Leibniz: before and after Pangloss

Writing in 1751, Voltaire celebrated and yearned for the vibrancy of the previous decades when Europe had seemingly experienced an intellectual renaissance. This golden age, the ‘Age of Louis XIV’, as he came to term it in his eponymous historical work (the Siècle de Louis XIV), had surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the various discoveries and institutions it had helped foster in the sciences and the arts. These, unlike political matters, would stand the test of time and forever attest to the capacities of human reason.

During this period, Voltaire wrote, ‘the human mind made the greatest progress’ [1], ‘[acquiring] throughout Europe greater lights than in all the ages that preceded it’, mainly through the tireless and often anonymous labours of several geniuses who, spread across Europe, ‘[had] enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it’. This ‘Republic of Letters’ had gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, oblivious to the religious and political schisms that had torn it apart: ‘The arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic […] the truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the band of this great society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent’.

Even though this network’s influence had considerably waned in Voltaire’s time, it had subsisted over the years bringing comfort to mankind over the ‘evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world’.

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

Ironically enough for the future author of Candide (1759) and creator of the infamous character Dr Pangloss, it was none other than the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe’, who had animated the universal network of communication that underpinned the intellectual revolution that had taken place decades earlier. Indeed, through Leibniz’s intervention, ‘there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period’.

Already as a young man, steadily expanding his network of correspondents, Leibniz prided himself on having entered into literary commerce with many of the most learned scholars in Europe. In a letter of August 1671 to Peter Lambeck, historian and librarian at the Imperial Court in Vienna, he highlights the wide geographical distribution of his network, listing the most notable names according to country – Athanasius Kircher and Francesco de Lana in Italy, Otto von Guericke and Hermann Conring in Germany, the royal librarian Pierre de Carcavi, Louis Ferrand, and others in France, Henry Oldenburg and John Wallis in England, Johann Georg Graevius and Lambert van Velthuysen in the Low Countries, and so on.

Leibniz chose his correspondents purposefully. By establishing an epistolary commerce with the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1670, at an early stage in his career, Leibniz sought entry into the leading scientific institution of his day. Moreover, he was successful in this enterprise, producing within a year a new physical hypothesis dealing with many of the concerns of the London virtuosi at the time.

In the case of Antoine Arnauld, he sought to subject his philosophical ideas to the scrutiny and criticism of one of France’s most astute thinkers who was also a leading Catholic theologian. Since Leibniz was, alongside his various other projects, seeking to bring about Christian reconciliation, he was additionally able to test the acceptability of his irenic theses to the Roman Catholic Church through his discourse with Arnauld.

As with Arnauld, Leibniz first met the scholar Simon Foucher during his momentous stay in Paris from 1672 to 1676. He valued the sagacity Foucher had displayed in his opposition to Malebranche’s philosophy and used the medium of their correspondence to air some of his own fundamental metaphysical ideas. Foucher for his part kept Leibniz, now living in provincial Hanover, abreast of intellectual news from Paris and in particular of members of his French circle of friends – scholars such as the churchman Pierre Daniel Huet, the editor of the Journal des savants, Jean Gallois, and Melchisédech Thévenot, an important figure in the foundation of the Académie royale des Sciences.

Already in his new physical hypothesis, Leibniz had declared the improvement of the human condition to be ‘the sole aim of philosophy’. His groundbreaking work in diverse fields such as mathematics (where alongside Newton he was the inventor of the calculus), logic, engineering, geology, and the biological sciences, and his promotion of the need for scientific academies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St Petersburg in which theoretical investigations could be combined with practical considerations, all fall within the overall compass of improving life. The Berlin Academy bears to this day the Leibnizian motto ‘Theoria cum praxi’.

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

While Voltaire’s scathing criticism of his philosophy, particularly the doctrine put forward in the Théodicée that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, appeared difficult to answer against the backdrop of natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), much of Leibniz’s scientific and technological thought has been of tremendous prescience and significance – although sometimes only identified as such comparatively recently. His work on a calculating machine based on the binary system anticipated our modern day computers, his ideas on insurance and fiscal policy were designed to ensure a greater degree of protection and justice for the population, mathematical papers on determinants and combinatorics were years ahead of their time. And as his extensive surviving papers and letters are steadily edited in the critical Academy Edition, more wonders of this nature are expected.

– Audrey Borowski and Philip Beeley

[1] All quotations are from the Siècle de Louis XIV, chapter 34, ‘Des Beaux-Arts en Europe du temps de Louis XIV’. Translations are from The Works of M. de Voltaire. Translated from the French, by T. Smollett, T. Francklin and others, 36 vol. (London, 1761-1765), vol.9 (1761), p.152-62.

Chance discoveries in French and Italian archives

Le président de Brosses

Le président de Brosses, buste par J. B. Lemoyne. Cliché © Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

Chance plays as much of a part in the discovery of new material as it does in history itself. This is certainly the case with the epistolary exchanges of two figures who were at the centre of the Republic of Letters, the president de Brosses and the abbé marquis Niccolini. Had it not been that one of my students happened to be a descendant of president de Brosses, this edition of his correspondence might never have seen the light of day.

