V
THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY

T HE phrase 'philosophy of history' has come to have two narrow and widely divergent meanings: the first, that of an epistemological inquiry into the nature of historical truth; the second, speculation as to the 'meaning' or 'goal' of history or the pattern behind historical development. But there are other problems, too, problems associated with the purpose of the study of history, with historical change and causation, with determinism and free will, which, in the eighteenth century at any rate, cannot be dissociated from the first two. Voltaire is interested in them all.


The purpose and nature of history

One of the main features distinguishing modern historical writing from that of the seventeenth century is that history has become an end in itself rather than a medium of moral instruction. The desire to point a moral lesson had unfortunate effects on seventeenth- century historical writing. In the eighteenth century, traditionally minded historians like Rollin or Calmet insist on the moral purpose of history as much as did their predecessors, and Bolingbroke, when he coins his famous phrase 'history is philosophy teaching by examples' shows the same attitude. In 1769 Mopinot publishes his Morale de l'histoire, a veritable compendium of the moral lessons of history.

Nor can it be said that the philosophes, as a body, show a new approach to history. Diderot and D'Alembert both insist on its moral purpose.1 When Rousseau, in the Discours sur l'inégalité, announces his intention of leaving the facts on one side, he appears to be aiming at creating a new type of 'history', based not on the study of the past, but on the projection of one's own personality back into an imagined past. In reality, Rousseau is not as contemptuous of 'the facts' as his statement suggests. But the way in which this approach can diverge completely from history proper is

____________________
1
For Diderot's views, see xli. 77. For those of D'Alembert, see the Discours préliminaire de l'Encyclopédie, p. 45.

-95-

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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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