by guest contributor Caio Ferreira
“A journal, sir, is no more a history than materials are a house.” Voltaire wrote this to the historian Jöran Andersson Nordberg, chaplain of king Charles XII of Sweden, in 1744. They respond assertively to a series of criticisms Voltaire received from Nordberg two years prior concerning his Histoire de Charles XII. In his own account of Charles XII’s reign (Konung Carl XII:s historia, 1740), Nordberg dedicated an entire introduction to correcting the liberties that previous historians had taken with the source material. One of his main targets had been none other than Voltaire himself.
What remains interesting is the debate that sprang from Nordberg’s criticism. If, on the one hand, the chapelain admitted that Voltaire’s “beauty and vivacity of style” was commendable, his final verdict was nevertheless severe: Histoire de Charles XII, with its alarming lack of reliable sources, disseminated a number of imprecisions about the reign of the Swedish king. Quoting from La Voltairomanie (a critical essay on Voltaire published by Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines in 1740), Nordberg suggested that Voltaire’s book was not historiography at all but a “historical novel.” As such, it was unworthy of being read.
Voltaire concedes to all those criticisms. In his response, he does not try to defend his sources or his research methods. Instead, Voltaire shifted the conversation entirely. To him, the sloppiness of the work was excusable to the degree that it affected “insignificant truths” (e.g. the location of the chapel in Charles XII’s castle and the precise minutia of his regalia). What Voltaire “got wrong” were mere trivialities bearing little or no importance to his larger narrative. As a historian, Voltaire was surely committed to telling the truth, but the truth he aimed for proved more specific in his mind. Such a history was not meant to be all-encompassing, but rather to preserve what as “worthy of being transmitted to posterity.”
At the same time, Voltaire also had a distinct yet equally important goal: presenting an engaging narrative. It was important to produce a history in the mold of Tacitus and Livy, one that avoided “particularizing petty facts” and “preparing colors” in order to focus on “painting the picture.” To illustrate this, the philosophe punctuated his letter with an infamous quip: “A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you here of two which are of some importance. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore. I can excuse you for neglecting the first because few will read your work; I cannot, however, forgive you for neglecting the second, for I was forced to read you.” To this end, Voltaire accepted a certain “sloppiness.”
Reading this exchange now gives rise to conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it’s not difficult to side with Voltaire—not only because of his piercing rhetoric, but because no scholar wants to go unread. On the other hand, Nordberg’s complaints sound eerily contemporary. Despite his overzealousness, Nordberg represents current academic concerns and scholarly paradigms. His professional ethos seems alive and well: the first duty of the historian is to be as precise as possible, with entertainment being a welcome but unnecessary addition.
What remains curious is that history’s potential to delight and entertain long appeared to be its defining characteristic. The origins of this perspective presumably travel as far back to Cicero. He established that the historian was tasked not only with revealing the truth, but with revealing it in its entirety. However, Cicero also assumed that the intrinsic connection between history and oratory went much deeper than the mere recording of facts in chronological order. A good way to visualize this is to consider Cicero’s differentiation between annals and historiography: the former remains a simple registry, while the latter transforms into a registry “given distinction” through rules of speech. If truth was a concern, so was the ability of the historian to elevate certain facts above others, to give them emotional weight through the use of linguistic and narrative techniques.
The very notion of exemplarity (or even the larger idea of a Historia magistra vitae) carries within it the germ of this concern. Even before Cicero, Roman rhetoricians already supposed that the vividness of examples had a positive impact on moral education. Such authors as Polybius seemed to understand that virtue might be better taught through narrative presentation than through demanding metaphysical inquiry. The life of Alexander the Great demonstrated “courage” better than any conceptual investigation. Early modern humanism certainly proved keen on this idea. Even Sir Philip Sidney—who otherwise thought of historiography as an inferior pedagogical tool compared to poetry—necessarily contended that its narrative aspect had a profound value. In all of these cases, an implicit agreement emerges so far as a valid historical account proves one that, while truthful, is also capable of embracing its ludic aspects. Pleasure was a constitutive and not simply a contingent part of historiography.
It seems, however, that when we reach Voltaire the tension between truth and pleasure has grown to be almost irreconcilable: the epistemological status of historical writing can no longer support the two principles. As early as 1566, Jean Bodin wrote that “I have made up my mind that it is practically an impossibility for the man who writes to give pleasure, to impart the truth of the matter also.” As such, we cannot say that Nordberg perspective was idiosyncratic, nor can we claim it did not count many adherents. Many nineteenth-century historians from Ranke to Langlois and Seignobos reaffirmed the commitment to truth as the only real interest of history.
Ultimately, I believe this debate is worth recuperating. It not only poses interesting questions—in particular, what were the epistemological shifts that facilitated this change?—but also serves as a locus point for history and literature considered together. Here, the questions of how historians view themselves, of how they define their own practices, goals, and the necessary compromises will continue to engage us all.
Caio Ferreira is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University. He works on historiography and the intellectual history of early modern Europe.