New resources for d’Holbach scholars

When was the last time you checked the ‘Digital d’Holbach’ page on the Voltaire Foundation website? More than two months ago? Well, in that case you may want to go back – and soon! – for quite a lot has changed as of late.

Paul Thiry, baron d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle.

D’Holbach aficionados and habitués of our blog may remember a post of mine from May 2021 in which I presented my Selected bibliography of d’Holbach-related publications. Well, to begin with, that bibliography has now been considerably enlarged thanks to the suggestions of various scholars who very kindly responded to my desperate call for addenda – special thanks to Gerhardt Stenger and Emmanuel Boussuge for their helpful suggestions! But that is but the tip of the iceberg!

On the ‘Resources for authors’ page, our followers will find a full list of pre-1789 editions of d’Holbach’s works, which is based on Jeroom Vercruysse’s seminal Bibliographie descriptive des imprimés du baron d’Holbach (rev. ed. Paris, 2017) and provides links, for every volume of every single edition, to digitised copies on Google Books, HathiTrust, and Gallica. This file, I hope, will be of use to anyone working on the Digital d’Holbach project and facilitate both the establishment of the base text and the collation of variants. (Well, when I say ‘for every volume of every single edition’ that is admittedly a bit of an overstatement… Some editions, marked in yellow in my file, are regrettably not available online. Should your university library own them and should they be willing to digitise them, please do let us know!)

Colleagues working on the Digital d’Holbach project will also be pleased to know that a first draft of the Digital d’Holbach Editorial Guidelines is now available on the Voltaire foundation website. These guidelines will take you through all the different, exciting phases of the editorial work, from the choice of the base text all the way down to penning the introduction. Like any human undertaking, however, they are also susceptible of improvement. Should you have any suggestions, please do get in touch. A Sample Treatment of the Base Text has also been uploaded as a separate file and should serve as a model for any English-language editions to come (We’ll upload a French counterpart shortly, ne vous inquiétez pas!)

Dulcis in fundo: a catalogue of d’Holbach’s library! Thanks to generous grants from the Leverhulme Trust, St Edmund Hall, and the University of Oxford, I have been able to hire three wonderful research assistants to work on the Tout d’Holbach project – more on that shortly. One of them, Gabriel O’Regan, has provided us with a fully searchable and very accurate transcription of the inventaire après décès of d’Holbach’s library, a tool which will be of enormous help to anyone trying to reconstruct the origins of d’Holbach’s ideas and pin down exactly the sources he used when penning his works. We now have great plans for taking this catalogue up a notch and turn it into an even more useful resource, but more on this another time!

Ruggero Sciuto

For action! A bibliography of d’Holbach studies

Paul-Henri Thiry, baron d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle.

Following the release of Tout d’Holbach in March 2020, the Voltaire Foundation is continuing to produce research tools that we hope will prove beneficial to anyone out there working on the Radical Enlightenment and d’Holbach more specifically. The latest arrival, we are happy to announce, is a selected bibliography of mostly 20th- and 21st-century scholarly publications on the Baron d’Holbach and his works. Counting almost 200 entries and intended primarily as a tool for anyone working on the Digital d’Holbach project, this bibliography includes links to online resources, where available, and hopes to grow larger in the next few months thanks to the support of the many colleagues worldwide who share our interest in the works of the Baron. Should you wish your new publications to be featured in the bibliography, or to report any mistakes or omissions, please contact Ruggero Sciuto. Thanks in advance for your help!

Looking forward, the Voltaire Foundation also hopes to release a full list of pre-1789 editions of d’Holbach’s publications with hyperlinks to digitised copies on Googlebooks, HathiTrust, or Gallica, as well as a searchable catalogue of d’Holbach’s library, which was famously dispersed at an auction in 1789. Stay tuned!

P.S. for the Diderot fans among us: Prof Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) will present her latest book on Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie at 5 pm UK time on 18 June 2021. For more on this event and a registration link please click here.

Ruggero Sciuto

Left: Alan Charles Kors, D’Holbach’s coterie: an Enlightenment in Paris (Princeton, 1976); centre: Alain Sandrier, Le Style philosophique du baron d’Holbach (Paris, 2004); right: Mladen Kozul, Les Lumières imaginaires: Holbach et la traduction (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2016:05).

