Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: a new translation

A preface on Voltaire and Islam by Malise Ruthven

Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, translated by Hanna Burton (Sacramento, 2013).

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.

Illustrations de Description de l’Univers contenant les différents systèmes du Monde, les cartes générales et particulières de la géographie ancienne et moderne, etc., text by Alain Manesson Mallet (Paris, 1683) (Bibliothèque nartionale de France).

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.

Mahomet (Bruxelles, 1742).

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.’

Zaïre (Paris, 1733).

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.

Previously published at https://litwinbooks.com/voltaires-fanaticism-or-mahomet-the-prophet-preface/, where references to the citations may be found.

Pierre Hadot, Voltaire, and the figure of the philosophe

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

Pierre Hadot is rightly known preeminently for his work on ancient philosophy, including dedicated studies (and translations) of Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius. In a series of celebrated studies after 1970, Hadot made the case that ancient philosophy needed to be understood as a specific ‘form of life’ in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense. To be a philosopher was to make an existential choice to live in a certain manner. This way of life, whether Stoic, Epicurean, or Platonic, was based upon a specific theoretical understanding of self, world, and language, but not reducible to it. It involved regimens of what Hadot calls ‘spiritual exercises’ like meditation on theoretical truths, premeditation of evils, the memento mori, codified practices of questioning and answering, and measures to moderate or remove negative emotions.

It is less well known that Hadot came to this assessment of ancient philosophy by way of a hermeneutic concern. He was struck by the distance between modern academic philosophy and ancient philosophical texts, with their different literary and rhetorical dimensions, digressions and genres (like dialogues and poems). Hadot was also taken by the way particular formulae, like ‘nature loves to hide’, or the ‘view from above’ on mortal affairs (see below), were repeated and varied in different philosophers and philosophical schools. Hadot’s substantive vision of ancient philosophy emerged as an attempt to give an adequate explanation of what social, ethical, political and intellectual conditions could explain these textual features.

In principle as in fact, then, this approach can be applied to modern as well as ancient philosophical writings, wherever these significantly vary from the 6-12,000-word papers, commentaries, and treatises we presently credit. In one of his public presentations, in fact, Hadot mentions the Enlightenment philosophers, as well as movements in ‘popular philosophy’, as examples of the survival of the ancient idea of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ in modern times. Hadot’s comment is significant in all sorts of ways, not least since Hadot never widely pursues it, although his last work is a book on Voltaire’s great admirer, Goethe. We know that the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, led by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, are rarely taught today in philosophy departments as philosophers. We can well surmise that the premier reason for this is that their philosophical outputs each involved, by our standards, solely literary outputs – dialogues, dramas, epistolary novels, dramas, poetry – as well as texts aiming less at theoretical discovery or innovation than popular dissemination and application of ideas – encyclopedia and dictionary entries, pamphlets, even novellas and short stories dramatizing philosophical ideas and debates.

Reading Voltaire and the other philosophes’ works with Hadot’s metaphilosophical ideas in view asks us to bracket our assumptions as to what they ‘should’ have been doing, and focus on trying to identify just what ‘philosophy’ meant for them in the eighteenth century, and as such what it might still mean on an expanded view. We will also, using such a method, come to see how much closer the philosophes’ senses of what they were doing, and the different aims and types of philosophical writing, were to those of the ancient philosophers whom Hadot studied in great depth.

Many Enlightenment scholars won’t be surprised, in one way, at this last idea. Peter Gay’s two volume series on the Enlightenment is only one of many dedicated texts which have recognized the scale of the debts Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and other lumières owed to ‘the ancients’ they generally revered. The lumières were attracted, at the level of ideas, to the moral uprightness and sound ethico-political principles of the ancient philosophical schools, which did not depend on revealed religion. They saw in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, but also (in Voltaire’s case) ancient China, living examples of worlds in which religious sectarianism and fanaticism had not threatened civil peace, and in which the highest artistic and intellectual creations had been fostered.

Nevertheless, there is also a second dimension to the philosophes’ admiration of the ancient philosophers: one reflecting their continued recognition of the ancient idea of philosophy as a choice of life. Montesquieu and Voltaire revered Cicero in particular, as a philosopher as well as a man of action who served his nation unto death. Voltaire and Diderot continually entertained comparisons between the Socrates of The Apology and their own fates as exiles and prisoners for the sake of their pursuits of wisdom. Diderot compares himself also, at different moments, to both Diogenes the Cynic and Aristippus the hedonist, as in his Regrets for my old dressing gown (Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre). When Voltaire lists those figures who alone have the right to preach good morals in the entry ‘Dogmes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique, the list includes Socrates, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as the Chinese sage Confucius.

If we look at Du Marsais’s famous entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Encyclopédie, again, we find a clear primacy of social and ethical attributes such as Hadot might lead us to expect, over this philosophe’s adherence to any theoretical system. This philosopher is a man of the world whose only deity is civil society, and who wishes to live and enjoy his experiences of this world as fully as possible. Indeed, when the philosopher’s approach to ideas is examined, what comes up for praise is his ability to assess evidence and testimony clearly and carefully, withholding his assent to ideas that are not yet clearly established. But this is an epistemic virtue which reflects old Stoic ideas of ‘non-precipitancy’, and of course, the entire lineage of the ancient sceptical tradition. It is a kind of lived practice of thinking, or what Hadot calls ‘logic as a spiritual exercise’, rather than any specific dogmatic commitment.

Of course, this is not to say improbably that the philosophes wholly reembraced the ancient ideal and practices of philosophy, without change, and that as such, Hadot’s work on the ancients could likewise be ‘transplanted’ into eighteenth-century studies sans phrase. Nevertheless, if we focus in the remainder of this blog on Voltaire, we can say that Hadot’s approach allows us to understand aspects of Voltaire’s work that other philosophical methodologies might sideline, and indeed highlights particular features that other approaches can pass over as insignificant or ‘wholly literary’.

Take Voltaire’s opening description of the task of the philosopher, in his own entry ‘Philosophe’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique:

‘Philosophe, amateur de la sagesse, c’est-à-dire, de la vérité. Tous les philosophes ont eu ce double caractère, il n’en est aucun dans l’antiquité qui n’ait donné des exemples de vertu aux hommes, et des leçons de vérités morales.’ (Philosopher, ‘lover of wisdom’, that is, ‘of truth’. All philosophers have possessed this two-fold character; there is not one amongst the philosophers of antiquity who did not give examples of virtue to mankind, and lessons of moral truth.)

Here, the philosopher is someone who loves something, the truth, rather than necessarily knowing it. He is also someone who gives an example, by his own conduct and way of life, of ethical virtues to others. This surely sounds strange to us today, in a culture which hardly sees its philosophers as exemplars to be emulated by the young.

Elsewhere, like the Epicureans and Stoics in particular, Voltaire will also assign a therapeutic role to philosophy. Philosophical learning and reflection is a means to quell the passions that divide people, and which we see on such destructive display in all forms of fanaticism, theological or secular. No ancient philosopher, Voltaire argues, was ever a sectarian. And whilst several were exiled or killed for their stances, none urged or participated in lynchings, mobbings, or sundry persecutions of those with whom they disagreed. ‘Les sectes des philosophes étaient non seulement exemptes de cette peste [fanaticism]’ (The sects of [ancient] philosophers were not merely exempt from this plague), Voltaire writes, they were antidotes to it, which might cure the disease again today: ‘Car l’effet de la philosophie est de rendre l’âme tranquille, et le fanatisme est incompatible avec la tranquillité’ (for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquility are totally incompatible).

Zadig and Astarte (1782), engraved by J. R. Smith (1751-1812).

Another ancient literary-philosophical trope that recurs in Voltaire is the ‘view from above’. Philosophical reasoning resituates our own egoistic perspectives into a different, larger frame. And once we do this, we can overcome many of the interpersonal and personal issues which, viewed unphilosophically, can potentially overwhelm us. The formula repeats, as a theme for philosophical meditation, across Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic, and even Cynical texts (if we count Lucian of Samosata a Cynic).

Yet Voltaire repeatedly has his characters, or his own narrative voice (as in the Traité sur la tolérance) step backwards or upwards, to describe humans as like ants, and our societies and battles like those of swarming insects. Hadot himself in his book on Goethe cites the moment when Zadig is separated from his beloved Astarte:

Zadig steer’d his Course by the Stars that shone over his Head. The Constellation of Orion, and the radiant Dog-star directed him towards the Pole of Canope. He reflected with Admiration on those immense Globes of Light, which appear’d to the naked Eye no more than little twinkling Lights; whereas the Earth he was then traversing, which, in Reality, is no more than an imperceptible Point in Nature, seem’d, according to the selfish Idea we generally entertain of it, something very immense, and very magnificent. He then reflected on the whole Race of Mankind, and look’d upon them, as they are in Fact, a Parcel of Insects, or Reptiles, devouring one another on a small Atom of Clay. This just Idea of them greatly alleviated his Misfortunes …’

Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.15 (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The rightly most famous example of this is the effect produced by having the 24,000 foot giant Micromégas visit our little ‘anthill’, and converse with some of us ‘infinitely small’ humans. Echoing the ancient philosopher-satirist Lucian, Voltaire’s hero soon condemns with disgust the folly of human tribes engaging in bloody warfare for pieces of land no bigger than his heel, at the behest of authorities most of those killed and killing will never so much have met.

Voltaire uses a variation of the same ‘view from above’ Hadot identified as a recurrent ancient philosophical trope at the end of the education of the hapless, defeated would-be sage Memnon. In Memnon, it is an angel from Micromegas’s home planet, Sirius, who delivers the philosophical message:

Your fate will soon change,’ said the animal of the star. ‘It is true, you will never recover your eye, but, except that, you may be sufficiently happy if you never again take it into your head to be a perfect philosopher.’ ‘Is it then impossible?’, asked Memnon. ‘As impossible as to be perfectly wise, perfectly strong, perfectly powerful, perfectly happy … There is a world indeed where all this is possible; but, in the hundred thousand millions of worlds dispersed over the regions of space, everything goes on by degrees’.

