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VOLTAIRE AND THE NECESSITY OF MODERN HISTORY

  • PIERRE FORCE (a1)
Abstract

This article revisits what has often been called the “naive presentism” of Voltaire's historical work. It looks at the methodological and philosophical reasons for Voltaire's deliberate focus on modern history as opposed to ancient history, his refusal to “make allowances for time” in judging the past, and his extreme selectiveness in determining the relevance of past events to world history. Voltaire's historical practice is put in the context of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, and considered in a tradition of universal history going back to Bossuet and leading up to nineteenth-century German historicism. Paradoxically, Voltaire is a major figure in the history of historiography not in spite of his presentism (as Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay have argued), but because of it.

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1 Voltaire, Histoire de Charles XII, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, ed. René Pomeau (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 51–275.

2 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 603–1274.

3 Voltaire, Histoire de la guerre de 1741, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1575–1656.

4 Voltaire, Histoire de l'Empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 337–602.

5 Voltaire, Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1297–1571.

6 Voltaire, Histoire du Parlement de Paris, ed. John Renwick, in idem, The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 68 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2005).

7 Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, edited by René Pomeau, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1963).

8 August Ludwig Schlözer, in Allgemeine deutsche Bibliotek, vol. 10 (1769), 254–5. See Gabriela Lehmann-Carli, “La Critique par Schlözer de l'ouvrage de Voltaire Histoire de l'empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand,” in Katia Dmitrieva and Michel Espagne, eds., Philologiques IV. Transferts culturels triangulaires France–Allemagne–Russie (Paris: Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1996), 63–72. On the Göttingen school see Peter Hanns Reill, The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); and Michael C. Carhart, The Science of Culture in Enlightenment Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

9 Johann Christoph Gatterer, in Historisches Journal, von Mitgliedern der königlichen historischen Instituts zu Göttingen, vol. 1 (1773), 2. Unless otherwise specified, translations are mine.

10 Dilthey, Wilhelm, “The Eighteenth Century and the Historical World,” in idem, Hermeneutics and the Study of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 348 (“Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert und die geschichtliche Welt,” Deutsche Rundschau 108 (1901), 241–62, 350–80). When I quote another edition than the original, I give the date of the original between parentheses.

12 Meinecke, Friedrich, Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 54 (Die Enstehung des Historismus, 2 vols. (Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1936)).

14 O'Brien, Karen, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21.

16 Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 153.

17 Ibid., 156.

19 Ibid., 157.

20 Brumfitt, J. H., Voltaire Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; first published 1958).

21 Diaz, Furio, Voltaire Storico (Turin: Einaudi, 1958).

22 Leigh, John, Voltaire: A Sense of History, SVEC series (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2004).

23 Pierse, Síofra, Voltaire Historiographer: Narrative Paradigms, SVEC series, 6 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2008).

24 Leigh, Voltaire: A Sense of History, xvi.

25 Le Goff, Jacques, “L'Histoire nouvelle,” in Le Goff, Jacques, Chartier, Roger, and Revel, Jacques, eds., La nouvelle Histoire (Paris: Encyclopédies du savoir moderne, 1978), 222.

26 Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Koehl, Fritz C. A. and Pettegrove, James P. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1951), 221.

28 Gay, Peter, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. The Science of Freedom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 386.

30 Israel, Jonathan I., Radical Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); idem, Enlightenment Contested (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

31 Gearhart, Suzanne, The Open Boundary of History and Fiction: A Critical Approach to the French Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 38, n. 11.

32 Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 863–71. For a critique of the presentism that permeates Israel's work see La Vopa, Anthony, “A New Intellectual History? Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment,” Historical Journal 52 (2009), 717738.

33 George H. Nadel, “Philosophy of History before Historicism,” History and Theory 3/3 (1964), 291–315.

34 Grafton, Anthony, What Was History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

35 Nadel, “Philosophy of History before Historicism,” 292.

36 Grafton, What Was History? 254.

37 Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian, 84.

38 Ibid., 44.

39 Voltaire, Conseils à un journaliste (May 10, 1737), in Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Louis Moland, 50 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1877–85), 22: 244.

40 Charles Rollin, Histoire ancienne des Égyptiens, des Carthaginois, des Assyriens, des Babyloniens, des Mèdes et des Perses, des Macédoniens, des Grecs, 13 vols. (Paris: Etienne, 1730–38). On history textbooks in France during that period see Louis Trenard, “L'Historiographie française d'après les manuels scolaires, de Bossuet à Voltaire,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 155 (1976), 2083–2111.