A la portée de tout le monde

That was then: d’Holbach in print…

That was then: d’Holbach in print…

When I came upon the baron d’Holbach in the early 1960s – my undergraduate senior thesis was on d’Holbach’s atheism and the response of Voltaire and others to the Système de la nature, a choice of subject that played a not insignificant role in my scholarly life – there were few secondary sources to guide me, and there were precious few of his works accessible from a university library. As a graduate student studying his salon, his atheism, and his relationships, the only passage to his writings required taking a paper number in the waiting room of the Bibliothèque Nationale, rue de Richelieu, praying for a siège to open up, and waiting patiently for tomes that might or might not be the right editions to be delivered to my desk. Where was this extraordinary digital resource when I most needed it?

The secondary works about d’Holbach still cited by scholars of the Enlightenment when I began my research had been written in 1875, 1914, 1928, 1935, 1943, 1946, and 1955. There was a near universal consensus that it would be in the coterie holbachique that I would find the major movement of organized atheism in the Enlightenment (there were indeed a handful of atheists there, but the vast majority of devotees of the salon were not), and, for most scholars, diversely conspiratorial efforts to bring down the Ancien Régime. As each of these operational hypotheses dissolved in the light of the evidence – to my great disappointment at the time – I understood that one must learn to read texts, archives, correspondence, and contemporaneous records without prepossessed ideas about d’Holbach or his world, however ‘settled’ the scholarship appeared to be. Too many historians, claiming d’Holbach for a particular ideological camp, cited and presented him selectively and tendentiously, leaving one wholly unprepared for and startled by the dimensions and aspects of his work that they did not address or explicate. This narrative extended to the coterie itself.

… and this is now: screenshot from Tout d’Holbach.

… and this is now: screenshot from Tout d’Holbach.

D’Holbach’s salon was not a collaborative conspiracy or undertaking, pace many a historian and literary historian. The recent release of the truly collaborative Tout d’Holbach database coupled with the Voltaire Foundation’s project to create a digital scholarly edition of d’Holbach’s works (Digital d’Holbach) will allow debates about d’Holbach’s meanings and intentions to engage a large number of scholars and students in a variety of fields, informed by the array of texts on religion, superstition, philosophy, ethics, politics, and happiness that he bequeathed to his contemporaries and to us. Claims about his scepticism or dogmatism, elitism or egalitarianism, pessimism or optimism, happiness as contentment or happiness as hedonistic pleasure, for example, now can receive truly critical reception based upon unfiltered access to his actual works. Those of us who wrote about these matters might well have hoped that readers and students would go beyond our own claims and citations, testing the value of these by setting what we explicated in the context of the larger text and intellectual context, but now that is possible on a whole new scale. It is an exciting opportunity, and it is not only à la portée de tous ceux qui s’y intéressent, but it will expand such interest sizably and noticeably.

– Alan Charles Kors
Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History, University of Pennsylvania

A (sacred) contagion

Les pestiférés de Rome by Alphonse Legros

Les pestiférés de Rome (c. 1855-1877), by Alphonse Legros. (BnF/Gallica)

You feel as though you are in danger. You know that what is threatening you is all around you and invisible. You feel precarious on this earth. When you look at the world out there, you are worried. Disorder makes you anxious, order reassures you. When you think of the days ahead, you find yourself in a state of bafflement; your mind vacillates between the fear of pain and disgrace and the hope for health and prosperity. At times of weakness or when your loved ones are exposed to risk, fear dominates. When they are safe, and you are feeling well, hope prevails. You are constantly suspended between opposite states of mind. Everything about your future and the future of your community seems unpredictable. You live in a constant state of emergency. Every day, you join your fellow citizens in lugubrious rituals where you remember the dead and celebrate the living, thank saviours and honour martyrs. You feel powerless. You do not understand; you know so little of the causes of your uneasiness. You wonder what they look like, where they reside, where they are from, how they affect you, when everything started, who was first affected, when misfortune will be over, and everything will be all right again. You have no answers.

Baron d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée

Title page of Baron d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée (1768).

