IV
UNIVERSAL HISTORY

V OLTAIRE'S dissatisfaction with his predecessors' failure to describe and explain what was most interesting in the development of a society is paralleled by his disapproval of those 'universal' historians whose universe was, in reality, but a small corner of the globe, and who confined history within the narrow temporal limits imposed by a literal interpretation of the Bible.1 But if the Essai sur les mœurs attempts, from the beginning, to offer an alternative view, this alternative is only fully developed in the last period of Voltaire's life. This is the Ferney period, the period in which his advocacy of deism and his opposition to catholicism are at their most outspoken. In many of his writings at this time deist propaganda and historical investigation are inextricably mixed, and works like the Philosophie de l'histoire or the Fragments historiques sur l'Inde often lack the impartiality of the Siècle or the Essai. But they nevertheless contain views of great importance.

One of Voltaire's greatest achievements is his success in replacing Bossuet's picture of the history of the world with one which, in its general outlines, is that of historians of the present day. There are, of course, many blank patches in his picture. If he feels that Asia is as important as Europe, he knows relatively little about Asian history; and if he senses that the development of civilization took a vast amount of time, he can only conjecture as to the stages of that development. But in extending the bounds of history both spatially and temporally, he does much to prepare the way for later historians who are to explore the new territories which he has charted.


Cosmopolitan history

In many ways Voltaire seems remarkably well equipped for writing a more cosmopolitan type of history free from the national prejudices for which he justly reproaches many of his predecessors. Though he is essentially French, bonds of sympathy attach him to

____________________
1
See p. 32.

-76-

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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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