IV. THE NEW HISTORY

An eyewitness of Lekain’s performance in Voltaire’s Sémiramis described the author’s appearance there:

Not the least part of the exhibition was Voltaire himself, seated against a first wing, in view of all the audience, applauding like one possessed, now with his cane, now by exclamations—“It could not be better! … Ah, mon Dieu, how well that was done!” … So little was he able to control his enthusiasm that when Lekain left the stage … he ran after him … A more comic incongruity could not be imagined, for Voltaire resembled one of those old men of comedy—his stockings rolled upon his knees, and dressed in the costume of the “good old times,” unable to sustain himself on his trembling limbs except with the aid of a cane. All the marks of old age are imprinted upon his countenance; his cheeks are hollow and wrinkled, his nose prolonged, his eyes almost extinguished.33

Amid theatricals, politics, visitors, and gardening, he found time to complete and publish at Les Délices two major works, one notorious for alleged indecency, the other marking a new epoch in the writing of history.

La Pucelle had been with him, as a literary recreation, ever since 1730. Apparently he had no intention of publishing it, for it not only made fun of the heroic Maid of Orléans, but satirized the creed, crimes, rites, and dignitaries of the Catholic Church. Friends and enemies added to the circulating manuscripts bits of obscenity and hilarity that even Voltaire would not have put upon paper. Now, in 1755, just as he was finding peace in Geneva, there appeared in Basel a pirated and garbled version of the poem. This was banned by the Pope, was burned by the Paris Parlement, and was confiscated by the Geneva police; a Paris printer was sent to the galleys for reissuing it in 1757. Voltaire denied authorship; he sent to Richelieu, Mme. de Pompadour, and some government officials copies of a relatively decent text; in 1762 he published this, and suffered no molestation for it. He tried to atone to Jeanne d’Arc by giving a fairer and soberer account of her in his Essai sur les moeurs.34

That Essai was intended as his chef-d’oeuvre, and was also in one sense a monument to the mistress whose memory he revered. He had accepted as a challenge the contempt that Mme. du Chátelet had poured upon such modern historians as she knew:

What does it matter to me, a Frenchwoman living on my estate, to know that Egil succeeded Haquin in Sweden, and that Ottoman was the son of Ortogrul? I have read with pleasure the history of the Greeks and the Romans; they offered me certain great pictures which attracted me. But I have never yet been able to finish any long history of our modern nations. I can see scarcely anything in them but confusion: a host of minute events without connection or sequence, a thousand battles which settled nothing.… I renounced a study which overwhelms the mind without illuminating it.35

Voltaire agreed with her, but he knew that this was only history as written. He mourned the diverse transmogrifications of the past by current prejudices; in this sense “history … is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.”36 IV And yet to ignore history would be to endlessly repeat its errors, massacres, and crimes. There are three avenues to that large and tolerant perspective which is philosophy: one is the study of men in life through experience; another, the study of things in space through science; a third, the study of events in time through history. Voltaire had attempted the second by studying Newton; now he turned to the third. As early as 1738 he laid down a new principle: “ll faut écrire l’histoire en philosophe”—one must write history as a philosopher.38 So he suggested to the Marquise:

If amid so much material rude and unformed you should choose wherewith to construct an edifice for your own use; if, while leaving out all the details of warfare, … all the petty negotiations which have been only useless knavery; … if, while preserving those details that paint manners, you should form out of that chaos a general and well-defined picture; if you should discover in events the history of the human mind, would you believe you had lost your time?39