Micromégas, engraving by G. Vidal, after Charles Monnet.

What we note here, however, is Voltaire’s specifically sceptical orientation, when it comes both to ancient philosophical thought, as well as to any too optimistic assessment of human perfectibility. Memnon in fact has begun by trying to make himself a sage exactly through practising Stoic spiritual exercises, like the disenchanting analysis of seductive appearances:

‘When I see a beautiful woman, I will say to myself: “These cheeks will one day grow wrinkled, these eyes be encircled with vermilion, that bosom become flabby and pendant, that head bald and palsied.” I have only to consider her at present in imagination, as she will afterwards appear; and certainly a fair face will never turn my head …’

It is this ambition towards self-perfection that provokes Voltairean fate, as episode by episode undermines his pretentions to complete virtue and wisdom. Another interesting episode in Voltaire of this kind is hence the short text Les Deux Consolés, in which ‘the great philosopher Citophile’ tries to comfort a bereaved women by regaling her with stories of other, more illustrious women who had suffered worse losses. Once more, the Voltairean furies (as it were) descend upon the philosopher-preacher:

‘Next day the philosopher lost his only son, and was entirely prostrated with grief. The lady caused a catalogue to be drawn up of all the kings who had lost their children, and carried it to the philosopher. He read it—found it very exact—and wept nevertheless. / Three months afterwards they chanced to renew their acquaintance, and were mutually surprised to find each other in such a gay and sprightly humor. To commemorate this event, they caused to be erected a beautiful statue to Time, with this inscription: “TO HIM WHO COMFORTS”.’

So, Voltaire was not simply an ‘ancient’, at least if we take ancient philosophy to have been universally committed to the possibility that a philosopher could ever become fully perfect or wise. He clearly worries that this aspiration looks too close to those which fire religious fanaticisms. Here as elsewhere, the ‘(non)sage’ of Cirey and Ferney is far closer to Michel de Montaigne – which also means, as we’ve indicated, to the ancient Sceptical heritage.

What reading Voltaire and other eighteenth-century philosophers with Hadot allows us to see, however, is how many of the questions and concerns of the ancient philosophers – including this concern with the possibility of anyone ever becoming a sage – are still amongst the philosophes. What will above all distinguish Voltaire or Diderot in particular from the ancients they emulated is the preeminence of specifically social and political concerns in their writings. Philosophers should aspire towards being ethical exemplars, and to use their writings to quell the passions which are the sources of avoidable human misery. But in doing so, they should recognize that many of these sources are sociopolitical in nature, and champion sociopolitical reforms. To write is therefore to act, for Voltaire – but not simply on oneself and one’s understandings. It is also to hope to enlighten the minds and sentiments of one’s contemporaries, with a view as if from above to future generations’ betterment.

– Matthew Sharpe

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

This contribution follows on from part 1 of ‘Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment’, published last week, and is adapted from the author’s article in ‘A Companion to World literature’, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire and the Biblical Orient

In the Protestant lands of Enlightenment Europe, in Britain and Germany especially, there were biblical scholars who became Orientalists in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible. By the second half of the eighteenth century there was widespread discussion of the ‘sublimity’ of Hebrew poetry and the Bible’s ‘Oriental’ style was an issue debated by eighteenth-century translators of the Bible: should the Orientalisms of the Hebrew original be rendered literally, as Johann David Michaelis believed, even at the risk of defamiliarizing the biblical text? Or should the Oriental style be tamed to suit the taste of the times? Even though not a reader of Hebrew, Voltaire was certainly sensitive to the ‘Oriental’ style of the Hebrew scriptures and, as a parodist and ventriloquist of genius, he took every opportunity to play with his ‘Oriental’ voice. The Oriental fiction Zadig has a parodic dedication signed by the Persian poet ‘Saadi’, preceded by a bogus ‘Approbation’ naming a Turkish chief judge, a spoof on contemporary French censorship (OCV, vol.30B, p.113-16). This parody of overblown ‘Oriental’ style becomes a philosophical discourse of choice and a favoured device in Voltaire’s high-profile campaigns of the 1760s against religious intolerance, carried on under the slogan Ecrasez l’infâme. Voltaire uses it in De l’horrible danger de la lecture (1765), a hard-hitting attack on censorship, written ostensibly in the voice of an Ottoman mufti, and again in the Epître écrite de Constantinople aux frères (c.1768) and the Avis à tous les orientaux (c.1769), both pleas for toleration and rational religion (OCV, vol.67, p.1-9, and vol.70A, p.1-10). These two polemical pamphlets, untypically, remained unpublished in Voltaire’s lifetime.

Mandement du muphti (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

When Voltaire needs to beg a favour of the duc de Choiseul, then foreign minister, he writes him a letter addressing him in the style of an Oriental potentate (9 January 1767, D13823). A mysterious text entitled Mandement du muphti, published anonymously in French in London in 1772, and claiming to be a translation from the Arabic, is a humorous attack on Voltaire, concluding with the hope that he be impaled in front of the château de Ferney. No one has ever been able to identify with certainty the author of this strange work but, given its bravura use of the Oriental voice, there is every chance that this work is by Voltaire himself, and that he is here parodying his own Oriental voice.

Voltaire clearly relishes the playful possibilities of the Oriental style but his creation of an Oriental voice is emphatically not innocent. Although himself no Hebrew scholar, he was steeped in biblical criticism and unstoppable on the subject of the illogicalities and absurdities of the Old Testament. Voltaire likes to emphasize the fictional, even fairy-tale, quality of the Hebrew scriptures, and so remind his readers of their status as an Oriental text. In 1759 Voltaire wrote to Mme Du Deffand: ‘je vous avouerai que je ne lis que l’ancien Testament, trois ou quatre chants de Virgile, tout L’Arioste, une partie des mille et une nuit’ (D8484). In this respect, Voltaire’s Orientalism takes a radical turn, for in placing the Bible and the 1001 Nights on the same footing as works of entertainment, Voltaire is using an argument from comparative literary history to undermine Christian orthodoxy. Faced by an ancient historical or theological text, Voltaire’s greatest term of abuse is to brand it a ‘fable’: as a character in Jeannot and Colin remarks, ‘Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne sont que des fables convenues’ (OCV, vol.57B, p.280). In Aventure indienne there is a hilarious description of Bacchus walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet, these details, the narrator notes, ‘comme on le raconte fidèlement dans les Orphiques’ (OCV, vol.60B, p.253): for Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (and he was familiar with the current of scholarship since the Renaissance that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures); but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. Similarly Ralph Nablow shows that a mythologicial reference in the conclusion to La Princesse de Babylone (OCV, vol.66, p.203) has a distinct biblical echo.

Voltaire, Le Taureau blanc ([London], 1774).

Voltaire’s most daring Oriental work, written when he was 80, is undoubtedly Le Taureau blanc (1773-1774), an Oriental fiction constructed on the fables of the Old Testament. As Roger Pearson writes in his translation of Candide and other stories, ‘As an Oriental tale devoted to the Bible it is unique not only among Voltaire’s stories but also among all eighteenth-century Oriental tales’ (Oxford, 2006). The heroine of the tale, princess Amaside, demands to be entertained by the stories told her by the old serpent, but she turns out to be more discriminating than Scheherazade, and is bored by all his tales from the Old Testament: ‘“I find stories like that boring,” remarked the fair Amaside, who had both intelligence and good taste … “I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched … But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome.”’

In encouraging his readers to regard the Old Testament as an Oriental text, one more among so many, he was taking his habitual relativism to new levels of impertinence, and of radicalism. The Christian Bible might be seen by some as the founding text of world literature – as it is by the Chicago professor of literary criticism Richard Moulton in 1911 in World literature and its place in general culture – insofar as it speaks across linguistic and cultural barriers, and has meaning in many different cultures in many different periods. Voltaire, in his role as literary historian, seems to take pleasure in reminding us that the Word of God is the product of a specific group of Eastern cultures.


Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (Londres [Amsterdam], 1776) (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Voltaire’s researches as a historian, allied to his insatiable literary interests, made him enormously receptive to world literature and it is no exaggeration to characterize him as a pioneering historian of comparative literature. Relativism is at the core of his philosophical approach, so a work like his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (1776) uses the wisdom of imagined Chinese and Indian cultures to comment on religion and politics in France. If his belief in the universality of human reason encourages him to minimize the distinctions between different literary cultures, his determination to undermine the unique position accorded to the ‘fables’ of the Old Testament encourages him to emphasize the ‘Oriental’, non-European, quality of the Hebrew scriptures. Voltaire’s unprecedented literary celebrity earned him a European, and eventually a global, readership. True, it is Goethe who is credited with inventing the word Weltliteratur, much influenced as he was by ‘Oriental’ poets; but it is hard to think that Goethe’s conception of world literature would have developed as it did had it not been for the intellectual example of Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment

This contribution to Talking about Voltaire and the Enlightenment is adapted from the author’s article in A Companion to World Literature, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire, like all thinkers of the Enlightenment, was well versed in classical literature and was especially interested in the world literature of his own day, reading English, Italian and Spanish, along with English translations of texts not yet translated into French, such as Camões’s The Lusiads, and the Qur’an in George Sale’s scholarly edition. He is also a historian of European literature. His Essay on epic poetry (1727), which he wrote and published in English before producing a French-language version, is a pioneering essay in comparative European literature, comparing the different European epic poets from Homer to Milton. The Letters concerning the English nation (1733) is comparative in a different way, contrasting tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry in the French and English traditions. This is European literary history for a European audience.

