Voltaire’s autobiographical work, Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade. Avec les pièces originales et les preuves (1776), is a text that challenges our understanding of the nascent autobiographical form at the end of Ancien Régime France. The text itself is divided into three sections: a prose part recounting Voltaire’s life; a collection of letters that cover an array of topics; and a poem, Sésostris. Unlike the intimate je in Rousseau’s Confessions, Voltaire’s piece is written in the third person: the narrative je and Voltaire are distinct. This stylistic peculiarity problematizes the question of whether or not Voltaire truly is the author; scholars such as I. O. Wade and Raymonde Morizot have, in fact, suggested that Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, was the author of this work, whereas Nicholas Cronk, in his critical introduction to the Commentaire, proves that Voltaire was in fact the author. While these debates are understandably centered on the French edition of the text, I believe that a consideration of translations of this work may help us to understand the fact that there was not a fixed contemporary understanding of Voltaire’s work. The 1777 London translation, published a year before Voltaire’s death in 1778, may do just that. Despite the fact that eighteenth-century translators regularly took creative liberties in their work (for example, the English translator indicates that the poetry in the prose part is translated such that the reader will be entertained, and thus is not translated literally), I believe that the translation in the London edition highlights a degree of uncertainty around the nature of the original Commentaire historique.
The translation of the title is radical: Historical Memoirs of the Author of the Henriade. With some Original Pieces. To which are added Genuine Letters of Mr. de Voltaire. Taken from his Minutes. Translated from the French. The text itself undergoes a slight generic change, from the historical commentary to the memoir. The notion of ‘proof’, present in the original title, is implied here in the idea of ‘genuine’ letters, taken from Voltaire’s own minutes, which are the principal type of proof given, clarifying the ambiguous pièces originales et les preuves of the French title. It is through this substitution that we better understand what ‘proof’ means. The inclusion of the term ‘minutes’ may also be used to underscore a degree of authenticity, perhaps referencing the fact that the letters were transcribed in a way that was common near the end of Voltaire’s life: Voltaire dictated the letters, and Wagnière transcribed them. From his hand or from his mouth, the words are originally Voltaire’s. Conversely, the distance between the author and the subject of the memoirs is accentuated through the double reference to Voltaire, once implicitly, once explicitly. Lastly, the English title is perhaps inspired by the final sentence of the prose section of the Commentaire historique, translated directly as: ‘We shall now give some genuine letters of Mr. de Voltaire, from his own minutes, which are at present in our hands, and shall only publish such as we imagine may be of general utility.’ This distance, present in the text, is moved to the forefront through its inclusion in the title.
These paratextual oddities are further highlighted by the inclusion of an Advertisement that is not present in the French edition. The translator writes: ‘No character in the literary world is so universally known, nor has [sic] the works of any writer of any age been sought after with such avidity as the writing of him who is the subject of the following Memoirs.’ This introductory sentence raises a question about the perceived vagueness of the authorship. Why include this advertisement if the work is understood to be autobiographical? Perhaps the London editors are making the claim that Voltaire is in fact not the author, but rather simply the subject; perhaps they still consider that Voltaire is the author but are striving to enhance radically the distance between the author and the autobiographical subject.
The beginning of the French edition of the Commentaire begins thus:
‘Je tâcherai, dans ces Commentaires sur un homme de lettres, de ne rien dire que d’un peu utile aux lettres; et surtout de ne rien avancer que sur des papiers originaux. Nous ne ferons aucun usage ni des satires, ni des panégyriques presque innombrables, qui ne seront pas appuyés sur des faits authentiques.’
The French, here, sees a movement from the je to the nous. The English, however, begins:
‘In these Memoirs, the subject of which is a literary man, we shall endeavour to avoid every thing which may not in some degree tend to the advantage of letters, and particularly make it our care to advance nothing, except on the authority of original papers. No use shall be made of the almost innumerable satires and panegyrics which have been published, unless they are found to be supported by facts properly authenticated.’
While the first-person plural ‘we’ is present in both the French and English editions, the English translator relies on it almost exclusively, removing the author – the first person singular, the je, ‘I’ – almost entirely from the text. In fact, apart from instances where the first person pronoun ‘I’ appears within a letter, the English translator seems to use it only a handful of times, sometimes directly, such as in the case, ‘Although I think nothing is more insipid than the details of infancy…’ (p. 2), and sometimes simply to turn a phrase, ‘The fanaticism of Nonotte was so great, that in I don’t know what, philosophical, anti-philosophical, religious Dictionary…’ (p. 147). Largely, however, the French je becomes the English we: ‘J’ai entendu dire’ becomes ‘But we have heard’; while ‘J’étais en 1732 à la première représentation de Zaïre…’, ‘We were present at the first representation of Zara…’ (p.13). While the je of the French allows for the insertion of a narratorial intimacy, where the je is both a witness to the events of Voltaire’s life and functions as the closest thing there is to autobiographical intimacy provided in this work, the we in the English removes any presence of a singular, autobiographical intimacy.
I would like to posit that the London translation of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique embodies contemporaneous uncertainty around the authorship of Voltaire’s autobiography. When the English edition was published in 1777, Voltaire was still alive. Are the changes thus simply superficial, ludic gestures on the part of a translator who was seeking to carry on Voltaire’s autobiographical game? Or do they lend themselves to a new understanding about how the English translators understood the authorship of the Commentaire? Regardless, the London edition complicates our understanding about the perceived authorship of the Commentaire historique following its publication near the end of Voltaire’s life.
The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.
Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.
Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.
GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.
AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.
GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.
AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.
GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.
AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.
GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!
AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!
GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.
AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.
Dans le cadre d’une exposition sur Voltaire s’est tenu un colloque, ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec, histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, les 7 et 8 avril 2022. L’exposition intitulée ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, mettant en valeur la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine du 27 janvier au 23 juin 2022, représentait en effet le prétexte idéal pour réunir les chercheuses et les chercheurs autour d’enjeux philosophiques, politiques, artistiques, religieux et historiques, passés et présents. Nous présentons ici l’exposition, puis le colloque.
Cette collection fut en grande partie constituée entre 1848 et 1890 par les arrières-grands-parents et les grands-parents de Jacqueline Lambert-David, alors propriétaires du château de Ferney, l’ancienne demeure de Voltaire. Elle s’est considérablement enrichie dans les années 1950 par cette dernière grâce à de nouvelles acquisitions. Constituée surtout de copies de lettres, de poèmes et de manuscrits divers de Voltaire, la collection comprend notamment quelques inédits et 56 lettres autographes de Voltaire publiées entre 1953 et 1965 par Theodore Besterman dans la première édition de son Voltaire’s Correspondence.
Préparée par le Professeur Peter Southam, le Professeur Pierre Hébert et la commissaire invitée Chloë Southam, l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’ permet de découvrir une soixantaine de documents de la collection Jacqueline Lambert-David, à laquelle s’ajoutent des écrits québécois sur Voltaire témoignant de son influence au Québec, de même que des périodiques ayant fait l’objet de censure en raison de leurs idées voltairiennes.
Deux journées de colloque pour cerner l’influence de Voltaire au Québec
En 1945, l’historien Marcel Trudel signait un ouvrage qui fait date: L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada. Depuis ce temps, aucune étude d’envergure n’avait revisité cette question; tel était le but du colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’, organisé par les professeurs Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke), Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) et Nicholas Dion (U. de Sherbrooke). Ces échanges ont pris place dans le cadre des 61e journées scientifiques de l’Association québécoise pour l’étude de l’imprimé (AQEI) les 7 et 8 avril 2022 au Centre d’archives Mgr-Antoine-Racine ainsi qu’au Séminaire de Sherbrooke.
Micheline Cambron, professeure émérite de l’Université de Montréal, a ouvert la première journée en abordant ‘L’Ingénu de Voltaire. Lieux communs et mise en récit d’une quête épistémologique’. Scrutant minutieusement les modalités d’énonciation des lieux communs, elle a montré que les idées farfelues présentées comme du ‘déjà su’ apportent peu au conte; en revanche, par leur accumulation, le lecteur est amené à être attentif au caractère fallacieux d’une prémisse. En somme, la leçon de L’Ingénu mettrait en cause l’indécision devant laquelle on est placé devant les lieux communs.
Dans une communication ayant pour titre ‘Les épigones québécois de Voltaire et leur influence sur le développement actuel d’une culture laïque francophone au Québec’, Jacques G. Ruelland a présenté le parcours intellectuel des quatre ‘philosophes’ québécois du XVIIIe siècle associés aux idées des Lumières: Fleury Mesplet, Pierre du Calvet, Valentin Jautard et Pierre de Sales Laterrière. Ruelland a mis en lumière l’anticléricalisme déiste de ces quatre figures qui ont multiplié les démêlés avec les autorités en promouvant la culture laïque à l’époque de la Révolution française.
