity. Voltaire had missed the boat.

The Collection complète des œuvres de Voltaire of 1756 contains truncated versions of the text up to the battle of Fontenoy. Subsequent editions were augmented by further pared-down chapters until the whole was subsumed into the Précis du siècle de Louis XV in 1768 (OCV, vols. 29A and 29B).

Thus it was that the Histoire de la guerre de 1741 was never published as a complete text in Voltaire’s lifetime. Nineteenth-century editors of his complete works, starting from Beuchot, found the strands of the Guerre and Précis hard to unravel. This is understandable but they undoubtedly missed a trick. (The OCV edition is able to use shading to highlight the passages from the Guerre that are carried forward into the Précis.)

The Guerre de 1741 is fully deserving of its place in Voltaire’s complete works. It is more than a historical narrative; it is a picture of Voltaire at work and revealing of the pains he took. It also shows that for the ci-devant historiographer writing about his own time was not as easy as all that – not easy at all in fact.

Janet Godden

L’Essai sur les mœurs: une lecture personnelle

L’Essai sur les mœurs est en grande partie un recensement de la souffrance infligée par la cruauté humaine sous toutes ses formes (nous dirions aujourd’hui le sadisme), et de la quête de liberté au moins sous certaines formes. Véritable tour de force de synthèse, atteignant à la perfection du langage, il s’agit d’un ouvrage dérangeant qui fait voir un homme révolté devant l’Histoire telle qu’il la présente. Voltaire s’en est pris à l’Histoire comme il a l’habitude de s’en prendre à la Bible. Sa virtuosité en impose, mais cette histoire du monde et l’analyse du devenir historique qui en découle génèrent autant de perplexité chez le lecteur qu’elles ne l’éclairent, et ce pour plusieurs raisons, dont les moindres ne sont pas la partialité de l’auteur et sa conception atemporelle de l’Histoire. L’Essai sur les mœurs, fascinant par ses méandres, est sans doute l’œuvre de Voltaire la plus complexe du point de vue du sens qui saurait être attribué à l’ensemble.

Page de titre de la première édition

Page de titre de la première édition.

Ce n’est sans doute pas là un enjeu essentiel, mais à la toute fin, au dernier chapitre (‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’), Voltaire s’interroge sur les leçons à tirer de ce vaste panorama des actions humaines qu’il a voulu présenter à travers les mœurs, un concept qui confère une unité sémantique à son travail mais dont la spécificité est difficile à cerner. Aurait-il perçu les camps de concentration nazis comme mœurs des Allemands? Voltaire a voulu éblouir avec ses obsessions; il a créé un vertige moral en contemplant l’hypocrisie des gens de pouvoir, et s’en repentira en cherchant à atténuer le tableau morbide des abominations commises au cours de l’histoire de l’humanité qu’il a peint en parallèle avec les plus grandes réalisations de l’esprit humain. Il adoucit – un peu tard – son agressivité habituelle (‘jamais on n’a vu aucune société religieuse, aucun rite institué dans la vue d’encourager les hommes aux vices. On s’est servi dans toute la terre de la religion pour faire le mal; mais elle est partout instituée pour porter au bien; et si le dogme apporte
 le fanatisme et la guerre, la morale inspire partout la concorde’, ch.197, p.330) et crée une ouverture vers un optimisme intellectuel (‘Quand une nation connaît les arts, quand elle n’est point subjuguée et transportée par les étrangers, elle sort aisément de ses ruines, et se rétablit toujours’, ch.197, p.334).

Son ambition initiale était claire. Il a expliqué sa frustration, et celle conjointe de Mme Du Châtelet, devant la lecture de l’Histoire à laquelle il avait accès: ‘nous avons jusqu’à présent dans la plupart de nos histoires universelles, traité les autres hommes comme s’ils n’existaient pas. La Grèce, les Romains se sont emparés de toute notre attention, et quand le célèbre Bossuet dit un mot des mahométans, il n’en parle que comme d’un déluge de barbares, cependant beaucoup de ces nations possédaient des arts utiles que nous tenons d’elles; leurs pays nous fournissent des commodités et des choses précieuses que la nature nous a refusées, et vêtus de leurs étoffes, nourris des productions de leurs terres, instruits par leurs inventions, amusés même par les jeux qui sont le fruit de leur industrie, nous ne sommes ni justes ni sages de les ignorer’ (‘Nouveau Plan d’une Histoire de l’esprit humain’, OCV, t.27, p.157). Il serait difficile de contester une telle affirmation. ‘Mon principal but avait été de suivre les révolutions de l’esprit humain dans celles des gouvernements. Je cherchais comment tant de méchants hommes conduits par de plus méchants princes ont pourtant à la longue établi des sociétés où les arts, les sciences, les vertus mêmes ont été cultivés’ (‘Lettre de M. de V*** à M. de ***, professeur en histoire’, OCV, t.27, p.179). C’est donc un univers moral qui le préoccupe; Voltaire n’est pas en quête d’exotisme.