J. B. Du Halde, Description de la Chine (Paris, 1735) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

But Voltaire’s voracious literary appetite extends beyond Europe. His tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine, first performed at the Comédie-française in 1755, has its source in a thirteenth-century Chinese play, translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao, that Voltaire found included in Du Halde’s Description de la Chine (1735), a best-selling work on all aspects of Chinese culture. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were fascinated by the example of Chinese religion and culture, and they drew their information primarily from the Jesuit Du Halde, whose work was translated into English (1736), German (1747), Dutch (1774), and Russian (1774).

Voltaire’s interest in literature beyond Europe is intimately connected with his historiographical interests more generally. Before the Enlightenment, what was called ‘universal history’ in Christian Europe was invariably the history of the Christian world. A well-known example is Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1679, published 1682). Relativism is at the heart of Voltaire’s thought and he resolved to write a history of the world that would present Europe and European culture alongside other continents and cultures, so decentering Europe, and the Christian religion, from its ascendant position. The Essai sur les mœurs, as his universal history is usually known, was begun in the 1740s and appeared in its first full edition in 1756; Voltaire continued to revise the work until his death in 1778. This innovative work recounts the history of China, India, Africa, America, and the Muslim world alongside that of Europe, and the range is unprecedented. The essential ideological aim is clear: Voltaire seeks to sketch the progress of human civilization, which for him amounts to the triumph of reason; the underlying assumption is that all human cultures, whatever their apparent differences, share the same fundamental beliefs in reason and a supreme being (in this he differs from Bayle, who in the seventeenth century had praised China as a sophisticated atheistic culture, unlike that of Europe).

Voltaire’s declared ambition in the Essai sur les mœurs is not just to recite the deeds of kings and warriors but to tell the story of human intellectual endeavour. This attempt to sketch the history of culture – in practice this means, for Voltaire, literature – is remarkably innovative, even if the ambition was hard to realize, given the resources then available to him. So, in chapter 82 of the Essai, devoted to science and the arts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Voltaire contrasts what he sees as the decadence of European culture with the vibrancy of the Muslim world. He discusses the Persian poet Saadi, whom he describes as a contemporary of Petrarch, and equally famous as him (OCV, t.24, p.282-83). Voltaire was able to find ample information about Saadi in d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale (1697); but, more than that, he gives us an extended example of one of Saadi’s poems, 15 lines of exemplary alexandrine verse. Voltaire’s openness to the East turns out to be cultural appropriation on a grand scale, but the gesture was influential none the less. Jaucourt’s article on ‘Poésie orientale moderne’ in the Encyclopédie (1765; vol.12, p.839f.) is lifted directly and explicitly from Voltaire’s text, and quotes in full Voltaire’s imitation of Saadi’s verse.

Voltaire’s predilection for tendentious translation of selected literary passages – what the French call belles infidèles – is a key part of his practice of literary comparativism, and it is not only Saadi who is subjected to this process; Shakespeare and others are rewritten in the Letters concerning the English nation, and a number of Latin poets are translated, more or less freely, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Of course, the ideological gesture is always to the fore: Voltaire is trying to do for literature what he does for religion – to suggest there are universal human values.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Voltaire’s attempt to reconceive universal history. The Essai sur les mœurs was a huge bestseller that reset the intellectual horizons of Enlightenment Europe. To take just one example, Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments, talks about Africans in one example (V.2.9) and on another occasion uses China in a thought experiment (III.1.46), and it is hard to imagine that he would have had such easy recourse to examples like these if Voltaire’s universal history had not paved the way. The work is equally influential regarding the history of world literature. Voltaire’s appropriation of the literature of other cultures for his own uses is a polemical gesture that he makes no attempt to hide. Even so, his determination to include literature in his treatment of world history was highly innovative and, more generally, Voltaire’s eagerness to discuss literature from outside Europe is remarkable and without precedent. As a practitioner of comparative literary study, Voltaire is a pioneer.

Charles Parrocel, Mehemet Effendi, Turkish ambassador, arrives at the Tuileries on 21 March 1721 (Château de Versailles).

Voltaire and the Oriental

In the eighteenth century Europe’s long-standing fear of the Turk was replaced by fascination. Following the failed siege of Vienna (1683) and the ensuing Peace of Karlowitz (1699), the Ottomans sent more frequent embassies to the European capitals, most famously to Paris in 1721 and 1742, where the magnificent spectacle of the ambassadors’ entourage aroused widespread comment and excitement. This eighteenth-century obsession with the Oriental made itself felt in painting and literature, in the applied arts as well as in fashion.

The actor Le Kain in the role of Genghis Khan in Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (1765). Drawing by M. F. A. Castelle, engraved by Pierre Charles Levesque.

The Orient, used in this broad sense, embraces Turkey, Persia, China and India, and the newly fashionable interest in these cultures reinforced Voltaire’s desire to investigate culture beyond the confines of Europe. All of Voltaire’s non-European literary explorations can be loosely grouped under the Oriental label and he became celebrated for his extensive use of this exotic material. Voltaire is pioneering in the extent to which he uses Oriental subject matter in his tragedies: in addition to his play Zaïre, translated into many languages,and L’Orphelin de la Chine there are many more. To some extent, this is a question of local colour: eager to differentiate himself from the classical tragedians of the previous century, who had mainly found their sources in Greek mythology and Roman history, the Orient offered Voltaire the chance to explore new emotional terrain. Furthermore Voltaire was keen to reform French classical tragedy by giving greater importance to costumes and sets and by introducing spectacular scenic effects, and here again, in Sémiramis for example, the Oriental subject matter suited him well. Audiences loved the exotic costumes and the actor Le Kain had himself depicted as Genghis Khan in L’Orphelin de la Chine, complete with feather headdress, in a portrait that circulated widely as an engraving. There are ideological reasons for Voltaire’s choice of Oriental subject matter. He had no interest in writing tragedies about cultures alien to him and his audience, quite the contrary in fact; his desire was not to explore the emotional terrain of an ‘other’ culture, but to use the other relativistically to refract on his own. A case in point is Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, first performed in 1741. The character Muhammad is portrayed as a despotic religious leader who manipulated the credulity of his followers to achieve his own cynical ends: Voltaire intended the work, of course, as an implicit attack on Christian religious fanaticism and he uses Islam as a cover for Christianity. Eighteenth-century audiences everywhere understood the subterfuge and the play was widely performed. Modern audiences no longer understand this relativistic strategy and the play has become all but unperformable because it is now misunderstood as nothing more than a crude attack on Islam.

Zadig, Antoine-Jean Duclos (1742-1795) after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Kehl, 1784 (Wikimedia Commons).

It is in the field of fiction that the eighteenth century was most open to Oriental influence. Antoine Galland’s reworking into French of the 1001 Nights (1704-1717), itself the basis for translations into other European languages including English and German, enjoyed phenomenal success. Galland’s work in turn had enormous influence on the evolution of fiction all across Europe, and it has been calculated that the number of French ‘Oriental’ fictions published during the eighteenth century numbers nearly 700 (see Marie-Louise Dufrenoy, L’Orient romanesque en France, 1704-1789, Montreal, 1946-1947, i.343). Voltaire is nothing if not reactive to literary fashion, and over an extended period he writes some 11 short fictions making use of this Oriental framework, amounting to nearly a half of his entire fictional production: in order of publication, Zadig, ou la destinée, Le Monde comme il va, Memnon, Lettre d’un Turc, Histoire d’un bon bramin, Le Blanc et le noir, Aventure indienne, La Princesse de Babylone, Les Lettres d’Amabed, Le Taureau blanc, Le Crocheteur borgne. In works like Zadig or La Princesse de Babylone, he plays with the Oriental motif deriving from Galland, always keeping his reader alert in the way he treads a fine line between parody and pastiche.

Voltaire is allergic to fairy tales, and fables in general, because he wants humankind to make use of reason; but he is a master of pastiche and he enjoys playing with the metafictional possibilities that the Oriental tale can create. In the article ‘Fiction’ of his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, he recounts an Oriental tale which purports to be a familiar story but which is in fact Voltaire’s own invented pastiche of the 1001 Nights. The other great narrative advantage of Oriental material was the easy pretext it provided for erotic subject matter and Voltaire makes generous use too of these opportunities. A number of French Oriental fictions, usually with a philosophical sting in the tail, were published as being by ‘M. de V… ‘: Voltaire had, of course, nothing to do with them but, in the minds of his readers, he was closely identified with the genre.

Nicholas Cronk

A continuation of this piece, ‘Voltaire and the Biblical Orient’, will be posted shortly on this blog.

The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was his attitude now.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a Voltaire fan?

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France (Amsterdam, 1773) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre returned to France in 1771 following an unhappy posting to Mauritius. In Paris he made new acquaintances, D’Alembert, Julie de Lespinasse, Condorcet and, most significantly in the eyes of posterity, he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This intimacy has ossified critical opinion as it was D’Alembert who aided the publication of his first book, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773) by a printer whom Voltaire termed ‘l’enchanteur Merlin’. Drafted in part in the Indian Ocean, the work was published anonymously with a permission tacite as it criticized French colonial practices. In it Bernardin claimed that his travel writing was innovative as Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon and Rousseau had not provided a model. He demonstrated his extensive reading by asserting: ‘Je sais bon gré à M. de Voltaire d’avoir traité de barbares ceux qui éventrent un chien vivant pour nous montrer les veines lactées’ (a reference to the article ‘Bêtes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Like Voltaire, Bernardin was educated by the Jesuits. He too liked citing Latin authors, particularly Virgil, and also frequently quoted from memory. He stated that D’Alembert had suggested that he compose histories and claimed that he had read Voltaire’s historical writings. He shared the patriarch’s alarm at d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and wrote against it. Despite a staunch belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical and loathed superstition. Like Voltaire, he mocked fears about a comet in 1773, telling Mme Necker: ‘On attend ici la comette pour demain; il y a des églises dont les confessionaux ne désemplissent pas; le peuple est fort inquiet de sçavoir si la terre sera brûlée ou noyée’ (Electronic Enlightenment, BSP_0244). He too was intrigued  by the possibility of ‘éléphants’ (i.e. mammoths) in Siberia. The Revolution saw him produce short works advocating tolerance and social harmony.