He worked on the project intermittently for twenty years, reading voraciously, making references, gathering notes. In 1739 he drew up for Mme. du Chátelet an Abrégé de Phistoiregénérale; in 1745–46 parts of this were printed in Le Mercure de France; in 1750 he issued his History of the Crusades; in 1753, at The Hague, the Abrégé appeared in two volumes, in 1754 in three; finally at Geneva in 1756 the full text was published in seven volumes as Essai sur Phistoiregénérale; this contained Le Siécle de Louis XIV and some preliminary chapters on Oriental civilizations. In 1762 he added a Précis du Siécle de Louis XV. The edition of 1769 established Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours as the definitive title. The word moeursmeant not only manners and morals but customs, ideas, beliefs, and laws. Voltaire did not always cover all these topics, nor did he record the history of scholarship, science, philosophy, or art; but in the large his book was a brave approach to a history of civilization from the earliest times to his own. The Oriental portions were sketchy preludes; the fuller account began with Charlemagne, where Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1679) had left off. “I want to know,” wrote Voltaire, “what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization”—by which he meant the passage from the Middle Ages to “modern” times.40

He gave credit to Bossuet for attempting a “universal history,” but he protested against conceiving this as a history of the Jews and the Christians, and of Greece and Rome chiefly in relation to Christianity. He pounced upon the bishop’s neglect of China and India, and his conception of the Arabs as mere barbarian heretics. He recognized the philosophic endeavor of his predecessor in seeking a unifying theme or process in history, but he could not agree that history can be explained as the operation of Providence, or by seeing the hand of God in every major event. He saw history rather as the slow and fumbling advance of man, through natural causes and human effort, from ignorance to knowledge, from miracles to science, from superstition to reason. He could see no Providential design in the maelstrom of events. Perhaps in reaction to Bossuet he made organized religion the villain in his story, since it seemed to him generally allied with obscurantism, given to oppression, and fomenting war. In his eagerness to discourage fanaticism and persecution Voltaire weighted his narrative as heavily in one direction as Bossuet had in the other.

In his new cosmopolitan perspective, made possible by the progress of geography through the reports of explorers, missionaries, merchants, and travelers, Europe assumed a more modest position in the panorama of history. Voltaire was impressed by “the collection of astronomical observations made during nineteen hundred successive years in Babylonia, and transferred by Alexander to Greece”;41 he concluded that there must have been, along the Tigris and Euphrates, a widespread and developed civilization, usually passed over with a sentence or two in such histories as Bos-suet’s. Still more was he moved by the antiquity, extent, and excellence of civilization in China; this, he thought, “places the Chinese above all the other nations of the world.… Yet this nation and India, the most ancient of extant states, … which had invented nearly all the arts almost before we possessed any of them, have always been omitted, down to our own time, in our pretended universal histories.”42 It pleased the anti-Christian warrior to find and to present so many great cultures so long antedating Christianity, quite unacquainted with the Bible, and yet producing artists, poets, scientists, sages, and saints generations before the birth of Christ. It delighted the irate, moneylending anti-Semite to reduce Judea to a very small role in history.

He made some efforts to be fair to the Christians. In his pages not all the popes are bad, not all the monks are parasites. He had a good word for popes like Alexander III, “who abolished vassalage, … restored the rights of the people, and chastised the wickedness of crowned heads”;43 and he admired the “consummate courage” of Julius II, and “the grandeur of his views.”44 He sympathized with the efforts of the papacy to establish a moral power checking the wars of states and the injustices of kings. He admitted that the bishops of the Church, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, were the ablest governors in that disintegrating, reintegrating age. Moreover,

in those barbaric times, when the peoples were so wretched, it was a great consolation to find in the cloisters a secure retreat against tyranny.45 … It cannot be denied that there were great virtues in the cloister; there was hardly a monastery which did not contain admirable beings who did honor to human nature. Too many writers have made it a pleasure to search out the disorders and vices with which these refuges of piety were sometimes stained.46

But by and large Voltaire, caught with the embattled Encyclopedists in a war against the Catholic Church in France, emphasized the faults of Christianity in history. He minimized the persecution of Christians by Rome, and anticipated Gibbon in reckoning this as far less frequent and murderous than the persecution of heretics by the Church. He gave another lead to Gibbon in arguing that the new religion had weakened the Roman state. He thought that priests had usurped power by propagating absurd doctrines among ignorant and credulous people, and by using the hypnotic power of ritual to deaden the mind and strengthen these delusions. He charged that popes had extended their sway, and had amassed wealth, by using documents such as the “Donation of Constantine,” now generally admitted to be spurious. He declared that the Spanish Inquisition and the massacre of the heretical Albigenses were the vilest events in history.

