Add to bookbag
Title: Men of letters
Original Title: Gens de lettres
Volume and Page: Vol. 7 (1757), pp. 599–600
Author: [François-Marie Arouet] de Voltaire (biography)
Translator: Dena Goodman [University of Michigan, goodmand@umich.edu]
Subject terms:
Philosophy
Literature
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Rights/Permissions:

This text is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Please see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/terms.html for information on reproduction.

URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.052
Citation (MLA): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Men of letters." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Dena Goodman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.052>. Trans. of "Gens de lettres," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 7. Paris, 1757.
Citation (Chicago): Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "Men of letters." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Dena Goodman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.052 (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Gens de lettres," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 7:599–600 (Paris, 1757).

Men of letters. This word corresponds exactly to "grammarians": the Greeks and Romans understood by the word “grammarian,” not only a man versed in Grammar, properly speaking, which is the basis of all knowledge, but a man who was no stranger to Geometry, Philosophy, general and particular History; [a man] who above all studied Poetry and Eloquence. This is what our men of letters are today. This name is not given to a man with little knowledge who cultivates only a single genre. Someone who has read only novels will write only novels; a man who without any knowledge of literature may have composed by chance some plays, who, deprived of learning may of written some sermons, will not be counted among the men of letters. In our day this title has even greater breadth that the word “grammarian” had among the Greeks and the Latins. The Greeks contented themselves with their own language; the Romans learned only Greek; today, the man of letters often adds to the study of Greek and Latin that of Italian, Spanish, and above all English. The course of History is a hundred times more vast than it was for the ancients; and natural History has grown to the proportions of that of peoples. Men of letters are not expected to study all of these subjects in depth; universal knowledge is no longer within the reach of man. But true men of letters put themselves in a position to explore these different terrains, even if they cannot cultivate all of them.

Previously, in the sixteenth century, and well before the seventeenth, literary scholars spent a lot of their time on grammatical criticism of Greek and Latin authors; and it is to their labors that we owe the dictionaries, the accurate editions, the commentaries on the masterpieces of antiquity. Today this criticism is less necessary, and the philosophical spirit has succeeded it. It is this philosophical spirit that seems to constitute the character of men of letters; and when it is combined with good taste, it forms an accomplished literary scholar.

One of the great advantages of our century, is the number of educated men who [can] pass from the thorns of Mathematics to the flowers of Poetry, and who [can] judge equally well a book of Metaphysics and a play. The spirit of the century has rendered them for the most part as suitable for society as for the study; and this is what makes them superior to those of previous centuries. Up until the times of Balzac and Voiture they were kept out of society; since then they have become a necessary part of it. The deep and purified reason that several of them have spread through their writings and in their conversation, has contributed significantly to the instruction and polish of the nation. Their critical reason is no longer wasted on Greek and Latin words; rather, supported by a reasonable philosophy, it has destroyed the prejudices with which society was infected: the predictions of astrologers, divinations of magicians, spells of all sorts, false prodigies, false marvels, superstitious usages; it has relegated to the schools a thousand puerile disputes that were dangerous in the past and made them contemptible. In this way they have in fact served the state. It is sometimes astonishing that what in the past upset the world, no longer troubles it today; for this we are indebted to the true men of letters.

Ordinarily, they have more intellectual independence than other men; and those who are born without fortune easily find in the foundations of Louis XIV that with which to strengthen in them this independence: unlike in the past, one never sees these dedicatory epistles that interest and humility offered to vanity. See Epistle.

A man of letters is not what is called a "wit." Wit alone assumes less culture, less study, and requires no philosophy; it consists primarily of a brilliant imagination, pleasant conversation, assisted by general reading. A wit can easily not deserve the title of man of letters at all; and the man of letters may not at all claim the brilliance of the wit.

There are many men of letters who are not authors, and these are probably the happiest. They are sheltered from the distasteful things that the profession of author sometimes entails: quarrels to which competition gives rise, animosities of partisanship, and false judgments. They are more united among themselves; they enjoy society more; they are the judges, and the others are the judged.