But you realise that someone else knows more than you do. They do not have all the answers, but they do understand more than you, they are more acquainted with the invisible causes than you are, they have learned more. You trust them. You are scared. You have no choice. When their decrees are announced, you submit without a murmur; you adopt, without examining them, the prescribed ways of rendering the invisible agents harmless. You now follow their prescriptions methodically, ceremonially: you wear what they recommend, you purify your body according to their instructions, you move in the ways they endorse, in the places and times they have established. Sometimes, even those who have knowledge disagree, debate, fight battles, divide into sects. You doubt, sometimes. You do not like sects, perhaps. And yet you are scared. You do not know. You obey. You have no choice.

You are an inhabitant of this planet in the spring of 2020. You are also a believer from any time or place, according to the baron d’Holbach. Gods and goddesses may seem less real than viruses, but that does not mean they are less dangerous than a plague. The ghosts of religion and superstition can affect human life as much as a disease does. It is when fear meets ignorance and imagination, though, that the disease turns into an epidemic, a true ‘sacred contagion’: ‘fear is the most contagious of all passions’.

– Laura Nicolì

Laura Nicolì (Voltaire Foundation / LabEx OBVIL, Sorbonne Université) is currently working on the born-digital critical edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition (1768), in the context of the Digital d’Holbach project.

Introducing Tout d’Holbach

Have you ever used Tout Voltaire or the ARTFL Encyclopédie and thought: ‘Wow! This is so helpful!’? Have you ever planned on giving a Zoom talk on pandemics in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and realised that all you had to do to get your primary sources was to search the database for ‘peste’, ‘pestilent.*’, ‘épidémi.*’, nothing more? Or maybe you wanted to write an article on Voltaire and dodos? You looked up ‘dodo’ in Tout Voltaire, and it only took you about three seconds to realise that you had pushed your quest for originality a bit too far. Have you ever wished that something like Tout Voltaire existed also for other authors? Well, if you work on d’Holbach, we’ve got good news for you!

The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago and the Voltaire Foundation are very pleased to announce the release of Tout d’Holbach, a database that brings together fully searchable transcriptions of the vast majority of d’Holbach’s works. (If at this point you cannot be bothered to read more and wish to start experimenting with the database right away, here is the link:

At the moment, Tout d’Holbach only includes d’Holbach’s original writings, defined as those considered to be ‘œuvres originales publiées isolément’ (‘original works published separately’) in Jeroom Vercruysse’s fundamental Bibliographie descriptive des imprimés du baron d’Holbach (1971; new ed. 2017) (The Essai sur les préjugés and the Tableau des saints are not there yet, but they will be soon! We promise!). Moving forward, full transcriptions of d’Holbach’s translations and editions, respectively marked as Ds and Fs in Vercruysse’s bibliography, will be added, making the database more worthy of its high-sounding name.  At the same time, we are also thinking about making Tout d’Holbach a bit less ‘d’Holbach’: adding to the database texts whose attribution to the Baron is highly controversial will put us, we hope, in a position to better understand the real contours of d’Holbach’s textual corpus, thus answering a question that has occupied scholars’ minds for more than two centuries.

Thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Voltaire Foundation is currently working on a born-digital critical edition of d’Holbach’s writings: Digital d’Holbach. Unlike Digital d’Holbach, Tout d’Holbach is not a critical edition: none of the texts is annotated, and the transcriptions, while broadly accurate, may contain occasional typos. Tout d’Holbach is a research tool, and one, we hope, that will prove invaluable to researchers collaborating on Digital d’Holbach as well as to scholars working on the European Enlightenment more broadly.

So, here is the link again for those of you who haven’t yet given in to temptation and already clicked on it:

P.S. If you have some time to spare while you #stayathome and would like to contribute to the project by checking the transcription of a section of one of d’Holbach’s works, or if you would like to know more about Digital d’Holbach, please email Ruggero Sciuto at

– Ruggero Sciuto and Clovis Gladstone

Baron d’Holbach brought back to the motherland by a ‘joyous sett’

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk.

He was ‘the most learned nobleman’ in Paris according to Laurence Sterne, ‘un des hommes de son temps les plus instruits, sachant plusieurs des langues de l’Europe’ for the abbé Morellet, ‘le vrai cosmopolite’ in Diderot’s words: there is no doubt that Baron d’Holbach won the affection and the esteem of those who met him.

Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as ‘the Bible of atheists’, an idéologue, a populariser of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as a producer and circulator of clandestine literature and as the centre of a wide intellectual network. All over Europe he was known as the ‘maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’ (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as ‘the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits’ (in those of Sterne). D’Holbach’s house in the rue Royale in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan literary circles of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, it was ‘a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity’, and it was dubbed ‘the joyous sett’ by Sterne: this is where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society.

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism.

German by origin (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), Dutch through his academic training (he studied in Leiden), French by adoption, and cosmopolitan by choice, d’Holbach spoke several languages and translated scientific works from the German and philosophical and irreligious works from the English.

For three days, 9-11 May 2019, the Institute of Advanced Studies of Göttingen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg hosted ‘The Great Protector of Wits. D’Holbach 1789-2019’, the first international conference entirely dedicated to Baron d’Holbach, organised by Dr Laura Nicolì and Prof. Franziska Meier. Our own ‘joyous sett’ of Enlightenment scholars gathered to discuss the Baron’s works, as well as his figure and his legacy. Speakers engaged with the complexity of d’Holbach’s intellectual agenda, with d’Holbach the philosopher and the philosophe, but also the encyclopédiste and the scientist, the strategist and the ‘metteur en scène’, the translator and the creator of ‘fictions d’autorité’, the clandestine author and the centre of intellectual networks, the pessimistic skeptic and the inspirer of a revolutionary consciousness.

Charlotte-Suzanne and Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle, 1766.

Thanks to the participants’ contributions and through the ensuing debate, there emerged a more nuanced, multifaceted understanding of d’Holbach than is typically conveyed by the secondary literature.

Left: Gerhardt Stenger, Emilio Mazza, Alain Sandrier. Right: Iryna Mykhailova and Tony La Vopa.

For everyone present, this conference on one of the most important yet neglected figures of the eighteenth century amounted to full immersion in a true microcosm of the European Enlightenment!

– Laura Nicolì

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’: ‘Beaucoup de disputes, jamais de querelles’ (Morellet on the salon in the rue Royale).


Digital d’Holbach

Grâce à un don de la Mellon Foundation, la Voltaire Foundation a entamé une édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach, l’un des penseurs clés des Lumières radicales françaises.

Le baron d’Holbach, par Louis Carmontelle.

‘Vivre heureux’ et ‘faire des heureux’. Ce sont là, d’après le baron d’Holbach, les deux seuls objectifs que tout être humain doit poursuivre dans la vie. Comment les atteindre? Il suffit de suivre la nature et de se tenir fermement au ‘flambeau de la raison’. Sauf que… sauf que des ‘fantômes effrayants’, engendrés par la superstition, viennent souvent nous détourner de la ‘voie du vrai bonheur’. Et quand on est soi-même malheureux, il est bien difficile de s’occuper du bonheur des autres. Il faut donc saper les fondements de toute religion, démasquer les ‘imposteurs’ qui nous rendent malheureux, et ramener ‘les esprits égarés à la raison’.

Une telle entreprise, d’Holbach le répète à plusieurs reprises, n’est pas sans risque, car présenter la ‘vérité’ aux êtres humains, comme le dit Diderot, c’est ‘introduire un rayon de lumière dans un nid de hiboux’. Néanmoins, dès le début des années 1760, le baron saisit la plume et commence à bombarder ‘l’édifice ruineux de la religion’. Pendant presque quinze ans les attaques se succèdent sans interruption. Ce sont des traités de morale et de politique, des dictionnaires de jargon théologique, des livres qui prêchent le matérialisme et le déterminisme. Tous ces textes paraissent de façon soit anonyme, soit pseudonyme. Seul un petit nombre de gens de lettres, y compris – fait remarquable! – quelques hommes d’église, savent qui se cache derrière le Système de la nature et Le Bon SensFait encore plus remarquable, ils gardent tous le secret, et lorsque d’Holbach meurt au mois de janvier 1789, il est enterré dans l’église Saint-Roch à Paris, à coté de Diderot.

