Gibbon et Voltaire: une rencontre fortuite?

Compte-rendu de l’ouvrage: Béla Kapossy et Béatrice Lovis (dir.), Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes, Gollion, Infolio, 2022

Dans le cénacle restreint des spécialistes du XVIIIe siècle peu sont ceux qui ignorent le rôle fondamental qu’a joué la ville suisse de Lausanne dans l’évolution intellectuelle de l’historien Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) et dans le parachèvement de son œuvre magistrale: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vol., 1776-1788).

Par suite d’une conversion inopinée au catholicisme lors de ses années de formation à Oxford, le père du jeune Edward Gibbon décide de placer son fils sous le patronage d’un exigeant précepteur lausannois Daniel Pavillard (1703-1775), afin de lui faire retrouver le chemin de la foi anglicane.

A partir des années 1730, les étudiants étrangers deviennent nombreux à Lausanne, ville réputée pour la beauté de ses paysages et pour son académie huguenote du Refuge. La cité vaudoise, alors sous le contrôle de Berne, offre en prime un cadre politique extrêmement stable, ce qui la distingue de sa voisine Genève, périodiquement perturbée par des troubles politiques. Les précepteurs lausannois accueillent de nombreux élèves de marque, comme le comte de Lippe-Detmold. Lausanne fait dès lors partie de la crème des réseaux d’éducation internationaux européens. Une autre particularité qui distingue Lausanne de sa capitale bernoise ou de la cité de Calvin est la présence d’une noblesse oisive. Comme le rappelle l’historienne Danièle Tosato-Rigo (p. 74) l’existence d’une noblesse lausannoise garantissait que les jeunes étrangers de marque pouvaient acquérir des mœurs bourgeoises et fréquenter les cercles convenant à leur rang aristocratique.

Béla Kapossy et Béatrice Lovis (dir.), Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes (Gollion: InFolio, 2022).

C’est sur les trois séjours de Gibbon à Lausanne, les années d’apprentissage (1753-1758), l’étape du Grand Tour (1763-1764) et la retraite studieuse pour terminer le Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1763-1764) que revient l’ouvrage remarquable publié sous la direction de Béla Kapossy et de Béatrice Lovis: Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes. Comme Béla Kapossy le démontre dans l’article ‘Gibbon et les historiens lausannois’ (pp. 107-15), les années de formation lausannoises furent essentielles pour l’émergence d’une méthode historiographique chez le jeune Gibbon. Hasard de l’histoire, c’est aussi à Lausanne que Gibbon découvre et se familiarise avec le théâtre. Or il est également attiré par la personnalité de Voltaire dont il fréquente la propriété de Mon-Repos où le dramaturge organise ses représentations.

J’aimerais insister ici sur le rôle que joua Voltaire pour Gibbon, comme lointain mentor, pour son introduction à l’art théâtral et pour sa réflexion sur l’écriture de l’histoire. Comme l’illustrent les nombreux articles de l’ouvrage collectif Edward Gibbon et Lausanne, la ville vaudoise créa les conditions cadre pour l’émergence d’un laboratoire cosmopolite de la pensée des Lumières.

Gustave Courbet, Coucher de soleil sur le Léman, 1874, huile sur toile, 54.5 x 65.4 cm, musée Jenisch, Vevey.

En 1755, lorsqu’il arrive sur les bords du Lac Léman et s’installe pour l’hiver dans la propriété du Grand-Montriond entre Lausanne et Ouchy, Voltaire cherche également une retraite studieuse. De nature entreprenante, l’homme de lettres ne décrit pas les coteaux lémaniques comme un lieu de repli mais bien comme une zone de transit européen (Épître de M. de Voltaire en arrivant dans sa terre, près du Lac de Genève). Anticipant sur la teneur de l’article ‘Genève‘ pour l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par d’Alembert mais soufflé par Voltaire, l’homme de lettres souhaite également, comme le précise Béatrice Lovis, ‘apporter la civilisation aux Vaudois’ (‘Le théâtre de société lausannois vu par Gibbon’, p. 302). Gibbon est témoin de cette mise en scène des vertus théâtrales, comme il le rapporte dans son journal:

‘Avant d’être rappelé de Suisse, j’eus la satisfaction de voir l’homme le plus extraordinaire du siècle; poète, historien, philosophe; qui a rempli trente in-quarto de prose, de vers; de productions variées, souvent excellentes, toujours amusantes. Ai-je besoin de nommer Voltaire? […] Le plus grand agrément que je tirai du séjour de Voltaire à Lausanne, fut la circonstance rare d’entendre un grand poète déclamer, sur le théâtre, ses propres ouvrages’ (Gibbon, Mémoires, suivis de quelques ouvrages posthumes, vol. 1, chap. IX, pp. 100-102).

