Exploring Voltaire’s letters: between close and distant readings

La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe

‘La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe.’

A stamp produced by the French post office in 1998 celebrates the art of letter-writing by depicting Voltaire writing letters with both hands. It’s true that Voltaire wrote a lot of letters – over 15,000 are known, and more turn up all the time – but even so it’s not altogether clear that an ambidextrous letter-writer is someone we entirely want to trust. Voltaire’s correspondence is full of difficulties and traps, and faced by such a huge corpus, it is hard to know where to start. Without question, the Besterman ‘definitive’ edition (1968-77), digitised in Electronic Enlightenment, has had a major impact on Enlightenment scholarship: historians and literary critics make frequent use of these letters, but usually in an instrumental way, adducing a single passage in a letter as evidence in support of a date or an interpretation.

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020)

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020).

Voltaire’s letters can be notoriously ‘unreliable’, however, and they really need to be read and interpreted – like all his texts – as literary performances. Few critics have attempted to examine the corpus of the correspondence in its entirety and to understand it as a literary whole. In our new book, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings, we have experimented with a range of digital humanities methods, to explore to what extent they might help us identify new interpretative approaches to this extraordinary correspondence. The size of the corpus seems intimidating to the critic, but it is precisely this that makes these texts a perfect test-case for digital experimentation: we can ask questions that we would simply not have been able to ask before.

For example, we looked at the way Voltaire signs off his letters – and were surprised to find that only 13% of the letters are actually signed ‘Voltaire’; while over a third of the letters are signed with a single letter, ‘V’. Then Voltaire is hugely inventive in the way he plays with the rules of epistolary rhetoric, posing as a marmot to the duc de Choiseul. And if you want to know why in a letter (D18683) to D’Alembert he signs off ‘Miaou’, the answer is to be found in a fable by La Fontaine…

We studied Voltaire as a neologist. Critics have usually described Voltaire as an arch-classicist adhering rigorously to the norms of seventeenth-century French classicism. True, yet at the same time he is hugely energetic in coining new words, an aspect of his literary style that has been insufficiently studied. Here, corpus analysis tools, coupled with available lexicographical digital resources, allow us to consider Voltaire’s aesthetic of lexical innovation. In so doing, we can test the hypothesis that Voltaire uses the correspondence as a laboratory in which he can experiment with new formulations, ideas, and words – some of which then pass into his other works. We identified 30 words first coined by Voltaire in his letters, and another 36 words first used in his other works, many of which are then reused in the correspondence. Emmanuel Macron has encouraged the description of himself as a ‘président jupitérien’, so it’s good to discover that ‘jupitérien’ is one of the words first coined by Voltaire.

Voltaire letter

A letter in Voltaire’s hand, sent from the city of Colmar to François Louis Defresnay (D5612, dated 1753/1754).

A reader of Voltaire’s letters cannot fail to be struck by the frequency of his literary quotations. We explore this phenomenon through the use of sequence alignment algorithms – similar to those used in bioinformatics to sequence genetic data – to identify similar or shared passages. Using the ARTFL-Frantext database of French literature as a comparison dataset, we attempt a detailed quantification and description of French literary quotations contained in Voltaire’s correspondence. These citations, taken together, give us a more comprehensive understanding of Voltaire’s literary culture, and provide invaluable insights into his rhetoric of intertextuality. No surprise that he quotes most often the authors of ‘le siècle de Louis XIV’, though it was a surprise to find that Les Plaideurs is the Racine play most frequently cited. And who expected to find two quotations from poems by Fontenelle (neither of them identified in the Besterman edition)?! Quotations in Latin also abound in Voltaire’s letters, many of these drawn, predictably enough, from the famous poets he would have memorised at school, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid – but we also identified quotations, hitherto unidentified, from lesser poets, such as a passage from Manilius’ Astronomica. By examining as a group the correspondents who receive Latin quotations, and assigning to them social and intellectual categories established by colleagues working at Stanford, we were able to establish clear networks of Latin usage throughout the correspondence, and confirm a hunch about the gendered aspect of quotation in Latin: Voltaire uses Latin only to his élite correspondents, and even then, with notably rare exceptions such as Emilie Du Châtelet, only to men.

