|Volume and Page:||Vol. 8 (1765), pp. 220–225|
|Author:||[François-Marie Arouet] de Voltaire (biography)|
|Translator:||Jeremy Caradonna [University of Victoria, firstname.lastname@example.org]|
|Original Version (ARTFL):||Link|
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.
|Citation (MLA):||Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "History." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.088>. Trans. of "Histoire," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 8. Paris, 1765.|
|Citation (Chicago):||Voltaire, [François-Marie Arouet] de. "History." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2006. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.088 (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Histoire," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 8:220–225 (Paris, 1765).|
History is the narrative ( récit ) of facts presented as true, in contrast to the fable, which is the recitation ( récit ) of facts presented as false.
There is the history of opinions, which is hardly other than the collection of human errors; the history of the arts, perhaps the most useful of all when it is joined to the knowledge of inventions and the progress of the arts, and which is the description of their mechanism; natural History , inappropriately termed history , and which is an essential part of Physics.
The history of events is divided into the sacred and the profane. Sacred history is the series ( suite ) of divine and miraculous operations, by which it pleased God in the past to conduct the Jewish nation and to exercise our faith today. I will not touch upon this respectable matter.
The basic ( premiers ) foundations of all History are the stories recounted by fathers to their children, and subsequently transmitted from one generation to the next. They are merely probable in their origins and lose a degree of probability with each succeeding generation. Over time, the fable grows and the truth is lost; hence the origins of all peoples are absurd. Thus the Egyptians were governed by the gods for many centuries, then by demi-gods, and finally they had kings who ruled them for eleven thousand three hundred and forty years. The sun, in this period of time, had changed where it rose in the east and set [in the west] four times.
The Phoenicians claimed to have been settled in their country for thirty thousand years, and these thirty thousand years were as full of marvels ( prodiges ) as the Egyptian chronology ( chronogie ). It is well known what ridiculous tales of superstition reign in the ancient history of the Greeks. The Romans—as serious as they were—did not shroud the history of their earliest centuries in fables any less than the others. Such a recent people, in comparison to some asiatic nations, went without historians for five hundred years.
Thus it is not surprising that Romulus was the son of Mars and that a female wolf was his wet-nurse; or that he marched ( marché ) with twenty-thousand men from his village of Rome against twenty-five thousand combatants from the village of the Sabines, and that he then became a god; or that Tarquin cut a rock with a razor, or that a vestal virgin pulled a boat onto land with only a belt, et cetera.
The earliest annals of all our modern nations are no less fabulous. These marvelous and improbable things should be reported, but [only] as proofs of human credulity, and they fall within the history of opinions.
There is only one way to know something with certitude about ancient history , and that is to see if there remain any incontestable historical monuments ( monumens ).  We only have three such written records. The first is the collection of astronomical observations assembled over a nineteen-hundred year period in Babylon, sent by Alexander to Greece, and employed in the Almagest of Ptolemy. This succession of observations goes back two thousand two hundred and thirty four years before the common era, and incontrovertibly proves that the Babylonians existed long beforehand as a constituted people: because the arts are only the work of time, and because man's natural laziness left him for thousands of years with no other knowledge and no other talents than feeding himself, defending himself from the climate, and cutting the throats [of his neighbors].  Looking at the Germanic tribes, the English in the time of Caesar, the Tartars of the present day, half of Africa, and all the peoples who we have found in America, excepting, in certain regards, the kingdoms of Peru and Mexico and the republic of Tlaxcala, leads to this conclusion.
The second record ( monument ) is the complete eclipse of the sun calculated in China two thousand five hundred and fifty five years before the common era, and recognized as true by all of our astronomers. It is necessary to say the same thing about the Chinese [as we said of the peoples of Babylon], who without a doubt composed a vast and well-administered ( policé ) empire. Yet what places the Chinese above all other peoples of the earth is that neither their laws nor their customs ( moeurs ), nor the language spoken by their men of letters ( lettrés ), has changed for roughly four thousand years. However, this nation—the oldest of all the peoples who exist today, the one that possessed the most vast and beautiful country, the one that invented practically all of the arts ( Arts ) before we had even learned a few—has always been omitted, up until now, from our so-called universal histories : when a Spaniard and a Frenchman took count of the world's nations, neither failed to call his country the first monarchy of the world .