Cette découverte laissera des traces, car Gibbon qui précise son grand amour pour l’art de Shakespeare, compte également dans sa bibliothèque les œuvres d’auteurs français tels que Diderot, Carmontelle, Beaumarchais, et Madame de Genlis. Voltaire occupe dans cette collection une place à part puisque Gibbon possède ses œuvres complètes à double, imprimées à Lausanne et à Genève (p. 300). Gibbon a donc entretenu un authentique dialogue littéraire et philosophique avec l’intellectuel Voltaire.

Concernant l’écriture de l’histoire, Gibbon jugeait que l’historiographie de Voltaire était superficielle. Nonobstant son impressionnante bibliothèque, Voltaire ne recherchait pas des sources archivistiques, et il utilisait ce qui avait déjà été publié ou ce que ses correspondants lui mettaient sous la main. Cependant, malgré ses critiques sur l’approche méthodologique de Voltaire, Gibbon était fasciné par l’envergure intellectuelle de l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756). La philosophie de l’histoire (1764) offrait aussi une lecture des événements du récit de l’humanité qui ne devait rien à une lecture providentialiste de l’histoire.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle (Paris: Durand, 1771). Notez le but explicitement religieux du projet historique de Bossuet.

Si l’on songe au rôle essentiel que joua le Discours sur l’histoire universelle à Monseigneur le Dauphin (1681) de Bossuet dans la conversion au catholicisme du jeune Gibbon, on prendra mieux la mesure du rôle fondamental que représentait pour l’historien anglais l’explication laïque des faits historiques. Dès 1742 avec ses brèves Remarques sur l’histoire, Voltaire attaquait l’histoire ancienne. ‘L’esprit philosophique’ appliqué à la science historique devait produire un savoir prétendument utile, loin des fables et des compilations d’anecdotes qui caractérisaient les récits traditionnels. Position que Voltaire répète dès l’introduction de l’article ‘Histoire‘ de l’Encyclopédie, publié en 1765: ‘c’est le récit des faits donnés pour vrais; au contraire de la fable, qui est le récit des faits donnés pour faux’. Et il écarte d’emblée l’intérêt de ‘l’histoire sacrée’, qu’il présente comme ‘une suite des opérations divines et miraculeuses, par lesquelles il a plu à Dieu de conduire autrefois la nation juive, et d’exercer aujourd’hui notre foi. Je ne toucherai point à cette matière respectable’.

Si Gibbon fut sensible à l’envergure du récit voltairien sur l’histoire globale, les réticences furent plus nombreuses concernant la méthode voltairienne. L’historien anglais ne pouvait adhérer au scepticisme général de Voltaire pour tous les faits qui mettaient en valeur le rôle du christianisme ou de l’Église de Rome. Dans sa lutte contre l’Infâme, Voltaire dédaignait tout évènement qui ne cadrait pas avec son ironie, alors que Gibbon s’est formé à une critique rigoureuse des sources. Il cherchait à étayer les hypothèses – y compris celles qui présentaient le rôle de l’Église comme positif – par les faits rapportés par des témoins fiables et/ou consignés par les historiens les plus crédibles.

Une deuxième différence entre les deux hommes est que Gibbon s’intéresse au passé pour saisir dans la longue durée le façonnement des mœurs, alors que Voltaire perçoit l’histoire ancienne comme un objet de curiosité. L’essentiel du discours historique doit se porter selon lui sur l’histoire moderne – celle qui se fait depuis la Renaissance. C’est cette histoire-là qui est pourvoyeuse de progrès et de Lumières.

Feuille manuscrite du Essai sur les mœurs de Voltaire. Forschungsbibliothek, Gotha, Chart. B 1204 (MS G), p.4.

Une troisième différence fondamentale peut être relevée dans le style des deux historiens. Voltaire privilégie un discours fluide, ironique, quasi-pamphlétaire, alors que Gibbon respecte le travail érudit des antiquaires et fleurit ses pages de nombreuses notes où il analyse les sources discutées et en critique le contenu.

Gibbon et Lausanne, par la richesse de son contenu et l’érudition de son apparat critique, permet au spécialiste, comme au profane, une compréhension plus riche des rapports qui relient Gibbon à son environnement helvétique. Le livre réunit trente-cinq auteurs provenant de divers horizons académiques mais aussi de diverses disciplines. L’ouvrage prend pour fil rouge l’élaboration du Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire et offre une synthèse internationale des travaux consacrés au XVIIIe siècle lausannois depuis deux décennies. Les contributions sont répertoriées en sept thématiques comme ‘religion et éducation’, ‘sociabilité et divertissements’, ‘La grotte, lieu de vie et de mémoire’ ou ‘Archives et reliques’, etc. Ces catégories visent à englober les différents aspects de la vie de Gibbon et à les rattacher aux caractéristiques proprement lausannoises.