In 1982-1984, when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris X Nanterre, Alec de Brosses came to see me about undertaking a Master’s thesis based on his family’s papers. At the start of his work on the president’s relations with the British geographer Alexander Dalrymple, Alec de Brosses had also photocopied for me letters written to the president by a friend, the abate Antonio Niccolini. Because their content covered travel, literature, politics, diplomacy, antiquity, philosophy and religion, these letters were, in themselves, well worthy of publication, but where were the president’s own letters to his Florentine friend? He had kept only a few copies.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Niccolini family still lived in Florence, and locating the president’s letters would become a matter of enlisting their support. During my period in Paris, I had met Emanuela Kretzulesco, the author of an excellent book on the dream of Polyphilus. Through Princess Kretzulesco, I had an introduction to the remarkable Marchesa Gilberte Serlupi Crescenzi in Florence, to whom I explained my quest. She knew the Niccolini family, and I was soon admitted to their extensive family archives. The lady of the house, who knew the archives well, soon found the president’s letters. She and I photocopied them together at a neighbouring café. I now had both sides of a truly fascinating and extensive correspondence that spanned over thirty years from 1740 to 1770. I could envisage editing and publishing them with my collaborator from the University of Pisa, Mireille Gille, whom I had met at the Florence ISECS Congress of 1979, and who was herself an expert on the form of the eighteenth-century letter.

The process would be a lengthy one and there were a number of amusing incidents over the following years. In Florence, where some other privately held papers were then in restauro, Mireille Gille and I were allowed to work on them at the restorer’s workshop to the sound of loud rock music. With a deep sigh, the restorer told me that Britain was a great country because there, archive restoration was treated as an academic discipline in which one could get a degree.

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

On another occasion, I was extremely fortunate to have Alec de Brosses with me because the archives were in a cubby-hole high up on the wall of a room, almost by the ceiling. Unlike me, he was able to leap up and pass the papers down. All these efforts and incidents were not in vain, and Mireille Gille and I are very pleased that the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini is now available to the public, with an extensive introduction and notes. We are left with a great sense of gratitude to all those who helped us to produce an edition of a truly enriching correspondence.

– John Rogister

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.


A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).

Pierre Bayle: a pre-Enlightenment luminary

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle at approximately 27 years of age. Portrait by Louis Elle-Ferdinand le jeune.

Hyperconnected, multidisciplinary, transnational – the buzzwords of twenty-first century digital communication could just as easily apply to the pan-European Republic of Letters in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An empire of paper rather than Facebook posts or tweets, the Republic of Letters transcended national boundaries as writers and thinkers criticized, complemented, and commented on the controversies of the moment in a dense nexus of correspondence. These erudite intellectual exchanges between friends and foes fostered the heated debates which shaped modern thought.

The Republic’s major architect was the prolific Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) – best-selling author, journalist, and audacious thinker.

As editor of the journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, which published its first issue in 1684, Bayle was arguably the first to coin the term ‘Republic of Letters’. The very title of the journal testifies to Bayle’s ambition. Bringing together articles and reviews of new publications from contributors across Europe, and with a Europe-wide distribution, Pierre Bayle was a man in dialogue with his peers and his times, constantly challenging the consensus and engaging with the opinions of others in his own analysis of the quest for philosophical and historical certainty. Marked by his early experiences of religious intolerance (a recurrent theme in his work) as a Protestant living in predominantly Catholic seventeenth century France, Bayle settled in tolerant Rotterdam where he dedicated himself to a life of creative ferment and intellectual rigour.


Dissatisfied with the conclusions of Descartes in his Discours de la méthode (1637), and closer to Gassendi in his critique of Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques (1641), Bayle proposed a radical scepticism towards the ability of human reason to reach true knowledge about the universe, and firmly pinpointed the antagonism of reason and religious faith and the dangers of religious fanaticism. He is perhaps best-known for his monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) – a hybrid and polymathic bestseller. With articles on every conceivable topic, it appears as a forerunner of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and had a considerable influence outside France, reaching Leibniz, Hume and Kant.

As seen in the recently published volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, edited by Antony McKenna et al, the complexity, ambiguity, and plurality of Bayle’s work still make him a fascinating subject of study today.

Volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle dates from the period January 1699-December 1702: a time of effervescence for Bayle, who was preparing the second edition of his extremely successful Dictionnaire at a feverish pace, while fielding commentaries and criticisms from readers of the first edition. His circle of correspondents was expanding apace. At a time when numerous projects – Early Modern Letters Online, Mapping the Republic of Letters, and Electronic Enlightenment – are using modern technology and graphics to find new ways of recreating the Republic of Letters, this volume of correspondence has a vital place in our understanding of the period.

Pierre Bayle is a model for our age of networking. From the dense web of articles in his Dictionnaire to his border-transcending Nouvelles and correspondence, his networks illuminate the intellectual exchanges firing the bold new thought which sparked the Enlightenment. Perhaps, as indicated in the very first Voltaire Foundation blogpost, The Online Republic of Letters, Bayle’s legacy lives on in this blog!


Rotterdam, where Bayle spent the last 25 years of his life.

– Madeleine Chalmers


Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, Volume XII, edited by †Elisabeth Labrousse, Antony McKenna, Wiep van Bunge, Edward James, Bruno Roche, Fabienne Vial-Bonacci, ISBN 978-0-7294-1028-1, March 2015

Le Rayonnement de Bayle, ed. Philippe de Robert, Claudine Pailhès and Hubert Bost, SVEC 2010:06, ISBN 978-0-7294-0995-7

Click here for a list of books and articles published by the Voltaire Foundation on Pierre Bayle or his work.