Depuis lors, des chercheurs se sont essayés à définir les limites du corpus des œuvres du baron d’Holbach, tâche ardue, bien sûr, étant donnée la fâcheuse (mais compréhensible) habitude du baron de ne rien signer. D’ailleurs, un autre facteur vient compliquer la situation: c’est que d’Holbach ne travaillait pas isolément. En effet, on sait par diverses sources que Diderot et Naigeon se donnaient tous deux beaucoup de peine pour blanchir les ‘chiffons sales’ du baron avant l’impression. D’ailleurs, on ne saurait dissocier le baron de la société de gens de lettres qui se réunissait chez lui, sa ‘coterie’ ou ‘boulangerie’: comme il l’écrit lui-même dans l’une de ses lettres, son existence au sein de la république des lettres était une ‘existence collective’.

Grâce à un don généreux accordé à la Voltaire Foundation par la Mellon Foundation, nous travaillons depuis quelques mois à un projet d’édition numérique des œuvres complètes du baron d’Holbach (si tant est que l’on puisse parler d’œuvres ‘complètes’ pour un corpus aux contours aussi difficiles à délimiter). Ce projet nous aidera à jeter quelque lumière sur des ouvrages longtemps oubliés par les chercheurs, et nous permettra de mieux comprendre la genèse et l’évolution de la pensée de l’un des plus importants philosophes du dix-huitième siècle.

Image BnF/Gallica.

Nous avons décidé d’entamer notre édition par les Lettres à Eugénie, un traité sous forme de lettres qui s’adresse aux femmes en tant qu’agents fondamentaux de changement social et culturel. Parallèlement, nous travaillons également à une édition de la correspondance du baron, dont un catalogue est désormais disponible sur le site internet d’Early Modern Letters Online (j’y reviendrai ultérieurement dans un nouvel article de blog). Nous invitons tous ceux et celles qui veulent en savoir plus à venir nous rejoindre à Edimbourg, le lundi 15 juillet à 16h15 (panel 88, voir ici, p.24)!

– Dr Ruggero Sciuto, Hertford College/Voltaire Foundation, Université d’Oxford

A born-digital edition of Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite

Just as the print edition of the Œuvres Complètes de Voltaire is fast approaching its completion, we at the Voltaire Foundation are starting work on two new, highly ambitious digital projects thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a digital edition of Voltaire’s works based on the Œuvres complètes (Digital Voltaire), and a born-digital edition of the works of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (Digital d’Holbach).

With a view to gaining the necessary skills required to begin my work on Digital d’Holbach, in autumn 2018 I attended an intensive course on digital editions run by the Taylorian Institution Library. Taught by Emma Huber in collaboration with Frank Egerton and Johanneke Sytsema, the course takes students through all the phases of the digital edition workflow, from transcription to publication and dissemination. It is a goal-focused, hands-on course during which students are warmly encouraged to create a born-digital edition of a short text from the Taylorian’s collections.

Although short and apparently light in tone, the piece that I chose to edit – Voltaire’s Dialogue entre un brahmane et un jésuite sur la nécessité et l’enchaînement des choses – is a key text in the evolution of Voltaire’s philosophical views. As the title suggests, the Dialogue hinges on the question of determinism (or fatalisme, in eighteenth-century French parlance) and touches on such crucial notions as moral freedom, causation, and the problem of evil. It was first published anonymously in the Abeille du Parnasse of 5 February 1752, and it then went through several reprints during Voltaire’s lifetime, with very few variants.

My edition of the Dialogue is of course not meant to replace the one already available in OCV. Rather, it was conceived to meet the needs of the broader public – and more specifically those of students. A very short introduction, displayed on the right-hand side, provides essential information on the philosophical issues at stake while situating the Dialogue in relation to other key texts by Voltaire. An original translation into English by Kelsey Rubin-Detlev makes the text more widely accessible, allowing students working in fields other than modern languages (e.g. philosophy) to engage with Voltaire’s ideas. High-quality pictures of the 1756 edition, which provides the base text, aim to give non-specialists a taste of what it feels like to leaf through a (dusty) eighteenth-century book. Finally, a modernised version of the text is available next to the facsimile, and a rich corpus of annotations – displaying in both the French transcription and the English translation and featuring links to several other digital resources (the ARTFL Encyclopédie and Tout Voltaire, but also Wikipedia and BibleGateway!) – aims to render the reading experience as informative and rewarding as possible.