41 Charles Rollin, The method of teaching and studying the belles lettres, or an introduction to languages, poetry, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy, physics (London: A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch, 1734, 1 (De la manière d'enseigner et d'étudier les belles lettres par rapport à l'esprit et au cœur, 4 vols. (Paris: Etienne, 1726–8).

43 Ibid., 7.

44 Ibid., 8.

45 Pavel, Thomas, L'Art de l'éloignement, Essais sur l'imagination classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1996).

46 Voltaire, Conseils à un journaliste, 244.

47 Grell, Chantal, L'Histoire entre érudition et philosophie (Paris: PUF, 1993), 229.

48 See J. Solé, “Religion et vision historiographique dans le Dictionnaire de Bayle,” in Religion, érudition et critique à la fin du XVIIe siècle et au début du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: PUF, 1968), 71–200.

49 Voltaire, article on Le Nain de Tillemont (1751), in “Catalogue de la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans le Siècle de Louis XIV,” in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1181.

50 Voltaire, article on “Histoire,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, distribuées en forme de dictionnaire, 9 vols. (London, 1771–2), 8: 20.

51 Voltaire, “Remarques sur l'histoire,” in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 44.

52 Voltaire, letter to Charles Auguste Ferriol, comte d'Argental, 18 Dec. 1752, in Correspondance, ed. Theodore Besterman, vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 860.

53 Bolingbroke, Letters on the Study and the Use of History, vol. 1 (London: Millar, 1752), letter 5, 150.

54 Nadel, “Philosophy of History before Historicism,” 311.

55 See Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian, 40–45.

56 Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Paris: Agasse, 1794).

57 Voltaire, Conseils à un journaliste, 245.

59 On the gradual disappearance of the historia magistra vitae topos see Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 2642.

60 See Thomas Pavel, L'Art de l'éloignement.

61 Brumfitt, Voltaire Historian, 84–94.

62 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1000.

64 Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques, ed. René Pomeau (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1999), letter 23, 148.

65 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1028.

67 Voltaire, article on “Antiquité,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 299.

68 Voltaire, Conseils à un journaliste, 244.

70 See Barret-Kriegel, Blandine, La Défaite de l'érudition (Paris: PUF, 1988).

71 Voltaire, article on “Anciens et modernes,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 245.

74 Ibid., 248.

76 Ibid., 248.

77 Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, vol. 2 (1719), (Paris: Mariette, 1733), sect. 12, 134. On the complex relationship between Dubos and Voltaire see Caramaschi, Enzo, “Du Bos et Voltaire,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 10 (1959), 113236.

78 Fumaroli, Marc, La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), 212–13.

79 Dubos, Réflexions critiques, vol. 2, sect. 12, 130.

80 Ibid., sect. 13, 145.

81 Ibid., sect. 39, 558.

82 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1015.

84 Voltaire, “Catalogue de la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans le siècle de Louis XIV, pour servir à l'histoire littéraire de ce temps” in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1133–1214.

85 Nadel, “Philosophy of History before Historicism,” 292.

86 Eden, Kathy, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 1216.

87 Eden, Kathy, “Equity and the Origins of Renaissance Historicism: The Case for Erasmus,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 5 (1993), 137–45.

88 Dubos, Réflexions critiques, vol. 2, sect. 37, 544.

89 Ibid., sect. 37, 545.

90 Ibid., sect. 35, 525.

91 Ibid., sect. 35, 527.

92 Voltaire, article on “Ezéchiel” (1764), in Dictionnaire philosophique, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, 19: 54.

93 Voltaire, An Essay on Epic Poetry (1727), in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 3B (Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 308.

94 Ibid., 313.

96 Lefèvre-Dacier, Anne, Des Causes de la corruption du goût (Paris: Rigaud, 1714).

97 Voltaire, An Essay on Epic Poetry, 314.

98 Voltaire, Essai sur la poésie épique (1728), trans. Desfontaines, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 3B, 512.

99 Voltaire, article on “Anciens et modernes,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 259.

100 Fontenelle, Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, in idem, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1688) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 169.

