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Voltaire: a History That Never Moved

  • Date Submitted: 01/28/2010 09:11 AM
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Voltaire: A history that never moved        

By Binoy Kampmark

Why should history move?   Consider it a frozen tableau, an unchanging picture.   There are only emotions rather than causation.   Even if there is historical causation, Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet) (1694-1778) wrote in his works History of Charles XII, History of Louis XIV and his Essai sur les Moeurs et l'Esprit des Nations   against its usefulness.   This is largely because Voltaire, through his desire to write a history freed from a chronology, merely reshaped it by means of adventure rather than exegesis.   Rather than explaining causes, he merged them in forms that could not be said to be true causes of change. Voltaire's history so contended is not a view of progress, but in its method of stillness in history, the inevitable stasis of change that was no change.  

It is true that Voltaire used movements, ideas, individuals and nations to develop history.   He tried to define allegorically the chronological morass of history, by looking at the motivation behind history.   But by attempting to do so, Voltaire wrote of a sequestered history disunited by the exploits of unique individuals and unique historical phenomena. Evolution is not linked but disparate.   Trapped by a France that produced Descartes, a figure disinterested of history, and Melebrance's ahistorical stance, Voltaire is reduced to a teller of fables.   Along with that it is a France that loves history as fiction rather than history as fact.   "The fear of the Bastille and a hope for government pensions had a dismal effect on the historian's taste for truth and objectivity."

Well and good – the fable teller was out and ready to produce.   But did the fables reveal a teleological purpose?   Voltaire must have reasoned that progress was possible – there must have been progress from a maleficent God who destroyed Lisbon to a disinterested God who had deferred his...


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