But there is more to this edition than first meets the eye! For example, by clicking on ‘Downloads’ in the menu bar, a fifth column will appear from which the user is invited to download pictures as well as TEI/XML files, which can then be used as models to generate further digital editions. Also, a drop-down menu in the transcription column allows users to choose between two different versions of the text in addition to the modernised version displayed by default: a diplomatic transcription of the 1756 edition and a diplomatic transcription of a 1768 edition, which comes with its own set of images that are also available for download under a Creative Commons Licence. By looking at these texts, users will get a sense of how radically French spelling evolved in the mid-eighteenth century.

Readers of this blog are most cordially invited to browse my edition. Any feedback on content or presentation (e.g. the way footnotes or variants are displayed) would be greatly appreciated as I work towards an edition of a considerably longer text by d’Holbach. But more on that in the coming months!

Ruggero Sciuto




‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: Sentimental Beginnings and Endings

2018 has already provided a curate’s egg anniversary for scholars of eighteenth-century fiction: 250 years since the first publication of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (27 February 1768) and, less than a month later, the death of its author, Laurence Sterne (18 March 1768).

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference marked both sestercentennials by inviting over forty scholars from twelve countries to reflect on the impact of Sterne’s writings in his and our times. The conference took place at Sterne’s Alma Mater Jesus College, Cambridge, providing an opportunity for delegates staying in college accommodation to breakfast beneath a copy of Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sterne in the dining hall.

Marking both events together proved apt. A Sentimental Journey was, from its earliest conception, tied to the health of its author. Its origins lie in a seven-month tour of France and Italy that Sterne, a sufferer from pulmonary tuberculosis since his days as an undergraduate, undertook to improve his ailing condition. The risks as well as the rewards of venturing abroad in ill health are immediately apparent in the narrative. Having only just arrived in Calais and dining on a ‘fricassee’d chicken’ (ASJ, 3), Yorick, the text’s sentimental traveller, worries that the richness of his meal might lead to death by indigestion and the loss of his goods under the rules of the Droits d’aubaine. It is a mordant first step into cultural tourism: having just crossed the border into France, death by consumption would cement Yorick the consumptive’s status as an outsider under its laws of inheritance.

Many readers in 1768 would have been aware that Sterne had already resurrected Yorick from his death in the first volume of Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Even this most absolute of borders proves porous when Sterne requires it to be, and this sense of strange re-orderings, and the haziness of causal links that bind characters to each other and to their environs, suffuses much of his fiction. After an early chastening encounter with a monk he inadvertently abuses, Yorick promises to ‘learn better manners as I get along’ (ASJ, 11), yet his journey fails to provide any straightforward heuristic narrative. Yorick later muses that ‘I seldom go to the place I set out for’ (ASJ, 103), and it proves difficult to discern what, if anything, he actually learns from his sentimental encounters.

Digressions abound; at one point Yorick winds up in Rennes (200 miles west of his route south from Calais to Lyon) without any explanation for his presence there beyond it being ‘an incident of good fortune which will never happen to any traveller, but a sentimental one’ (ASJ, 108). As James Chandler notes, the capacity to reflect on his feelings appears to open Yorick to a flux of potential encounters, yet it remains unclear whether such reflections ‘can be supposed to occur on a single plane of circulation, where we all reflect each other’, or ‘on an ascending scale of higher-order recognitions’.[1]

Conversely, Yorick values highly the ability to distinguish difference. His distinction between the English and the French national character relies, as if folding the principle of differentiation in on itself, on differing potentials for individuation. The French, he argues, have reached such a heightened degree within the ‘progress of their refinements’ (ASJ, 119) that, like coins ‘jingling and rubbing one against another for seventy years together […] they are become so much alike, you can scarce distinguish one shilling from another’ (ASJ, 119). The English, in contrast, are ‘like antient medals, kept more apart, and passing but few peoples hands’ and it is this propensity to remain separate that preserves ‘the first sharpnesses which the fine hand of nature has given them’ (ASJ, 119). Yorick’s further observation that ‘’tis certain the French conceive better than they combine’ (ASJ, 112) almost certainly refers to Locke’s description of wit and judgement as respectively the combining and separating of ideas, yet the peculiarity of his own narrative lies in its interplay between such atomistic and holistic impulses.