La présentation suivante, de Sébastien Drouin (U. de Toronto), a abordé l’‘Antiphilosophie et antivoltairianisme chez Joseph-Octave Plessis et Ignace Bourget’. Drouin a couplé l’analyse du contenu des bibliothèques de Mgrs Plessis (liste inédite) et de Bourget avec des extraits des écrits de ceux-ci, afin de faire apparaître les racines antiphilosophiques et antivoltairianistes de l’ultramontanisme au XIXe siècle québécois.
Joël Castonguay-Bélanger (U. de la Colombie-Britannique) a quant à lui traqué ‘Le centenaire de Voltaire dans la presse canadienne’. Contrairement au constat de Marcel Trudel selon lequel l’événement de 1878 serait passé inaperçu, le centenaire a fait couler beaucoup d’encre à partir de 1876, polarisant le discours de la presse entre voltairianistes et antivoltairianistes.
Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (U. des Saarlandes, Allemagne), dans ‘Libéralisme radical, laïcité et héritage des Lumières au Québec à la fin du XIXe siècle – le rôle précurseur de Paul-Marc Sauvalle et d’Aristide Filiatreault, journalistes et intellectuels’, a révélé l’alliance improbable entre un journaliste distingué, orateur important et très présent dans les cercles sociaux (Sauvalle, 1857-1920) et un typographe effacé (Filiatreault, 1851-1913) qui animait des revues satiriques, en raison de leur goût commun pour la polémique. Tous deux ont fondé Canada-Revue, qualifiée de ‘journal huguenot’ par ses détracteurs – le clergé et la presse conservatrice – et censurée en 1892. D’après Lüsebrink, ce ‘libéralisme radical’ met cause la place dominante de l’Eglise dans la société québécoise en général et dans l’éducation en particulier (l’éducation au féminin est un combat corollaire).
Par la suite, Bernard Andrès (U. du Québec à Montréal) a présenté ‘Honoré Beaugrand (1846-1906) et l’émancipation maçonnique du Québec’. En 1873, Honoré Beaugrand rejoint la loge maçonnique King Philip à Fall River et déclare dans son journal son appartenance forte à la franc-maçonnerie. Beaugrand est le premier Canadien français à clamer haut et fort sa qualité de franc-maçon libéral. Ce libre-penseur participe notamment à la fondation de la loge montréalaise L’Emancipation (1895-1911), dont les valeurs sont issues des Lumières. Au Québec, l’absolue liberté de conscience qui fonde la franc-maçonnerie conduira aussi à l’émancipation graduelle de l’ultramontanisme, d’après Andrès.
Julien Vallières (Laboratoire d’analyse des discours et récits collectifs, U. McGill) a clos la journée en dépliant ‘L’influence de Rousseau au Canada [par] l’examen du discours de réception à Montréal (1900-1920)’. Vallières a souhaité vérifier de quelle manière le philosophe a influencé les acteurs de la vie culturelle au Québec. Entre autres, ses analyses révèlent que Rousseau est enseigné à l’Université Laval de Montréal dès 1901 ; qu’Etienne Parent s’inspire librement du penseur dans ‘Les rêveries d’un fumeur solitaire’ (1910) rédigées dans son journal de collège ; et que Les Confessions sont une lecture de jeunesse déterminante pour Claude-Henri Grignon, romancier et polémiste majeur des années 1930.
Lors de la seconde journée, les questions liées à la censure, à la laïcité et à la tolérance ont été au cœur des discussions. La première séance a eu pour point de départ l’écoute d’une émission de Radio-Collège diffusée en 1948. Dans ‘La vie et l’œuvre de Voltaire’, Raymond Tanghe s’entretient avec le révérend père Ernest Gagnon, jésuite, professeur à la Faculté des lettres de l’Université de Montréal, et Jean-Marie Laurence, professeur de littérature à l’Ecole normale de Montréal. Les deux invités condamnent l’épicurisme, l’égocentrisme et l’esprit étriqué de Voltaire, et ce, en s’appuyant vraisemblablement sur leur connaissance des morceaux choisis plutôt que des œuvres intégrales.
Marc André Bernier (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) a ensuite présenté la communication intitulée ‘Histoire-science et art du récit chez Marcel Trudel’. Son étude fine de L’Influence de Voltaire au Canada de Trudel a mis au jour certains paradoxes entre la démarche scientifique de l’historien et sa rhétorique, qui tient surtout de l’apologétique. Déterminé à mesurer le ‘volume du courant voltairien au Canada’, Trudel s’est donné pour mission d’établir des faits précis, ce qu’il peine à faire puisqu’une métaphore longuement filée de l’inondation tient lieu d’hypothèse de recherche. Autrement dit, la démarche scientifique de Trudel lui permet d’exposer sa thèse, tous les faits montrant que Voltaire a été ‘notre seul maître’, mais la conclusion reste étrangère à tous ces faits pour donner une explication apologétique: le Canada aurait été sauvé miraculeusement des ‘eaux’ voltairiennes par le clergé.
La communication suivante a permis justement d’éprouver cette hypothèse. Pierre Hébert (U. de Sherbrooke) a prononcé la communication ‘Une censure en crise: le Voltaire “post-Trudel”, 1945-1960’. Est-ce que le discours sur Voltaire peut être conçu comme une trace d’un signifié plus grand sur la censure dans ces années? Hébert a répondu à cette question grâce à un dépouillement systématique de la revue mensuelle Lectures et du quotidien Le Devoir durant les années 1945-1960. L’antivoltairianisme des années 1940 s’efface graduellement dans les pages du Devoir, contrairement à Lectures, revue catholique. A partir des années 1950, Voltaire occupe une place sans complexe dans les pages de ce journal plus indépendant. En quinze ans se serait opérée une fissuration notable, précédant l’effondrement complet du régime censorial clérical des lettres au Québec.
A la suite de Hébert, Charlène Deharbe et Hervé Guay (U. du Québec à Trois-Rivières) ont présenté une communication ayant pour titre ‘Voltaire sur les planches: l’adaptation théâtrale de Candide par Antoine Laprise’. S’intéressant à l’actualisation du roman voltairien par le Théâtre du sous-marin jaune à la fin de la décennie 1990, Deharbe et Guay ont montré que ce théâtre de marionnettes a permis une appropriation par le plus grand nombre d’une œuvre classique sur le mode ludique, un dialogue avec le non-spécialiste. Plus encore, cette lecture actualisante rendrait l’ironie plus tangible.
La dernière séance a tiré les fils de l’étoffe voltairienne jusqu’à nos jours. Nova Doyon (Cégep de Saint-Laurent) a abordé ‘La question de la liberté académique et des nouvelles sensibilités’. Comment présenter Candide au cégep (au Québec, une institution d’enseignement supérieur préuniversitaire) à l’heure des contraintes entourant la liberté académique? La conclusion ouverte de Doyon suggérait que Candide a encore beaucoup de choses à apprendre aux étudiantes et étudiants, mais qu’il est nécessaire d’être à l’écoute de leurs sensibilités. A cet égard, il est intéressant de noter que l’œuvre est suspecte aujourd’hui (esclavage, violences à caractère sexuel) pour des raisons bien différentes de jadis (anticléricalisme, libre pensée, pessimisme).
Le colloque s’est terminé par un regard d’ensemble d’Yvan Lamonde (U. McGill). Dans ‘La marche à la laïcité au Québec (1837-2022)’, Lamonde a montré que l’éducation a été un vecteur déterminant pour la laïcité au Québec depuis les Rébellions des Patriotes (1837-1838). En 1837, l’Eglise se met dans une position de médiation entre l’Eglise protestante et l’Etat (laïque). Le loyalisme du clergé est bénéfique à ce dernier, puisque les autorités britanniques placent l’éducation des francophones sous la responsabilité des confessions religieuses à partir de 1845. La suite de l’histoire consiste en une séparation progressive de l’Eglise et de l’Etat. Lamonde a retracé ainsi quelques jalons marquants de l’histoire de la laïcité jusqu’à nos jours, en suivant le fil rouge de l’éducation.
La liberté de pensée a été interrogée de diverses manières par la communauté scientifique rassemblée à Sherbrooke lors de ce colloque ‘Voltaire et les Lumières au Québec: histoire ancienne ou nécessité présente?’; l’exposition ‘Voltaire: sa vie, sa plume, son influence au Québec’, qui se tiendra jusqu’au 23 juin, invite à des réflexions semblables.
‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means’: so spoke Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing her party faithful at a conference in 2016, soon after the Brexit referendum. It was Diogenes the Cynic, two and a half millennia ago, who first styled himself a kosmou polites, a citizen of the world, and this Greek expression survives in many modern European languages. The term cosmopolite enters the French language in the sixteenth century, and still today it is often used, in a weak sense, to describe someone who is simply well travelled. Fougeret de Monbron, for example, in a book entitled Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde (1750), wrote about his travels in Europe: ‘L’univers est une espèce de livre dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.’
In the eighteenth century the term acquired greater ideological heft. The ethos of cosmopolitisme (a term first attested in the first half of the eighteenth century) characterises a mindset that was common to the European élite of the Enlightenment. Educated men and women of this period experienced a feeling of kinship with a broader humanity, that was separate from, and not in contradiction with, the patriotism they felt for their own countries. This cosmopolitan ethos is evident in a letter Voltaire wrote to César de Missy, then resident in London (D2648, 1 September 1742): ‘Je ne sais si le pays qui est devenu le vôtre est l’ennemi de celui que le hasard de la naissance a fait le mien, mais je sais bien que les esprits qui pensent comme vous sont de mon pays, et sont mes vrais amis.’
In his essay ‘Of goodness and goodness of nature’, Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘if a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows that he is a citizen of the world.’ In this perspective, cosmopolitanism is closely linked with the idea of civility. As Keith Thomas writes, in his recent book In Pursuit of Civility (2018): ‘The friendly reception of foreign visitors had been an essential test of civility since classical times. In the early modern period, it became increasingly important, with the growth of travel, the migration of religious refugees and the vast expansion of international trade.’
I came to reflect on this question recently when I was writing the introduction to the Lettres sur les Anglais for the Complete works of Voltaire. In the opening sentence of the book (in its French-language version), the narrator – who sounds suspiciously like Voltaire – presents himself to the reader as an ‘homme raisonnable’, curious to learn more about the Quakers. He calls on an eminent Quaker who has retired to a country house on the edge of London, and there follows a scene of high comedy. The Frenchman, who bows and waves his hat in deferential mode, is utterly confounded by the plainly dressed Quaker who refuses to bow and scrape, and addresses his French visitor with the familiar ‘thou’ (I quote here the original English-language version of the text): ‘He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, human air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head, which is made to cover it. Friend, he says to me, I perceive thou art a stranger…’
In the scene that follows, the French visitor is received with sincere hospitality, even though he finds it difficult at first to unlearn his French social manners: ‘I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one’s self at once from habits we have long been used to.’ After eating together, the two men fall into a discussion of religion. The Catholic visitor explains to his Quaker host that to be considered a true Christian he would need to be baptised, to which the Quaker objects that baptism is a ceremony inherited from Judaism, and that Christ himself never baptised his followers. The French narrator, who had begun by declaring his reasonableness, finds that he has no answer to the Quaker on this point of doctrine, but nor can he admit that he has lost the argument. ‘I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast’, he declares pompously, before quickly changing the subject.
The opening letter of the Lettres sur les Anglais has attracted much commentary. To begin with, it places the theme of religion front and centre, using a seemingly light and amusing dialogue to conduct what is in fact a brief but sophisticated consideration of the nature and foundation of Christian belief. In suggesting that different Christian traditions pick and choose between different parts of the Bible, Voltaire clearly hints at the superiority of a deistic form of belief that transcends the particular ceremonies of any one sect: ‘But art thou circumcised, added he [the Quaker]? I have not the honour to be so, says I. Well, friend, continues the Quaker, thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptised.’
The deist undercurrent of this opening encounter between Catholic and Quaker is self-evident, but in other respects this first letter poses challenges to the reader. At the start, we are naturally drawn into complicity with the self-styled reasonable narrator, faced as he is by the comic and eccentric figure of the Quaker who steadfastly refuses to remove his beaver fur hat. But as their discussion evolves, we come increasingly to admire the Quaker’s solid virtues, and the ‘reasonable’ narrator loses our confidence as he loses the argument with the Quaker. Our sympathy for the two actors in this scene is further complicated by an awareness that it might loosely be based on reality: the real-life Voltaire, when he was in London, did indeed pay a visit to a prominent Quaker, Andrew Pitt, who lived outside London, in Hampstead; as for the argument about the Biblical arguments in favour of baptism, Voltaire himself did engage in just such an argument in London, as is recounted by the young Quaker Edward Higginson who taught Voltaire English. This opening letter is a piece of fiction, of course, but it is a fiction inspired by Voltaire’s lived experience in London in the 1720s.
Voltaire’s magisterial use of irony contributes to – while also complicating – our pleasure in reading this opening letter. Erich Auerbach wrote some memorable pages on what he called Voltaire’s ‘searchlight technique’, his use of defamiliarisation (where bowing becomes ‘the custom of drawing one leg behind the other’) to make us rethink apparently familiar concepts. The comic defamiliarisation of acts of social intercourse such as bowing or raising a hat seems harmless and innocent enough; but in Voltaire’s hands the technique is treacherous, as he then immediately applies it to a discussion of religious ritual (baptism, circumcision). The deconstruction of these Christian practices is anything but harmless or innocent, and the unwitting readers who thought they were laughing at an eccentric English Quaker or an overly ceremonious French Catholic suddenly find themselves complicit in mocking Christian doctrine.
For years we have been taught to read Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais as a book ‘about the English’, but it is not only that, and it is perhaps not even mainly that. The opening juxtaposition of the Ancien Régime Catholic and the sober English Quaker is an object lesson in cultural difference, but it is also a demonstration of how those differences may be overcome: even while Voltaire has fun in pointing out what divides them, he also reminds us of what they have fundamentally in common: they share a meal together, in mutual respect and civility and, despite everything, they both identify as Christians. This lesson in tolerant understanding and exchange is a lesson for Voltaire’s readers, a lesson in how to read the book that they are just beginning, and more generally a lesson in how to lead their Enlightened lives. Civility and the ethic of cosmopolitanism are at the heart of this opening letter, and it is surely no coincidence that the word cosmopolitisme enters the French language at round about the time of the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais.
Our new edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais reveals this text in a fresh light by emphasising also the European, we might say cosmopolitan, nature of its publication. For most of the twentieth century, following Lanson’s pioneering edition of the Lettres philosophiques in 1909, the Lettres were seen as a book about England, written for the French. This interpretation failed to take account of the crucial fact that an English translation of the work, Letters concerning the English nation, appeared in London in 1733, with Voltaire’s full knowledge, before the French language editions, published in London, Rouen and Paris in 1734. The new Oxford edition of the Lettres is the first to include the English text and to accord it its due importance. It is now clear that Voltaire wrote this text also for an Anglophone readership, and the Letters were a best-seller in Britain and Ireland throughout the eighteenth century. In its French-language version, this book was published in London as well as in France, and was then reprinted in the Low Countries and in Germany. Much attention has been paid to the high-profile censorship of the Lettres philosophiques in France in 1734 (and of course, censorship was always good for sales); far less attention has been paid to the fact that this book was quickly reprinted and read across Europe. With his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire wrote a book designed for a European élite, the first cosmopolitan classic of the Enlightenment.
In his Reith Lectures of 2016, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talked about the ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture very often reflects misunderstandings about notions of identity: ‘If cosmopolitanism involves a simple recognition that our lives are interrelated in ways that transcend boundaries and that our human concerns must, too, it has brute reality on its side.’ That is an idea that the Enlightenment well understood and that Voltaire explores memorably in the Lettres sur les Anglais.
Voltaire’s cosmopolitan ambitions were certainly recognised in his lifetime, for example by Aaron Hill, the poet and dramatist who ran the Theatre Royal in London. He is remembered, among other things, as the author of Zara, an English rewriting of Zaïre, and by far the most successful English-language version of any Voltaire play in the eighteenth century. When Zara was first performed in London, Hill wrote to Voltaire as follows (D1082, 3 June 1736):
‘I found you born for no one country, by the embracing wideness of your sentiments; for, since you think for all mankind, all ages, and all languages, will claim the merit of your genius. Whatever narrowness there is in poets, there is none in poetry, at least, your poetry… What paints all manners, should delight all countries.’
This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.
So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.
But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de a Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.
The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.
And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment
New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.
So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.