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754

Page de titre d’une édition de 1754, t.3. (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal)

L’Essai est l’histoire des pratiques humaines, non pas celle des idées, et c’est pourquoi il ne retiendra pas comme titre l’Histoire de l’esprit humain auquel il avait songé. Voltaire aurait pu intituler son ouvrage ‘Histoire de la condition humaine’, mais il ne l’a pas fait. Il utilise le terme une seule fois, au chapitre 155: ‘Ce gouvernement [de la Chine], quelque beau qu’il fut, était nécessairement infecté de grands abus attachés à la condition humaine’ (lignes 168-69). L’objet de sa recherche n’était pas tant de décrire les mœurs comme telles à travers l’histoire de l’humanité, que de créer une occasion pour en critiquer, à la lumière de sa propre échelle de valeurs, certaines d’entre elles qui choquaient sa sensibilité morale et esthétique – et critiquer sa propre société par la même occasion.

L’histoire universelle devient un monde peuplé de personnages réels travaillés par l’imagination de Voltaire qui entretient avec eux le même genre de rapport ambivalent qu’il entretient de façon chronique dans ses relations affectives d’amour ou d’amitié. Il a traité les faits historiques comme il traite ses relations personnelles: tout devient une affaire pratiquement personnelle, lui-même étant omniprésent dans son texte, d’où son originalité. Il tire les ficelles de l’Histoire et anime un théâtre de marionettes à son gré. Laurent Avezou, dans son article ‘Autour du Testament politique de Richelieu’ (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des chartes, t.162, 2004, p.421-53) a bien perçu cette tendance chez Voltaire (‘Le philosophe a transformé le Testament en affaire personnelle’, p.449) en dévoilant son ambivalence vis-à-vis certaines des grandes figures de l’histoire ‘qui transparaît dans son Essai sur les mœurs’ (p.448).

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson

Lettre de Voltaire au comte d’Argenson. (Arsenal,  MS 8. H. 2243; D5903)

Voltaire nous a tenu moralement en suspens, on pourrait presque dire en otages, parce que nous ne sommes pas à même de savoir exactement quel est le jugement qu’il porte sur une quantité d’événements et de phénomènes historiques, son attitude par rapport à la découverte du Nouveau Monde et ses conséquences, par exemple. Son admiration est suivie d’une désillusion qui prend sur lui le dessus, et son dégoût pour les atrocités commises l’emporte sur la considération des avantages ou désavantages au plan économique. L’exploitation et l’esclavage sont mentionnés, mais ne font pas l’objet d’un approfondissement: ‘Les Européens n’ont fait prêcher leur religion depuis le Chili jusqu’au Japon, que pour faire servir les hommes, comme des bêtes de somme, à leur insatiable avarice’ (OCV, t.26A, p.187-88); ‘Des milliers d’Américains servaient aux Espagnols de bêtes de somme’ (p.244). Pour une région différente, parlant des ‘nègres’ de la ‘côte de Guinée, à la côte d’Or, à celle d’Yvoire […] Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme’ (p.285). La révolte de Voltaire s’arrête à ce genre de remarques. Il faut peut-être placer ces commentaires (qui ne sont rien d’autre) en parallèle avec ceux-ci pour comprendre sa position: ‘le travail des mains ne s’accorde point avec le raisonnement, et le commun peuple en général n’use ni n’abuse guère de son esprit’ (p.66); ‘nous ne prétendons pas parler de la populace; elle doit être en tout pays uniquement occupée du travail des mains. L’esprit d’une nation réside toujours dans le petit nombre qui fait travailler le grand, qui le nourrit et le gouverne’ (p.321).

Son attitude face au cannibalisme aussi fait voir son ambivalence et la division de sa pensée: ‘La véritable barbarie est de donner la mort, et non de disputer un mort aux corbeaux ou aux vers’ (p.214); ‘Comment des peuples toujours séparés les uns des autres, ont-ils pu se réunir dans une si horrible coutume?’ (p.215). Ces points de vue ne sont pas mutuellement exclusifs, et c’est là un des traits qui fait la spécificité de l’Essai: la multiplicité des regards.

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756

Page de titre de l’édition Cramer de 1756.