Comme l’indique Béla Kapossy dans l’introduction: ‘Avant que la cité vaudoise ne devienne la capitale olympique, Lausanne était ainsi connue comme la ville de Gibbon’ (p. 13). Les jeunes anglais romantiques avaient l’habitude d’escalader les murs de la propriété pour apercevoir les lieux où l’historien avait conclu son œuvre grandiose. Avant que ne soit construit le premier palace – le bien nommé ‘Gibbon’, sur l’emplacement de la ‘Maison de la Grotte’ – les voyageurs anglais pratiquant leur Grand Tour ou explorant les Alpes continuaient à faire de Lausanne une étape incontournable de leur périple.

Les dernières lignes du Decline and Fall sont demeurés célèbres par la description poétique qu’en donne l’auteur: alors que Lausanne est recueillie dans un calme profond, Gibbon contemple les Alpes savoyardes imperturbables et le bleu sombre du lac où se reflète la lune. L’historien suspend enfin sa plume et cède à sa rêverie nocturne.

Charles Louis Constans, Gibbon, c. 1810-1820, lithographie, 17.5 cm x 13.3 cm, British Museum, Londres. L’artiste dépeint Gibbon assis devant les Alpes dans un jardin à Lausanne.

En quittant Lausanne, lors de son deuxième séjour, Edward Gibbon note dans son journal qu’il laisse derrière lui une ville mal bâtie qui a perdu les charmes des premières fois. Ce jugement négatif s’est atténué avec le temps, car Gibbon est revenu dans la ville pour parachever le Decline and Fall. Il retourne cependant en Angleterre au crépuscule de son existence, s’installant à Londres pour consoler son ami Lord Sheffield (1735-1821) qui venait de perdre sa femme, sa santé se détériore et il finit par mourir à l’âge de 56 ans. Ironie de l’histoire qui rappelle la mort inattendue de Voltaire à Paris après de nombreuses années d’exil.

Les charmes du séjour lausannois auront atténué les rigueurs républicaines du Gibbon des années 1760, qui percevait Berne comme une république autoritaire et les Lausannois comme des citoyens qui confondaient tranquillité et liberté. Son troisième séjour réveille son intérêt pour la vieille république aristocratique helvétique, mais probablement que Berne n’évoquait plus pour lui l’État qui en Europe suggérait la grandeur des Cités-États antiques. A l’aube de ‘l’ère des Révolutions’ – selon la formule d’un autre grand historien britannique –, Berne n’était plus un exemple de conservatisme dépassé, mais un modèle de stabilité dans une Europe au bord de la rupture.

– Helder Mendes Baiao, Assistant docteur de littérature française, Universität Bern

Les Antiquités dépaysées

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme’s Les Antiquités dépaysées is the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is the first on the geopolitics of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century. In this blog post Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme discuss this new publication and how the volume came to exist.

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of conferences, books and articles that have rethought antiquarian knowledge in a global context in art history, history of material culture, and the history of knowledge. They were mainly based on the idea of the long – even deep – history of Antiquity and on a comparative approach between cultures of collecting. There were also perspectives on the history of Antiquity more rooted in the colonial world or addressing global Renaissance. In all these cases, the aim was to break with the disciplinary genealogies of modern archaeology in order to recapture the early modern period.

Our viewpoint in this book was slightly different: we questioned the idea that antiquarian curiosity was an anthropological invariant, and we also wanted to interrogate further the shift from antiquarianism to archaeology that occurred during the Enlightenment. We come from two different but complementary backgrounds: Charlotte Guichard comes from art history and has done a lot of work on collecting, expertise and the world of objects, and Stéphane Van Damme comes from the history of science and has taken an interest in urban antiquities. This volume is therefore the result of a series of meetings that took place in Paris that aimed to pool the approaches of a new generation of historians and art historians who belong to different historiographical fields and who have been sensitized to the question of the circulation of antiques in the eighteenth century in worlds and spaces as different as the Mughal Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, the Spanish empires in New Spain, or the antiquarian culture in the young Republic of the United States.

Our problem is anchored in a connected history and we chose to focus on the devices of encounter that constitute moments of testing and appraising of these artefacts. Circulation is not an inert framework but a phase of transformation, translation and adaptation that played a role in giving a new identity to these artefacts. We have therefore always paid attention to the actors, the mediations that made these circulations possible or, on the contrary, hindered them. Less than structural comparison, the connection and circulation between these worlds required agreements on the nature of these objects and their interpretations. The history of knowledge mobilized here is part of the material turn to account for this intense work of qualification, as the ontologies of objects and artefacts are not fixed but constantly discussed and negotiated. The global dimension does not invite us to focus solely on the analysis of the processes of globalization of a material culture of Antiquity, but rather to show the diversity of the collecting enterprises and the variety of local contexts in which they were embedded.