Pourtant serviteurs fidèles de la plume du philosophe depuis l’installation de ce dernier à Genève en 1754 et jusqu’à l’édition dite ‘encadrée’ de 1775, Gabriel et (dans une moindre mesure puisqu’il quitte la librairie en 1762) Philibert Cramer nous sont relativement peu connus. D’ailleurs, ce que l’on sait d’eux provient essentiellement des innombrables billets, corrections et plaintes en tout genre que leur adresse Voltaire. Tantôt paresseux, tantôt dissipés, voire parfois un peu filous, ils se montreraient, en général, incapables de satisfaire les exigences de Voltaire en matière d’impression de ses ouvrages. Asymétrique, incomplète, et en partie tournée pour dérouter les lois de censure, cette seule correspondance ne permet pourtant pas d’apprécier à sa juste valeur la collaboration entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois, ni de se rendre compte de ce qu’est la maison Cramer à Genève et dans l’Europe du livre au XVIIIe siècle.
Premièrement, focaliser l’histoire de la librairie Cramer sur ses seules années voltairiennes, aussi florissantes fussent-elles, ne conduit-il pas à négliger ce que Voltaire doit à ses librairies, et donc à minimiser l’importance de la maison Cramer avant Voltaire? Deuxièmement, tant par sa durée que par sa qualité – après tout, les Cramer font partie du cercle de Voltaire pendant plus de vingt ans – celle-ci ne peut se réduire à un rapport de force compliqué entre un auteur tyrannique et ses imprimeurs paresseux. Au contraire, n’évoque-t-elle pas jusqu’à une forme de connivence entre les deux parties? Troisièmement, c’est surtout par sa nature que la relation entre Voltaire et les Cramer doit être reconsidérée. En misant l’essentiel de leur activité sur la plume d’un seul auteur, aussi célèbre et productif soit-il, n’ont-ils pas fait œuvre de pionniers et anticipé le modèle éditorial des siècles suivants? Ce sont ces questions qu’aborde l’ouvrage De l’encre aux Lumières, récemment paru aux éditions Slatkine.
Si la librairie Cramer nous est connue, c’est certes d’abord, grâce à Voltaire. Pourtant, Gabriel et Philibert Cramer sont les héritiers d’une maison solidement ancrée à Genève, issue d’une famille protestante présente dans la cité de Calvin depuis 1634, date de l’arrivée de leur ancêtre Jean-Ulrich Cramer. C’est d’ailleurs ce dernier qui, après avoir été reçu bourgeois en 1668, dirige son fils cadet Jean-Antoine (1655-1725) vers un apprentissage d’imprimeur-libraire auprès de la célèbre maison Chouet. Aussi étonnant qu’il puisse paraître, ce choix rappelle l’importance grandissante de l’industrie du livre à Genève, à partir du XVIIe siècle. La cité de Calvin, qui repose sur un territoire étroit, indépendant politiquement, protégé géographiquement des grandes puissances, se nourrit cependant de son commerce avec l’extérieur, notamment via le Rhône. Terre d’accueil de nombreux protestants en exil durant les XVIe et XVIIe siècles, Genève se spécialise dans l’industrie de la draperie, de l’orfèvrerie, de l’horlogerie, ainsi que, plus tardivement, de la librairie. Commerce ouvert sur l’Europe, la librairie contribue à la circulation des savoirs et des capitaux à partir de Genève, favorisant l’enrichissement de la cité-République; en retour, la censure y est modérée par rapport aux pays voisins. Les libraires peuvent même gravir les échelons de la très hiérarchisée société genevoise, tout en fournissant l’Europe en livres parfois interdits ailleurs. Ils étendent, dans le même temps, leur réseau vers des marchés toujours plus éloignés. Ainsi Jean-Antoine n’arrête-t-il pas son apprentissage au métier d’homme de plombs: son statut est bien celui d’un marchand, et sa carrière le conduit à sillonner les foires de livres de toute l’Europe.
C’est sans doute dès cette époque que se construit l’impressionnant réseau de correspondants européens de la future librairie Cramer, dont témoigne encore aujourd’hui le ‘Grand Livre’ conservé aux Archives d’Etat de Genève. Jean-Antoine Cramer ne tarde pas, de son côté, à se rendre indispensable auprès de son maître Léonard Chouet (164?-1691), qui en fait même son associé en 1680 pour fonder l’enseigne ‘Léonard Chouet et Cie’. A la mort de Chouet, Cramer s’associe à Philibert Perachon (1667-1738) pour racheter le fonds de son ancien maître et faire prospérer la maison: pour cela, il fait notamment évoluer le catalogue, publiant moins d’ouvrages de théologie réformée, contre davantage d’ouvrages de droit, de médecine, de chimie ou d’anatomie. Malgré des temps difficiles, notamment au tournant des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle, le succès est au rendez-vous et voit l’entreprise quitter les Rues Basses pour la fameuses Grande Rue de Genève.
A la mort de Jean-Antoine en 1725, c’est à son fils Guillaume-Philibert (1693-1737) que revient la tâche de reprendre le commerce, toujours avec Perachon. Epoux depuis peu de Jeanne-Louise de Tournes, elle aussi issue d’une importante famille de libraires genevo-lyonnaise, et héritier du fonds de Chouet et des contacts noués par son père, il dispose d’atouts solides à Genève et à l’étranger pour rendre son commerce incontournable. Son décès jeune, auquel s’ajoute une année après celui plus attendu de Philibert Perachon, accélère la transition vers l’ère de Gabriel et Philibert Cramer. Les deux fils de Guillaume-Philibert sont trop jeunes pour diriger l’entreprise. Ils sont d’abord placés sous la tutelle de leur mère, laquelle cède une part de l’entreprise aux frères Claude et Antoine Philibert le temps que ses fils accomplissent leur apprentissage et atteignent la majorité. La Société ‘Héritier Cramer et frères Philibert’ est créée en 1738. Elle devient ‘Frères Cramer et Claude Philibert’ en 1748, puis, enfin, ‘Frères Cramer’ en 1753. Durant ces quinze années, Gabriel Cramer fait évoluer son catalogue: en plus des classiques édités déjà du temps de son grand-père – comme les Opera Omnia de Cicéron – et de la littérature scientifique et religieuse en latin, à destination surtout des jésuites d’Espagne, on commence à trouver sous ses presses des livres en français, et même, dès 1749, un Zadig placé au milieu d’une Bibliothèque de campagne.
Dresser, même succinctement, le parcours de la famille Cramer dans la librairie genevoise jusqu’à ce premier rendez-vous avec Voltaire, permet déjà de rappeler que, au moment où ils adressent une première lettre à l’auteur de Zadig, le 15 avril 1754 (D5575), Gabriel et Philibert ne se présentent pas en victime expiatoire. C’est autant leur connaissance du marché du livre que leur ascendance qui leur donnent des arguments pour tenir tête au patriarche. Imprimeurs-libraires avisés, au bénéfice d’un savoir-faire reconnu, bien ancré dans le tissu local, et disposant d’un solide réseau de diffusion dans l’Europe du livre du XVIIIe siècle, ils offrent en outre exactement ce que cherchait Voltaire après son échec à Potsdam: une presse à portée de main, à proximité de la France, habile à déjouer les autorités politiques et religieuses. Les Cramer trouvent de leur côté en Voltaire un auteur à la fois sulfureux, prolifique et célèbre, qui assure la prospérité de la maison. Bien plus, ce dernier développe avec Gabriel – qui se fait appeler ‘Caro’, ‘Frère’, ‘Prince’ ou ‘gros’ selon les humeurs de Voltaire – une véritable familiarité, nourrie par une passion commune pour le théâtre et les mondanités. L’un et l’autre maîtrisent parfaitement les rouages propres aux mondes du livre sous l’Ancien Régime et s’entendent à tirer les ficelles utiles au bon déploiement des activités de la presse. C’est à l’aune de cette relation particulière que se dévoile un rapport, inédit pour l’époque, entre un auteur et celui qui agit comme un véritable éditeur, au sens commercial du terme.
Cette approche de la relation Cramer-Voltaire par le biais de l’histoire du livre permet de reconsidérer les forces en présence. Elle permet également de nuancer le récit de la fin de l’aventure éditoriale entre Voltaire et ses imprimeurs-libraires genevois. Souvent pensée comme la conséquence de la supposée paresse de l’‘éditeur’ ou de l’insatisfaction de l’auteur, ce récit gagne en consistance si on la replace dans la perspective de histoire de la librairie sous l’Ancien Régime. Il faut ainsi prendre en considération celui qui en est aussi un des principaux protagonistes: Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, libraire lillois, dont le but est de redonner à la librairie française la place qui lui revient dans un marché jusque-là dirigé par les presses clandestines étrangères. Force montante de la librairie en France depuis les années 1760, il s’immisce progressivement entre Cramer et Voltaire à partir des années 1770, au sein de deux collaborations importantes: une édition in-4o des œuvres de Voltaire qu’il subtilise à Cramer et un projet (avorté) de réédition de l’Encyclopédie entament en effet leur relation. Parfaitement décrit par Suzanne Tucoo-Chala, ces épisodes contribuent à éloigner Cramer de ses activités voltairiennes; le poussent à s’endetter fortement, en papier, mais aussi en presses destinées à imprimer les planches en taille douce; le conduisent à révéler à Panckoucke son réseau de diffusion. Fragilisé, Cramer a-t-il encore les ressources pour lutter avec Panckoucke? Sans compter que la perspective d’une dernière édition publiée en France paraît aussi séduire un Voltaire alors âgé et soucieux de sa postérité littéraire, et joue indubitablement en faveur du lillois lorsque celui-ci vient, accompagné de Decroix, proposer un nouveau plan de ses œuvres complètes. C’est symboliquement sur la dernière édition publiée par Cramer, l’édition dite ‘encadrée’, que Voltaire corrige les textes destinés désormais à Panckoucke.
