III
SOCIAL HISTORY

I N the Histoire de Charles XII the description of society, though not without importance, was secondary to the account of the life and adventures of the hero himself. We have already seen that in the controversies which follow the publication of the work, Voltaire comes to lay increasing stress on the social aspects of history. But whilst he is engaged in these controversies, he is also engaged in compiling material for the Siècle de Louis XIV. And from the beginning he insists that this work is going to be a history of a new type -- the history not of an individual but of an age. In his letters about the Siècle he attacks the traditional preoccupation with military matters:

Les batailles données, les révolutions des empires, sont les moindres parties de ce dessin; des escadrons et des bataillons battants ou battus, des villes prises et reprises, sont l'histoire de tous les temps.1

And he proposes to replace them with something very different:

Une écluse du canal qui joint les Deux-Mers, un tableau de Poussin, une belle tragédie...sont des choses mille fois plus précieuses que toutes les annales de cour et que toutes les relations de campagne.

Similar statements occur frequently in his correspondence.2 And he elaborates his ideas in a number of his published works. The Nouvelles considérations sur l'histoire of 1744 are a manifesto of the new attitude. Voltaire expresses his interest in questions of military and economic strength and political and social organization, and concludes:

En vain je lis les annales de France: nos historiens se taisent tous sur ces détails. Aucun n'a eu pour devise 'Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto'. Il faudrait donc, me semble, incorporer avec art ces connaissances utiles dans le tissu des événements. Je crois que c'est la seule manière d'écrire l'histoire moderne en vrai politique et en vrai philosophe.3

____________________
1
xxxiii. 513.
2
xxxiii. 506. See also xxxiii. 515, 474, and 483.
3
xvi. 140.

-46-

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Voltaire: Historian
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents ix
  • Abbreviations x
  • Introduction 1
  • I - Apprenticeship 5
  • II - Voltaire and His Predecessors 26
  • III - Social History 46
  • IV - Universal History 76
  • V - The Philosophy of History 95
  • VI - Historical Method 129
  • Conclusion 165
  • Bibliography 170
  • General Index 175
  • Index of References to Voltaire's Works 177
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