II
VOLTAIRE AND HIS PREDECESSORS

I N some fields it is comparatively easy to find the sources of Voltaire's views. He himself tells us how much he owes to Locke and Newton or to Racine and Boileau. But no previous historian is the object of similar admiration, and some of those to whom we might expect him to pay homage -- Bayle and Fontenelle for example -- are frequently the object of his criticisms. Nevertheless, his own theory probably owes much to these men and to many others. It is important to ascertain the degree of his indebtedness to predecessors in order to be able to measure his own originality.


The humanist historians

The Histoire de Charles XII still has many affinities with the seventeenth-century tradition of historical writing. In later years Voltaire becomes much more critical of this tradition. He makes a whole series of criticisms of past historians in general, and though he does not always apply them specifically to the seventeenthcentury humanists, these criticisms do refer to weaknesses to which they are particularly prone. He attacks their credulity and lack of critical sense,1 their national and religious prejudices,2 their insignificant and useless details,3 their preoccupation with battles and genealogies,4 and their falsifications and defamations.5 He is equally scathing, too, about their harangues, portraits, and other outmoded rhetorical devices.6

However, he is by no means entirely consistent in his rejection of humanist standards. He is too much of an artist himself not to be attracted by stylistic merit, even when it is divorced from factual accuracy or 'philosophical' understanding. In consequence, his attitude, especially to individuals, often fluctuates. In his early and middle periods he often tends to judge historians on the basis of their literary merit. Later, he is more concerned with their

____________________
1
e.g. xiv. 182 and 319.
2
e.g. xxv. 170-1.
3
e.g. xiv. 202.
4
e.g. xxxviii. 394 and xii. 72.
5
e.g. xxvii. 266.
6
See pp. 161-3.

-26-

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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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