En devenant les imprimeurs-libraires attitrés de Voltaire, les frères Cramer ont renouvelé la façon d’envisager le métier d’imprimeur-libraires. En misant presque toute leur activité sur un seul auteur, ils ont su s’appuyer sur un savoir faire et un réseau solidement ancré pour révolutionner le métier pratiqué par leurs ancêtres. Mais n’ont-ils pas dans le même temps contribué à façonner le modèle de l’éditeur qui s’implante, dès la fin du siècle, de façon plus aboutie, avec Panckoucke? Leur histoire s’achève bien là où commence L’autre histoire de l’édition française présentée par Jean-Yves Mollier, et qui conduit des débuts de Panckoucke à l’avènement des grandes maisons du XIXe siècle.
Art historians have developed sophisticated techniques to detect forgeries. Sotheby’s has its own ‘fraud-busting’ expert. Most of the world’s leading museums have whole departments devoted to distinguishing the real from the fake. Thanks to modern research methods, scores if not hundreds of famous paintings have been re-classified. Many pictures believed to have been painted by Rembrandt, for instance – several in national collections – are now re-labelled schoolof or follower of. Similarly, some paintings that were believed to be by an obscure master are now deemed to have been painted by the great Rembrandt himself. Documentary records such as inventories, letters, catalogues, or invoices, chemical analysis of canvas and paint, X-ray imaging, and carbon dating can all be valuable tools and precious auxiliaries to the museum curator. The style and quality of a painting are generally the strongest arguments for its authenticity. When material evidence supports the expert’s eye, the case is sealed. The same criteria apply, mutatis mutandis, to literary history and to the establishment of authorship.
Researching Candide, seconde partie, several years ago, I came across an index card in the old, printed catalogue at the British Museum Library with the handwritten note ‘spurious’ scrawled across the top. I was puzzled. It was the first time that I had encountered that word in the context of Voltaire’s writing. The word ‘apocryphal’ appeared on another card. Something was amiss. In all the eighteenth-century editions of Candide, seconde partie I consulted, the second part was bound alongside the first. Moreover, it was translated under Voltaire’s name into several languages. Both parts, 1 and 2, were printed together in the popular Modern Library edition. Countless undergraduates had read it. Had no one noticed that Candide, seconde partie was not the genuine article? I began wondering about the status of this bizarre continuation, which includes, in its second chapter, a scene of brutal homosexual rape. I soon perceived that in terms of style the second part had little in common with the original. Voltaire’s distinctive tone, combined with his verbal sophistication, his brush strokes as it were, are not easily mimicked. Unlike his imitator, Voltaire suggests obscenity without being vulgar.
My research (conducted with the assistance of Gillian Pink) confirmed the hypothesis originally floated by Emile Henriot in 1925 that Candide, seconde partie was in fact written by the unfrocked monk Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (‘La seconde partie de Candide’, Le Temps, 17 février 1925). Voltaire was aware of Dulaurens, whose satirical poem Les Jésuitiques (1761) must have caused him to chuckle when he read it. He commented on another work by Dulaurens, Le Compère Matthieu (1766), which he noted was written in the style of Rabelais (D14938): ‘Il y a un théatin qui a conservé son nom de Laurent qui est assez facétieux, et qui d’ailleurs est instruit: il est auteur du compère Matthieu, ouvrage dans le goût de Rabelais, dont le commencement est assez plaisant, et la fin détestable.’ But reading Voltaire is sometimes akin to entering a hall of mirrors. The distorted images flee before our eyes. Now and then we nevertheless catch his gaze. By way of a joke, he attributed his own Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine (1768) to ‘l’auteur du Compère Matthieu’ (D14915 to Charles Bordes). Et rira bien qui rie le dernier!
The late Patrick Lee averred that every collected edition of Voltaire’s writings from 1728 until the last one printed before his death includes spurious, apocryphal, and misattributed works (‘The apocryphal Voltaire: problems in the Voltairean canon’ in: The Enterprise of Enlightenment. A Tribute to David Williams from his friends, ed. Terry Pratt, David McCallam, David Williams, Oxford, 2004, p.265-73). Voltaire himself noted with characteristic flamboyance: ‘On ferait une bibliothèque des ouvrages qu’on m’impute. Tous les réfugiés errants font de mauvais livres et les vendent sous mon nom à des libraires crédules. […] On me répond que c’est l’état du métier. Si cela est le métier est fort triste’ (letter to Damilaville, 17 December 1766, D13744). But what of the hundreds of works that Voltaire published under an assumed name? And what of those that appeared anonymously? And what of those that, for one reason or another, he did not include in his collected works. And what of his persistent denials and obfuscations? And what of his works published posthumously? Questions like these take us to the heart of Voltaire’s psychology as a literary artist. His protean nature both as a writer and a public figure has meant that every utterance must be approached warily. Take for instance his presumed denial over the authorship of Candide, seconde partie contained in the following paragraph, though this is not in fact deemed to have been written by Voltaire. The claw emerges from beneath the soft pad. At best, it would appear to bear the stamp of his ‘circle’.
Let us quote it and let the reader decide (Journal encyclopédique, août 1761, p.144): ‘Il y a quelque tems qu’il a paru en France une seconde partie de Candide: on n’en a pas lû quatre lignes, qu’on voit très-clairement que cette suite n’est pas de la même plume que la première. Quelle différence! ce seroit bien là le cas de dire: non licet omnibus adire Corinthum, mot usé à la vérité, mais trouve ici très-bien sa place. Quelques personnes malintentionnées, sans doute, ont fait courir le bruit que cette brochure étoit de Mr. Campigneulles. Il la désavoue formellement, mais il dit dans son désaveu que quelques Gens de Lettres l’ont trouvée assez bien pour parier qu’elle étoit d’un homme très-illustre en Europe: ces prétendus Gens de Lettres sont des imprudents à qui nous conseillons de retirer promptement leur enjeu.’
The monumental task of publishing Voltaire’s writings has been undertaken several times since his death in 1778. Each generation has approached the project with the resources at its disposal and with the most up-to-date scholarship; and each built on the successes (and shortcomings) of the last. Over time, many works have been added to the canon, and others removed. It was Gustave Lanson early in the last century who summarized the scientific approach to literary history in his ground-breaking article Comment Voltaire faisait un livre (1908). His method, briefly stated, consisted in the painstaking gathering and interpreting all the documents that have come down us to reconstruct plausibly, and coherently, the story of how each work was written.
Establishing the Voltairean canon along scientific lines has been the objective of the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (OCV) these past fifty years. It has been an ambitious enterprise. But since the early 1950s exciting new tools have become available, some due to the drive and energy of Theodore Besterman. For the first time it was possible to apply the scientific method rigorously to Voltaire’s entire œuvre. Et quel œuvre! No writer wrote as much as Voltaire. This month the most extensive publishing venture in Europe (et par conséquent de toute la terre!) draws to a close with the publication of the final volume in the collection: Textes attribués à Voltaire, numbered 147. In all, 205 volumes have been printed, representing the collaboration of scores of eminent scholars from around the world.
In his Epître à Horace, Voltaire wrote, ‘J’ai fait un peu de bien: c’est mon meilleur ouvrage.’ Volume 147 of the OCV is a tribute to the great man, his massive corpus of writings, and enduring presence in the modern mind. The Œuvres complètes is a monument to the European Enlightenment and to scholarship at its best.
Authors – or rather authorial brand names – sell books. They also sell translations. From the 1730s onwards, the name ‘Voltaire’ was well enough known in England to ensure that translations of his work were many and various, even if their reception was mixed. By the 1760s, as the prefatory Advertisement in The Works of Mr de Voltaire suggests, Voltaire’s reputation across Europe and the sheer quantity and complexity of his writings made a ‘complete and regular translation’ of his works an attractive prospect for booksellers. It was also an ambitious and risky one.