Even defining what we should search for order proves a vexed point. Yorick’s Journey begins with his reader arriving at the end of a conversation: ‘––THEY order, said I, this matter better in France––’ (ASJ, 3). Precisely what ‘matter’ is ordered ‘better’ in France remains undisclosed. Some critics, such as Martin C. Battestin, take the term to allude to Sterne’s complicated friendship as an Anglican clergyman with materialist philosophes such as Baron d’Holbach, who was instrumental in obtaining Sterne’s passport to travel through France.[2] Another solution lies in the careful arrangement of the text itself into titled scenes, or vignettes. In driving action from discourse at the Journey’s outset, Sterne, Michael Seidel argues, ‘makes the linguistic properties of utterance spatial’, but more importantly, by inscribing ‘the space for narrative projection’ in these terms, he threads the ‘matter’ of what is, or should be, well ‘order[ed]’ into the fiction’s textual weave.[3] In a prime example of Sternean slippage between text and scene, it is the order of narrative ‘matters’ – i.e. the material arrangement and divisions of the book itself – that Yorick most strongly evokes by asking that his reader interpret the end of a conversation as the beginning of his journey.

If it begins with an ending, the Journey ends with an aposiopesis, or breaking off, that again conflates text and scene. Somewhat uncomfortably for readers in the age of #metoo, the interruption provides also a pun on a grope, with Yorick’s outstretched hand catching ‘hold of the Fille de Chambre’s… END OF VOL. II.’ (ASJ, 165). As Paul Goring noted in a paper at Cambridge, the Journey’s abrupt conclusion also left Sterne’s final debt to his readers unrepaid. Its subscribers had been promised four volumes for their investment, but Sterne’s untimely death left them with only two.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The scene, ‘The Case of Delicacy’ (ASJ, 160), with which the Journey’s second and final volume ends, proves fascinating in light of the events that took place shortly after its publication. We leave Yorick supine and almost entombed in a bedchamber, ‘it being totally dark’ (ASJ, 165). Yorick’s hand extends ‘by way of asseveration’ (ASJ, 165) in one final reach outwards that manages to be both deathly and bawdy – in other words, Sternean. In a first-hand account of Sterne’s death in London, John MacDonald, a footman to one of Sterne’s friends, reports that when the moment came ‘He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.

Our conference at Cambridge welcomed a number of distinguished speakers, including author Martin Rowson, who discussed his graphic novel adaptations of Sterne’s fictions, and Peter de Voogd, who shared his insights from amassing arguably the largest collection of Sterne’s works on the continent.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference’.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference.

My own highlight was an incisive keynote from Freya Johnston, who addressed the subject of characterisation and determinism in Sterne’s fictions. Sterne’s characters, Johnston argued, do not develop or change in his narratives so much as undergo ordeals that evince their engrained hobby-horsical inconsistencies time and again. The claustrophobia that permeates his works – in which, even when we follow Yorick on the open road, we find ourselves enclosed within discreet, archly constructed sentimental scenes – begins with Tristram’s conception of the homunculus as an already complete character-in-miniature, and culminates at the end of the Journey’s first volume with Yorick reflecting on Walter Shandy’s theory that ‘children, like other animals, might be increased almost to any size, provided they came right into the world’ (ASJ, 80). According to Walter, only the rooms in which children are confined limit the extent of their growth, a theory that Yorick considers, but equivocates in passing judgement on, in his observations of a Parisian dwarf. It is an oddly death-like vision of the human potential for growth: one in which characters come pre-formed, encased in – and stunted by – their environment. Like being born into a coffin.

– Alexander Hardie-Forsyth (Wolfson College, Oxford)

[1] James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), p.205.

[2] Martin C. Battestin, ‘Sterne among the Philosophes: Body and Soul in A Sentimental Journey’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 7:1 (October 1994), p.19.

[3] Michael Seidel, ‘Narrative Crossings: Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey’, Genre, 18 (1985), p.2.

Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

Sir Isaiah Berlin, as he eventually became, was the leading British intellectual historian of his time. He was born in 1909 in Riga, on the western edge of the Russian Empire. To avoid the Revolution, his family moved to Britain, where the young Berlin pursued a brilliant academic career in philosophy, becoming a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford in 1932. His many later achievements included the founding of Wolfson College, also in Oxford. As a public intellectual, he was famous as a spell-binding lecturer, much in demand for talks and broadcasts.