Invitation à la Concorde, pour la Fête de la Confédération, du 14 juillet 1792 (Gazette Drouot).

His Invitation à la concorde (1792) appeared in print and as a poster. It proclaims that discord will destroy France but Catholics, Protestants and Jews will thrive ‘autour de l’autel de la patrie’ where ‘chaque religion deviendra citoyenne’. He composed contes in a manner reminiscent of Voltaire. The Café de Surate (1792), depicting often religious prejudices, may have been inspired by a chapter in Zadig, ‘Le Souper’. He read his fictional Voyage en Silésie, with its message of reconciling quarrelsome multinational travellers, in his capacity as professeur de morale républicaine to instituteurs at the Ecole normale in 1795. In the foreword to the first printed edition, he asserted that ‘Mon but était d’inspirer aux hommes, qui sont les mêmes quant au fond, de la tolérance pour les opinions diverses.’

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage en Silésie (Paris, 1807) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin returned to a controversy treated by Voltaire in Lettre XI of the Lettres philosophiques, inoculation. In the Harmonies de la nature (begun in the 1790s), he writes: ‘On a longtemps agité la question, si l’inoculation était utile. J’observerai ici que Jean-Jacques n’a pas osé la décider dans son Emile.’ While acknowledging risks, Bernardin is decisive: ‘Il me semble […] que pour détruire tant d’intérêts particuliers qui s’opposent à l’intérêt général on devrait faire inoculer à la fois tous les enfants […] l’inoculation contribuerait à resserrer entre eux les liens de la fraternité.’ Despite his antipathy to the scientific establishment and, unlike Voltaire, opposed to Newtonian ideas of attraction, Bernardin is generally in favour of scientific advances.

Voltaire loved publishing texts anonymously or with fictional authors. Bernardin, after the Voyage, demanded his name on the title page. Yet, in a text not printed in his lifetime which I am editing for his Œuvres complètes (Garnier), the Fragment sur la théorie de l’univers, he too adopted a ludic pretence. The narrator, a ship’s pilote, recounts Bernardin’s views to a passenger without naming him. All he will reveal is that: ‘Le système dont je vais vous entretenir est d’un Français.’ Subsequently he speaks of ‘l’auteur de la nouvelle théorie’, ‘mon auteur’, ‘Notre auteur’.

Simon Davies, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: colonial traveller, Enlightenment reformer, celebrity writer, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2021).

Bernardin often omits the sources of his references. In a manuscript that I am also editing for his Œuvres complètes, he writes ‘Un de nos poètes a dit: “Dieu mit la fièvre en nos climats et le remède en Amérique.” C’est une pensée de bel esprit.’ The line had appeared in a poem to Frederick the Great (OCV, t.32A, p.412) and in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, t.41, p.394). Bernardin probably found it in the latter as it is mentioned in the Harmonies de la nature.

While Bernardin sympathised with ‘l’infortuné Jean-Jacques’ and knew that his public renown benefited from that association, he believed that sociability was natural. He thought that reform was needed, hence his acceptance of appointments at the Jardin du roi (where he championed initiatives), the Ecole normale and the Institut. He disliked Voltaire’s relations with crowned heads (although he had met Catherine the Great, praised her in his Voyage ‘porté par tout le vent des philosophes qui étaient dans sa faveur’), but was far more sociable than his clichéd reputation. To label him as simply a disciple of Rousseau is misleading. He owed as much to Voltaire as to Rousseau and he supplies an even-handed comparison in his Parallèle de Voltaire et de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrity in the Ancien Régime and the Revolution and the accessibility of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment make him an excellent point of reference for questions still raised about the role and impact of the so-called philosophes in scholarly publications and recently at the Enlightenment Workshops in Oxford. In sum, Bernardin reacted to the challenges of his age and responded in his own distinctive fashion.

– Simon Davies

Il faut des romans aux peuples corrompus: le romanesque républicain dans la Suisse des Lumières

En 1753, Voltaire, à la suite de différents événements désagréables, quitte le royaume de Prusse où il avait été appelé par le roi Frédéric II. Voltaire est alors âgé de 59 ans, il a déjà une vie riche derrière lui, ponctuée de multiples expériences, de beaucoup de publications et de très nombreuses rencontres. Il hésite sur la direction à prendre. Il sait qu’il n’est pas le bienvenu en France où il sera surveillé et censuré. Il devra vivre loin de Paris ce qui ne l’enchante guère. L’Angleterre est un séjour exotique, et si l’île offre de nombreux avantages, elle n’est pas dominée par la culture française. Pire, les hostilités se font de plus en plus précises entre la France et l’Angleterre, les deux nations cherchant à étendre leur commerce et leur domination coloniale. Voltaire a alors l’idée de se tourner vers un petit pays à la fois indépendant, mais suffisamment proche des grands centres de culture: la Suisse et ses satellites, dont Genève. Voltaire décide de se fixer d’abord à Lausanne et ensuite dans la cité de Calvin. Grâce à l’intermédiaire de Jean-Robert Tronchin, Voltaire loue une propriété à Saint-Jean qui deviendra les ‘Délices’.

‘Les Délices’, dessinée par F. Philipesenn et gravée par G. Charton (1775-1853) (BGE, Centre d’iconographie genevoise).

A Lausanne, avec sa cathédrale gothique et son château où siègent les baillis bernois, c’est grâce à l’intervention de Georges François de Giez, jeune banquier, qu’il peut louer la propriété de Montriond à l’entrée de la ville (voir François Jacob, Voltaire, Paris, 2015, p.193). ‘Les Délices seront pour l’été, Montriond pour l’hiver’ (Voltaire à Clavel de Brenles, 10 février [1755], D6150).

Voltaire adhère ou feint d’adhérer à l’image idyllique que les visiteurs européens diffusent de la Suisse. Il loue, dans l’Epître de l’auteur, en arrivant dans sa terre près du lac de Genève, en mars 1755, ses mœurs républicaines, la douceur de son climat, la beauté du Lac Léman que l’on peut contempler depuis les coteaux lausannois:

‘On n’y méprise point les travaux nécessaires;
Les états sont égaux, et les hommes sont frères.
Liberté, liberté, ton trône est en ces lieux.
La Grèce où tu naquis, t’a pour jamais perdue.’

Mais contrairement à d’autres visiteurs européens, Voltaire ne se contente pas d’admirer l’austérité des mœurs suisses. Il souhaite répandre la passion du théâtre. Il dirige différentes pièces au théâtre de Mon-Repos. La noblesse lausannoise y accourt soit pour jouer sur scène soit pour assister aux représentations en public averti. La famille Constant s’illustre dans cette activité, David Louis Constant d’Hermenches deviendra l’âme des activités théâtrales de Lausanne après le départ de Voltaire pour Genève.

Voltaire applaudit ces succès qu’il s’empresse de rapporter à ses amis parisiens, plaçant les Lausannois sur un pied d’égalité avec les Français: ‘On ne se douterait pas, monsieur, qu’un théâtre établi à Lausanne, des acteurs peut-être supérieurs aux comédiens de Paris, enfin une pièce nouvelle, des spectateurs pleins d’esprit, de connaissances et de lumières, en un mot tous les soins qu’entraînent de tels plaisirs, m’ont empêché de vous écrire plus tôt’ (à Jean Lévesque de Burigny, 20 mars [1757], D7207). Les Parisiens font semblant d’être dupes.

Pourtant des voix s’élèvent pour dénoncer la pratique de la comédie, amusement qui nous paraît aujourd’hui bien innocent, et les arguments des détracteurs sont puisés dans la tradition républicaine. On se rappelle que Platon dans La République dénonce les artistes et les arts en général. Cette accusation vaut certes pour les beaux-arts, mais en Suisse elle touche également le théâtre, car sa pratique par les gens de la bonne société démontre leur oisiveté et leur luxe. Or les auteurs républicains, d’Aristote à Machiavel et de Platon à Rousseau n’eurent de cesse de condamner leurs effets socialement pernicieux et moralement corrupteurs.

Dans l’Aristide ou le Citoyen, journal lausannois paru de 1766 à 1767, un étranger de marque, le Prince Louis-Eugène de Wurtemberg, reproche à la comédie de ‘flatter le goût général’ et non de le ‘redresser’. Quant au général vaudois Warnery, celui-ci écrit que ‘le luxe, la délicatesse et la dépravation des mœurs ont fait des progrès en Suisse avec la Poésie’ (Remarques sur l’Essai général de tactique de Guibert, Varsovie, 1782, p.59-60).

Aristide ou le citoyen (Lausanne, Grasset, 1766) (Réseau vaudois des bibliothèques).

Au dix-huitième siècle, dans les républiques helvétiques, ces arguments sont très répandus. Les spectacles avaient été interdits à Genève par une ordonnance datant de 1617 (cette interdiction avait été renouvelée en 1732 et en 1739). Le théâtre se voyait reprocher de détourner l’intérêt des individus des affaires de la cité. Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), J.-J. Rousseau s’inquiète également de l’arrivée des spectacles à Genève. Il oppose à l’intérieur des salles de théâtre, où chacun s’amuse individuellement en imagination, l’activité sociale des cercles de Genève où les hommes peuvent se retrouver pour discuter, écouter des conférences, boire et se divertir. Pour Rousseau, les cercles sont le terreau de la vie citoyenne, l’antichambre d’où partent les compagnies bourgeoises qui défilent en ville et en assurent la sécurité aux temps troublés. Pour Voltaire au contraire, le théâtre aide à policer les mœurs, il ‘dégrossit’ les rustres suisses. De plus, le théâtre est une activité où les deux sexes se mêlent, ce qui pour Voltaire est un gage de galanterie et de politesse. Pour Rousseau ce mélange corrupteur des deux sexes, qui ‘dénature’ proprement leurs qualités intrinsèques est signe d’une décadence civique et morale. Une société ‘molle et efféminée’ ne pourra résister efficacement aux envahisseurs étrangers. Curieusement, Voltaire et Rousseau se retrouvent sur le terrain de la culture: Voltaire souhaite que le théâtre transforme les Lausannois et les Genevois en Français alors que Rousseau lutte contre cette altération culturelle par crainte d’une détérioration de patriotisme.