By studying antiquarian knowledge in context, the book aims to give an archipelagic representation of the antiquarian world rather than the plenary vision that has become established, and which gives a false image of these exchanges. In the eighteenth century there were indeed high places and metropolitan cities where these meetings took place: Paris, London, Philadelphia, Constantinople, Beijing, Delhi, Mexico. The collective work therefore consisted in mapping these exchanges. While the paradigm of international trade was established in eighteenth-century European societies, the flow of antique objects was not homogeneous. Antiquarian curiosity was not unanimously shared, and enthusiasm was often tempered. This book reveals, on the contrary, the indifference or the obstacles in this pursuit. In so doing, our collective investigation aims to re-politicize the exchanges, highlight the conflicts and power relations, and even the economy of predation that surrounded these circulations of Antiquity in the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme (Ecole normale supérieure)

Les Antiquités dépaysées: Histoire globale de la culture antiquaire au siècle des Lumières is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in March 2022.

A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

Every project in the Complete Works of Voltaire corpus seems to have its own special features that make it not quite fit into the mould of what has gone before. Our team meetings ring to the sounds of editors wailing: ‘But this is different!’ The principles that have served us well over the 50-year duration of the project have had to be agile and adaptable to cover the astonishing range of genres and styles covered by Voltaire.

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Histoire de la guerre de 1741, Amsterdam 1755 (left: Bnf, Paris; right: Bodley, Oxford)

Even by the standards of the Voltaire Foundation, though, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV presents a unique challenge because of its complex genesis. Much of the material in the chapters of the Précis which cover the War of the Austrian Succession was first written by Voltaire for his Histoire de la guerre de 1741, a project enthusiastically started when he was appointed as historiographe de France in the 1740s. He never published it himself (though it was published, supposedly unofficially, and at least twice, in 1755), but rewrote and integrated large parts of it in his ambitious universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs. Later, he separated the material on Louis XIV (to become the Siècle de Louis XIV) and Louis XV, and the Précis (which was by this time not really a précis) became a work in its own right in 1769, with later chapters added in the 1770s to take account of, amongst other things, the king’s unexpected death in 1774.

Essay sur l’histoire générale

Essay sur l’histoire générale, [Geneva], 1756 (Bodley, Oxford)

This genesis means that the collation and presentation of variants is different from what we usually do. Our usual process goes something like this:

  1. Select a work by Voltaire
  2. Assess the different editions and manuscripts of the work and choose the most appropriate base text (for example, the version that was last overseen by Voltaire, or sometimes the first edition, or else the edition that was most widely read during his lifetime).
  3. Collate significant textual variants from other editions and manuscripts against the base text and present them neatly at the foot of the page.

Sometimes (particularly for example in the theatrical corpus) the variant versions are too divergent from the base text to be presented on the same page, and so in such cases we would print whole scenes or sections as an appendix, with a reference on the relevant page of the base text to direct the reader to where this material could be found.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe. Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne (BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4). By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the case of the Guerre/Précis project, though, it was clear that we were dealing with not one but (at least) two separate works. The remit of the Précis is much wider than the War of the Austrian Succession, the primary focus of the Guerre. Not to mention what we might call the Essai sur les mœurs stage in the middle, where the titles are dispensed with but the material is reused and moved around to create a narrative that fits into the wider universal history.

We decided early on that the Guerre needed therefore to be treated as a separate text, and, for the first time in a collection of Voltaire’s complete works, it is published in full. This has avoided some horrendous complexities of page layout had we tried to show all the Guerre material as variants to the Précis, as well as the awkwardness of chopping it up into gobbets for appendices. Being able to read the Guerre in its entirety allows the reader a richer understanding of this little-known and underrated text as well as of how it fits into the context of the Précis project. It has also allowed us to separate the manuscripts relating to the composition of the Guerre from those which relate specifically to the Précis, and to present variants from these in the most appropriate context.

However, it has meant that the overlap between the material in the Guerre and that of the Précis has to be shown in other ways. We decided to adopt the method of lightly shading passages in the Guerre to show when there is textual overlap between that text and the later Précis text. This has had the great advantage of showing the reader at a glance the scale of the reuse of this material, as well as allowing us to concentrate in greater detail on the text that is unique to the Guerre. For the shaded sections, readers are referred to the annotation of the Précis, whereas the unique Guerre text is annotated in full in that volume. As Voltaire edited the text as he reused it, we have ignored small differences in phrasing for the purposes of this exercise (see image for example) – but it does sometimes throw into relief small amendments made during the reuse process, for example, deciding to name someone, or amending figures of battlefield casualties etc. in response to new information.

Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 / Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Above: Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ch.24, l.264-69. Below: Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ch.26, l.78-83.

This decision necessitated another choice: should we shade only the material that was used in our base text of the Précis (Voltaire’s revised 1775 edition, amended by him shortly before his death in anticipation of a new version of his complete works), or should we include all the material that was taken forward from the Guerre, through the Essai and early standalone Précis editions, even if it was subsequently deleted? After discussion with the general editors, it was decided in the end that in the Guerre it was important to distinguish between what Voltaire reused, and what was only ever used in the Guerre. This means that not all the highlighted text will be found in the base text of our edition of the Précis – much of it can be found instead in the variants. The critical thing is that all the shaded text is accounted for and commented on in our edition of the Précis (OCV, vols.29A and 29B).

The Histoire de la guerre de 1741, OCV, vol.29C, publishing in October 2020, completes the three-volume set of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, with volumes 29A and 29B published earlier in the year, the general editors being Janet Godden and James Hanrahan.

Alison Oliver

‘Depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours’ – mission accomplished

Many readers picking up Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV for the first time might find it all too easy to put down again as not living up to its title. By only a stretched definition is the work a précis; it is not about a siècle; and only in a few places does it focus on Louis XV. But to put it down too quickly would be a mistake. There are many reasons why the Précis – published by the Voltaire Foundation in 3 volumes, the first of which (vol.29A) has just come out – deserves our attention. Here are some of them.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe (Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne), BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4. By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Foremost perhaps is the picture of Voltaire in action as a historian of modernity. We know from earlier writings that he thought the study of modern history important for the instruction of future generations. He also thought it essential for the historian to be both accurate and impartial, but then when it came to writing about his own day – events that he had witnessed himself or involved people he knew – he was not always able to put these ideals into practice. The need for impartiality may be behind the detachment with which Voltaire treats Louis XV, but elsewhere he frequently sails too close to the wind, particularly in the polemical chapters at the end of the work. Accuracy he strove for conscientiously, as he had done with the Essai and the Siècle, although sometimes within his own compass of taking the mean position of several authorities without naming any of them. He allows himself to embroider, but if he occasionally seems to invent it is probably in error or where strict accuracy needed to be set against readability, as pointed out by a correspondent of 1768: ‘Vous attachez tant par la magie de votre diction que l’on aime presque mieux s’égarer avec vous que s’instruire pesamment avec d’autres’ (vol.29A, p.140).

The Précis also has a remarkable history as the culmination of Voltaire’s plan, announced in 1742, to write a universal modern history and take it up to his own day. This was the launching pad for the Essai sur les mœurs. The nascent Siècle de Louis XIV, he said in 1745, was destined to ‘[entrer] dans ce grand ouvrage et doit le terminer’ (vol.29A, p.6, n.3). But as the following reign rolled on the distance between an end point of 1714 and continuing the history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’ became too great to be bridged. In 1768, in preparation for the new quarto edition of his Œuvres complètes, Voltaire uncoupled the Siècle from the Essai, reducing the subtitle to ‘jusqu’au règne de Louis XIII’, and using the chapters that carried his history beyond 1714 as the basis of the new Précis du siècle de Louis XV.

Voltaire thus uses the word précis not in the sense of an abridgement of a longer account, as might be expected of a detached published work, but of a summary of what he sees as the essentials of the age in a series of capsules. This enables him to pick and choose his material, pausing to give anecdote and detail in some places, particularly the early years when he himself was in Paris, passing rapidly over the middle years of the reign and dwelling again at length on aspects of the later years that attracted his attention as philosophe. Throughout his style is light, never flippant, and his sometimes provocative leaps, summaries or asides beckon the reader to further research.

As for ‘siècle’, Voltaire had felt from the outset that the achievements of France in the glorious era of the roi soleil should be defined not in terms of a reign, but as an ‘age’ or epoch. This is the sense in which the word is used again of the reign of Louis XV, although the king did not dominate his own reign and was noteworthy only in the wrong ways. For most of the book Louis XV himself stands silently to one side, but the events portrayed seem none the worse for that, highlighting the difference between his ‘siècle’ and that of his great-grandfather.