Feeling somewhat constrained by Oxford philosophy, Berlin turned increasingly to the history of ideas. No such subject was recognized in mid-twentieth-century Britain, though it was represented in the United States by Arthur O. Lovejoy, author (among much else) of The Great Chain of Being (1933). By the time of Berlin’s death in 1998, the ‘Cambridge school’ of intellectual history, based less on discrete concepts than on the historical study of languages and vocabularies, was well established, thanks to Quentin Skinner and John Pocock. But for some decades Berlin had the field virtually to himself.

Though Berlin’s interests were many and various, he is associated especially with the Enlightenment. And here some oddities occur, which Laurence Brockliss and I sought to explore in a conference held at Wolfson in 2014 and in the resulting book, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (2016).

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Berlin came to the Enlightenment via Karl Marx. In 1933 he was commissioned to write a small book on Marx for a general audience. It appeared in 1939 as Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. Berlin read not only Marx’s voluminous writings but also the authors who had influenced him, including the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. In exploring their work, Berlin, who knew Russian perfectly, was guided by the work of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov’s writings directed him to the radical materialists Helvétius and d’Holbach. They were convinced that human beings came into the world with minds like blank slates (as Locke had argued), owed all their knowledge to external sensations and influences, and could therefore be shaped through education and guided towards perfection.

In all Berlin’s subsequent references to the Enlightenment, this utopian doctrine reappears. The Enlightenment stands for the hope of reshaping the world through rational education and leading humanity towards a perfect society. Naturally Berlin regarded such hopes with scepticism. While respecting the humane intentions of the philosophes, he thought that their programme would involve unacceptable coercion and would risk ironing out the rich diversity of human life into boring uniformity. Above all, it was sure to founder on what Kant, in a phrase Berlin loved to quote, called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. Human beings were too quirky, too awkward, too cussed to fit into any utopian scheme – and that was fortunate, considering how the utopian hopes invested in the Soviet Union had turned out.

Berlin’s opposition to utopian schemes made him one of the great liberal intellectuals who were much needed during the Cold War period. He has an American counterpart in the New York critic Lionel Trilling, whose novel The Middle of the Journey (1948) culminates in a fine statement of liberal values.

But was Berlin fair to the Enlightenment? He foregrounds thinkers who now seem minor and relatively uninteresting. He never gives extended discussion to the far more complex, more sceptical, and more talented writers Voltaire and Diderot. More curiously still, when the New American Library commissioned him in the 1950s to compile an anthology of philosophical texts, The Age of Enlightenment (1956; re-issued in 1979 by Oxford University Press), most space is given to British writers – Locke, Hume, and Berkeley; of the French, only Voltaire features, and that briefly; and we find a very incongruous writer, Johann Georg Hamann.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Hamann (1730-1788), a fellow-townsman and acquaintance of Kant and other Enlightenment luminaries, was a devout if unorthodox Christian who wrote in a perplexingly opaque style. He dwells on the inadequacy of reason, the limitations of language, the need for a constant dialogue with God who himself speaks in riddles. He represents the antithesis to the utopian optimism that Berlin ascribed to the Enlightenment. Hamann became a central figure in what Berlin called ‘the Counter-Enlightenment’. This term referred to the late-eighteenth-century reaction against Enlightenment universalism in favour of the unique particular. It rejected reason in favour of emotion, ‘progress’ in favour of pessimism; instead of affirming humanity’s basic goodness, it warned darkly of original sin.

Berlin did not share these beliefs. But, by his own account, he found the Counter-Enlightenment a salutary reminder of the insufficiency of Enlightenment values. One of Berlin’s favourite ideas was that humanity had to choose or compromise between incompatible goods. Enlightenment, reason, and liberty were excellent; but to embrace them you had to relinquish other values which were also good.

Neither Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, nor that of the Counter-Enlightenment, would be generally accepted now. But the tension he found between them illustrates an undeniable moral dilemma in human life. And his expression of this dilemma may well be found memorable and challenging, long after his conception of intellectual history has retreated into the past.

– Ritchie Robertson