J. J. Rousseau citoyen de Genève, à Mr. D’Alembert (Amsterdam, 1758).

Déplacé à Genève, aux Délices, dès 1755, Voltaire se rapproche de ses éditeurs Gabriel et Philibert Cramer, mais aussi d’une scène plus brillante et d’un public dont la réputation européenne est excellente.

Là il se retrouve toutefois confronté aux mêmes contrariétés qu’à Lausanne. L’idéologie républicaine est très forte parmi les bourgeois, en particulier dans le groupe de ceux qui s’opposent aux décisions des Conseils restreints dominés par un ensemble de vieilles familles. Cependant là aussi, Voltaire croit au rôle civilisateur du théâtre, les bons spectacles poliront le reste de sauvagerie que les Genevois conservent. D’où l’intrigante remarque de l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par D’Alembert, mais soufflé par Voltaire: associer ‘à la sagesse de Lacédémone la politesse d’Athènes’. Les travaux de Rahul Markovits qui documentent les réactions genevoises à l’introduction des théâtres dans la ville – constructions éphémères accompagnant l’arrivée des médiateurs français lors de chaque grande crise politique et sociale – montrent que toutes les couches de la société étaient séduites par les spectacles. Les chefs du parti bourgeois (communément appelés Représentants, à cause des ‘pétitions’ qu’ils adressaient aux Conseils restreints assurant le gouvernement) ont beau dénoncer l’effet pernicieux provoqué par les spectacles, le peuple en général s’y rendait malgré tout.

Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles, les idées de J.-J. Rousseau reflètent ou sont similaires à celles des Représentants de Genève, dont un des chefs de file est Jacques-François Deluc. Horloger dans la cité de Calvin, De Luc cultive les valeurs républicaines. Il pense que la ‘pureté’ des mœurs genevoises est le résultat des ‘Lois’ et des ‘usages’ d’un petit Etat dont les habitants n’ont pas été ‘dégradés’ par les rapports d’argent et la bassesse qui règne dans les grandes villes, où le fort opprime le faible. Les Remarques sur le paragraphe de l’article Genève, dans l’Encyclopédie, qui traite de la comédie et des comédiens datent du 26 avril 1758 et ont été écrites en parallèle à la Lettre à D’Alembert. Pour Rousseau, la comédie induit la diffusion des mœurs de Paris dans les villes rurales ou à la campagne, ce qui se heurte cependant à l’incapacité anthropologique des individus à adopter d’autres mœurs et d’autres manières de sentir: ‘Les habitants de Paris qui croient aller à la campagne, n’y vont point; ils portent Paris avec eux’ (La Nouvelle Héloïse in Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1961, p.602).

Jacques-Francois De Luc (1698-1780), attribué à Robert Gardelle (1682-1766) (Bibliothèque de Genève).

Le déisme représente un autre point de divergence entre Voltaire et les bourgeois, citoyens de Genève. C’est sans doute le point de divergence le plus important et celui qui oblige Voltaire à quitter la ‘parvulissime’ république, comme il l’appelle, pour Ferney. On l’oublie facilement, mais la Lettre à D’Alembert est aussi une défense de la sincérité des pasteurs de Genève accusés de socinianisme dans l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie. Par la suite cependant, Rousseau se distancie de l’opinion des pasteurs genevois: les Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764) portent trace de ces tensions. Mais dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau tentait de concilier ses doutes sur la nature de la foi chrétienne dans une grande synthèse embrassant le monde rural, la mystique, la vertu civique et l’utopie. Il peut paraître étrange que Rousseau, critique violent du théâtre, s’abandonne à l’écriture et à la publication d’un vaste roman dès son installation à l’Ermitage en 1756, alors qu’il souhaitait consacrer son temps à ses institutions politiques et à d’autres ouvrages qu’il considérait sérieux. Mais si l’aspect social du théâtre le rebute, il conçoit la littérature épistolaire comme une grande communion dialogique où les différents points de vue coexistent et se tolèrent. Plus qu’une intrigue avec des personnages ridicules, le roman permet de construire progressivement une psychologie, de montrer des personnages dynamiques qui évoluent avec leurs doutes et leurs fêlures. Cette leçon littéraire de Rousseau, les Suisses – qui jusqu’alors s’étaient méfiés de la littérature fictionnelle, car mensongère et non-vertueuse – la retiennent et l’enrichissent.

Le roman Confidence philosophique (1ère édition en 1771) du pasteur Jacob Vernes offre un espace littéraire où contre-attaquer les thèses de Voltaire sur la religion et les mondanités. Dans ce roman épistolaire à thèse, Jacob Vernes, pourtant ami de l’auteur de Candide, fait du Voltaire à rebours. Il use des mêmes armes rhétoriques que les philosophes et il tourne en ironie les critiques contre la religion exposant le grand vide ontologique qu’elles laissent. La correspondance qui continua entre les deux hommes ne laisse pas penser que Voltaire ait pris ombrage des procédés narratologiques du pasteur genevois. Cependant ceux-ci illustrent de nouveau les tensions politiques et religieuses qui existeront toujours entre Voltaire et les élites suisses et genevoises. Là où Voltaire critique la religion au nom de la liberté en dénonçant la superstition, les seconds défendent le protestantisme en insistant sur son cadre moral et sa philosophie pratique réconfortante. D’un point de vue politique, là où Voltaire valorise la force législatrice et culturelle d’un grand roi, capable de guider son pays dans une direction nouvelle et progressiste, les élites suisses défendent l’austérité républicaine, mais aussi l’esprit de simplicité et d’égalité qui doit présider aux décisions collectives.

L’apport de mon livre, Rêves de citoyens, dans cette querelle à la fois esthétique, littéraire, politique et religieuse est d’avoir mis en évidence que les Suisses, sans délaisser le théâtre, vont utiliser d’autres médias fictionnels pour exprimer leurs idéaux républicains. La Nouvelle Héloïse est le détonateur qui amorce une série de récits sentimentaux qui explorent les facettes d’un idéal-type républicain (au sens wébérien), c’est-à-dire une utopie. Si à l’époque des Lumières, les écrivains suisses délaissent le genre de l’utopie littéraire, ils trempent leur plume romanesque dans un utopisme assumé. Grâce aux travaux de Bronislaw Baczko, nous savons que le dix-huitième siècle est une époque ‘chaude’ de l’imaginaire utopique. L’esprit de réformes, radical ou non, s’empare des sociétés d’Ancien Régime. En rédigeant La Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau se dote d’un espace littéraire qui offre à son imaginaire républicain une riche gamme de possibilités. Ainsi Rousseau reconstruit grâce à la lettre sur le Valais les sources idéales d’un républicanisme supposé naturel comme il représente dans la microsociété de Clarens, animée par Julie, les diverses interrogations qui assaillent quotidiennement citoyens et citoyennes. Quel cadre offrir à la morale politique et religieuse? Comment exploiter un domaine qui assure à la fois une certaine aisance familiale, qui permette que les terres soient bien cultivées et qui fournisse aux environs des emplois nécessaires à la préservation des individus dans les campagnes en leur évitant de rejoindre les villes corruptrices? Comment former l’esprit des citoyens pour que ceux-ci soient sensibles aux inégalités sociales et au respect des formes démocratiques? De même, comment rendre l’homme suffisamment sensible pour que dans le ‘tableau de la nature’ il perçoive et respecte l’œuvre du créateur? Ces questions, que les personnages du roman de Rousseau discutent longuement, avec des opinions contradictoires, sont reprises par les romans sentimentaux helvétiques, qui les explorent à leur tour. Il n’y a pas d’opposition frontale dans ces textes à la pratique du théâtre; au contraire dans le roman fleuve (en 7 volumes!) de Samuel Constant de Rebecque, Laure ou lettres de quelques femmes de suisse, les personnages s’amusent à monter et à jouer une pièce; cependant la tonalité du discours romanesque reflète un éthos républicain équivalent à celui qu’Albrecht von Haller peint dans Les Alpes ou que Jean-Jacques Rousseau, avec ses Montagnons du Jura, dessine dans la Lettre à D’Alembert.

Dans la deuxième moitié du dix-huitième siècle, le roman sentimental chemine avec l’utopie littéraire, il exploite, par exemple, la narration en tableaux, comme Louis-Sébastien Mercier dans L’An 2440. Rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) et dans Le Tableau de Paris (1772). Comme les utopistes, les romanciers sentimentaux font l’éloge de la simplicité, de la transparence et de la vertu civique. Dans l’utopie, la religion naturelle fusionne avec la sensibilité: l’homme est bon par nature et de sages lois peuvent le rendre meilleur; la tonalité est la même dans les romans sentimentaux. Dans les textes utopiques, malgré leur communisme à la fois social et économique, les femmes allaitent et les législateurs valorisent leur supposée pudeur naturelle pour mieux leur assigner un rôle inférieur. Rares sont les femmes qui participent au gouvernement dans les sociétés utopiques. Dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie se plaint que Saint-Preux adresse les ‘réflexions graves et judicieuses’ à Milord Edouard et qu’il l’entretienne de sujets plus légers comme l’opéra ou les femmes françaises, mais elle se cantonne elle-même dans un rôle secondaire: ‘J’avoue que la politique n’est guère du ressort des femmes’ (p.305).