Ce que Voltaire voulait accomplir pour Mme Du Châtelet, l’a-t-il réellement fait? Sans doute pas. Voltaire n’est pas librement à l’écoute des phénomènes qu’il décrit. Il ne cherche pas à comprendre, mais à imposer un point de vue normatif et provocateur; il s’adonne davantage à une esthétique des civilisations qu’à une anthropologie. S’il n’y a pour lui qu’un seul univers moral, il n’éprouve pas le besoin d’en faire la démonstration. Il a juxtaposé l’abominable au sublime sans percevoir ce qui mène à l’un ou à l’autre. Et qui le pourrait? Mais il a été à même de rattacher la psychologie individuelle aux grands mouvements historiques. Sa pensée synthétique hallucinante et ses sarcasmes sont susceptibles d’intéresser particulièrement les jeunes générations et capables tout autant de les égarer. Il a dit beaucoup de choses vraies, et si sa vérité reste incomplète ce n’est qu’un encouragement à explorer de nouveau toute une série de perspectives sur le devenir historique. L’Essai sur les mœurs est autre chose qu’un objet de musée littéraire. Les problèmes sur lesquels Voltaire s’est penché resteront toujours actuels. La connaissance du passé et de la diversité culturelle telle que présentée par un observateur du siècle des Lumières hautement original qui nous instruit autant sur son siècle que sur le monde entier s’avérera toujours utile, surtout dans le monde monoculturel où nous vivons aujourd’hui.

Dominique Lussier

Lettres philosophiques 4D – coming soon to libraries near you!

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of 1733 edition. (Taylor Institution, Arch.8o.E.1733)

Lettres philosophiques! Lettres philosophiques!’, I hear you cry. And I bring you glad tidings: the time has almost come and your thirst will soon be quenched; volume 6B of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire will be released in a matter of months.

The cherry on the cake of our 200-volume edition, vol.6B has been a somewhat tough row to hoe, and for good reason. One of Voltaire’s most iconic texts, the Lettres philosophiques also had a terribly complicated publication history: originally appearing in English in 1733, they were only published in French the following year, simultaneously in London and Rouen. No sooner had they been released than the letter about Locke and the nature of the soul, significantly reworked by the author himself, began to circulate clandestinely (ask Antony McKenna and Gianluca Mori, whose great edition of the ‘Lettre sur M. Locke’ only appeared a few months ago!). Met with more than a bit of resistance by the French authorities, the Lettres soon stopped being printed under their original title, and were merged into the Mélanges de littérature, d’histoire et de philosophie first, and, after Voltaire’s death, into the big potpourri that is the Kehl Dictionnaire philosophique.

Lettres philosophiques

Title page of 1734 Jore edition. (British Library, 8465.aa.3.(1.) DRT)

As they moved from one edition to another, from one miscellany to the next, the individual ‘letters’ underwent several changes. And we are not talking about occasional, minor corrections; we are talking about entire ‘letters’ being suppressed, combined with others, or replaced by brand new content. An example? The Jore edition of 1734, the one that we still read today, contained no fewer than four chapters on Newton; by 1756, however, ‘Sur le système de l’attraction’ and ‘Sur l’optique de M. Newton’ were entirely suppressed, and the first half of letter 17 (‘Sur l’infini et la chronologie’) met with the same, tragic destiny. In their place stood ‘De Newton’, a much shorter text in which gravitation and optics were mostly passed over in silence, pre-eminence being rather given to some not particularly laudatory anecdotes: the great Newton – Voltaire writes, possibly gesturing to his own niece, Marie-Louise Denis, who, at the time, also happened to be his lover – would have never risen to fame had it not been for ‘[sa] jolie nièce’ [Catherine Barton]. After all, in 1756 the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton also underwent major cuts, and all elements conspire to suggest that, by the mid-50s, Voltaire’s infatuation with the British mathematician had significantly lost momentum.

Gaining a better understanding of how the Lettres philosophiques may have changed over the forty-odd years between their publication and Voltaire’s death – looking at them in four dimensions, if you like – may cast much-needed light also on the history of other texts. Take, for instance, the Traité sur la tolerance. The impression that one gets from reading the letters that Voltaire sent and received between 1762 and 1763 is that this work was written almost impromptu in the months immediately following the execution of Jean Calas. But is that really the case? To a certain extent, yes. But it is also true that an early version of what would later become chapters 7, 8, 12, and 13 of the Traité could already be found in a rewriting of Letter 13, dating from about 1750: ‘Que les philosophes ne peuvent jamais nuire’. After all, as shown by Gianluigi Goggi, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, and Olivier Ferret in a wonderful collection of essays published in 2007, Voltaire was an undisputed master of réécriture.[1]

