Voltaire A History That Never Moved Essay — страница 3

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phenomena of life. By his reasoning, there must be some moral basis to life, some means of spurring the lives and minds of men. Thus there are some grounds for reason and some prospect for its progress, a progress that would alleviate the onerous tendencies of man to be destructive rather than creative, dogmatic rather than rational. *** How are we to ascertain what is important in history? By a method of selection, one has to eliminate the relevant from the needless. A monarch’s every detail is hardly enjoyable. “Everything which one reports must be true but I believe that one must suppress many useless and odious details”. Annalists should keep records available at shortest notice for the historian to find. But one is free to import some subjective inferences in the

material of presentation. Thus a tableau had to be gentle to sensibilities and sensible to the conscience. Oppressive turgidity was inexcusable, whilst extensive anecdotes were far more favourable. But never reveal all to the reader ? even progress. History should be seductive, delivered in the manner of a seductress. “The way to be a bore is to say everything”. Yet the method does not render history a coherent whole. Voltaire does not labour the point of a progressive essence behind history, other than to realise that the age he lives in is a remarkable age that must have derived from progression. This is the seminal paradox. Yet his history remains a chronology, not a progression. By no means could one assert that there are no forces that move history in Voltaire’s eyes.

They might lie in masses, though he does not trust revolution since revolution done in the name of reason is often executed by those least learned in reason itself. But because Voltaire relies on such media as the arts and manners, the question of a movement in history becomes difficult. Ambition and cruelty, heroism and neroism underscore progress. So the question is, do manners evolve, and once that is determined, Voltaire’s history is a progressive one. Otherwise it lies like a beautiful still picture of the march of man’s mind, but the march of man’s mind on the same canvass. ** * Voltaire’s greatest demonstration of historical adventure is found in the Essai sur les Moeurs et l’Esprit des Nations (1756). Its greatness is not based on the complete rigidity of

empirical findings, but breathtaking insight and a touch of the storyteller. But most importantly, it is the first truly monumental step in the history of the West in compiling a work that was truly universal in its outlook, universal not because it was universally European, but universally global. Two chapters are devoted to China, two to India, one to Persia, two to the Arabs, and a token mentioning of the Jews. Further more history assumes some form of the scientific. A historian is only as good as his materials. It was within these sources that Voltaire sought to enliven the mind, not because he necessarily refuted an empirical method, but because he refuted a distinct interpretation of history from without. He was the historian from within, the writer of an organic work

depicting inorganic phenomena. The concept of Voltaire’s peculiarly static basis of history partly lies in the institution of laws itself along with arts, manners and movements. Governments make laws so they limit freedom to shape our own histories. And there is religion itself. “True conquerors are those who know how to make laws. Their power is stable; others are torrents which pass,” he declares. The significance of this is that Voltairean history is a history delighted by the exploits of individuals, but also by the exploits of dynasties. The Chinese Empire, by being so pervasive for centuries, outshone the virtues of Carolingian France. His history is egalitarian. Yet the individual’s action is never coherent in a teleological sense, in the sense that there is some

deterministic setting that his actions occur in. The Voltairean emphasis on the colossal magnitude of empire and time seeks merely to entrench the notion of a history that is not linked, or enjoined by a purpose other than the purpose of existence itself. “Until the Catholic and Romantic reaction of the nineteenth century, it was Voltaire who furnished cultivated minds with their concept of the march of civilisation”. Space marches, but civilization merely moves. Ultimately the motivations for change in history have to occur by some human attitude. But Voltaire relies on virtue and vice as denominators of change. All men have honour for instance. This does not ever change. But virtue is rare amongst governments. Then Voltaire, as he did in his History of Louis XIV, emphasises