Animés par un éthos républicain classique, les romans sentimentaux helvétiques investissent un espace littéraire similaire à celui occupé par les utopies en France. Cette perspective romanesque permet également de représenter des citoyens en action, ce qui concilie les exigences patriarcales héritées du protestantisme avec les courants civiques et intellectuels des Lumières. Quant au théâtre, si celui-ci connaît un succès croissant, à Lausanne comme à Genève, ses effets de propagande et son impérialisme français sont observés avec suspicion. Les caractéristiques nuisibles du théâtre nourrissent la création d’une identité républicaine que les romans sentimentaux contribuent à définir et à élaborer.

Helder Mendes Baiao

Enfin Moland vint ou comment reprendre le flambeau

La première partie de cette notice, ‘Moland avant Voltaire’, peut se lire ici.

2. Moland et Voltaire

Portrait de Louis Moland dans H. Carnoy, Dictionnaire biographique des hommes du Nord, I. Les contemporains (Paris, 1894), p.134. (artiste inconnu)

Commençons par dire qu’en l’état présent de nos connaissances nous ne savons rien de concret concernant la genèse de l’édition des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ni si Moland lui-même en était l’initiateur. Le prospectus initial, qui annonce une édition d’environ quarante-cinq volumes in-8o cavalier, attire surtout l’attention du lecteur sur le fait que ‘Ceux qui voulaient placer les Œuvres de Voltaire à côté des belles éditions de nos grands écrivains, qui se multiplient de toutes parts, ne trouvaient aucune édition qui pût les satisfaire. C’est cette lacune que nous entreprenons de combler.’ D’une part, il se peut que les Garnier aient tout simplement subodoré un créneau béant dans un marché lucratif; d’autre part – cas de figure peut-être plus probable – il se peut que Moland ait plaidé la cause d’une édition selon ses propres critères d’excellence qui pût en effet profiter des résultats des recherches entreprises – sur une période d’une quarantaine d’années – depuis l’époque de l’édition Beuchot. Ce même prospectus pourrait très bien porter la trace de sa propre plume: ‘Publiée sous la direction de M. Louis Moland, la nouvelle édition de Voltaire [présentée en tête du prospectus comme étant ‘conforme pour le texte à l’édition de Beuchot’] sera la plus complète de toutes, celle qui présentera un plus remarquable ensemble de notices, de commentaires et de travaux accessoires: études biographiques et bibliographiques, table générale analytique, enfin ce que les lecteurs sont accoutumés de trouver dans nos grandes éditions modernes. Le nom de l’éditeur si considéré des Œuvres de Molière, de La Fontaine, de Racine, de Rabelais, etc., suffit à garantir que notre édition ne laissera rien à désirer sous le rapport littéraire.’

Le nom de Beuchot dans ce contexte, comme inspirateur, n’a rien d’étonnant: de toutes les éditions de Voltaire, parues depuis la grande édition de Kehl, il n’y avait que la sienne qui pût satisfaire un critique comme Moland dont les préférences éditoriales étaient évidemment panoramiques. Si pour les uns, intellectuellement ou culturellement peu exigeants, les 72 volumes de Beuchot étaient un capharnaüm indigeste, pour d’autres – dont évidemment Moland – ils constituaient un véritable coffre aux trésors. Son édition à lui sera donc, qu’il l’ait dit ouvertement ou non, un hommage à un éditeur dont il admirait l’engagement indéfectible, et qu’il tenait à mettre à jour de la manière la plus efficace possible. L’édition de base sera donc celle de Beuchot, complétée de diverses manières par un Moland que l’on peut qualifier de disciple.

Voltaire. (estampe: Gallica, BnF)

A comparer les deux, nous ne discernons que peu d’innovations du côté de celui qui reprend un flambeau si brillamment porté en 1828-1833, car même si Moland arrive à ajouter au dossier Voltaire de nombreuses pièces inédites aussi importantes qu’éclairantes, même s’il arrive à ajouter par-ci par-là (au niveau des variantes et des notes) des compléments d’information essentiels, même s’il arrive à rédiger lui-même des introductions liminaires à une multitude de textes de toutes sortes, il ne s’écartera nullement de la marche de son modèle. Bref, il ne fait que l’actualiser de manière intelligente tout en y mettant son sceau personnel.

Comment illustrer cette affirmation? Elle se recommande à nous, comme un phénomène incontournable, dès le premier tome chez l’un comme chez l’autre. Dans sa Préface générale (t.1, p.[i]-xxxviii), Beuchot, conscient du fait que son édition à lui est infiniment plus scientifique que celles qui l’ont précédée, en conclut qu’elle sera donc infiniment plus utile qu’elles. Il s’applique donc, à l’exclusion de toute autre considération, à la situer comme l’apogée d’une longue lignée d’éditions de toutes sortes (dont évidemment il nous propose l’historique circonstanciée) et non point à nous proposer une explication raisonnée des dispositions internes de la sienne. Il nous propose comme qui dirait une explication éclatée: ‘comme j’ai mis, en tête de chaque division ou de chaque ouvrage ou opuscule, des préfaces ou notes, dans lesquelles je donne les explications que j’ai jugées nécessaires, je n’ai point à en parler ici’ (t.1, p.xxxi-xxxii). Les raison de son classement des parties intégrantes des Œuvres complètes ne sont donc pas immédiatement évidents. Moland, par contre, dans sa propre Préface générale (t.1, p.[i]-vii) tient d’emblée à donner, comme entrée en matière, ‘quelques explications sur le plan et sur l’économie de cette nouvelle édition […], tel est l’objet de cette préface’ (t.1, p.[i]). Dans dix paragraphes qui se tiennent, il définit et justifie ce qu’on peut appeler l’architecture interne de l’édition, laquelle n’est à tout prendre qu’un véhicule à proposer (quoique grossièrement) une présentation chronologique de la production voltairienne … aveu que fait Moland, de manière à éviter la controverse, en écrivant dans son Introduction au théâtre de Voltaire (t.2, p.[i]): ‘La présente édition commence, conformément à un usage traditionnel, par le théâtre. Cet usage ne tient aucunement, comme on l’a dit, à l’espèce de préséance qu’on accordait à la poésie sur la prose. Mais c’est qu’il est bon que, dans la suite des œuvres complètes, l’auteur apparaisse successivement tel qu’il s’est montré à ses contemporains, et que l’on assiste autant que possible au développement graduel de son esprit. […] Sous quel aspect se révèle d’abord Voltaire? Il se révèle d’abord comme poète dramatique et comme poète épique’ (p.[i]). D’où, par la suite, apparemment selon les avatars successifs de son personnage (mais en même temps selon une échelle de valeurs esthétiques bien connue, propre à ne pas froisser les tenants de l’école néo-classique), son classement ‘logique’ (Préface générale, p.ii-iii) en tant qu’historien, philosophe, romancier, nouvelliste et conteur, pour aboutir enfin à l’auteur des pamphlets qu’il nommait lui-même ses ‘élucubrations’, ‘petits pâtés chauds’, ‘rogatons’ ou ‘fromages’. C’est ainsi que Moland, à la différence de Beuchot, se met immédiatement au diapason de son lecteur qui est avide de comprendre quel est le ‘fil d’Ariane’ qui doit le mener à une meilleure compréhension de l’auteur et non moins à cette confiance indispensable qui doit s’instaurer entre éditeur et lecteur.

Or si, toutefois, j’ai plus haut caractérisé Moland de disciple de Beuchot, c’est que je m’intéresse tout particulièrement à certaines innovations vraiment révolutionnaires, faites par ce dernier, qui devaient être entérinées de tout cœur par ce premier. Comment, en effet, en tant que membre de l’équipe éditoriale que je suis, recruté il y a bien longtemps par Theodore Besterman pour aider à échafauder une édition à la fois synchronique et diachronique, présentée comme inédite, pouvais-je rester insensible devant une telle approche, évidemment inattendue, chez un éditeur du XIXe siècle? La présentation de textes de manière chronologique n’était en aucune façon pour Beuchot terra incognita. En vérité il s’y aventura délibérément quand il jugeait le procédé utile et éclairant. S’intéressant depuis longtemps aux éditions modernes de Voltaire (voir sa Préface générale, t.1, p.[i]-xxxviii), il n’ignorait pas que, dans l’édition Dalibon (1824-1832), Jean Clogenson avait décidé de classer toutes les lettres de Voltaire (LXVIII-XCV) de façon chronologique, ‘sans distinction des personnes à qui ou par qui elles sont écrites, c’est-à-dire sans les subdivisions de correspondances particulières établies dans les éditions de Kehl, et conservées depuis’ (t.1, p.xxvi et xxxi). Disposition qu’il adopta lui-même quelques années plus tard dans sa propre édition (LI-LXX).

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman (1904-1976). (Studio Harcourt, Paris)

Mais Beuchot ne s’arrêta pas là. Il décida d’extrapoler cette méthodologie vers une multitude d’autres écrits qu’il intitule Mélanges (XXXVII-L). Si, dans sa Préface du volume 37, il annonce tout simplement la publication de cette masse par ordre chronologique, ce n’est que dans sa Préface générale qu’il s’en était expliqué: les sections discrètes, intitulées dans les éditions de Kehl et leurs imitations Mélanges historiques, Politique et Législation, Philosophie, Physique Dialogues, Facéties, Mélanges littéraires, devaient être classées ‘sous le titre de Mélanges, dans l’ordre chronologique, sans distinction de genre ni de matière’. Et de se justifier: ‘La classification que j’ai adoptée fait suivre au lecteur la marche de l’esprit de Voltaire. En commençant l’édition, je craignais d’être obligé de justifier longuement cette disposition; cela est superflu aujourd’hui, qu’elle a eu la sanction d’un grand nombre de personnes’ (t.1, p.xxxi). Non pas contre toute attente, Moland reprit le flambeau: ‘L’ordre chronologique donne seul une idée juste des travaux de cette existence extraordinaire, de leur multiplicité et de leur variété. […] C’est en mettant chaque œuvre à sa date qu’on permet au lecteur de se rendre compte à peu près de la marche suivie par le chef des philosophes, de voir ses prudents détours, ses diversions habiles, de deviner sa tactique […]. L’intérêt de certains morceaux augmente ainsi par juxtaposition et par contraste’ (t.1, p.iii). La seule différence que l’on puisse remarquer entre les deux érudits, ce sont des différences d’opinion sur la date de composition de tel ou tel écrit, car l’ordre de leurs tables chronologiques de la totalité des écrits de Voltaire (Beuchot, t.70, p.498-519; Moland, t.1, p.525-42), reflète l’ordre de leur publication de part et d’autre. Mais c’est l’existence même de ces tables qui autorise une question capitale: serait-on, par voie de conséquence, en droit de soupçonner qu’ils auraient pu découvrir, bien avant William Barber et Owen Taylor, les vertus d’une édition des Œuvres complètes entièrement chronologique?

