Within Voltaire's multiple facets, his role as historian stands out. His historical works, beyond the facts or events that they collect, are permeated by his philosophical ideas, which increases the interest in analyzing them. Although with current criteria we could not consider the French thinker as a true historian (he tends more to philosophy and pretends to be a reformer rather than a rapporteur), his pedagogical intent and his rigorous and critical work method exerted a strong influence on the historiography of his work. time.
François-Marie Arouet was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris, the son of a notary from a wealthy bourgeois family from Poitou, who held minor positions in the French Treasury. He studied at the Paris Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand, where he already showed his literary precocity and his intelligence, as well as his critical and satirical spirit. He then began, forced by his father, the law career at the University, studies that he abandoned shortly after (in 1711) to devote himself entirely to his great passion, literary activity. During these years he will begin to write his first odes and to prepare what will be his initial tragic work, Oedipus .
In 1717 he wrote the satirical work Puero Regnante against the figure of the regent, which earned him his arrest and imprisonment in the Bastille. During the eleven months he was held he concluded Oedipus and began to write the Henriade , dedicated to Henry IV. Once his freedom was regained and after the success obtained with the publication of Oedipus , he decided to sign his works under the pseudonym Voltaire. It is not clear why he adopted this name and the most widespread version is that it is an approximate anagram of his surname Arouet de he.
His comments and satires of him got Voltaire into trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion. In 1726 he had an altercation with the Chevalier de Rohan and his family, as a result of which he was beaten and re-entered the Bastille. This time he only remained in the Parisian prison for a few weeks, since his sentence was commuted to exile. Voltaire decided to settle in England, a country that will make a deep impression on him and where he will get to know the thought of the great English intellectuals such as Locke, Newton or Hume, in addition to coming into contact with Lord Bolingbroke, Swift or Pope.
In 1729 he returned to Paris and in the following years he composed the tragedies Brutus (1730), Zaire (1732) and the historical work Historia de Carlos XII (which he had already projected during his stay in England). Five years after his return, in 1734, he is again immersed in a scandal that forces him to flee the French capital:this time, because of the publication of the English Letters or Philosophical Letters in which he extolled English customs and harshly criticized the despotism and intolerance prevailing in France. The Parliament of Paris prohibited the work and demanded that the copies be burned. Voltaire took refuge in the castle of Cirey-sur-Blaise (in the Lorraine region) together with the one who would be his mistress for the next fifteen years, Mme. de Châtelet, and there he devoted himself to the study of Newton's work and the writing of Zadig . Years later the royal pardon would arrive and he would be appointed historiographer of France (1745) and member of the French Academy (1746).
The death of Mme. de Châtelet in the year 1749 made Voltaire choose to change scenery and accept the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia to settle at the court of Potsdam, where he remained for three years and composed such important works as Micromegas or The century of Louis XIV . As if it were a constant in the life of the French thinker, the publication of the satire Diatribe of Doctor Akakia he fell out with the monarch and, once again, he had to leave German territory, settling, not without first overcoming some other difficulty, in Geneva.
In the Swiss city he will write two of his best-known works Essay on customs (1756) and Candide (1759). The moral rigidity of the Genevans caused him to move back to the town of Ferney, near the Franco-Swiss border. He eighteen years he will remain there, become one of the most outstanding thinkers and maintaining an abundant correspondence with the great men of his time. The works he wrote during these years focus on attacking the intolerance and intransigence of his contemporaries, especially on religious issues; among them the Treatise on Tolerance (1763) and the Philosophical Dictionary (1764). Shortly before he died he returned to Paris for the premiere of his drama Irene , being the object of an apotheosis reception. He died on May 30, 1778, at eighty-four years of age.
Within Voltaire's abundant historical production we can distinguish (not without certain reservations) two types of works:those that deal with events that have occurred in history and those that deal with history itself . The latter, which could include Observations on History (1742) or New considerations on History (1744), are more abstract and personal and delimit the historiographical conception of the French thinker. The former make up a heterogeneous and broad set and can be classified as the most relevant works of it.
Voltaire's first serious approach to historical work was the History of Charles XII , published in 1731, in which he deals with the reign of the Swedish monarch in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The work, of inferior quality to those that will follow, outlines some of the author's ideas:moralizing intention (risk of despotic power that only brings misfortune) and rigorous use of sources (in this case obtained from contacts he had in England with Swedish nobles who were direct witnesses of the vicissitudes of the Nordic king).
Twenty years later he wrote what is considered his most complete work, The Century of Louis XIV . As the author himself indicates at the beginning, “Not only do we want to write the life of Louis XIV, but we also intend to develop a broader plan:we want to refer to posterity, not the actions of a man, but the spirit of the men of the most enlightened century in the world ”. With this declaration of intent, Voltaire expresses his goal of extending the field of study beyond the individual vicissitudes of a man and encompassing the cultural, social, political and artistic issues of an entire era. We must also include in this group the History of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great (1759-1763).
More difficult to frame are Essay on customs (1756) and Philosophy of History (1761) because, despite focusing on the facts, they are close to what could be described as a universal history in which Voltaire once again downloads the ideas of Enlightenment philosophy.
For Voltaire, history “c’est le récit des faits donnés pour vrais; au contraire de la fable, qui est le récit des faits donnés pour faux ”, Definition that he introduced -as in charge of elaborating the meaning of it- in the famous Encyclopedie. Despite what it might seem at first, the French historian does not give history the value that German authors would give it years later and adopts a more philosophical than technical position. His historical approaches are born as opposition to the fable, the legendary and the fantastic that had characterized traditional historiography, hence its purpose of purging the sources of all novelistic or incredible influence. The desire to avoid the irrational leads him to recommend the study of recent history (whose knowledge may be more exact, given the abundant information available about it), rather than ancient history, subject to greater uncertainty.
Beyond the philosophical approaches, the truth is that Voltaire carried out, in all his works, a detailed critical analysis of the sources and although he could not count on the original documents , always tried to corroborate the information with which he worked.
Voltaire fought all his life against superstition and intolerance, a fight that he also captured in his historical writings. The historiographical approaches of the French thinker are based on an anthropocentric conception in which the main element that governs the future of man is the interaction of nature and his reason. Providence is eradicated as an explanation of the progress of the human being. Voltaire rules out that there is a divine plan that guides the people throughout their existence, as well as denies the possibility that there is a supernatural goal that gives unity and meaning to history.
Voltaire starts from a relatively pessimistic conception of man. As he exposes in the Philosophy of History, “Nature is the same everywhere; thus, men must have necessarily adopted the same truths and the same errors as to the things that most excite the imagination ”. He considers that men have always been (and will be), in a certain way, equal and, therefore, we can speak of an immutability of human nature. How then to explain progress? Voltaire turns to reason to answer this question. The reason is what allows us to overcome the animal condition of man and move forward. However, the periods in which this happens are limited. Specifically, there have only been four moments in which reason has prevailed and dominated nature and the passions of man. This is how he expresses it in the introduction to The Century of Louis XIV: “All ages have produced heroes and politicians, all peoples have gone through revolutions; all the stories are similar for the one who only looks at the facts; but for the one who meditates, for the one who philosophizes, there have only been four centuries in the history of humanity, four epochs in which the arts have been perfected, and which constitute the four ages of the greatness of the human spirit, which must serve as a guide. example to posterity.”.
It also breaks with the Eurocentrism of traditional historiography. In Essay on customs and Philosophy of History he deals with the history of all the regions of the planet without any of them being above the rest. The importance of China or the history of India (before the arrival of Europeans) are on the same level as that of Europe or the Middle East.
Voltaire's break with traditional historiography is noticeable in these words from his work The Century of Louis XIV :“Readers should not expect to find in this work, as in the pictures of the preceding works, minute details of the wars, of the attacks, of cities taken and retaken by arms, ceded or returned by means of treated. Very many circumstances that are interesting to contemporaries disappear before the eyes of posterity, which only sees the great events that determine the destiny of empires. Everything that happens is not worth writing about. We will only refer in this story to what deserves attention at all times, what serves to paint the genius and customs of men, what is useful for their instruction and to inspire love for virtue, the arts and the country. ”.