essays

Sep 1, 1980

Voltaire’s Philosophical History

“Voltaire’s works incorporate objective narration which attempts to recreate events as they have actually occurred in the past.”

“Towards a Typology of Historical Discourse: The Case of Voltaire.” MLN 93(1978): 938–962.

A study of Voltaire’s historical method demonstrates how his writing dispels the general myth of history as a passive, mimetic discipline which focuses solely on the recreation of past events. Using Voltaire’s works as a model, Prof. O’Meara has isolated what she considers the three main components of written history: narration, commentary, and persuasion. Further research should demonstrate that these three modes of discourse exist in all historical writing—but in different forms and different proportions.

Like all histories, Voltaire’s works incorporate objective narration which attempts to recreate events as they have actually occurred in the past. However, Voltaire stresses that, in his brand of histoire philosophique, narration demands careful selection and organization of material. Voltaire despised the “fables” of ancient historians who recount uncritically the most unlikely exploits and miracles. As his standard of selection, Voltaire chooses la Nature, who, if we study her closely, provides us with grounds for eliminating exaggerated and even unseemly events. As reasonable as this may sound, a closer examination reveals that Voltaire’s concept of nature is strongly laced with bourgeois values andphilosophe rationalism. As a result, by the standard of “nature”, Voltaire sees fit to reject as unreasonable any account of incest in royal families.

Voltaire regarded history as a pedagogical tool whose primary usefulness lay in its power to mold the future. With his emphasis on the future rather than the past, he exerts considerable effort at persuading his readers to accept his views. He makes no overt attempt, however, to proselytize his audience. Instead, he relies on more or less subliminal techniques for implanting “reasonable” opinions.

One of Voltaire’s most subtle persuasive techniques involves citing “recognized” authorities with heterodox views whom he then opposes by weak assertions of established doctrine. In addition, Voltaire makes ample use of impersonal expressions and modal verbs to lend an air of self-evident authority to what are often highly debatable assertions. Il est clair, il est prouve, il est certain, etc., as well as the modal verbs falloir and pouvoir, are most often used to undermine the doctrines or social position of the Church. With this rhetorical technique, Voltaire implies that any objection to his statements is unthinkable.

The ability to distinguish among various modes of discourse in historical texts and to establish the dominance of one or the other in individual works of history will ultimately provide a new tool for developing a typology of historical discourse.