L’Inspiration de l’artiste (c.1761-1773), par Jean-Honoré Fragonard. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

M’étant penché sur les travaux de Moland, j’admire sa constante fidélité à une conception très ardue de son rôle d’éditeur et d’érudit. Mais il y a un autre aspect de son portrait qui séduit sur le plan humain: c’est sa générosité d’esprit. Déjà le 13 juillet 1863, Sainte-Beuve lui reconnaissait la même qualité. Répétons-en l’essentiel: ‘M. Moland est […] le contraire de ces critiques dédaigneux qui incorporent et s’approprient sur le sujet qu’ils traitent tout ce qu’ils rencontrent et évitent de nommer leurs devanciers [et] dont le premier soin est de lever après eux l’échelle par laquelle ils sont montés’ (Nouveaux Lundis, t.5, p.274-75). En rendant constamment hommage aux efforts et aux découvertes de ses devanciers et de ses contemporains, qu’il nomme chaque fois sans faute, il prouve à l’évidence, quant à moi, qu’il était conscient du fait que le monument à Voltaire qu’il érigeait en 52 volumes était le fruit d’un travail collaboratif. En quoi n’est-il pas notre semblable et notre frère? Car, arrivés enfin au terme de tous les efforts consentis depuis cinquante ans pour donner vie à cette édition qui concrétise le rêve de Theodore Besterman, il me semble que, dignes successeurs de Moland, nous avons tous à notre tour érigé un monument, non seulement à l’érudition la plus pointue, mais aussi aux ressources inépuisables du travail en équipe qui a été bien mené et bien encadré.

John Renwick, Professeur émérite, University of Edinburgh

Lenten fasts and Easter feasts chez Voltaire

A new government financial year begins in the UK today, which is why the Chancellor delivered the Budget last month. Voltaire’s housekeeper at Ferney may have engaged in some budgeting as well, though all that has come down to us to date are the account books of expenses paid, mainly kept by Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, with the occasional addition by the master of the house himself. The ledgers are held by the Morgan Library in New York, and were published in a facsimile edition by Theodore Besterman in 1968. They allow us a certain degree of insight into the running of Voltaire’s household, and sometimes enable us to corroborate (though never disprove) claims and statements made in his published works and correspondence, or in writings by other people about him. As Easter is nearly upon us, it seemed apposite to look back at a rather singular Easter in Ferney to see what the household accounts can tell us.

Château de Ferney

Château de Ferney, engraving from Beat Fidel Zurlauben’s Tableaux topographiques (1777-), drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

There is a gap in the accounts in 1768, with most of February absent altogether, so the beginning of Lent is lost to us. It is difficult to say whether any meat was obtained during this period: on 3 March the household seems to have paid part of an amount owed to two butchers: fifteen ‘Louis d’or à compte’ to Vérat, and eighteen to the ‘veal butcher’, Bernier, but it is not clear whether any new purchases were made from either. An enigmatic line in Voltaire’s own hand under the date of 21 March, ‘portées sur le livre in quarto’ (carried over to the quarto book) also suggests that there was a further ledger which may have detailed expenses not recorded here. According to our document, however, Voltaire’s food shops in the weeks leading up to Easter included butter (‘for melting’ is specified), lemons, eggs, cheese (and Gruyère cheese appears separately), brandy, salt, oil, tuna, olives, anchovies and herrings. A few years later, Voltaire was to offer sarcastic words about ‘the small number of rich people, financiers, prelates, magistrates, important lords and ladies, who deign to be served a lean diet at table, who fast for six weeks on sole, salmon, weevers, turbots and sturgeons’ (Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Carême’, OCV, vol.39, p.505), but perhaps tuna, anchovies and herrings do not fall in quite the same category. One assumes that the gardens at Ferney kept the household in vegetables, potatoes and the like.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie (1725). (Musée du Louvre)

Easter fell on 3 April that year, and on the 2nd we see visits from the jam-maker and the two butchers, purveyors of beef and veal, whose goods may have featured on the Easter menu. True, all three tradesmen were paid the balance owed to them, but the words ‘à ce jour’ perhaps imply that new purchases were also made on the day. More spiritual fare also required preparation: on 28 March we see that some of the eggs bought were held in reserve for baking communion bread, and on 1 April the yeast for said communion bread was obtained. Writing many years later, after Voltaire’s death, Wagnière recalls the communion bread of that Easter of 1768 in his posthumous revisions to Voltaire’s Commentaire historique: ‘Nous accompagnâmes M. de Voltaire à l’église, à la suite du superbe pain bénit [sic] qu’il était dans l’usage de faire rendre toutes les années le jour de Pâques’ (OCV, vol.78B, p.284).

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 1 April: ‘pain béni’.

The reason that Wagnière was still remembering that particular Easter so many years later was that Voltaire had unusually taken it upon himself in 1768 to attend mass on Easter Sunday, to take communion and to preach a sermon to the assembled faithful on the eighth commandment, following a recent incident of theft in the village. The surprised curate subsequently informed Jean-Pierre Biord, the bishop of Annecy, which provoked a drawn-out and increasingly acrimonious exchange between Voltaire and the bishop, which can be read in the Œuvres complètes (OCV, vol.70B).

Church built by Voltaire

The church built by Voltaire, drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

One curious detail in this widely publicised incident is the matter of the altar candles mentioned in the telling of this event in the Correspondance littéraire, which was not confirmed by Wagnière and has been treated with scepticism by some. The Correspondance littéraire recounts that Voltaire ‘had ordered six large altar candles from Lyon and, having them carried ahead of him with a missal, and escorted by two gamekeepers, he made his way to the Ferney church’. The accounts record that on 18 April a sum was paid to the courier from Saint-Claude, ‘who carried the candles’ (flambeaux), and on the 26th payment is made for ‘the postage of the provisions from Lyon, and the candles’. The fact that these candles are mentioned in a Lyon-related context, as well as the fact that someone had been hired to carry them, adds weight to the Correspondance littéraire account, though nothing can be said about the presence of the gamekeepers.

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 26 April: carriage of provisions, including ‘flambeaux’, from Lyon.

After Easter, Lenten fasting is over, with chickens bought (four braces on 20 April, and the same again on the 30th), Voltaire’s beloved coffee (13 April) and the habitually prodigious consumption of eggs (8½ dozen bought on 14 April). One remarks, as well, how quickly the household appeared to go through brooms: seventeen purchased on 28 March, more on 14 April and still more only five days later. On 24 April Voltaire pays for a certificate to prove that he is still alive: normal life has resumed at Ferney.

Gillian Pink


Enfin Moland vint ou comment reprendre le flambeau

1. Moland avant Voltaire

Louis-Emile-Dieudonné Moland (1824-1899) ne fut nullement destiné à devenir le troisième volet de ce triptyque si bien connu des dix-huitiémistes: Kehl, Beuchot, Moland. Son père, descendant d’une famille de magistrats, juge au tribunal de Saint-Omer, entendait qu’il suive la même carrière. Ses études au lycée de Douai terminées, il monta donc à Paris pour y faire son Droit. Reçu licencié en août 1846, il prêta serment comme avocat à la Cour d’Appel de Paris (26 novembre 1846), fit même son stage … puis se désintéressa totalement de la carrière qu’on avait voulu lui imposer. L’attrait des recherches historiques et de la composition littéraire s’était avéré irrésistible.

Louis Moland

Portrait de Louis Moland dans H. Carnoy, Dictionnaire biographique des hommes du Nord, I. Les contemporains (Paris, 1894), p.134. (Artiste inconnu)

De 1851 à 1862, il devait en fait se faire avantageusement connaître comme spécialiste … du Moyen Age (témoins, par exemple, Peuple et roi au XIIIe siècle, 1851; Nouvelles françaises en prose du XIIIe siècle, 1856; Nouvelles françaises en prose du XIVe siècle, 1858; Origines littéraires de la France, 1862). Fait digne de remarque: c’est l’illustre critique Sainte-Beuve qui, dès 1861, avait porté des jugements remarquables sur ses talents de critique dans l’introduction qu’il rédigea pour Les Poëtes français. Recueil des chefs-d’œuvre de la poésie française depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours (Paris, Gide, 1861-1863, 4 vols). Confronté aux nombreuses notices que Moland avait rédigées pour les XIIe, XIIIe et XIVe siècles, il ne lésina pas sur ses louanges. Ayant évoqué ‘la plume docte et sûre de M. Moland’, il poursuit sur sa lancée en ajoutant: ‘Ses exposés précis, lumineux, sont plus que des notices: ce sont d’excellents chapitres d’une histoire littéraire qui est encore toute neuve’ (t.1, p.x). Quoique le médiéviste ait eu pour compagnons dans la confection de ce volume Anatole de Montaiglon et Charles d’Héricault, il est évident que Sainte-Beuve lui attribuait (avec raison) la part du lion. Voilà pourquoi le jugement suivant est particulièrement éloquent: ‘Il s’est créé depuis une douzaine d’années une jeune école d’érudits laborieux, appliqués, ardents, enthousiastes, qui se sont mis à fouiller, à défricher tous les cantons de notre ancienne littérature, à en creuser tous les replis, à rentrer jusque dans les portions les plus explorées et censées les plus connues, pour en extraire les moindres filons non encore exploités. Cette jeune école de travailleurs, plus épris de l’étude et de l’honneur que du profit, s’était groupée autour de l’estimable éditeur M. Jannet, dont la Bibliothèque elzévirienne restera comme un monument de cet effort de régénération littéraire érudite’ (p.x-xi).