The woman on the left, a trainee pilot in the Brazilian air force, is an unwitting beneficiary of Voltaire’s bravura use of Latin quotation. The motto of the Air Force Academy is a stirring (if slightly macho) Latin quotation: ‘Macte animo, generose puer, sic itur ad astra’ (Congratulations, noble boy, this is the way to the stars). The quotation is one that Voltaire uses repeatedly in some dozen letters, and it is found later, for example in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. On closer investigation it turns out that this piece of Latin is an amalgam of quotations from Virgil and Statius – in effect, a piece of pure Voltairean invention.

In the end, Voltaire’s correspondence is undoubtedly one of his greatest literary masterpieces – but it is arguably one that only becomes fully legible through the use of digital resources and methods. Our intention with this book was to affirm the simple postulate that digital collections – whether comprised of letters, literary works, or historical documents – can, and should, enable multiple reading strategies and interpretative points of entry; both close and distant readings. As such, digital resources should continue to offer inroads to traditional critical practices while at the same time opening up new, unexplored avenues that take full advantage of the affordances of the digital. Not only can digital humanities methods help us ask traditional literary-critical questions in new ways – benefitting from economies of both scale and speed – but, as we show in the book, they can also generate new research questions from historical content; providing interpretive frameworks that would have been impossible in a pre-digital world.

The size and complexity of Voltaire’s correspondence make it an almost ideal corpus for testing the two dominant modes of (digital) literary analysis: on the one hand, ‘distant’ approaches to the corpus as a whole and its relationship to a larger literary culture; on the other, fine-grained analyses of individual letters and passages that serve to contextualise the particular in terms of the general, and vice versa. The core question at the heart of the book is thus one that remains largely untreated in the wider world: how can we use digital ‘reading’ methods – both close and distant – to explore and better understand a literary object as complex and multifaceted as Voltaire’s correspondence?

– Nicholas Cronk & Glenn Roe, Co-directors of the Voltaire Lab at the VF

Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings will be published in print and online at the end of October. The online version is available free of charge for two weeks to personal and institutional subscribers.

The humanist world of Voltaire’s correspondence

We know from reading Voltaire’s letters that he likes quoting – French literature in abundance, but also a fair amount of Latin. There is often a strong sense that he is quoting from memory, which is more than likely the lasting mark of his Jesuit teachers at Louis-le-Grand, who put Latin at the centre of the curriculum. Indeed, Voltaire had the benefit of some renowned Jesuit scholars as his teachers, notably Le Père Porée, who famously taught a ‘Senecan’ prose style, and Le Père Thoulier (later the abbé d’Olivet), a distinguished Cicero scholar who remained on friendly terms with Voltaire throughout his career.

Latin verse in particular, played a preponderant role in Voltaire’s education, as poets were at the heart of college teaching, and Virgil, Ovid, and Horace were by far the big three since the 16th century at least.[1] The Jesuits taught primarily by way of daily recitals (recitatio) of verse required by all students: ‘On attachait à la recitatio une importance dont nous n’avons pas idée aujourd’hui…’ (Dainville, p.175). Thus, students at Louis-le-Grand all committed large chunks of Latin verse to memory as both a means of imitation for learning to write, and also as a method of retaining information, as Voltaire would elsewhere describe the pedagogical approach of the Jesuit Claude Buffier: ‘Il a fait servir les vers (je ne dis pas la poésie) à leur premier usage, qui était d’imprimer dans la mémoire des hommes les événements dont on voulait garder le souvenir’.[2]

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Given this background, we aimed to examine Voltaire’s use of Latin quotations across his massive collection of correspondence, described by Christiane Mervaud as ‘perhaps his greatest masterpiece’. The Besterman edition of Voltaire’s correspondence, originally published in some 50 print volumes, and digitised in the early 2000s as part of the Electronic Enlightenment project, contains 21,256 letters of which 15,414 are written by Voltaire himself. It is astonishing, then, that this masterpiece remains relatively unstudied. Besterman identifies Latin passages when they are from the major writers (Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius) – the authors for whom there were concordances easily available in the 1950s and 1960s. In the case of lesser poets like Manilius, however, Besterman was obliged to leave the passages unannotated. These passages can now be easily identified thanks to new methods developed in the digital humanities. In particular, as part of this year’s research programme in the Voltaire Lab, we compared all of Voltaire’s letters to Latin digital sources in an effort to systematically identify all of his Latin quotations, while at the same time, as we’ll see below, exploring the social and intellectual networks over which these quotations were exchanged.

