Back to top

Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations

Sous la direction de Bruno Bernard, John Renwick, Nicholas Cronk, Janet Godden

Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations is a monumental work which has changed the face of western historiography. Unique for its time, it encompasses in 197 chapters the history of Europe, Africa, America and Asia to cover all ages, all continents and all religions within the overall concept of a ‘universal history’. Voltaire’s approach to the writing of this history is radical and innovative: rather than recite the deeds of monarchs and religious leaders, his aim is to tell the story of human progress, in particular the progress of human reason.

Background of this new critical edition

One of Voltaire’s most important and influential works, the Essai preoccupied him over several decades. He began work in the early 1740s, and the first full edition published in 1756 was a best-seller. He continued expanding and revising the work for the rest of his life. This edition is based on the last version of the text authorised by Voltaire (1775), and explains the changes he made over a forty-year period. This first-ever full critical edition is the work of an international team of scholars and appears in volumes 21-27 of the Complete Works of Voltaire. This edition of the Essai sur les mœurs will be of interest to all historians and literary scholars of the European Enlightenment and its modern legacy.


‘Il faut souligner la rigueur philologique de cette édition, qui met à la disposition du lecteur un apparat critique et bibliographique considérable […] Cette nouvelle édition s’annonce d’ores et déjà comme un outil de travail indispensable pour étudier ce complexe et monumental ouvrage de Voltaire qui marque un clivage dans la manière traditionnelle d’écrire l’histoire.’

Luigi Delia, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger (January-March 2013)

‘[The Essai sur les mœurs] is a masterpiece of prose that pioneered many of the foundations of modern historical study. […] This rich, learned edition promises to become the foundation and impetus for a renewed exploration of both its distance and its proximity to our own shifting conceptions of cultural history.’

Saul Anton, H-France Review (April 2012)

Prefaces and indexes

The prefaces and indexes of all published volumes have been made available for free online.