The third record ( monument ), much inferior to the two others, persists in the marble [friezes] of Arundel: the chronicle of Athens was engraved there two hundred and sixty three years before the common era. Yet it only goes back to Cecrops, thirteen hundred and nineteen years before the date when it was chiseled. This is the only incontestable knowledge that we have of the history of antiquity.
It is not surprising that we do not possess a secular ( profane ), ancient history that goes back more than approximately three thousand years. The revolutions of the globe [and] the long and universal ignorance of the art of transmitting facts through writing is the cause [of this absence]. There are still several peoples who have no such practice. This art was only common amongst a small number of well-administered ( policé ) nations, and was only in the hands of a precious few. Until the thirteenth or fourteenth century, there was nothing more rare amongst the French and the Germans than the ability to write. Almost all actions ( actes ) were attested only by witnesses. In France, it was only under Charles VII in 1454 that French customs ( coûtumes ) were written down. The art of writing was even rarer amongst the Spanish, which is why their history is so insipid and uncertain up until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. This shows just how much power ( imposer ) was wielded by the small number of men who knew how to write.
There are some nations who have subjugated a part of the earth without the use of [written] characters. We know that Ghengis Khan conquered part of Asia at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Yet it is not through him nor through the Tartars that we know this. Their history , written by the Chinese and translated by father Gaubil, says that the Tartars did not possess at all the art of writing.
It was no less unknown to the Scythian Ogus-kan, named Madies by the Persians and the Greeks, who conquered a part of Europe and Asia so long before the reign of Cyrus.
It is almost certain that at that time hardly two out of a hundred nations could use [written] characters.
There remain some records of a different sort, which serve only to certify the remote antiquity of certain peoples who precede all books and all known epochs. Such are the marvels of architecture, like the pyramids and the palaces of Egypt which have withstood time. Herodotus, who lived two thousand two hundred years ago, and who had seen them, was not able to learn from Egyptian priests the period in which they had been constructed.
It would be difficult to argue that the oldest of the pyramids is less than four thousand years old. But one must consider that such ostentatious efforts by kings could only have begun long after the establishment of cities. And to build cities in a country that floods every year, it was first necessary to elevate the terrain. Then, to render them inaccessible to floods in this land of mud, they had to use stilts as the foundations for [their] cities. Before taking this necessary course of action, and before being in a position to attempt these enormous construction projects, it was necessary that the people build some retreats in the middle of rocks which form two chains to the right and the left of the river, during periods when the Nile flooded. These people, when gathered together, had to have tools for plowing, for architecture, and [required] an extensive knowledge of surveying, laws, and a rational administration ( police ). All of this required a prodigious amount of time. We see from the numerous details impeding each day just how difficult it is to accomplish great things, [or even] the smallest and most necessary of our undertakings. One must not only possess an indefatigable persistence, but several generations animated by this persistence.
However the history of Egypt does not teach us whether it was Menes, Thoth, Cheops, or Ramesses who erected one or two of these prodigious masses. The language of this people is lost. We only know that before the oldest historians existed, there was without a doubt an ancient history .
What we call ancient , and which is in effect recent, hardly goes back three thousand years. Before this time we only have probable knowledge. Only two secular books have preserved these probabilities : the Chinese chronicle and the history of Herodotus. The ancient Chinese chronicles only deal with their empire as separated from the rest of the world. Herodotus, more interesting for us, speaks of lands already known. He delighted the Greeks by reciting to them the nine books of his history , by the novelty of this undertaking, by the charm of his diction, and above all by his fables. Almost everything that he recounts on the word ( foi ) of foreigners is a fantasy ( fabuleux ), but everything he [himself] saw was true. We learn from him, for example, what extreme opulence and what splendor reigned in Asia Minor, today so poor and depopulated. He saw at Delphi the marvelous gifts of gold that the kings of Lydia sent there, and he spoke to an audience who knew Delphi as he did. What stretch of time must have passed before the kings of Lydia could have amassed enough surplus treasure to offer such considerable presents to a foreign temple!
But when Herodotus recounts the stories he heard, his book reads like a novel resembling Milesian fables. He tells us of a certain Candaules who shows his wife stark naked to a friend, Gyges. It is his wife who, out of modesty, allows Gyges only the choice of killing her husband and marrying the [resulting] widow, or of death. He speaks of an oracle at Delphi who divines that at the same time that he spoke, Croesus, one hundred leagues away, cooked a tortoise on a plate of bronze. Rollin, repeats all the stories of this sort, admires the knowledge ( science ) of the oracle and the veracity of Apollo, as well as the modesty of the wife of the king Candaules. On a related subject, he asks the police to prevent young people from bathing in the river. Time is so dear and history is so immense that I will spare the reader such fables and parables ( moralités ).