The Middle Ages in Christendom seemed to him a desolate interlude between Julian and Rabelais; but he was among the first to recognize the debt of European thought to Arab science, medicine, and philosophy. He praised Louis IX as the ideal of a Christian king, but he saw no nobility in Charlemagne, no sense in Scholasticism, no grandeur in the Gothic cathedrals, which he dismissed as “a fantastic compound of rudeness and filigree.” His hunted spirit could not be expected to appreciate the work of the Christian creed and priesthood in forming character and morals, preserving communal order and peace, promoting nearly all the arts, inspiring majestic music, embellishing the life of the poor with ceremony, festival, song, and hope. He was a man at war, and a man cannot fight well unless he has learned to hate. Only the victor can appreciate his enemy.

Was he correct in his facts? Usually, but of course he made mistakes. The Abbé Nonnotte published two volumes, Erreurs de Voltaire, and added some of his own.47 Robertson, himself a great historian, was impressed by Voltaire’s general accuracy in so wide a field.48 Covering so many subjects in so many countries through so many centuries, Voltaire made no pretense of confining himself to original documents or contemporary sources, but he used his secondary authorities with discrimination and judicious weighing of the evidence. He made it a rule to question any testimony that seemed to contradict “common sense” or the general experience of mankind. Doubtless he would have confessed today that the incredibilities of one age may be accepted routine in the next, but he laid it down as a guiding principle that “incredulity is the foundation of all knowledge.”49 So he anticipated Barthold Niebuhr in rejecting the early chapters of Livy as legendary; he laughed Romulus, Remus, and their alma mater wolf out of court; he suspected Tacitus of vengeful exaggerations in describing the vices of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and Caligula; he doubted Herodotus and Suetonius as retailers of hearsay, and he thought Plutarch too fond of anecdotes to be entirely reliable; but he accepted Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius as trustworthy historians. He was skeptical of monkish chronicles, but he praised Du Cange and the “careful” Tillemont and the “profound” Mabillon. He refused to continue the ancient custom of imaginary speeches, or the modern custom of historical “portraits.” He subordinated the individual in the general stream of ideas and events, and the only heroes he worshiped were those of the mind.

In the Essai and elsewhere Voltaire suggested rather than formulated his philosophy of history. He wrote a “Philosophie de l’histoire,” and prefixed it to an edition of the Essai in 1765. He had an aversion to “systems” of thought, to all attempts to squeeze the universe into a formula; he knew that facts have sworn eternal enmity to generalizations; and perhaps he felt that any philosophy of history should follow and derive from, rather than precede and decide, the recital of events. Some wide conclusions, however, emerged from his narrative: that civilization preceded “Adam” and “the Creation” by many thousands of years; that human nature is fundamentally the same in all ages and lands, but is diversely modified by different customs; that climate, government, and religion are the basic determinants of these variations; that the “empire of custom is far larger than that of nature”;50 that chance and accident (within the universal rule of natural laws) play an important role in generating events; that history is made less by the genius of individuals than by the instinctive operations of human multitudes upon their environment; that in this way are produced, bit by bit, the manners, morals, economies, laws, sciences, and arts that make a civilization and produce the spirit of the times. “My principal end is always to observe the spirit of the times, since it is that which directs the great events of the world.”51

All in all, as Voltaire saw it in his “Récapitulation,” history (as generally written) was a bitter and tragic story.