Marcu Manilius, <i>Astronomicon</i>, 1767.

Marcu Manilius, Astronomicon, 1767.

Using sequence alignment algorithms designed to identify literary text re-use at scale –developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – we identified some 672 Latin citations in Voltaire’s correspondence by comparing the letters to the Packard Humanities Institute’s Classical Latin Texts (PHI) digital corpus. The PHI contains essentially all Latin literary texts written before A.D. 200, as well as some texts selected from later antiquity. The resulting alignments allow us to move beyond Besterman’s ad hoc manner of identifying quotations towards a more systematic understanding of Voltaire’s use of Latin authors.

After some data pruning – the inclusion of several commentators and grammarians from Late Antiquity in the PHI dataset meant that there were some repeated matches that were spurious – we reduced our set of Latin passages to 342 citations used by Voltaire himself to his various correspondents. Here is a list of these quotations by Latin author in descending order:

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Overwhelmingly Voltaire prefers to quote Latin poets; and that Horace, Virgil and Ovid should be the top three is hardly surprising, though the presence of Horace is dominant. There is breadth as well as depth here, and the list goes beyond the usual suspects to include minor figures such as Manilius, Statius, and Cato the Elder. Does this mean, for instance, that Voltaire is quoting someone like Manilius from memory? If so, how interesting and altogether unexpected.

The next important question we broached was concerned with the recipients of Latin passages, i.e., who are the adressees of the letters in which these Latin quotations appear? In all we found 101 different recipients of at least some Latin, out of 1,465 total recipients in Voltaire’s correspondence (roughly 14.5 %). This is quite small, as a proportion of addressees overall. So how can we gloss these names as members of a group, or network of Latin quotations?

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Using the ‘Procope’ social network ontology of the French Enlightenment, established by Dan Edelstein et al., at Stanford,[3] we were able to automatically assign social categories to our list of addressees, which while not a perfect system, nonetheless helped us understand the fundamentally ‘elite’ status of this sub-set of Voltaire’s correspondents.

Gender is an obvious criterion that is apparently lacking: all addressees are male apart from one. Given that men learned Latin, and women didn’t, the use of Latin quotations is self-evidently gendered in this case. This is further reinforced by the manner in which Voltaire uses two verses by Virgil with La Duchesse de Choiseul, his one female addressee, in a letter from 1771:

‘Pour moi, Madame, qui les aime passionément je vous dirai
Ante leves ergo pascentur in æthere cervi
Quam nostro illius labatur pectore vultus.’

‘Vous entendez le latin, Madame, vous savez ce que celà veut dire:
Les cerfs iront paître dans l’air avant que j’oublie son visage.’
 [4]

After quoting the two lines from the Bucolics, Voltaire goes on to translate them for Madame de Choiseul, even though she can presumably understand the Latin – a case of early-modern ‘mansplaining’ in action.

Within the group of 101 addressees, there is a clearly-defined social group of old, close friends from school (those with whom he had learned Latin), as well as an overlapping sub-group in Normandy, or in one case from Voltaire’s early law career:

Addressees from Louis-le-Grand, where Voltaire learned Latin:

  • The Marquis d’Argenson (later foreign minister)
  • The Comte d’Argenson (later war minister)
  • The Duc de Richelieu (soldier and leading courtier)
  • The Comte d’Argental, conseiller au parlement de Paris
  • Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, conseiller au parlement de Rouen

Other old friends from the overlapping Normandy/law group:

  • Formont, a wealthy, talented light poet who was also friends with Cideville.
  • Theriot, a an early friend of Voltaire’s, from when they were both young apprentice lawyers, who was also friends with Formont and Cideville.