In 1768 Voltaire brings the Précis up to date with further chapters on more recent matters, and extends the themes of some of these into the self-contained Histoire du parlement de Paris. He closes the resulting gap between the early and later years of the reign of Louis XV by bringing in a précis in the more usual sense of the word. This was the first authorised appearance, albeit in shortened form, of Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741, undertaken in 1745 in his capacity of historiographe du roi, as an account of the ‘campagnes du roi’ in Flanders of 1744 and 1745. These campaigns covered years that showed the king at his best and France as victorious; they were soon extended both backwards and forwards to take in the whole war, but that is another story, to be read with the full text in volume 29C. Circumstances conspired against Voltaire’s intention to publish the Guerre de 1741 until he was settled in Geneva, by which time France was involved in another war and any thirst for details of the War of the Austrian Succession had long evaporated. By the mid 1760s, therefore, the Guerre was a work in search of a home, and the incipient Précis a work with a beginning and potential end but no middle. The solution was obvious.

Having difficulty keeping up? Unsurprising – the complexities defeated the Kehl editors as well as Beuchot and Moland, who omitted the original complete Guerre entirely. The Introduction in vol.29A of this edition analyses the sequence of the composition of both texts and the eventual assembly of the whole in 1768.

But Voltaire was unable to call it a day. Another edition of his complete works in 1775 saw him taking up his pen once more at the age of eighty to record the death of the king, who in the course of nature – and perhaps Voltaire’s original conception of this work – would have been expected to outlive Voltaire. And Voltaire was then spurred on to review the whole. Annotations preserved in a copy of the 1775 edition now in St Petersburg show the Précis to be among the most heavily corrected texts under revision at the time of Voltaire’s death, truly taking his modern history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’. Looking at the years since 1742 and the water that had flowed beneath Voltaire’s many bridges since then, his readers can only respond, Chapeau!

– Janet Godden

 

 

The Scottish Enlightenment four stages theory: a (re-)introduction

There are few paradigms more tightly connected with the Scottish Enlightenment than the four stages theory. Yet it arguably remains one of the least understood.

John Millar

James Tassie, Medallion of John Millar (1767). Courtesy of the University of Glasgow Archive Services, University collection, GB 248 UP3/26/1.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole host of famous Scottish thinkers – Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and John Millar – attempted to explain a range of social phenomena according to a single, universal narrative of the history of progress. The spirit of the paradigm was that the fundamental distinguishing components of societies lay not in accidents of climate, religion or race, but rather in the social, psychological, legal and cultural effects of the history of property and sustenance relations. While French thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used three stages to achieve similar analyses, the Scots preferred four:

  1. Hunting, where property only extended to what one could carry on one person (savagery),
  2. Pastoralism, where shepherding witnessed the development of animal property (barbarism),
  3. Agriculture, where society became settled and landed property became pivotal in the production of sustenance (civilisation),
  4. Commercial society, defined by contemporary Europe.

The paradigm has, for good reason, been widely identified as a pioneering step in the development of various disciplines of the modern social sciences. At the same time, in taking the commercial society of eighteenth-century Britain as the pinnacle of the history of liberty, postcolonial scholars have, with validity, critiqued it as a blatant example of Eurocentric world historical narration.

John Millar, the protégé of Adam Smith and Regius professor of civil law at the University of Glasgow for nearly four decades at the end of the eighteenth century, is often cited as the most systematic articulator of the four stages theory. Attention has been paid particularly to his reflections on the history of family and gender, which constitute the great bulk of his stadial theory-infused magnus opus, the Origin of the Distinction of Ranks.

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I began research for my book John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history with the intention of revealing how Millar managed his oft-celebrated cohesion. In fact, I was quickly confronted with lacunae, gaps and contradictions with Millar’s stadial analysis. Digging deeper, I realised that these arose from his difficulties in overcoming a complex intellectual web of competing analytical frameworks using evidence and existing scholarship that defied any easy organisation. Moreover, it became clear that his intention was much less to innovate any coherent science of stage-based analysis than to set out his convictions about politics, the family and the nature of authority.

Too often, Millar’s lack of full coherence in his use of stadial analysis has been attributed to intellectual underperformance. In my book, I take a different approach, viewing Millar as a guide to the history of knowledge underpinning the pursuit of stadial history, with a particular focus on gender and the family. Millar used the stadial model as only one of several intersecting paradigms. His deployment and innovation of classic natural law structures, such as the history of household authority relations and the tripartite division of marriage struggle, reveals the importance of his professional setting as a professor of law in Glasgow. Additionally, in his retention of religion as a critical means for explaining differences in marriage practices, we see that even Millar had doubts about stadial analysis as a fully convincing alternative to paradigms such as sacred history.

The deeper we probe into Miller’s complex work, the more we discover his Enlightenment spirit of speculative curiosity. His legacy to modern disciplines of sociology and anthropology [1] lies not so much in the rigidity of his conviction in any single analytical framework, but rather his thirst for cross-cultural comparison and analysis. His extended discussion of topics ranging from matriarchal familial forms and the Amazon legend to national character and polygamy was not intended to tie up loose threads in stadial analysis, but rather to be an ambitious attempt at historicising all dimensions of authority.