The history of Cyrus is completely disfigured ( défigurée ) by mythical fables. It would appear that this Kiro, called Cyrus , at the head of the warrior people of Elam, in effect conquered a Babylon weakened by luxuries. But we don't even know which king reigned in Babylon at that time. Some say Baltazar; others Anabot. Herodotus says that Cyrus was killed in an expedition against the Massagetae; Xenophon, in his moral and political novel, says that he died in his bed.
In the shadows of history nothing is known except that there were vast empires that lasted a very long time; that there were tyrants whose power was based on public misery; that tyranny was so extensive that it reached the point of stripping men of their virility, to use them for infamous pleasures starting at the end of their childhood, and to employ them in their old age to guard women; that superstition governed men; that a dream ( songe ) was regarded as a sign ( avis ) from above, and that this would govern peace and war, etc.
The closer that Herodotus comes to his own time, the truer and more informed his history becomes. One must confess that history , for us, only begins with Persia's ventures against the Greeks. Before these great events, one only finds vague narratives ( récits ) shrouded in puerile tales. Herodotus becomes the model historian when he describes the prodigious preparations [undertaken by] Xerxes to subjugate Greece and then Europe. Xerxes led close to two million soldiers from Susa to Athens, and Herodotus teaches us how [Xerxes] armed so many different peoples employed in his ranks. No one was forgotten, from the farthest reaches of Arabia and Egypt and beyond Bactria, to the northern extremity of the Caspian Sea—a country inhabited then by powerful peoples and today by vagabond Tartars. All nations, from the Bosphorus of Thrace to the Ganges, were under his banner. One notes with surprise that this prince possessed as much territory as the Roman Empire. He controlled everything that today belongs to the great mogul on this side of the Ganges: all of Persia, all of the country of Uzbek, and all of the empire of the Turks, excepting Romania; [yet] he compensated for this by possessing Arabia. One sees by the extent of these holdings ( états ) the mistaken ways of those critics ( déclamateurs ), in prose and in verse, who treated Alexander—avenger of Greece—as crazy for having subjugated the empire of the enemy of the Greeks.
Herodotus deserves the same credit as Homer. He was the first historian just as Homer was the first epic poet. Each seized the peculiar beauties of an art unknown before their time. It is an admirable spectacle in [the work of] Herodotus [to read about] that emperor of Asia and Africa, who had his immense army pass from Asia to Europe on a bridge of boats, who took Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, upper Achaea, and who entered into an Athens abandoned and deserted. One wouldn't expect that the Athenians, without a city, without any territory, taking refuge on their ships with some other Greeks, could cause the massive navy of the great king to flee, or that the Greeks would re-enter their homeland as victors, or that they would force Xerxes to ignominiously retreat with his fragmented army, or that they would forbid him, by treaty, to navigate on their seas. The superiority of this small, generous, and free people over all of enslaved Asia, is perhaps the most glorious thing amongst men. One learns as well from this event that the peoples of the West have always been better sailors than the peoples of Asia. When one reads modern history , the victory of Lepanto reminds us of that of Salamis, and one compares Don Juan of Austria and Colonus to Themistocles and Eurybiades. This is perhaps the sole fruit that one can harvest from the knowledge of these remote times.
Thucydides, successor of Herodotus, limits himself to detailing the history of the Peloponnesian War, fought in a country no larger than a French or German province. Yet this province has produced men of all sorts worthy of their immortal reputation. Yet if civil war, the most horrible scourge, added a new light ( feu ) and new spirit ( ressorts ) to the human mind, it is [also at] this time that all the arts flourished in Greece. Just as the arts began to perfect themselves [amidst civil war in Greece], [the same process took place] in Rome amidst another civil war, and yet again in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of the common era, during the wars of the Reformation during the disturbances in Italy.
After the Peloponnesian War, described by Thucydides, comes the celebrated time of Alexander—a prince worthy of a tutor such as Aristotle—who founded more towns than others had destroyed and who transformed the commerce ( commerce ) of the universe. Carthage flourished in the time of Alexander and his successors, and the Roman republic led other nations in admiring her. All the rest is buried in barbarism : the Celts, the Germans, and all the peoples of the north are unknown.