I have now gone through the immense scene of revolutions that the world has experienced since the time of Charlemagne; and to what have they tended? To desolation, and the loss of millions of lives! Every great event has been a capital misfortune. History has kept no account of times of peace and tranquillity; it relates only ravages and disasters.… All history, in short, is little else than a long succession of useless cruelties, … a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes, among which we have now and then met with a few virtues, and some happy times, as we see sometimes a few scattered huts in a barren desert.… As nature has placed in the heart of man interest, pride, and all the passions, it is no wonder that … we meet with almost a continuous succession of crimes and disasters.52

This is a very dyspeptic picture, as if composed amid those fretful days in Berlin, or amid the indignities and frustrations of Frankfurt. The picture might have been brighter if Voltaire had spent more of his pages in reporting the history of literature, science, philosophy, and art. As the picture stands, one wonders why Voltaire went to so much trouble to depict it at such length. He would have answered: to shock the reader into conscience and thought, and to stir governments to remold education and legislation to form better men. We cannot change human nature, but we can modify its operations by saner customs and wiser laws. If ideas have changed the world, why may not better ideas make a better world? So, in the end, Voltaire moderated his pessimism with hope for the dissemination of reason as a patient agent in the progress of mankind.

The faults of the Essai sur les moeurs were soon pointed out. Not only Nonnotte but Larcher, Guénée, and many others pounced upon its errors of fact, and the Jesuits had no trouble in exposing its distorting bias. Montesquieu agreed with them in this regard; “Voltaire,” he said, “is like the monks who write not for the sake of the subject that they treat, but for the glory of their order; he writes for his convent.”53 Voltaire replied to his critics that he had stressed the sins of Christianity because others were still defending them; he quoted contemporary authors who commended the crusades against the Albigenses, the execution of Huss, even the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; the world surely needed a history that would brand these actions as crimes against humanity and morality.54—Perhaps, with all his illuminating conception of how history should be written, Voltaire mistook the function of the historian; he sat in judgment on each person and event, and passed sentence on them like some Committee of Public Safety pledged to protect and advance the intellectual revolution. And he judged men not in terms of their own disordered time and restricted knowledge, but in the light of the wider knowledge that had come since their death. Written sporadically over a score of years, amid so many distracting enterprises and tribulations, the Essai lacked continuity of narrative and unity of form, and it did not quite integrate its parts into a consistent whole.

But the merits of the Essai were numberless. Its range of knowledge was immense, and testified to sedulous research. Its bright style, weighted with philosophy and lightened with humor, raised it far above most works of history between Tacitus and Gibbon. Its general spirit alleviated its bias; the book is still warm with love of liberty, toleration, justice, and reason. Here again, after so many lifeless, credulous chronicles, historiography became an art. In one generation three more histories transformed past events into literature and philosophy: Hume’s History of England, Robertson’s History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire— all of them indebted to the spirit, and in part to the example, of Voltaire. Michelet wrote gratefully of the Essai as “this History which made all historiography, which begot all of us, critics and narrators alike.”55 And what are we doing here but walking in the path of Voltaire?

When the Seven Years’ War ranged France against Frederick, Voltaire’s latent love of his country rose again, perhaps mingled with old memories of Frankfurt and a new distrust of Geneva. After d’Alembert’s article, and the retreat of the Geneva clergy from the audacities to which it had pledged them, Voltaire felt as unsafe in Switzerland as in France. When could he return to his native soil?

For once fortune favored him. The Duc de Choiseul, who enjoyed the exile’s books, became minister of foreign affairs in 1758; Mme. de Pompadour, though in physical decline, was at the height of her influence, and had forgiven Voltaire’s gaucheries; now the French government, while the King dallied in his seraglio, could wink at the terrible heretic’s re-entry into France. In October, 1758, he moved three and a half miles out of Switzerland, and became the patriarch of Ferney. He was sixty-four and still near death; but he ranged himself against the strongest power in Europe in the most basic conflict of the century.


I. There were many Tronchins, chiefly: (1) Jean Robert, banker and procureur general of Geneva; (2) Jakob, councilor; (3) Francois, author and painter; (4) Theodore, physician. “Tronchin” will mean Theodore unless otherwise stated.

II. It is still there (1965), much reduced in area, but maintained by the city of Geneva as the Institut et Musée Voltaire.

III. It is now (1965) an art gallery, with some minor relics of Voltaire.

IV. It was apparently Fénelon, not Voltaire, who said that “l’histoire n’est qu’une fable convenue” (history is nothing but a fable agreed upon).37 The agreement is not evident.

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