O’Brien, Karen — Narratives of Enlightenment

9780521465335Introduction: cosmopolitanism, narrative, history

Cosmopolitan history:

“‘Cosmopolitanism’ is no longer a term much favoured by intellectual historians: as an idea, it seems to lack intellectual content; as a category of political thought, it has no referent. [footnote: “the last investigation of this idea was Thomas J. Schlereth]. The term is occasionally invoked by literary and cultural historians of the eighteenth century in connection with neoclassical notions of taste, the language of bourgeois political aspirations or aristocratic consumer preferences. [footnote: for example Gerald Newman The Rise of English Nationalism 1987; J. Pappas “The Revolt of the Philosophes against Aristocratic Tastes”, Culture and Revolution by Dukes and Dunkley, 1990]. I have revived the term for the purposes of this study because it simultaneously encapsulates an attitude of detachment towards national prejudice (often described as an ‘impartial’ or ‘philosophical’ attitude in other studies of these historians), and an intellectual investment in the idea of a common European civilisation” (O’Brien 1997, 2).

Voltaire understood this civilisation in cultural rather than political terms. Voltaire mounted a cosmopolitan critique of his own national history (siècle de Louis XIV, siècle de Louis XV) which he re-evaluated in his general history of the world Essai sur les moeurs.

“Cosmopolitanism is thus a point of orientation for these historians, and, frequently, an impetus to irony at the expense of the partialities and accidents which lie behind those reassuring stories which nations tell to themselves. It is also, in the work of some eighteenth-century historians, an identity-prescription for their readers: Europe, it is implied, must remain part of the structure of their self-awareness as French, British or American subjects or citizens. (3)

“A national self, it is often held, needs a negative counter-image of the ‘other’ to give it definition and psychological purchase… Yet, as I shall argue, such straightforward antinomies of patriotism and cosmopolitanism appear to dissolve when tested against the work of some of the eighteenth century’s most prestigious and popular national historians” (O’Brien 1997, 4)

18th-century historians wrote in a fundamentally literary way. “The rhetorical model, in particular, helps to explain the nature of the presence of eighteenth-century historians in their own texts both as political persuaders and orchestrators of their readers’ aesthetic responses. History was also understood in this period, in related but non-rhetorical ways, as a form of spectacle designed to awaken the imagination and stimulated the sensibility.” (7)

National contexts:

“The cosmopolitan approach to questions of national history in the writings of Voltaire, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and Ramsay updated and put a new polemical spin on older, humanist notions of the European inheritance of a common cultural identity from the ancient Roman world (the translatio studii)” (12-13).

“My chapter on Voltaire explores the literary and ideological backgrounds to these innovations, and explains how Voltaire’s rejection of traditional dynastic and public law-based discourses of French nationality opened the way for a new critical and cosmopolitan reading of French and, later, global history according to aesthetic rather than political norms.” (13)

voltaire1Voltaire’s neoclassical poetics of history

“As meta-historical investigations of the cognitive problems of retelling the past, they contribute something to contemporary French philosophical debate… It was the thematic concerns of Voltaire’s histories, which centred upon the evolution and existence of a unique, common European civilisation, that particularly attracted an international readership.” (22)

At the time, history was depreciated by sceptics or Pyrrhonians rejecting Descartes’ rationalist solutions.

“Voltaire’s solution to the poverty of national history and to the philosophical depreciation of history was… to effect a closer rapprochement between history and literature” (26) “By arranging his histories within identifiable literary structures…, Voltaire hoped to annex similar prestige to history. Voltaire also imported from neoclassical theory the notion of ‘vraisemblance’ which encapsulated the moral and aesthetic requirement that literature should treat only of the natural and probable, and never of the fantastic, trivial or debased.” (26) “Voltaire also embraced the ethical function performed by neoclassical literature; like poetry, history must assert civilised standards, and harmonise moral, social and aesthetic values.”

The narrative of Europe

The Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations“explores the contradictory relationship between the arts, the philosophical spirit, and the evolution of civilisation in Europe. Moreover, it attempts to do so in ways which will erode national partialities… Despite its declared ambition to supply an overview of the development of civilisation, the Essai is essentially an agglomeration of a number of national histories held together by a (sometimes fragile) narrative thread… The unity of these national histories, Voltaire explains in the summary ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire’ (1756), is to be found, not at the level of master narrative, but in the pre-cognitive drive to civilisation inherent in all men and women:

Au milieu de ces saccagements et de ces destructions que nous observons dans l’espace de neuf cent années, nous voyons un amour de l’ordre qui anime en secret le genre humain, et qui a prévenu sa ruine totale. C’est un des ressorts de la nature, qui reprend toujours sa force : c’est lui qui a formé le code des nations. (II, 808: 1756, XVI, 149)

Man’s creative love of order, which has affinities with the historian’s own artistic quest for form in variety, fashions and sustains the delicate and slow process of civilisation: ‘Il est aisé de … conclure … avec quelle lenteur la raison humaine se forme’ (II, 87: 1756, XII, 315).” (46)

“Avec quelle lenteur, avec quelle difficulté le genre humain se civilise, et la société se perfectionne !” (II, 724 : 1756, XIV, 231) 46)

« L’empire de la coutume est bien plus vaste que celui de la nature ; il s’étend sur les mœurs, sur tous les usages ; il répand la variété sur la scène de l’univers : la nature y répand l’unité ; elle établit partout un petit nombre de principes invariables : ainsi le fonds est partout le même, et la culture produit des fruits divers. (1756, II, 810) (47)

In Voltaire’s account, an Enlightenment narrrative on the rise of Europe, the Church is playing a role in the civilising process “on sentait qu’elle … était faite pour donner des leçons aux autres”) and an intermediate power in the states where it operates : « un frein qui retienne les souverains » (I, 492, 529 : 1756, XI, 263) (48-49)

A large part is left to non-Western accounts, particularly China, and Japan.

“Nos peuples occidentaux ont fait éclater dans toutes ces découvertes une grande supériorité d’esprit et de courage sur les notions orientales… Mais la nature leur avait donné sur nous un avantage qui balance tous les nôtres : c’est qu’elles n’avaient nul besoin de nous, et que nous avions besoin d’elles. (II, 325 : 1756, XIII, 207)”

The East is essential to the self-understanding of the West.


“As he retouched the Essai, Voltaire became more preoccupied with the ironies of causality in history, and less interested in its (ultimately relatively civilised) outcome. Narrative connectives are traded for a satirical sense of necessity. The rudimentary causal coherence, which Voltaire originally found in the history of the world, starts to look like a Panglossian fantasy. Voltaire now sees only an unpredictable game of consequences (the word he uses to convey this is ‘enchaînement’). François I’s death of the new world disease, syphilis, is presented, in 1761, as an example of this ironically treacherous ‘enchaînement’:

C’est ainsi que les évènements son enchaînés: un pilote génois donne un univers à l’Espagne ; la nature a mis dans les îles de ces climats lointains un poison qui infecte les sources de la vie ; et il faut qu’un roi de France en périsse. (II, 201)

The term ‘enchaînement’ conveys an idea of human helplessness in the face of meaningless fatality : ‘il paraît un enchaînement fatal des causes qui entrainent les hommes comme les vents poussent les sables et les flots’ (II, 784: 1756, XIV, 319). The use of the term ‘enchaînement’ also carries with it an indirect attack on Catholic providential history of the kind most famously exemplified by Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681). Bossuet uses the term ‘enchaînement’ to denote the divine order in which God simulates logical cause-effect relationships in order to give man a sense of the moral intelligibility of the world. Or as Bossuet phrases it:

Ce mesme Dieu qui a fait l’enchaisnement de l’Univers … a voulu aussi que le cours des choses humaines eust sa suite et ses proportions.

Voltaire’s use of the word ‘enchainement’ suggests a parodic reworking of theocentric universal history. Bossuet’s God, by acting directly upon human passions, produces a historical order identical to the providential order, whereas Voltaire’s ‘enchaînement’ reveals a moral sequence discontinuous with or in ironic relation to the historical one.” (52-53).


About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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