‘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.

Voltaire: historian of modernity

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

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

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

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

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

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

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

– Nicholas Cronk

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

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

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

Progrès et passé: vers une fabrique de la modernité scientifique

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Frédéric Charbonneau, Université McGill

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