The circumstances of Smollett’s involvement in the project are unclear. Unlike Voltaire, he did not oblige posterity by leaving a voluminous correspondence. However, the ‘learned Doctor Smollett’, as he was wryly dubbed, was an obvious choice as editor. He was a successful novelist and historian, as well as the translator of Gil Blas and Don Quixote. Crucially, as founding editor of the Critical Review, he was also an influential literary ‘gate-keeper’ in the London book business. The lustre of the Smollett name on the title page beneath that of Voltaire would maximise the prestige and credibility of the initiative and reduce the risks. It seems probable that Smollett was approached by the conger of seven booksellers whose names appear in all the volumes of the first edition. If that was indeed the case, their gamble paid off handsomely. A second edition of volume 1 followed hard on the heels of the first, of which few copies survive, suggesting that demand quickly outstripped the booksellers’ expectations. Some volumes appeared in as many as 6 editions by 1781, while further translations claiming to extend the edition were published well after Smollett’s death in 1771. To this day, however, the 36 volumes of The Works of Mr. de Voltaire published between 1761 and 1769 are commonly called the ‘Smollett edition’.
As anyone familiar with the Voltaire Foundation will know, the production of Voltaire’s collected works, translated or otherwise, is a vast collaborative enterprise. And Smollett was no Besterman. He was neither the prime mover, nor the sole editor of the edition. Nor did he claim to be. In a letter to an American admirer in 1763 he admitted only to ‘a small part of the translation’, while his editorial notes in the 19 volumes of prose works that he oversaw suggest that his enthusiasm for ‘our author’, as he called Voltaire, was (at best) qualified. Although the title page in volume 1 of the 1761 edition attributes it solely to ‘Dr. Smollet [sic], and others’, by volume 2, the name T. Smollet, M.D. is joined by that of T. Francklin, M.A., one of the four ‘gentlemen of approved abilities’ who had worked with Smollett to launch the Critical Review. According to Eugène Joliat, the editors worked independently, and The Works of Mr de Voltaire were divided into two sets of volumes: Smollett took on the prose works, Francklin, a minor dramatist and successful translator, oversaw the set devoted to plays and poetry. But the active involvement of both men ceased in 1763, long before the first edition was completed.
The ‘Smollett edition’, therefore, is something of a misnomer. But that is not to belittle Smollett’s active editorial contribution. In a letter to Richard Smith, a month before he left for France in June 1763, Smollett indignantly declares himself ‘mortified’ by the rumour that he had merely lent his name to booksellers: ‘a species of Prostitution of which I am altogether incapable’. The charge was repeated, however, in the Monthly Review the following October in a bilious critique of the enterprise by William Kenrick, who had a score to settle with ‘the forehorse in the team of dulness’. ‘Poor’ Voltaire, lamented Kenrick, was the ‘mangled and expiring victim’ of ‘unknown and desperate bravoes’ whose intertextual butchery was endorsed by ‘men of character’ ready to make ‘a strange, and most illiberal sacrifice to Mammon’.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground. Despite his success, Smollett was perennially short of money and doubtless exacted a substantial reward for his services from the booksellers. Moreover, he took care to distance himself from the translations themselves. But, as Chau Le-Thanh has shown, the copious ‘notes historical and critical’ in 19 volumes of the prose works are certainly his, and his role as editor (perhaps Francklin’s too) probably extended beyond that. Alexander Carlyle, describing a meeting with Smollett in 1758, hints at a possible scenario. He found Smollett in a coffee house among ‘minions to whom he prescribed tasks of translation, compilation, or abridgement, which, after he had seen, he recommended to the booksellers’. It seems likely that Smollett turned to this atelier of ‘understrappers [and] journeymen’, as he describes them in Humphry Clinker, and set them to work on the laborious ‘business of book-making’ involved in this complex translation project.
Booksellers are not alone in being attracted by the aura of an author’s name. Scholars are similarly beguiled. Interest in the so-called ‘Smollett’ edition has come almost entirely from the field of English Studies and focuses primarily on Smollett’s part in it. Voltaireans have largely echoed Kenrick’s undifferentiated disdain for texts not penned by ‘their’ author. This is a missed opportunity. The edition is a remarkable example of ‘multiple translatorship’, and it was very successful throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. Its aim, as the Advertisement tell us, was not simply to assemble translations, but to ‘correct’, ‘elucidate’ and ‘explain’. The texts, peritexts and long afterlife of The Works of Mr de Voltaire have much to tell us about how Voltaire’s œuvre was represented, re-presented, and received by generations of English readers who wanted and needed to discover ‘Voltaire’ in their own tongue.
Perhaps no other work of literature from the eighteenth century has entered popular culture to the extent achieved by Voltaire’s Candide. After a shaky start in 1956 Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, swept the world. Numerous other derivative works have appeared, but none quite so odd as Candide revealed, an erotic fantasy comic version which started publication in 1991 by Eros Comix, an imprint of Fantagraphics, Seattle, the publisher of an enormous range of comic strips and graphic novels, some highly sexual. Candide revealed, ‘The Candide they were embarrassed to show you’ (‘They’ is undefined) is perhaps the most literary of their productions but by no means the most raunchy. There have been other fully illustrated ‘graphic novel’ versions of Candide, but this one is different, in that the text is completely rewritten in an American rough demotic. In traditional comic style, the ‘goodies’ are blond and beautiful in the WASP way, and the ‘baddies’ are ugly and dark. The work nevertheless follows Voltaire’s story very closely, though in a much condensed form and emphasising the erotic and violent episodes, compressing most of the events of the first nine chapters into 89 images, but with frequent allusion to the key phrase of ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ and other Panglossian sentiments.
The authors of the work are not easy to identify with any certainty. The script is attributed to Link Yaco, who may be Lincoln Yaco whose name appears on some other publications from the same source, but about whom little else is known. The drawings are attributed to a certain ‘Simon DeBeaver’, whose echo of a famous French feminist cannot be accidental. The cover colour is attributed to ‘Freesia Bunzoff’, perhaps an elegant reference to the illustration of Candide attempting to sleep in a ploughed field under falling snow. Three volumes of Candide revealed were advertised, but only number one can be found, on the last page of which readers are encouraged to save up to buy the continuation.
I am grateful to an anonymous member of the staff of Fantagraphics for informing me that no evidence exists that the other two numbers were ever published. Perhaps the work fell between two stools, being too erudite but not sufficiently erotic for their core readership. A sole image from the intended next number confirms the planned publication.
Parodies of Candide started early. A. Owen Aldridge, in ‘The vindication of philosophical optimism in a pseudo-Confucian imitation of Voltaire’s Candide’, Asian and African Studies 6 (1997), p.117-25, describes L’Aventurier chinois, ostensibly published in Peking in 1773 (and sold by Mérigot le jeune of Paris). A complete account of pastiches, parodies, operettas and other derivatives is probably impossible to achieve, but some starts have been made. Works related to Candide are treated by Christopher Thacker in ‘Sons of Candide’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 58 (1967), p.1515-31, by J. Rustin in ‘Les “Suites” de Candide au XVIIIe siècle’, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 90 (1972), p.1395-1416, and by J. Vercruysse in ‘Les enfants de Candide’ in Jean Macary (ed.), Essays on the Age of Enlightenment in Honor of Ira O. Wade (Geneva, 1977), p.369-76.
There are important studies of illustrated editions of Candide. See Peter Tucker, The Illustrated editions of Candide: the interpretation of a classic: an examination and checklist, with an introduction by Giles Barber ([Church Hanborough], The Previous Parrot Press, 1993). A copy may be seen, in part, here. (It is a limited edition of 185 numbered copies.) The University of Trier has a bibliography (though the illustrations are only accessible on campus). A more specialised investigation is Robert Vilain’s ‘Images of optimism? German illustrated editions of Voltaire’s Candide in the context of the First World War’, Oxford German Studies 37 (2008), p.223-52, which has striking illustrations, including those by Paul Klee. (Available online through academic institutions.)
Illustrated editions of Candide appeared very early. Voltaire disliked illustrations in his works, comparing himself modestly to Cicero, Virgil and Horace in a letter to his publisher Panckoucke concerning an edition (not of Candide) where he says: ‘Je crois que des estampes seraient fort inutiles. Ces colifichets n’ont jamais été admis dans les éditions de Cicéron, de Virgile et d’Horace. Il faut imiter ces grands hommes dans cette simplicité si on ne peut pas imiter leurs perfections’ (12 January 1778, D20980).