The history of the Roman empire deserves the most attention because the Romans are our masters and legislators. Their laws are still current ( en vigueur ) in most of our provinces. Their language is still spoken, and long after their fall, Latin is the sole language in which public acts are written in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, England, and Poland.
With the breaking up of the Roman empire ( au démembrement ) in the West, a new order of things began, which is commonly referred to as the history of the middle ages : a barbarian history of barbarian peoples, who, becoming Christian, [nonetheless] became no better.
While Europe turned upside down, one sees the appearance of the Arabs in the seventh century, who had up until that point stayed in their deserts. They extended their power and domination into upper Asia ( haute Asie ) and Africa, and invaded Spain. The Turks succeeded them and in the middle of the fifteenth century established the capital of their empire in Constantinople.
At the end of that century a new world was discovered, and European politics and arts soon took on a new form. The art of printing and the restoration ( restauration ) of the sciences allowed trustworthy histories to be produced, unlike the ridiculous chronicles held in cloisters since [the time of] Gregory of Tours. Soon, each European nation had historians. The old privation ( indigence ) turned to superfluity; every town wanted its own individual history . One is overwhelmed under the weight of minute details. A man who wants instruction is forced to confine himself to [studying] great events, and [must] brush aside all the minor facts that get in the way. He [must] seize, in the plethora of revolutions, the spirit of the time ( l'esprit des tems ) and the customs ( moeurs ) of various peoples. Above all, one must attach oneself to the history of one's homeland, study it, possess it, reserve detailed [analysis] for it alone, and take only a more general look at other nations. The history of other nations is only interesting when it relates to us, or when great things occurred there. The ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, as one has elsewhere remarked, are only barbarous adventures ( avantures ) under barbarous names, excepting the time of Charlemagne. England remained practically isolated until the time of Edward III. The northern countries ( le Nord ) were savage until the sixteenth century, and Germany was in anarchy for a long time. The quarrels of emperors and popes ravaged ( desolent ) Italy for six hundred years. It is difficult to detect the truth in the passions of the unlearned ( peu instruit ) writers who have written ill-constructed ( informes ) chronicles of this miserable time. The Spanish monarchy witnessed only one [noteworthy] event under the Visigoth kings, and that was its destruction. Everything was confusion until the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. Until Louis XI, France fell victim to ( en proie à ) the dark misfortunes of an unregulated government. Daniel tried hard to argue that the early periods of France were more interesting than those of Rome. He failed to notice that the beginnings of a vast empire are all the more interesting because of their inherent weaknesses, and because people like to see the source of a stream that flooded half the earth.
To penetrate the dark labyrinth of the middle ages, one must have recourse to archives, and yet we have so very few. Some of the older convents have conserved charters and diplomas, which were gifts and of which the authority is contested. It is not by using these collections that one can enlighten oneself about political history or public law in Europe. Of all countries, England is the one who has, without a doubt, the oldest and the most complete ( suivies ) archives. These documents, collected by Rimer under the auspices of Queen Anne, begin in the twelfth century and continue without interruption up to the present day. They shed an abundance of light on the history of France. They reveal, for example, that Guyana belonged to the English with absolute sovereignty, when the king of France, Charles V, confiscated it by decree and seized it by force of arms. One also learns about the considerable sums [of money] and sorts of tributes that Louis XI paid to king Edward IV so that he could fight, and how much money queen Elizabeth loaned to Henry the Great to aid his accession to the throne, et cetera.
Concerning the utility (utilité) of History . Its usefulness is seen when a statesman ( homme d'état ) or a citizen compares foreign laws and customs with those of his own country. This is what motivates ( excite ) modern nations to spend more lavishly ( enchérir ) on arts, commerce, and Agriculture than other [countries]. Great faults of the past are very useful. We are always placing in front of our eyes the crimes and the miseries caused by absurd quarrels. It is certain that by dint of renewing the memory of these quarrels, we can prevent them from happening again.
It is from having studied the details of the battles of Crécy, of Poitiers, of Agincourt, of Saint-Quentin, of Gravelines, et cetera, that the celebrated maréchal de Saxe decided to opt for, as much as he could, what one calls des affaires de poste . 
