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Voltaire’s Historical Writings

With the exception of Gibbon, who for some strange reason has been transformed into a grandfatherly icon somewhat on the order of Dickens, 18th century historical writing has fallen out of the common currency for the intellectually literate. Hume’s History of England is probably the least read book of this over-edited and over-epigonized author. That it is available at all is due only to the efforts of a small politically motivated publisher in Indiana. Voltaire’s magnificent histories are all but unavailable in English. The one translation currently for sale is the life of Charles XII of Sweden, which, if the rendering of the title is any indication, is most likely inaccurate and dreadful.

Voltaire wrote a type of history that gained currency among Enlightenment writers, a history concerned with a commitment to factual truth and l’esprit philosophique or critical thinking. That spirit animated both Gibbon and Hume. It fits the tradition inaugurated by Machiavelli, Vasari and Vico and, importantly for Voltaire,  rescued history from various theodicies. Voltaire perhaps wished to establish a respect for historical truth as a hallmark of the scientific as opposed to the Christian view of the world. The spirit of historical accuracy was also of a mind with all the dictionaries and encyclopedias of the period. The Enlightenment saw a Continent-wide attempt to produce a canonical corpus of human knowledge. (The fault is that this attempt was all too often no more than an intellectual power grab. The product was less a canonical corpus of human knowledge than a monopolistic corpus of 18th century opinion.)

Despite the disclaimers in The Century of Louis XIV Voltaire writes a history that is moved by the great men who rule and sometimes transform their countries. Even the panorama of cultural accomplishment  he lovingly catalogues from the French Classical Age is credited almost solely to the enlightened patronage of Louis XIV. This approach was a conscious choice and very much unlike the historiography of our time. I speculate that Voltaire's choice lay in his opposition to the Roman church.  Anything that could serve the ends of undermining the popes would receive Voltaire's favorable notice. And since the French monarchy took on and ultimately slew the papacy, it earned its place in Voltaire's pantheon as the redemptive force of modern history. The book on Louis XV concludes with a portrait of the French monarch as possessed of an almost Molièresque wisdom and restraint in mediating the squabble between the Jansenists and the bishops over the papal bull, Unigenitus. Equally the credit for the expulsion and destruction of the Jesuits was a signal achievement on the part of Europe's rulers.

It is perhaps the French monarchy's role as an effective counterbalance to the imperial ambitions of the popes that accounts for the puzzling hagiographical side of Le Siècle de Louis XIV. Fénélon for one had recognized as early as 1694  that Louis XIV had squandered the immense wealth and military security that Richelieu had carefully garnered for France in a series of vainglorious and destructive wars and outrageous waste on personal ostentation. Even Voltaire had to recognize that the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes undid at a stroke a carefully balanced policy of religious toleration and would seal the doom of the French monarchy. His situation is not unlike that of Hobbes whose position appears paradoxical to the modern reader only because the modern reader is already convinced of the failure of monarchy and the superiority of representative democracy. Hobbes, the unabashed ideologue of the theory of absolutism that was the apparently successful political structure of 17th century France (Un roi, une foi, une loi), had before his eyes the hypocritical English parliamentarians who promoted the rights of the people and religious toleration but created an intolerant theocracy. Voltaire's enthusiasm for Locke and the Quakers was apparently not sufficient to disabuse him of the disaster that was Louis XIV.

Voltaire the propagandist and myth-maker appears in his assertion that there was no French civilization worth speaking of before the reign of Louis XIV and the emergence of Racine, Descartes and Lully. He completely ignores Francois I and the Renaissance École de Fontainbleau not to mention Rabelais, Montaigne and the rest.

Voltaire’s history shows that the gradual dying off of religious disputes did not end the devastating round of European wars. The religious wars were simply replaced by dynastic wars. However, his re-telling of the more farcical aspects behind the Jansenist and Quietist controversies and the outrage of the Albigensian Crusade are alone worth the price of admission. Voltaire clearly believes that religious intolerance such as led to Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes deprived France of some of its most talented citizens and contributed to the stunning French defeats in the War of Spanish Succession.

It is fascinating to read a nearly contemporaneous account of the discovery by Europeans that in the development of new technology they had far outstripped the rest of the world. During the British-French struggles of the War of 1741 (The War of Austrian Succession) and its aftermath the European powers found to their delight and surprise that even the strongest non-European empires were hopelessly backward in weapons development and military tactical knowledge and so powerless to prevent incursions by European armies. Voltaire still speaks with a certain degree of respect of India, China and the Ottoman Empire and his few comments on a European edge in adventuresomeness and commercial daring appear as benign as his obvious delight at the French victories over their English and Dutch nemeses. This respect would all but disappear in 19th century writers. The eighteenth century is like the third act in a great tragedy, the tipping point before the full fury of European colonialism would be unleashed on the world.