Durant 1926: Les Délices: The Essay on Morals (Voltaire)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter V Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


V. Les Délices: The Essay on Morals

What was the cause of his new exile? That he had published in Berlin “the most ambitious, the most voluminous, the most characteristic, and the most daring of his works.” Its title was no small part of it: Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des Nations, et sur les principaux faits de l’histoire depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à Louis XIII—an Essay on the Morals and the Spirit of the Nations from Charlemagne to Louis XIII. He had begun it at Cirey for Mme. du Chatelet, spurred on to the task by her denunciation of history as she is writ. 

Voltaire was exiled for publishing his Essay on Morals in Berlin.

It is “an old almanac,” she had said. “What does it matter to me, a Frenchwoman living on my estate, to know that Egil succeeded Haquin in Sweden, and that Ottoman was the son of Ortogrul? I have read with pleasure the history of the Greeks and the Romans; they offered me certain pictures which attracted me. But I have never yet been able to finish any long history of our modern nations. I can see scarcely anything in them but confusion; a host of minute events without connection or sequence, a thousand battles which settled nothing. I renounced a study which overwhelms the mind without illuminating it.” 

At Cirey, Mme. du Chatelet had denounced history as it is written, and this spurred Voltaire to write this essay.

Voltaire had agreed; he had made his Ingenu say, “History is nothing more than a picture of crimes and misfortunes”; and he was to write to Horace Walpole (July 15, l768): “Truly the history of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, and many others, is much like reading the history of highway robbers.” But he had expressed to Mme. du Chatelet the hope that a way out might lie in applying philosophy to history, and endeavoring to trace, beneath the flux of political events, the history of the human mind. “Only philosophers should write history,” he said. “In all nations, history is disfigured by fable, till at last philosophy comes to enlighten man; and when it does finally arrive in the midst of this darkness, it finds the human mind so blinded by centuries of error, that it can hardly undeceive it; it finds ceremonies, facts and monuments, heaped up to prove lies.” “History,” he concludes, “is after all nothing but a pack of tricks which we play upon the dead”; we transform the past to suit our wishes for the future, and in the upshot “history proves that anything can be proved by history.” 

These remarks on history by Voltaire are brilliant. He saw history distorted by man to suit his wishes for the future.

He worked like a miner to find in this “Mississippi of falsehoods” the grains of truth about the real history of mankind. Year after year he gave himself to preparatory studies: a History of Russia, a History of Charles XII, The Age of Louis XIV, and The Age of Louis XIII; and through these tasks he developed in himself that unflagging intellectual conscience which enslaves a man to make a genius. “The Jesuit Père Daniel, who produced. a History of France, had placed before him in the Royal Library of Paris 1200 volumes of documents and manuscripts; spent an hour or so looking through them; and then, turning to Father Tournemine, the former teacher of Voltaire, dismissed the matter by declaring that all this material was ‘useless old paper which he had no need of for the purpose of writing his history.'”  Not so Voltaire: he read everything on his subject that he could lay his hands on; he pored over hundreds of volumes of memoirs; he wrote hundreds of letters to survivors of famous events; and even after publishing his works he continued to study, and improved every edition. 

Voltaire was very meticulous in studying in detail, the subject he was writing on.

But this gathering of material was only preparatory; what was needed was a new method of selection and arrangement. Mere facts would not do—even if, as so seldom happens, they were facts. “Details that lead to nothing are to history what baggage is to an army, impedimenta; we must look at things in the large, for the very reason that the human mind is so small, and sinks under the weight of minutiae.” “Facts'” should be collected by annalists and arranged in some kind of historical dictionary where one might find them at need, as one finds words. What Voltaire sought was a unifying principle by which the whole history of civilization in Europe could be woven on one thread; and he was convinced that this thread was the history of culture. He was resolved that, his history should deal, not with kings but with movements, forces, and masses; not with nations but with the human race; not with wars but with the march of the human mind. “Battles and revolutions are the smallest part of the plan; squadrons and battalions conquering or being conquered, towns taken and retaken, are common to ‘all history. … Take away the arts and the progress of the mind, and you will find nothing” in any age ”remarkable enough to attract the attention of posterity.” “I wish to write a history not of wars, but of society; and to ascertain how men lived in the interior of their families, and what were the arts which they commonly cultivated. … My object is the history of the human mind, and not a mere detail of petty facts; nor am I concerned with the history of great lords …; but I want to know what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization.” This rejection of Kings from history was part of that democratic uprising which at last rejected them from government; the Essai sur les Moeurs began the dethronement of the Bourbons. 

What Voltaire sought was a unifying principle by which the whole history of civilization in Europe could be woven on one thread; and he was convinced that this thread was the history of culture.

And so he produced the first philosophy of history—the first systematic attempt to trace the streams of natural causation in the development of the European mind; it was to be expected that such an experiment should follow upon the abandonment of supernatural explanations: history could not come into its own until theology gave way. According to Buckle, Voltaire’s book laid the basis of modern historical science; Gibbon, Niebuhr, Buckle and Grote were his grateful debtors and followers; he was the caput Nili of them all, and is still unsurpassed in the field which he first explored. 

Voltaire’s book laid the basis of modern historical science. History could not come into its own until theology gave way.

But why did his greatest book bring him exile? Because, by telling the truth, it offended everybody. It especially enraged the clergy by taking the view later developed by Gibbon, that the rapid conquest of paganism by Christianity had disintegrated Rome from within and prepared it to fall an easy victim to the invading and immigrating barbarians. It enraged them further by giving much less space than usual to Judea and Christendom, and by speaking of China, India and Persia, and of their faiths, with the impartiality of a Martian; in this new perspective a vast and novel world was revealed; every dogma faded into relativity; the endless East took on something of the proportions given it by geography; Europe suddenly became conscious of itself as the experimental peninsula of a continent and a culture greater than its own. How could it forgive a European for so unpatriotic a revelation? The King decreed that this Frenchman who dared to think of himself as a man first and a Frenchman afterward should never put foot upon the soil of France again. 

Voltaire’s greatest book bring him exile because by telling the truth, it offended everybody. In this new perspective a vast and novel world was revealed; every dogma faded into relativity; the endless East took on something of the proportions given it by geography…


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