– Nicholas B. Miller, University of Lisbon

[1] William Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow 1735-1801: his life and thought and his contributions to sociological analysis (Cambridge, 1960).

 

OCV update: Focus on Louis XIV

Bonne rentrée! This September marks a milestone for the OCV team as we publish the final chapters of our critical edition of Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV (OCV, vol.13D), in which Voltaire explores the cultural history of the reign, including chapters on religious conflict and sectarianism as well as on achievements in the scientific, artistic and literary spheres. This volume completes the critical edition of the narrative of this monumental work, representing over 1500 pages of Voltaire’s text and editorial notes. The general editor, Diego Venturino, has meticulously pieced together Voltaire’s sources and analysed the context in which he worked and the way he sifted evidence to provide a revealing and comprehensive account of Voltaire’s historical method. We’re very happy with how handsome they look on our shelf, as well as proud of the diligence and hard work that has gone into making them just as magnificent on the inside.

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We were also really pleased this summer to launch an update to our explorer’s guide to Louis XIV. We wanted to provide a resource which would enable the scholarly research in the books to reach a wider audience, as well as giving some of the background to one of the most remarkable monarchs in European history. When the BBC series Versailles hit our screens earlier in the summer, we thought it would be interesting to explore some of the characters and events featured in the series from the viewpoint, not so much of ‘were they really like that?’ but ‘what did Voltaire have to say about them?’. It’s striking how many of the eye-catching incidents can be traced back to him, and we’ve enjoyed exploring how much further some of the hints provided by Voltaire and other historians have been stretched by the mischievous programme-makers.

As joint ‘secretaries’ of the edition, both working part-time and fitting in family commitments around our work on Voltaire, Pippa Faucheux and I have been particularly pleased that we’ve been able to keep the continuity over the summer, working closely with our valued collaborators, including general editor Professor Venturino and our partners at the Palace of Versailles, as well as our indexer, typesetters and printers in the UK. We’re now excited about moving on to get to grips with the fascinating ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, the Who’s Who of Louis XIV’s world that launches the reader into the narrative of the Siècle, for publication in spring 2017 (OCV, vol.12).

– Alison Oliver

‘Résumé de toute cette histoire…’: the final chapter of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs

In our final volume of text for the Essai sur les mœurs [1], Voltaire delivers a further catalogue of barbaric anecdotes and atrocities. This brings the various countries of his study up to the seventeenth century and the start of his Siècle de Louis XIV.

Resumé page

Original opening of chapter 211 in 1756, Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours, vol.7, p.142.

In his final chapter, 197, ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire jusqu’au temps où commence le beau siècle de Louis XIV’, Voltaire attempts to take stock of this ‘vaste théâtre’ of his world tour, asking: ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail? quel profit tirera-t-on de l’histoire?’ In his answer he introduces new issues and arguments: for example, to settle old scores with Montesquieu, spared in the 1756 version, only a year after his death.

Originally written as chapter 211 in 1756, when the Essai and the Siècle formed one work (Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours) and the chapters were numbered consecutively, the slightly differently titled ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire, et point de vue sous lequel on peut la regarder’ had a more pessimistic tone, perhaps because it was written soon after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In 1761, the chapter was then brought forward to conclude the Essai, and Voltaire composed a new ‘Conclusion et examen de ce tableau historique’ for the ensemble of his modern history texts, placed at the end of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. The reworked conclusion to the Essai sheds some of its original pessimism, though invites the reader to share his skeptical vision of history.

Looking back over the publication history of our first seven volumes of the Essai, it seems that we, the publishing team, have also covered a ‘vaste théâtre’. Kick-started by a generous grant from the AHRC, with further financial support from the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, and after eight years’ work by:

  • four general editors,
  • twenty-eight Voltaire specialists, from ten countries, dealing with nine centuries of history,
  • seven preface contributors,
  • three typesetting companies,

and a publishing team of online researchers, bibliographical specialists, translators, indexers, copy-editors, proof-readers, typesetters, printers and distributors… the last volume of chapters has finally been published.

We, too, have taken in the world: our team of editors were based in countries as widespread as Hungary, Spain and the USA; in our research, we drew on special links with eleven libraries worldwide – most notably the National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg, for illustrations of Voltaire’s handwritten marginalia taken from volumes in his library, as well as for vital descriptions of manuscripts.

Conceived in the 1740s, the Essai was continually reworked by Voltaire throughout his life, with major revisions published in 1753, 1754, 1761, 1768 and 1775. The reproduction of the different readings from these and further editions required the collation of thousands of variants from some sixteen editions and four manuscripts – supplemented with hours of on-screen ‘tagging’ of text to ensure that each of the variants appears at the correct point to correspond with the base text. Hundreds of historiographical sources contemporary to Voltaire were trawled for evidence as to where he had found his material – an enormous task, made easier by the appearance online of an increasing number of works as our project progressed.