Such examples [can] have a great effect on the mind of a prince who reads attentively. He will see that Henry IV only undertook his great war—which changed the system of Europe—after having sufficiently assured himself that he could fight the war for several years without the help of any [extra] financial aid.
The prince will see that Queen Elizabeth, through the sole resources of commerce and a wise economy, resisted the powerful Philip II, and that of the one hundred boats that she put to sea against his invincible navy, three out of four were furnished by England's commercial towns.
France, [remaining] untouched after nine years of the most miserable war under Louis XIV → , clearly demonstrates the utility of border defenses ( places ) [such as the ones] that Louis constructed. An author [searching for] the causes of the fall of the Roman empire will blame Justinian in vain for having maintained the same political strategy as ← Louis XIV. It is necessary to blame only those emperors who neglected such border fortresses ( places ), and who thus opened the gates of the empire to the barbarians.
Finally, the great utility of modern history , and the advantage that it has over its ancient counterpart, is to teach all autocratic rulers ( potentats ) that since the fifteenth century, [nations have] repeatedly united against a power that becomes too preponderant. This system of equilibrium was unknown to the ancients, and this is why the Romans were so successful. They formed an armed force ( milice ) superior to all other peoples and subjugated them, one after the other, from the Tiber to the Euphrates.
Concerning the certainty (certitude) of history . All certainty which is not mathematically demonstrable is only a distant ( extrème ) probability. There is no other historical certainty.
When Marco Polo first spoke—and he was the only one—of the grandeur and population of China, he was not believed nor could he command belief. The Portuguese who entered into this vast empire several centuries later began to demonstrate the probability of his assertions. Today it is certain, and our certainty is born from a unanimous disposition of a thousand first-hand witnesses from different nations, who have never contradicted each another in their testimony.
If two or three historians alone had written about the adventure of King Charles XII who, despite himself, insisted on remaining in the states of the Sultan—his benefactor—and who battled with his servants against an army of Janissaries and Tartars, I would have suspended my judgment; but having spoken to several eye-witnesses, and having never heard this action placed in doubt, it is necessary to believe it, because after all, if it is not wise or ordinary, then it does not contradict the laws of nature nor the character of heroes.
I would have taken the history of the Man in the Iron Mask for a novel if I had not heard it from the son-in-law of the surgeon who took care of this man during his last illness. The officer who guarded the man at that time also attested this fact to me. [Indeed] all those who knew of the man have confirmed its veracity to me; the children of the ministers of state who are still alive are depositaries of this secret and have been told of it as I have. I have given this history a high degree of probability, yet not as high as the Bender affair, because the Bender adventure had more witnesses than our man in the iron mask ever did.
That which contradicts ( répugne ) the ordinary course of nature must not be believed, unless it is attested by men moved by the divine spirit. That is why in the article Certitude of this Dictionary, it is a great paradox to say that one should equally believe all of Paris when it affirms having seen a dead man resuscitated, as it would be to believe all of Paris when it says that someone has won the battle of Fontenoy. It appears evident that the testimony of all Paris on an improbable thing would not equal the testimony of all Paris on a probable thing. These are the basic notions of a sane Metaphysics. This Dictionary is dedicated to the truth; one article must correct another, and if an error is found here then it must be repaired by a more enlightened man.
Concerning the Uncertainty of History . We have distinguished between historical and fabulous ( fabuleux ) epochs. But historical periods should themselves be distinguished between truths and fables. I do not speak here of fables that are recognized as such. It is not a question, for example, of the prodigies with which Livy embellished or spoiled his history . But amongst the most well-known facts, how many do we have reason to doubt? We should take note that the Roman republic went five hundred years without an historian, and that Livy himself deplored the loss of the annals of the pontiffs and of other records ( monumens ), most of which perished in the fire of Rome, pleraque interiere [a great many things]. One must remember ( qu'on songe ) that in the first three hundred years, the art of writing was very rare, rarae per eadem tempora litterae [letters were rare throughout those times]. We may be permitted to doubt all events from that period which were not in the ordinary order of human things. Is it at all probable that Romulus, the grandson of the king of the Sabines, would have been forced to remove some of the Sabine women in order for [the Romans] to have wives. Is Lucretius' history really all that probable? Can one easily believe Livy [when he says] that the king Porsenna fled full of admiration for the Romans because a fanatic had wanted to assassinate him? Should one not be inclined towards the contrary and believe Polybius, who predates Livy by two hundred years, and who says that Porsenna subjugated the Romans? The adventure of Regulus, [who was] locked in a barrel with iron spikes by the Carthaginians—does that merit belief? Wouldn't Polybius—a contemporary—have spoken of it if it had been true? He doesn't say a word about it. Isn't it highly likely that this story was only invented long after to render the Carthaginians odious? Open the dictionary of Moréri to the article "Régulus," and it will assure you that the torture of this Roman is reported in Livy. However the Decade where Livy could have spoken of it has been lost. All we have is Freinsemius' supplement, and it turns out that that dictionary was only citing a German from the seventeenth century, [while Freinsemius] believed [that we was] quoting a Roman from the time of Augustus. One could make immense volumes out of all the received and celebrated facts which are worthy of doubt. But the limits of this article do not permit further [elaboration].