Simple variant readings printed at the bottom of a page of a critical edition are usually sufficient to give the reader a sense of how a text evolved over time. But with the Lettres philosophiques we soon realised that things had to be scaled up a little. Alongside the canonical 25 letters, each with its own variants, vol.6B will therefore contain twenty substantial rewritings as texts in their own right, all furnished with footnotes and (guess what?!) variants! Any overlaps and repetitions between ‘letters’ and variants, or even between variants and substantial rewritings, will be highlighted in grey, and footnotes will guide readers and help them to navigate these somewhat intimidating waters. But might there be other, even better ways of editing a text with such a complex history? Well, that’s one of the questions that we are addressing, as we begin to work on Digital Voltaire.

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] Copier/coller: écriture et réécriture chez Voltaire. Actes du colloque international (Pise, 30 juin – 2 juillet 2005) (Pisa, 2007).

Voltaire’s Louis XV, from bien-aimé to mal-aimé

The French victory at Fontenoy in 1745 provided Voltaire, newly appointed historiographe de France, with a welcome opportunity. Present with the French army on 11 May had been Louis XV himself, at his best on campaign and already nicknamed le bien-aimé. Voltaire had a distinct turn for flattery when it suited him. What could be more fitting than the composition of an account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’?

This is the context for the first half of what became Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29A). After Fontenoy Voltaire looked with the rest of France for a favourable and honourable peace, with French glory personified in the figure of the king. But the war dragged on until 1748, by which point Voltaire’s enthusiasm for reporting it had dwindled: ‘les détails en sont si ennuyeux’, as he said to Frederick II. It was not ideal subject matter for Europe’s most renowned poet and dramatist.

The second volume of the Précis, now published (OCV, vol.29B), completes the text, showing how what began as a celebration of the king’s campaigns transforms itself into a history of Voltaire’s time.

Accordingly, the succession of endless marches and manoeuvres, the clash and clang of victory and defeat, give way to a series of chapters featuring men whose deeds provide heroic highlights beyond the battlefield. What do Admiral George Anson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the naval adventurer Mahé de la Bourdonnais have in common? Not much, except that Voltaire bunches them together to fill out his account of the final years of a war in which he had lost interest. These characters – their literary function is as relevant as the historical examples they provide – are all instances of personal heroism and perseverance in the face of long odds.

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, 1757. (British Museum)

After the war Voltaire may have felt that he had finished with writing about conflict, but although he regarded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) as a truce rather than a lasting peace, he did not anticipate the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, over which he passes with comparative brevity. While the earlier war is spread across twenty-five chapters in the Précis, its sequel is compressed into just five (ch.31-35). The first of these centres on the execution of the British Admiral Byng, ‘pour encourager les autres’, followed by that of the Franco-Irish general Lally, condemned for his military failures in India. The struggle for Canada is reduced to a dispute over a few acres of snow. The struggle in Europe is reduced to a personal contest between Frederick II and the duc de Richelieu. War is no longer a realm of heroism, and it is painted in a harshly negative light. Louis XV is nowhere to be seen. Voltaire, settled into life as seigneur of Ferney, no longer had to try to flatter his king.

Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d'avoir la tête tranchée

‘Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d’avoir la tête tranchée en place de grève le 8 mai 1766’. (BnF/Gallica)

The later chapters – mostly written in the 1760s, soon after the events they describe – allow Voltaire to move beyond war. They reflect the preoccupations of the philosophe engagé that he was soon to become. Religious questions are ever-present: the problems surrounding the papal bull Unigenitus and the refusal of sacraments; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bourbon Europe. The dangers of religious fanaticism are highlighted through chapters on Damiens’s attack on Louis XV, or the attempt on the life of the king of Portugal. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and tolerance comes to the fore in his strongly argued advocacy of judicial reform.

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

‘Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens, infâme parricide de Louis XV, le bien-aimé’. (BnF/Gallica)

These later chapters demonstrate the melding of Voltaire’s historical and philosophical concerns. The final chapter reviews the progress of l’esprit humain in Voltaire’s own time. His findings are mixed: despite some advances in certain areas, notably science, literature is in decline and can do no more than distract the reader, who would otherwise be ‘trop accablé de la contemplation des misères humaines’. As for the king, Voltaire almost blames him for bringing about his own death by sanctioning France’s failure to adopt the practice of smallpox inoculation. Louis le bien-aimé has by now become le mal-aimé.

Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV tracks its author’s development as a philosophe, but also as a historian, analyst and commentator on his own time, making it both a summary account of the age of Louis XV and a reflection of Voltaire’s concerns over the last thirty-three years of his own career.

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan