History should be written as philosophy. –Voltaire
Voltaire, in many ways the paradigmatic Enlightenment intellectual, had a lifelong interest in history. And here, as in other fields, he was a severe critic of traditional ways of thinking.
He wrote in response to at least two important strains of pre-Enlightenment historical writing. The first was the Augustinian tradition, whose last great exponent was the Bishop Bossuet (1627–1704). In that tradition, which we first find expressed by the Old Testament prophets, the historical field is a chaos of meaningless, purposeless events; only the chosen people—first Israel, later the Church—have an intelligible history, and the reason it is intelligible is that it constitutes the ongoing revelation of God to man. For such a scholar, history moves in rhythms as well as in a linear progression. In the first instance, the chosen people are rewarded for their righteousness, and punished for their wickedness, in generational cycles; in the second, history moves inevitably toward the eschaton, where the just and the unjust will receive their final rewards, and the reign of God will be established on earth. The second tradition that Voltaire wrote against was the humanist tradition of the Renaissance, which, following Plutarch and Cicero, saw the historical field as a reservoir of moral instruction. On this model Alexander, Caesar, Pompey, etc., were worth reading about because they had set an inspiring example for future generations to imitate. This approach to history may be characterized as vaguely cyclical, in the sense that it encouraged one to re-enact the past in the present, but it was not fundamentally interested in discovering the logic of events, or how the past had been transformed into the present.
For Voltaire, studying the past served an entirely different moral purpose—that of providing negative examples. He rejected the Augustinian view of the past, and indeed the entire legacy of Christianity, as superstition and “priestcraft,” instructive only in the sense that it showed to what depths of unreason and superstition the mind could sink. In his "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" (1755) and later Candide (1759), Voltaire ridiculed the idea that the world (and thus history) had been ordered by a benevolent intelligence. Unmerited suffering was real, pervasive, and could not be explained away with cheap platitudes. The only worthwhile philosophy was the kind that taught people to avoid, or to overcome, such suffering.
The humanist tradition, on the other hand, erred by exalting the destroyers of humanity at the expense of the builders. The “great men of history” we find in such histories were generally not scientists, scholars, merchants, or, in general, people who contributed to the progress of civilization. They were barbarians and despots, whose only claim to be remembered was that they had killed more, and conquered more, than their rivals. Voltaire’s counter-examples to this tradition were his History of Charles XII (1732) and The Age of Louis XIV (1751), in which he inverted the examples of Alexander or Caesar, and showed how great kings had squandered the wealth of their country in futile wars. When Charles XII had come to the throne of Sweden it was one of the most powerful countries in Europe, but because of his love of fighting it was reduced to a second-rate, impoverished power. Similarly, Louis XIV exhausted France with his immense building projects, his endless dynastic wars, and by persecuting the most industrious members of his kingdom, the Huguenots. “The goal of this work,” he said in the preface to the latter, “is not to know the exact year in which the brutal ruler of a barbaric people was succeeded by a prince unworthy of being known.” The true spirit of history was to record the progress of Reason in the face of its implacable foes: barbarism and superstition.
Further, he was critical of the antiquarian strains in both Christian and humanist thought. Both traditions assumed that anything worth doing, saying, or thinking, had been done, said, or thought first by the ancients. On this view all modern history was, at best, a re-enactment of what had come before, and at worst a degradation—there was therefore no point in “modern history,” as such. The history of the ancients was always preferable. Voltaire, however, preferred modern history on the grounds that it was more recent, and as such easier to study. Eye witnesses could be found, and archived examined. It was also easier to imagine the world of Charles XII or Louis XIV because one did not really have to imagine it at all—it was the world one already knew. That of Alexander and Caesar was, by contrast, distant and strange. One could never be quite certain that one had got it right. Further, the study of recent as opposed to ancient history was destabilizing to the very idea that the ancients had set the standard for all future generations, for it invited comparison, and in that comparison the moderns might show their superiority. Voltaire was thus carrying forward the Enlightenment project of Reason simply by studying the world around him, as he found it, rather than consulting ancient authorities.
Voltaire was more optimistic than Gibbon, but less so than Condorcet. History seemed to him a struggle between reason and unreason, but with no foreordained outcome, either toward defeat (as in Gibbon) or toward victory (as in Condorcet.) In that sense, Voltaire always wrote for the present—to put the weight of his own opinions into the scales, on the side of the Reason, and against its implacable enemies.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.