W HETHER or not Voltaire is, as some of his more enthusiastic admirers have asserted,1 the father of modern historical writing, he is certainly the most typical and the most universal of the historians of the Enlightenment. Moreover, recent studies have shown how unjustified was the nineteenth- century tendency to dismiss Enlightenment historiography as being fundamentally anti-historical.2 It is true that its exponents felt little reverence for the past, and that they rarely succeeded in dissociating themselves from the problems of their own times. It is true that their attachment to the mechanistic science and psychology of their age often led them to ignore the variations in human conduct throughout the centuries, and that their belief in the new society which they were attempting to create led to a contemptuous attitude towards earlier forms of society and, in particular, to a systematic disparagement of the Middle Ages. But if they were often lacking in historical imagination, they nevertheless brought about a profound revolution in historical thought. They created a new type of social history, interesting themselves in laws and constitutions, in economic progress, in the arts and sciences. They strove to separate history from legend and to make the past appear as rational as the present. They were unwilling to confine themselves within national traditions, or even within the European Christian tradition, but aimed at being truly universal and at showing how all nations had contributed to the progress of mankind.
If Enlightenment historiography was a natural result of the social and philosophical theories of the philosophes, it was also a conscious reaction against the historical writing of the previous century. The majority of seventeenth-century historians continued the humanist tradition of the Renaissance,3 and sought, above all, to follow the precepts of Cicero and the examples of Livy and Sallust. They aimed at moral instruction and artistic excellence. To achieve the____________________
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Publication information: Book title: Voltaire:Historian. Contributors: J. H. Brumfitt - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1958. Page number: 1.
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