Voltaire and Johnson
Aug 01, 1994 12:30 PM
by Eldon B. Tucker
This is by Brenda Tucker.
Wow, thanks for your latest note. That looks like it may have been
a several years project.
In reading recently about Voltaire, I came across some mention of
the motives behind his work with recording history that might be of
interest in comparing THE MASTERS REVEALED with other books we have
For instance, Voltaire felt that history should be revealed within
the context of philosophy. When he wrote a play, it was not to
idealize the usually powerful, illustrious characters (quite often
Kings and Popes) but to teach about frailty, to make sense of
learning in the light of barbarism, to see if a lesson for all men
could be taught. He felt, as a cynic might, that happiness is not
the reward of the virtuous.
His choices in regard to what he could include in his history
(specifically 'Essai sur les moeurs' (Essay on Manners)) he could
not limit to chronology of dynasties, battles, or "details like
disputes over marriage contracts, genealogies and titles." (p. 34,
VOLTAIRE by Haydn Mason, London:Hutchinson, 1975) "This is to be a
history of peoples; kings will be of interest to the extent that
they have improved the living conditions of their subjects. In
short, Voltaire is writing a history of civilization."
His conclusions regarding a "plan" for the world is that in the
"heap of crimes, follies, and misfortunes, among which we have
noticed a few virtues, a few happy times..." progress is achieved.
(p. 36 IBID) In reviewing how far men make their own destiny, he
views "moral causes - human institutions and motives - as more
powerful than physical." (p.36)
Since the climate of his day is one of Enlightenment expressing
horror at the crimes of the Middle Ages, history is portrayed as
tragedy. It's curious that in Voltaire's time the French language
didn't even contain a word for civilization. Voltaire believed
that it was the genius and action of a single man standing against
the crowd that could produce greatness. Feudal institutions were
ineffectual compared to government and religion. But a single man,
compared to an organization, suffers much more terribly than the
ordinary man in his quest for progress.
Mason says, "It is the problem of the Enlightenment liberal,
seeking to inaugurate a more civilized way of life but dealing with
very imperfect institutions for accomplishing it, and wishing to
believe that man's rationality is more truly human than his
instincts." (p. 39 IBID) Voltaire has a "great man" theory, but
not to be simplistic admits that much can be contributed to the man
which is merely a conjecture of events.
Because Voltaire is a historian, he insisted upon valid sources.
The source could only be written, rarely oral. A written source if
extra-literary was also rarely used. As a result, "his standard of
accuracy in using sources is high," proved by Pomeau who checked
sections of the Essai. (p. 46 IBID) Others have come to the same
conclusion by checking his other writings.
Hope this stimulates some thought, if not some comments. (Of
course, not just from you, Paul.
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