101 Ibid.

102 Voltaire, article on “Anciens et modernes,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 260.

103 Ibid.

104 Voltaire, An Essay on Epic Poetry, 367.

105 Article on “équité,” in Nicot, Trésor de la langue française (1606).

106 Voltaire, “Remarques sur l'histoire,” in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 44.

107 Preface for vol. 3 of the Walther edition (1754) in Essai sur les moeurs, 2: 883.

108 Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 6.

109 Ibid., 5.

110 Ibid., 124.

111 Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes.

112 David Hume, “Of the Study of History,” in idem, Essays Moral and Political, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Kincaid, 1742), 74–82.

113 On erudite universal history see Tamara Griggs, “Universal History from Counter-Reformation to Enlightenment,” Modern Intellectual History 4/2 (2007), 219–47.

114 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1006.

115 See Brumfitt's, J. H. introduction to La Philosophie de l'histoire, in The Complete Works of Voltaire, vol. 59 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 32–5.

116 Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in idem, Oeuvres historiques, 1006.

117 Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne, Discourse on Universal History, trans. Forster, Elborg, ed. and with an introduction by Orest Ranum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 4 (Discours sur l'histoire universelle à Monseigneur le dauphin, pour expliquer la suite de la religion et les changements des empires (Paris: Mabre-Cramoisy, 1681)).

118 Ibid., chap. 6 (339–61).

119 Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs, 1: 196.

120 Bossuet, Discourse on Universal History, 5.

121 Ibid., 3.

122 Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs, 1: 196.

123 Voltaire, article on “Anciens et modernes,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 259.

124 Longinus, Traité du sublime, trans. Boileau, ed. Francis Goyet (Paris: Livre de poche, 1995), 150 (Paris: Thierry, 1674).

125 Dubos, Réflexions critiques, vol. 2, sect. 39, 566. The “English poet” is Addison (The Spectator, 3 Sept. 1711).

126 Dubos, Réflexions critiques, vol. 2, sect. 34, 499.

127 Ibid., sect. 34, 502.

128 Voltaire, An Essay on Epic Poetry, 308.

129 Voltaire, article on “Anciens et modernes,” in idem, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, 1: 259.

130 Meinecke, Historism, 89.

131 Arnaldo Momigliano, “The Rise of Antiquarian Research,” in idem, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 54–79.

132 Schlözer, August Ludwig, Vorstellung seiner Universal-Historie, repr. with introduction and commentary by Horst Walter Blanke (Waltrop: Spenner, 1997), 18 (2 vols., Göttingen: Dieterich, 1772–3).

133 See Escudier, Alexandre, “Theory and Methodology of History from Chladenius to Droysen: A Historiographical Essay,” in Ligota, C. R. and Quantin, J.-L., eds., History of Scholarship: A Selection of Papers from the Seminar on the History of Scholarship Held Annually at the Warburg Institute (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 437–85.

134 Ibid., 458.

135 Wilhelm Dilthey, “Friedrich Christoph Schlosser and the Problem of Universal History,” in idem, Hermeneutics and the Study of History, 307. This essay was originally published anonymously in 1862 in the Preussiche Jahrbücher.

136 Friedrich Christoph Schlosser, History of the Eighteenth Century, and of the Nineteenth, till the Overthrow of the French Empire, with Particular Reference to Mental Cultivation and Progress, trans. D. Davison, vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1843), 273 (Geschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts in gedrängter Übersicht (Heidelberg: J. C. B. Mohr, 1823)).

137 Ibid.

138 Ranke, Leopold von, Universal History (New York: Scribner's, 1884), xiii (Weltgeschichte, 16 vols. (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1881–8)).

139 See Moses, John A., “Ranke Revisited: The ‘Dubious’ Values of a Universal Historian,” Journal of Religious History 14/2 (1986), 178.

140 White, Hayden, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 55.

141 Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, translation revised by Weinsheimer, Joel and Marshall, Donald G. (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 200 (Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1960)).

142 Ibid., 208.

143 Ibid.

144 Ibid.

145 Ibid., 209.

146 Meinecke, Historism, 63.

147 Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, 197.

148 White, Hayden, “The Irrational and the Problem of Knowledge in the Enlightenment,” in Pagliaro, Harold E., ed., Irrationalism in the Eighteenth Century (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972), 303–21.

149 Carr defines history as “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Carr, E. H., What is History? 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1986; first published 1961), 24.

150 Gadamer, Truth and Method, 3–42 and 362–79.

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