Voltaire as philosophical historian and historian of modernity
Whether from modern scholars or his contemporaries, most criticism of Voltaire’s history books boils down to one thing: Voltaire was not an academic historian. In his defence, he never claimed to be one, and his histories are all the more interesting for it. Voltaire’s histories have received renewed scholarly interest in recent years, and the Voltaire Foundation’s ‘Voltaire: historian of modernity’ research project began in 2015 with the aim of improving our understanding of Voltaire’s practice and influence as a contemporary historian of the early modern period and includes the set of critical editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts. This year heralds the completion of the Siècle de Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, and Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne multi-volume editions with the Précis du siècle de Louis XV following early next year.
Detractors such as August Ludwig Schlözer in the Göttingen School of academic history accused Voltaire of being less concerned with historical facts and rigorous scholarship than he was with narrative and readability (Annales de l’Empire, Introduction, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.44A, p.16). His authorial voice and his distinctive style were dominant, as was his constant insistence on philosophical readings of history, attempting to extract moral lessons from the past at every turn. Naturally, Voltaire’s defenders view precisely these characteristics as advantages of his approach. Pierre Rousseau, editor of the Journal encyclopédique, praised the Annales de l’Empire in 1754 for its ‘philosophical spirit’ and the ‘character of the author’ (vol.44A, p.29).
Furthermore, Voltaire’s presentism and philosophical bent constituted a deliberate move away from traditional histories, most notably Bossuet’s overtly Christian Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681) and those emanating from academic schools of history such as Göttingen. (For a direct comparison between Voltaire and Bossuet’s styles, see our article ‘Essai sur les mœurs: What Voltaire did differently’.) Voltaire leaned towards what we would today term popular history, writing a series of accessible, enjoyable books that delivered a wealth of historical knowledge and philosophical reasoning in an appealing package.
Admittedly, he did so with a generous helping of editorialising, but it helps if we understand the context from which these books were born. In the famed querelle of the Ancients and the Moderns, Voltaire was firmly on the side of the Moderns. This influenced the shape and purpose of his historical writings: he was a historian of modernity who placed far more emphasis on recent years than on antiquity. Voltaire’s presentist approach is evident in his flagship Siècle de Louis XIV, which helped secure him the title of Royal Historiographer in 1745, and his universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs, which devotes far more pages to recent episodes than it does to the great events of ancient history, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In the section of his 1744 Conseils à un journaliste entitled ‘Sur l’histoire’, Voltaire defends his presentism:
‘Foster above all in the young more taste for the history of recent times, which is for us a matter of necessity, rather than ancient history, which is merely a matter of curiosity.’
[‘Inspirez surtout aux jeunes gens plus de goût pour l’histoire des temps récents, qui est pour nous de nécessité, que pour l’ancienne, qui n’est que de curiosité.’ (vol.20A, p.482)]
As well as a historian of modernity, Voltaire was also a philosophical historian, meaning that his histories were part and parcel of his philosophical enterprise, namely the promotion of reason and tolerance. Voltaire accordingly invented this discipline of philosophical history for himself in La Philosophie de l’histoire (vol.59). These two disciplines were symbiotic: as a history of societies closer to his own, Voltaire believed that modern history had more instructive value from a philosophical standpoint, especially to young people. Even when writing about the distant past, as he does in the early chapters of the Essai and the Annales, Voltaire is always looking forward by asking the reader the question of ‘what can we, in the present, learn from all this?’
We have a series of short introductory articles for readers wishing to explore the Annales de l’Empire in more depth:
- Introduction to the Annales de l’Empire
- Gallery of emperors
- Voltaire’s Republic
- Voltaire and self-plagiarism
We have a similar series of introductory articles for the momentous work of universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations:
- Voltaire’s Universal history
- What Voltaire did differently
- Around the world in nine volumes
- Women in the Essai
 For a defence of Voltaire’s historical methodology, see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the Necessity of Modern History’, Modern Intellectual History, 6:3 (2009), 457–84.
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