Monuments (monumens), annual ceremonies, even medals—do these constitute historical evidence ? One is naturally inclined to believe that a monument erected by a nation to celebrate an event attests to the certitude of the event. However if these monuments were not erected by contemporaries, [or] if they celebrate an improbable occurrence, is it proof of anything other than the consecration a popular opinion?
The rostral column erected in Rome by the contemporaries of Duilius is without a doubt proof of his naval victory. But the statue of the soothsayer ( augure ) Navius, who cut a stone with a razor ( rasoir ), does this prove that Navius undertook such a marvel? The statues of Ceres and of Triptolemus in Athens, do they bear incontestable witness that Ceres taught Agriculture to the Athenians? The famous "Laocoön," which exists today in its entirety, does it attest to the truth of the history of the Trojan horse?
The origins of ceremonies and annual holidays, established by every nation, are no easier to prove. The feast of Arion, [who was] carried on [the back of] a dolphin, was celebrated by the Romans and the Greeks. That of Faunus recalls his adventure with Hercules and Omphale, when this god, in love with Omphale, mistook Hercules' bed for that of his mistress.
The famous festival of Lupercalia was established in honor of the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.
What was the festival of Orion based upon, celebrated on the fifth of the ides of May? I'll explain. Hyreius welcomed Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury into his home, and when his guests took their leave, this good man, who had no wife, and who wanted a child, recounted ( témoigna ) his woe ( douleur ) to the three gods. One dare not explain what they did to the skin of the beef that Hyreius had served them for dinner. They then covered the skin with some soil, and from that Orion was born nine months later.
Almost all Roman, Syrian, Greek, and Egyptian festivals were based upon similar stories, as were the temples and statues of ancient heroes. They were monuments that credulity consecrated to error.
Even a contemporary medal is not necessarily proof of anything. How many medals have been struck out of flattery [to commemorate] indecisive battles, qualified victories, or failed undertakings, which were [successfully] realized ( achevées ) only in legend. Is it not true, for example, that during the war of 1740 between the English and the Spanish that a medal was struck that represented the taking of Cartagena by Admiral Vernon, whereas [in reality] this admiral lifted his siege?
Medals are only incontestable evidence ( témoignages irréprochables ) when the event is attested by a contemporary author. Then, these proofs, by supporting each other, reveal the truth.
In [the writing of] history, should one insert harangues and construct portraits ? If, on an important occasion, a general [or] a man of state has spoken in a singular and strong manner which characterizes his genius and that of his century, then it is necessary to report his discourse word for word. Such harangues are perhaps the most useful part of history . But why attribute to a man something that he has not said? It would almost be better to attribute to him something that he has not done. This is a fiction that derives from Homer. Yet what is fictitious in a poem becomes a lie for the historian. Several ancients used this method, and this proves nothing except that several of the ancients wanted to parade their eloquence at the expense of the truth.
Portraits often show the desire to dazzle, not to instruct. Contemporaries are right to make portraits of men of state with whom they have conducted business, or generals under whom they have fought wars. Yet one should fear the paint brush guided by passion! It appears that the portraits that one finds in Clarendon are made with more impartiality, gravity, and wisdom than those that one reads with pleasure in the Cardinal de Retz.
But to wish to portray the ancients [or] to try hard to develop [an understanding of] their souls [or] to look at events as characteristics with which one can surely read into the depths of their hearts, this is a very delicate task, and in several works it is a puerility.