Otherwise, we find many cultivated acquaintances in this list who are themselves authors: Frederick, Algarotti, D’Alembert, etc.; along with one of Voltaire’s teachers from Louis-le-Grand: d’Olivet, translator of Cicero and Desmosthenes into French, elected to the Académie in 1723. Clearly, Voltaire’s use of Latin was a means of determining readership. By constructing an epistolary community with selected groups of correspondents, Voltaire underscored their shared experiences and humanist culture.

But, to what extent was this sort of cultural exchange reciprocal? I.e., if Voltaire writes to you quoting Latin poets, do you feel obliged to respond in kind? What does it mean, for instance, that Voltaire uses Latin in so many letters to Frederick, and yet the prince never once uses Latin in return? Socially, the 41 respondents identified belong by-and-large to the same ‘elite’ categories of government or aristocracy, although there is a markedly greater presence of hommes de lettres (an ‘intellectual network’ that overlaps with the ‘social networks’ drawn from Procope) in this second list. See Table 3.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

These are just some of the preliminary results we have begun to process in the context of a larger project on Voltaire’s culture of text re-use (including his penchant for ‘self-plagiarism’). As with most digital humanities projects, initial computational analyses don’t always produce ‘clean’ results, or cut-and-dried interpretations: some of the results have to be examined carefully, and some – as was the case for the grammarians and commentators mentioned above – will prove spurious or misleading. One begins asking one set of questions – can we identify Voltaire’s use of Latin and verify Besterman’s attributions – and end up with new ones: e.g., with whom did Voltaire use Latin, and how? Equally, we could extend these questions by examining other literary quotations, e.g., from French or Italian authors and by including other correspondence collections, comparing Diderot and Rousseau’s use of Latin, for instance, to that of Voltaire.

Ideally, this sort of experimental research approach also generates new research questions, ones that would have been difficult to frame outside of the digital environment. In this case, we were quickly confronted with the notion of what constitutes an instance of ‘re-use’ as opposed to an allusion or more oblique cultural reference. For example, our algorithm identified this passage from Cicero’s epistles:

‘Vale. CICERO BASILO S. Tibi gratulor, mihi gaudeo. te amo, tua tueor. a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo…’

as a potential re-use employed by Voltaire in a letter to Marmontel from 1749:

‘Si vous recevez ma lettre ce soir, vous pourrez m’envoyer votre poulet pour m. de Richelieu, que je ferai partir sur le champ. Te amo, tua tueor, te diligo, te plurimum, &c.’ [5]

Is this re-use or not? Besterman makes no mention of Cicero in his annotation, but rather places this passage into a more generic class of ‘Roman epistolary formulas’. But perhaps there is more going on here; perhaps the model of Cicero’s epistles – central to the Jesuit syllabus – remains at the forefront of Voltaire’s mind when he himself is in the act of letter-writing. With the sorts of addressees for whom Voltaire uses Latin quotations he may likewise use a Ciceronian subscription. Here the Ciceronian model shapes Voltaire’s epistolary rhetoric.

Finally, pushing this line of enquiry a bit further, we came across another discovery: there are reduced versions of the passage, “Vale. Te amo”, which Voltaire uses extensively in the correspondence, and in particular with the social network of old school friends outlined above. This passage is in fact too small to be identified by our matching algorithms, and we would furthermore be a bit hard-pressed to classify it as a singularly Ciceronian borrowing. And yet…

– Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe

[1] See François de Dainville, L’Education des jésuites (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, Minuit, 1978).

[2] Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV, ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, OCV, vol.12.

[3] See Maria Teodora Comsa, Melanie Conroy, Dan Edelstein, Chloe Summers Edmondson, and Claude Willan, ‘The French Enlightenment Network’, The Journal of Modern History 88, no. 3 (September 2016): 495-534.

[4] [D17251]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], ‘Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Louise Honorine Crozat Du Châtel, duchesse de Choiseul [née Crozat]: Monday, 17 June 1771’. In Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.

[5] [D3918]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], “Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Jean François Marmontel: Friday, 2 May 1749”, in Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.