These illustrations often concentrated on the erotic, though more subtly than Simon DeBeaver. Two early versions of the monkey episode, by Charles Monnet (1732-1808) in the Bouillon, 1778, edition, and by Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) for a Renouard edition of the works in 1803, differ quite markedly in the nature of the suggested relationship between the women and the monkeys.
This change in approach has been attributed to a hardening of attitudes to black men after the Haiti slave revolt by Mary L. Bellhouse in ‘Candide shoots the Monkey Lovers: representing black men in eighteenth-century French visual culture’, Political Theory 34 (2006), p.741-84 (available online through academic institutions). It is a pity we cannot know how Candide revealed would have treated this episode, and how it would now be viewed through the prism of critical race theory.
A not dissimilar contrast appears in two more modern illustrations of Cunégonde. In Norman Tealby’s account of the rape of Cunégonde by a Bulgarian soldier for an edition of Candide published in 1928 by John Lane The Bodley Head (London) and Dodd, Mead & Co. (New York), the soldier, though fearsome, looks like a Gilbert and Sullivan character, and the fair victim seems almost placid. Cunégonde’s plight is very differently represented by Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949) in a Candide published in 1952 by Gibert Jeune, where the blackness of her assailant is emphasised. It is tempting to wonder if Mussolini’s domestically popular African adventures influenced the artist.
Images of literary figures and their adventures are constantly changeable and remade for the times and tastes they serve.
Until recently, it was generally considered that Islam, the youngest of the great world religions, was born ‘not amidst the mystery which cradles the origin of other religions, but rather in the full light of history’, as Ernest Renan, the French scholar of Middle East civilizations, put it in 1883. Most textbooks and popular biographies still take Renan’s line: Islam originated among the tribal Arabs of the Hijaz (the coastal region of western Arabia that includes both Mecca and Medina) who heeded the divine messages transmitted by the Prophet Muhammad as contained in the holy text of the Quran.
The traditional view of Muhammad’s life, conveyed by the vast majority of biographies, runs as follows. Muhammad began preaching around 510 CE in his native Mecca, the site of an ancient shrine to which Arabs made regular pilgrimages. His attacks on the local gods brought him into conflict with the city’s rulers, and in 622 CE, he and his band of followers migrated to the neighbouring settlement of Yathrib – later known as Medina, the Prophet’s ‘city’ – where he formed an alliance with local tribes, three of which adhered to Jewish rites. After a series of raids and battles (to which there are allusions in the Quran but no descriptions), he overcame the Meccan polytheists and restored the shrine at Mecca to the true worship of the God of Abraham. The recalcitrant Jews who refused to accept his message were expelled from Medina – and in one instance massacred for allegedly treacherous dealings with Muhammad’s Meccan enemies.
Modern scholars, taking their view from more than a century of biblical criticism, have begun to cast doubt on the traditional narrative. The first written accounts of Muhammad’s life were forged out of a vast body of stories known as Hadiths (‘traditions’ or reports), passed down orally by the generations that followed him. The earliest biography, by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833 CE, contains parts of the missing work of an earlier scholar, Ibn Ishaq, who is thought to have lived between 707 and 767 CE. By that time the Muslim armies had long defeated the Persian Empire, wrested control of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt from the heirs of Constantine and Justinian, and established a fragile imperium that stretched from Iberia to the Indus Valley. The Arabian prophet, whose exemplary life and preaching are supposed to have inspired this remarkable series of conquests was already famous, and his biography came fully supplied with the supernatural tropes – angelic visitations and miracles – that adorn the lives of holy persons in almost every human culture.
There are clearly problems with this biography to which modern scholars are drawing increasing attention. The dating of the first written narrative to at least a century after Muhammad’s putative death in 632 CE may be contrasted with that of Mark’s gospel, considered by most Bible scholars to be the earliest of the three synoptic gospels and to have been written up to four decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. The story of Jesus contained in the synoptic gospels has long been subjected to the rigors of formal criticism, with scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann claiming that almost nothing can be known about the life and personality of Jesus, as distinct from the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the Church freely attributed to Jesus.Despite its greater antiquity, the Christian narrative appears to have had a shorter oral transmission time than its Muslim counterpart. Furthermore, while there are allusions to Jesus in the writings of Josephus and Pliny that provide some cross-referencing for the events described in the Gospels, the Muslim accounts have no such historical anchoring: they are almost entirely ‘insider narratives’ composed in the spirit of piety. Some verses from the Quran, including references to Muhammad, are inscribed on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dating from 692 CE. Yet even these have been questioned as sources for the life of Muhammad. The word ‘muhammad’, written in Arabic script without an initial capital letter, can be treated as a passive participle meaning ‘the praised one’. At least one scholar, drawing on numismatic and archaeological evidence, suggests that the inscriptions actually refer to Jesus.
The text of the Quran, the ‘discourse’ or ‘recitation’ that is said to contain the exact words dictated by God to Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel, is supposed to have been fixed by Uthman (R. 644-656), the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad’s worldly power. It may have provided some clues to Muhammad’s biography – but they are only clues. The text is not arranged chronologically, and its style is highly allusive and elliptical. There are few extended narratives: the Quran’s auditors were evidently familiar with the materials in its discourses. There are references to stories contained in the Hebrew Bible and the Midrash (biblical commentaries), allusions to the Jesus narratives in the Gospels, including Gnostic versions expurgated from the official canon, and stories about Arabian prophets and sages who do not feature in the Judeo-Christian repertoire. The earliest Muslim exegetes – many of whom were Persian converts to Islam and far removed culturally from Muhammad’s supposed Bedouin milieu in western Arabia – were inspired to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography in order to understand the holy text, in particular, allusions to events in the Prophet’s life or ‘occasions of revelation’. There is a sense in which the Quran’s textual history conforms to Muslim piety: far from Muhammad being its ‘author’, the Quran, as the unmediated Word of God, is in a literary-historical sense the ‘author’ of Muhammad.
Scholars who have examined Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Hebrew sources alongside the earliest Arabic texts of the Quran and the hadiths have advanced a variety of alternatives to the conventional narrative. The American linguist John Wansbrough, who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, suggested that Islam, rather than originating in the arid deserts surrounding Mecca and Medina, arose much further north in a sectarian milieu of Christians and Judaized Arabs in the lands of the Fertile Crescent. More recently, in Muhammad and the Believers (2010), Fred Donner, doyen of American Islamic scholars, has argued that Islam began in the same region as part of an ecumenical movement of monotheists living in the daily expectation of End Times. This revisionist view has recently been given a more popular currency by a British classical author, Tom Holland, in his book In the shadow of the sword (2012).
Following in Wansbrough’s wake, Holland suggests that Islam was born, not in the deserts of Arabia, but in the borders of Syria-Palestine, a region that had long been devastated by plagues and wars – the usual precursors of apocalyptic scenarios and millennial hopes. Muhammad’s Qurayshite enemies may not have been Meccans but Arab tribes that had grown rich on Roman-Byzantine patronage. Far from being illiterate (as the traditional biographies claim, with a view to emphasizing the Quran’s miraculous character), Muhammad was a sophisticated man who ‘laid claim to traditions of divine inspiration that were immeasurably venerable’, knowing full well what he was about.
The religion he founded began as a classic millennial cult comprising Jews, Christians, and Arabs driven by an apocalyptic belief in the end of the world, with Jerusalem as its original focus. The early caliphs of Islam, who saw themselves as God’s vice-regents, were both heirs and beneficiaries of the same millennial expectations – long entrenched in the region’s culture – that surface in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls. According to this view, the purely Arabian provenance attributed to Islam and its prophet were later inventions by pious scholars who tried to curb the power of the caliphs by using the memory of Muhammad, with its by now well-established iconic moral authority.
None of the revisionist discourse, which has been strongly contested by some scholars working on the earliest manuscript sources, would have been known to Voltaire. As a religious iconoclast he would, no doubt, have relished the debate that has recently opened up over Islamic origins. As a dramatist, however, he explicitly rejected any requirement for historical accuracy. As Hannah Burton points out in the introduction to her elegant prose translation, the character of Mahomet is a fiction created for dramatic effect, not an attempt to portray a real historical actor. ‘Where would Virgil and Homer be if people had bothered them about the details?’ Voltaire asks. The same question is currently being asked of Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose skeletal remains were recently discovered under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. Shakespeare’s murderous villain, crook-backed and leering, dragging his misshapen body round the historical stage, bears little relationship to the somewhat prudish devotee of St Anthony the Hermit, patron of those who struggle against the sins of the flesh, who is documented in the historical record. Just as Shakespeare’s character was invented to appease the Tudors who had defeated Richard on the field of Bosworth, Voltaire’s Mahomet was invented to annoy the religious.