On Cicero's maxim concerning history ; that the historian dare not speak a falsity nor obscure a verity . The first part of this precept is incontestable; we must examine the other. If a truth can be of some utility to the state, your silence is condemnable. But suppose you write the history of a prince who has entrusted a secret to you; should you reveal it? Should you inform posterity [of something] that would render you guilty if you were to speak of it in secret to an single man? Does the duty of the historian override a higher duty?
Or suppose that you have witnessed a foible which has had no influence on public affairs; would you reveal this foible? If so, history would be a satire.
One must confess that the majority of writers of anecdotes are more indiscreet than useful. But what can one say of these insolent compilers, who pride themselves on scandalmongering, printing, and selling scandal [sheets], as Lecauste sold poisons.
On satirical history . If Plutarch criticized Herodotus for not having sufficiently exalted the glory of certain Greek villages, and for having omitted several facts worthy of memory, how much more reprehensible are those today who, without having the merits of Herodotus, ascribe odious actions to princes and nations, without the slightest shred of evidence. The war of 1741 has been written on in England. One finds in this history that at the battle of Fontenoy the French fired on the English with poisoned bullets and pieces of poisoned glass (verre venimeux), and that the Duke of Cumberland sent to the king of France a shred (boëte) full of these alleged poisons found in the bodies of the wounded English soldiers . The same author adds that when the French lost forty thousand men in this battle, the parlement of Paris proffered a decree that forbade mentioning the battle under pain of death.
Fraudulent memoirs, a new phenomenon, are full of equally insolent absurdities. One discovers in them that at the siege of Lille the allies distributed notes in the city that said the following: Frenchmen, console yourselves, Madame de Maintenon will not be your queen.
Almost every page is full of impostures and offensive words directed at the royal family and the principal families of the kingdom, without putting forward the least verisimilitude which could give the slightest color to these lies. This is not to write history but to write calumnies at random.
In Holland a collection of libelous literature ( libelles ) has been published under the name of history , in which the style is as crude as the insults, and the facts are as false as they are poorly written. It has been said by some that this is [merely] the bad fruit of the excellent tree of liberty. But if the miserable authors of these idiocies have had the freedom to deceive the reader, [then] we must use [the same] freedom to disabuse them.
Of the method and manner of writing history, and of style . So much has been said of this matter that it is necessary here to say very little. It is well known that the method and style of Livy, his gravity and wise eloquence, suits the majesty of the Roman republic; that Tacitus is better at depicting tyrants; Polybius better at giving lessons on warfare; Denys 'Halycarnasse Dionysius of Halicarnassus better at elaborating on antiquities.
But in modeling oneself in general upon these great masters, we have today a more onerous burden than theirs. The modern historian is required to furnish more detail, more certifiable facts, precise dates, authority ( autorité ), greater attention to customs, laws, morals, commerce, finance, agriculture, and population. History in this way has become like Mathematics and Physics. The field ( carriere ) has grown prodigiously. It is now as difficult to write history as it is easy to make a collection of gazettes.
It is required that the history of a foreign country not be cast in the same mould as that of one's homeland ( patrie ).
If you write the history of France, you are not required to describe the course of the Seine and the Loire. But if you give to the public [the history of] the conquests of the Portuguese in Asia, you need a topography of the discovered countries. People want you to lead your reader by the hand along the coasts of Africa, Persia, and India; they expect some descriptions of the morals ( moeurs ), laws, customs ( usages ) of these nations that are so new to Europe.
We have twenty histories of the establishment of the Portuguese in the Indies. Yet none have made us familiar with the diverse governments of this country, its religions, antiquities, the Brahmins, the disciples of John, the Guebres, the Banians. This observation could be applied to all the histories of foreign countries.
If you have nothing to tell us other than that one Barbarian ( Barbare ) has replaced another Barbarian on the banks of the Oxus and the Jaxartes, in what way are you useful to the public?
The method suitable to [the writing of] the history of your country does not [require] you to write on the discoveries of the new world. You should not write about a village as you would about a great empire; you should not write of the life of an individual as you would write the history of Spain or England.
These rules are well known. But the art of writing History well will always be rare. It is well known that one must have a grave, pure, varied, agreeable style. There are laws for writing History just as there are laws for all the arts of the mind. There are many precepts and yet so few great artists.
1. [Voltaire often uses this term in a generic sense to refer to any historical record.]
2. [This is a very garbled sentence in the original French.]
3. [This is a technical military term. It refers to small-scale skirmishes, involving only a portion of an army, used as a means to prevent full-blown warfare.]