Louis Moland, Origines littéraires de la France

Louis Moland, Origines littéraires de la France. (University of Michigan)

Or, ce fut en 1862, malgré ce succès indéniable, que Moland décida de changer de cap, faisant publier chez Garnier Frères (1863) les deux premiers volumes des Œuvres complètes de Molière dans une nouvelle édition revue, annotée et précédée d’une introduction. C’est pour la deuxième fois que le public français assista à l’apparition d’un éditeur de textes talentueux. Entre-temps Sainte-Beuve n’avait pas changé d’avis. Séance tenante, dans ses Nouveaux Lundis, l’illustre critique détecta de nouveau chez lui, le lundi 13 juillet 1863, une originalité certaine doublée de talents et de qualités entièrement humains. Ecoutons-le: ‘Non content d’une large et riche Introduction, qui se poursuit et se renouvelle même en tête du second volume par une Etude sur la troupe de Molière, M. Moland fait précéder chaque comédie d’une Notice préliminaire, et il accompagne le texte de remarques de langue, de grammaire ou de goût, et de notes explicatives. Il s’est fait une règle fort sage, de ne jamais critiquer ni discuter les opinions des commentateurs qui l’ont précédé; cela irait trop loin: “Lorsqu’ils commettent des erreurs, dit-il, il suffit de les passer sous silence: lorsqu’ils ont bien exprimé une réflexion juste, nous nous en emparons.” Il s’en empare donc, mais en rapportant à chacun ce qui lui est dû. M. Moland est, en effet, le contraire de ces critiques dédaigneux qui incorporent et s’approprient sur le sujet qu’ils traitent tout ce qu’ils rencontrent et évitent de nommer leurs devanciers; qui affectent d’être de tout temps investis d’une science infuse et plénière, ne reconnaissant la devoir à personne […]. Lui, il ne s’arroge rien d’emblée; il est graduel pour ainsi dire, et laisse subsister les traces; il tient compte de tous ceux qui l’ont précédé et aidé; il les nomme, il les cite pour quelques phrases caractéristiques; il est plutôt trop indulgent pour quelques-uns. Enfin sa critique éclectique, au meilleur sens du mot, fait un choix dans tous les travaux antérieurs et y ajoute non seulement par la liaison qu’il établit entre eux, mais par des considérations justes et des aperçus fins qui ne sont qu’à lui’ (p.274-75). On y trouve déjà l’homme estimable qui, quatorze ans plus tard, se mettra à éditer Voltaire.

Mais évidemment, en 1863, son ‘apprentissage’ en tant qu’éditeur d’auteurs modernes n’est pas encore arrivé à son terme. Il a l’air d’ailleurs de se cantonner de préférence dans des époques qui ne sont pas celles des Lumières. En compagnie de Charles d’Héricault, il se lança dans une nouvelle aventure éditoriale avec La France guerrière, récits historiques d’après les chroniques et les mémoires de chaque siècle (1868, 1873, 1878, 1878-1885) mais où les éditeurs n’ont apparemment pas laissé leurs griffes. Le seul détail de l’Avant-propos, auquel il manque d’ailleurs une ou des signatures, et qui ait attiré mon attention, est le dédain – dédain typiquement Voltairien – réservé aux récits de bataille où foisonnent les vaines descriptions des mouvements de troupe et des détails d’une stratégie monotone. Exactement comme Voltaire ces deux auteurs, dont principalement peut-être Moland lui-même, adoptent une autre approche: ‘Il en est tout autrement, lorsqu’on voit les hommes dans l’action, avec les sentiments qui les animent, avec les mobiles et les passions qui les poussent, avec les formes successives que revêt, pour ainsi dire, l’héroïsme individuel ou collectif’ (p.ii).

Restant toujours bien loin du siècle de Voltaire, il s’était tourné en parallèle vers Brantôme dont il édita (1868) les Vies des dames illustres. Si l’introduction qu’il y signa (p.[i]-xxxviii) est frappée au coin de l’homme cultivé, versé dans l’histoire littéraire de France, nous ne pouvons réserver à ses notes explicatives, ou à son appareil critique, qu’un accueil moins positif: on y trouve un minimum d’éclaircissements de différentes sortes, parfois lapidaires et banales, moins souvent franchement utiles. Mais en gros l’impression qu’il nous laisse est celle d’une édition faite (peut-être selon les vœux des Frères Garnier), non pas pour des érudits, mais pour des honnêtes hommes. En somme, on dirait que – pour un critique capable de prestations beaucoup plus impressionnantes – cette édition représentait sans doute une commande qui ne l’intéressait que médiocrement. Par contre, il est évident que Moland redevenait pleinement lui-même quand il se trouvait à proximité du Moyen Age: ainsi son édition des Œuvres de Rabelais (1873, 2 vol.), qui avait mérité tous ses soins, est le comble de l’érudition: textes collationnés sur les éditions originales; vie de l’auteur d’après les documents les plus récemment découverts; le tout assorti de notes savantes.

Œuvres de Rabelais, éd. Moland

Œuvres de Rabelais, éd. Moland, Le Quart Livre, illustration de Gustave Doré. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A la maison Garnier Frères, il est évident que Louis Moland était un collaborateur fort estimé. Précédant de peu son Rabelais, il avait entrepris une édition des Œuvres oratoires de Bossuet (1872, 4 vol.), la présentant au public comme une ‘nouvelle édition […] améliorée et enrichie à l’aide des travaux les plus récents sur Bossuet et ses ouvrages’. Et de préciser qu’il s’agissait d’une ‘édition purgée des erreurs graves et des altérations importantes qui y ont été signalées’ car ‘il s’agissait de concilier le respect plus profond du texte de l’auteur et la fidélité plus scrupuleuse qu’on réclame’. Si donc, la plupart du temps – quand l’auteur l’intéressait – Moland était capable d’adopter les mêmes scrupuleuses approches critiques, assorties d’introductions et de commentaires totalement appropriés aux genres dont il s’agissait (voir, par exemple, les Œuvres complètes de La Fontaine, 1872-1876, 7 vol.), il faut néanmoins reconnaître que d’autres auteurs semblent l’avoir intéressé beaucoup moins, ne méritant que le minimum d’attention. Obéissait-il à une certaine idée bien arrêtée quant à la valeur individuelle de toute une gamme de littérateurs français? Y aurait-il eu chez lui un ordre hiérarchique ou même un ordre de préférences individuelles? Ou obéissait-il tout bonnement à des consignes imposées intra muros? Ce qui m’a frappé, c’est la longueur quasi-invariable de ses notices, préfaces ou introductions dans les ouvrages suivants: Œuvres complètes de Beaumarchais (1874, xvi pages), Œuvres poétiques de Malherbe (1874, viii pages), Théâtre choisi de Marivaux (1875, viii pages), Théâtre de Regnard (1876, xvi pages). Les quatre ouvrages sont d’ailleurs remarquables par leur absence d’interventions éditoriales.

Contes de La Fontaine, éd. Louis Moland

Contes de La Fontaine, éd. Louis Moland (Paris, Garnier, s.d.).

Malgré cette incertitude, toujours est-il que nous arrivons, grâce à un rapide survol de l’ensemble, à définir les caractéristiques de cet éditeur qui s’est vite fait une réputation enviable. Parlons de cette dernière: dès son apparition dans le monde des lettres, il mérita de la part d’Ernest Prarond (De Quelques écrivains nouveaux, Paris, 1852, p.123-30) un accueil chaleureux. En 1861 et puis en 1863, Sainte-Beuve, qui était difficile à contenter, n’avait pas été avare d’éloges sur ses talents de novateur et d’homme de goût. En 1865, à la mort de Joseph-Victor Le Clerc, la Maison Garnier Frères n’hésita pas à faire appel à ses compétences reconnues: ‘La mort de l’honorable savant nous a forcés de confier ce soin [celui de continuer la publication des Essais de Montaigne] à un autre collaborateur. Nous ne pouvions mieux nous adresser qu’à l’écrivain distingué dont le beau travail sur Molière a si bien démontré la compétence en matière de goût et de bonne érudition. M. Louis Moland a bien voulu, sur notre demande, accepter cette tâche’ (Avis des éditeurs, en tête du t.4, 1866). En 1873, la mort de l’académicien Saint-Marc Girardin voulut à son tour que les mêmes éditeurs aient songé à lui confier, dès le tome 3, la continuation de l’édition de Racine (tomes 3-8). Ce sont là des appréciations éloquentes qui trouvaient constamment écho dans la presse, que ce soit en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis. Ce qui séduisait surtout ces publics cultivés, ce fut la nature exhaustive de son exégèse, sa volonté de proposer un texte de base irréprochable, de profiter des travaux de ses prédécesseurs sans jamais leur voler leur bien, sa volonté enfin de combler des carences et de mettre à profit les découvertes les plus récentes. Ainsi armé, Moland était tout indiqué pour éditer les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire que la Maison Garnier Frères songeait à faire paraître dès 1877.

John Renwick, Professeur émérite, University of Edinburgh

La suite, ‘Moland et Voltaire’, sera publiée dans ce blog en avril.