The great philosophe was clearly familiar with the more positive details of the Prophet’s life as contained in the ‘Preliminary discourse’ attached to Sale’s English translation of the Quran (1734), and in two French biographies of Muhammad, Henri de Boulainvilliers’s La Vie de Mahomed (1730), and Jean Gagnier’s La Vie de Mahomet traduite et compilée de l’Alcoran (1732).As a passionate anti-cleric, however, he simply plundered these sources and distorted them for his wider purpose, which was to attack the hypocritical religiosity he saw as underpinning France’s ancien régime. Richard Holmes quotes from one of his many ill-tempered diatribes against priests of every denomination who ‘rise from an incestuous bed, manufacture a hundred versions of God, then eat and drink God, then piss and shit God’ (‘Transubstantiation’, in Dictionnaire philosophique). The intellectual forebear of such ‘enlightenment fundamentalists’ as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire viewed Muhammad initially through anti-Christian and, specifically, anti-Catholic spectacles.
Depicted as an impostor and a lecherous villain, Voltaire’s Mahomet is singularly lacking in redeeming features. Far from having the qualities that grace the heroes of classical tragedy, he appears as a scheming, ambitious, and wicked tyrant, an impostor motivated by lust. The remorse he exhibits at the end of the play – added, it has been suggested, for ‘public edification – is, in Ahmad Gunny’s view, ‘at best a passing impression and not a permanent trait of character’. Some critics have seen Mahomet as being more of a tract than a play – an attack on religion generally, and in particular the fatalism that Voltaire and many of his contemporaries associated with Islam. Discerning critics saw it as a coded attack on the Catholic Church, cleverly disguised as a polemic against its principal religious enemy. Lord Chesterfield thought that under the guise of Muhammad, Voltaire was really attacking Christ, and was surprised that this was not noticed at the time of its first performance in Lille (1741). Chesterfield met a good Catholic there ‘whose zeal surpassed his insight, who was extremely edified by the way in which this imposter and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’ (‘dont le zèle surpassait la pénétration, qui était extrêmement édifié de la manière dont cet imposteur et ennemi du Christianisme était depeint’). One can easily imagine Voltaire smiling with his tight-lipped grin of ‘a maimed monkey’ (un singe estropié), as he himself described it. How satisfying to have stimulated a bigoted response from a play whose original title page reads Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète, tragédie.
Voltaire’s attack on fanaticism in Mahomet may have been pitched at the supposed enemy of Christianity, but there was a more immediate polemical purpose in his distortion of the Muhammad story. In his life of the Prophet, Boulainvilliers follows Ibn Hisham and subsequent chroniclers, including the Syrian Abu al-Fida al-Hamawi (1273-1331), from whom Boulainvilliers drew his narrative, who relates that Abu Sufyan, leader of the Qurayshites, inspired by the Prophet’s magnanimity, eventually converts to Islam. In Voltaire’s play, however, the Abu Sufyan character (who is called Zopire, possibly after a Persian who features in Herodotus’s Histories as helping Darius trick his way into Babylon)is murdered for failing to embrace Islam. Voltaire’s treatment not only blackens Muhammad’s character, but sabotages the image of the charismatic visionary who defeated his enemies by force of the Quran’s eloquence as much as by his prowess in battle. A similar purpose is evident from his treatment of Palmira, who resists Mahomet’s advances and kills herself rather than succumbing to them. The model for Palmira in Muhammad’s biography is Zainab bint Jahsh, ex-wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, whom Muhammad married – correctly, in accordance with Islamic practice – after she had been divorced from her husband. Instead of embracing the more sympathetic image of Muhammad depicted by Boulainvilliers and Sale, Voltaire defaults to an older vision of Islam as a ‘religion preached by the sword and violence without any element of persuasion’. Doubtless it was this wholly negative depiction of the Prophet that secured papal approval for the play by Benedict XIV – an anti-Jansenist pope who would have seen the attack on Muhammad as a critique of the influential Jansenist party in France. A leading figure of this puritanical Catholic movement was the procurator Joly de Fleury, who was responsible for withdrawing the play after its successful Paris debut in 1742.
Voltaire, however, was far from being uniformly hostile to Islam. In a private letter to Frederick of Prussia he acknowledged that he had made Muhammad worse than he was: ‘Mahomet did not exactly weave the type of treason that forms the subject of this tragedy’ (‘Mahomet n’a pas tramé précisément l’espèce de trahison qui fait le sujet de cette tragédie’ D2386).His earlier play Zaïre, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, presents the Muslim religion more pragmatically. The heroine Zaïre, whose husband, the sultan Orosmane, tragically mistakes her encounter with her lost brother, a Christian, for sexual infidelity, offers a rather more tolerant view:
‘My heart doesn’t know itself … Custom and law moulded my earliest years to the happy Muslim religion. I see only too clearly: the training that we are given as children shapes our feelings, our mores, our belief. On the banks of the Ganges, I would have been a slave to false gods; in Paris, a Christian; in this place, a Muslim.’
Voltaire’s subsequent essay, De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet (1748), maintains his view that Muhammad was an impostor who exploited beliefs in the supernatural while having no such supernatural help himself. In this respect, he regarded Islam as inferior to the Chinese religion because – unlike Muhammad – Confucius depended neither on revelation, nor on lies, nor on the sword for his teachings, but only on reason. However, in disputing the claim that Muhammad was illiterate – a theme he took up in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les mœurs – Voltaire also makes some positive comments about the founder of Islam:
‘How can one imagine that a man who had been a merchant, poet, legislator and sovereign was unable to write his name? If his book is unsuitable for our times and for ourselves, it was truly good for his contemporaries. His religion was even better. We should recognise that he virtually rescued the whole of Asia from idolatry. He taught the unity of God and forcefully denounced anyone claiming that God has partners. He banned the usurious exploitation of strangers, and enjoined the giving of alms. Prayer is an absolute requirement; acceptance of eternal decrees animates all. It is hardly surprising that a religion so simple and wise, taught by a man who was always victorious in the field took power in much of the world. In actuality the Muslims made as many converts by the word as by the sword, including Indians and many Negroes. Even the Turkish conquerors submitted themselves to Islam’ (OCV, vol.20B, p.335).
Voltaire’s articles in the Mercure de France in 1745 proceed on similar lines. In one of them he disposes of the myth that the Muslim conquerors of Spain were wild monsters whose only superiority lay in force. While acknowledging the cruelty that always accompanies conquests, he points out that the Moors were not without humanity, and that in all their provinces they tolerated Christians. Despite the asymmetrical Islamic approach towards mixed marriages (whereby a Christian man would be executed for marrying a Muslim woman unless he converted to Islam), the Muslims were merciful conquerors, leaving the vanquished their property, laws, and religion. Hence, Spaniards who had hitherto followed Catholicism were not reluctant to leave it, becoming Mozarabs instead of Visigoths.Turning his attention eastward, he likewise commends the Turks for their tolerance. Whereas no Christian nation allows the Turks to build a mosque on its soil, the Turks allow the Greeks to have their churches in lands under their control, and he commends the way that, in their European domains, they have retained ‘Asian’ traditions, such as building caravanserais for travellers, or schools and hospitals attached to mosques.
In his excursion into early Islamic history in Chapter VI of the Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire commends the Caliph Umar for allowing Jews and Christians full liberty of conscience following the capture of Jerusalem. Interestingly, in discussing the succession to Muhammad he takes the Shi‘ite view: that the Prophet designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his Caliph, or successor.As Voltaire’s knowledge of Islam deepened, he clearly became better disposed towards the faith. In the Essai, for example, he dwells on the contrasting historical trajectories of Christianity and Islam. From being a religion initially spread by arms, Islam became increasingly tolerant, whereas Christianity, after starting out from a ‘meek and humble’ stance, became ever more barbaric and intolerant. The contrast is underlined in the Examen de Milord Bolingbroke (1766), where it is Christianity that fails the test of reason. Belief in an all-powerful God, says Voltaire, is the only Muslim dogma: without the coda proclaimed in the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) that Muhammad is rasul Allah (the Messenger of God), Islam could have been every bit as ‘pure and beautiful’ as the Chinese religion. There is an implicit endorsement of this view in the final chapters of Voltaire’s masterpiece Candide(1762). After their bizarre and traumatic adventures in Europe and Latin America, it is in Muslim Turkey that Candide and his companions find the peace of mind where they may ‘cultivate their garden’.
– Malise Ruthven
Note: Since there is virtually no connection between Voltaire’s ‘Mahomet’ and the prophet of Islamic tradition, I have adopted Voltaire’s spelling when referring to this character and used the conventional spelling ‘Muhammad’ when referring to the Prophet.