As project manager, I can vouch for the team’s sense of achievement – not to say relief – as we reach this landmark point in such a monumental enterprise. ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail?’ Perhaps history will tell us.

– Karen Chidwick

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford), vol.26C: chapters 177-197.

Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].

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The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri, http://pfef.free.fr/Index.htm)

 

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Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.

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Robert-François Damiens (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

 

The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.

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.

Voltaire, historiographe précurseur: ‘Les mœurs des hommes, l’esprit de parti, se connaissent à la manière d’écrire l’histoire’ (Essai sur les mœurs, ch.171)

Les chapitres 170, 171 et 173 de l’Essai sur les mœurs (OCV, t.26B) consacrés aux guerres civiles de France donnent à Voltaire l’occasion de reprendre un sujet sur lequel il a commencé à faire des recherches lors de la composition de La Henriade (publiée sous le titre de La Ligue en 1723). Cette période particulièrement tourmentée et sanglante de l’histoire de France illustre mieux qu’aucune autre l’engrenage de la violence, qui revêt, à côté du conflit militaire, de multiples visages: libelles haineuses, conspirations (conjuration d’Amboise) et factions (la Ligue), emprisonnements et jugements sommaires, massacres (Wassy, la Saint-Barthélemy) et assassinats – ces derniers prenant même la forme extrême du régicide, sur lequel se clôt le règne calamiteux d’Henri III.

Hogenberg / Franois / 0410. L'assassinat du duc de Guise / [est

François Hogenberg, ‘L’assassinat du duc de Guise’ (estampe, XVIe siècle; Bibliothèque nationale de France).

 

C’est là un riche sujet de réflexion pour Voltaire, qui, dans la lignée de Bossuet, puise dans l’Histoire la matière d’un enseignement moral et philosophique, jugeant le passé à l’aune des préoccupations contemporaines. Les Guerres de Religion sont à cet égard un cas d’école: on ne peut mieux prouver les méfaits, bien plus, l’absurdité de l’intolérance religieuse, qui favorise ce qu’elle prétend détruire. Non pas que l’auteur accorde, dans sa narration, la place qu’on attendrait au débat théologique, bien au contraire. Ce silence s’explique fondamentalement par la vision voltairienne du rapport entre pouvoir et religion: chez les princes, note-t-il, ‘la religion n’est presque jamais que leur intérêt’; elle n’est qu’un prétexte pour conquérir ou conserver le pouvoir, un moyen d’instrumentaliser le peuple fanatisé.

Plus fondamentalement, son projet d’histoire universelle le conduit à renouveler le regard qu’il portait sur cette époque dans La Henriade ou l’Essay upon the civil wars of France (1728). Sa vision s’enrichit de l’attention portée à la longue durée – aux mœurs de la Cour, aux conditions matérielles d’existence, aux institutions politiques ou juridiques, aux structures économiques et financières du royaume. De façon intéressante, Voltaire intègre ces données d’arrière-plan à la trame événementielle. Ainsi, pour éclairer l’enchaînement imprévu des faits qui aboutissent à la tuerie de Wassy, il souligne l’habitude qu’ont alors les seigneurs de se déplacer accompagné d’une très nombreuse suite.

Voltaire approfondit son érudition par un travail de documentation considérable – puisant aussi bien dans les travaux des historiens que dans les chroniques et les mémoires du temps, chez les auteurs protestants que chez les auteurs catholiques – et prend ouvertement position dans le débat historiographique, ici pour corriger une erreur, là pour dénoncer la partialité d’un jugement, quitte à se montrer injuste envers les auteurs qu’il utilise abondamment, comme c’est le cas pour le jésuite Daniel.

Comme l’a montré Pierre Force dans sa Préface du tome 26B, l’écriture de l’Essai sur les mœurs témoigne d’un art de la brièveté qui le rattache au genre du ‘précis’. Dans nos chapitres, Voltaire se contente souvent de faire allusion aux événements supposés connus, pour se concentrer sur des détails piquants, des anecdotes savoureuses, des propos mémorables. Il livre un portrait romanesque de la Cour sous la régence de Catherine de Médicis et le règne de ses fils, qui forme un curieux mélange de ‘galanteries et de fureurs’, et ne manque pas une occasion de surprendre ou d’amuser son lecteur, a fortiori si elle lui permet au passage de faire montre de son savoir. En somme, on découvre dans ces chapitres quelques-unes des caractéristiques essentielles d’une figure d’historien que l’édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs aura permis d’appréhender dans toute sa complexité.

– Justine de Reyniès