The fourth, French, age of perfection: Voltaire's ambitious, idiosyncratic history of Louis XIV's reign

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Author: John Rogister
Date: Jan. 22, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6147)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,675 words
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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Seven volumes


Voltaire Foundation. 700 [pounds sterling].

Voltaire published his Siecle de Louis XIV in 1751, but he had been working on it since the late 1720s, and parts appeared in dribs and drabs in different places before that date. He conceived it not just as a history of France, but of Europe and even of the world. Its aim was to show the achievements of modernity at a time when the celebrated quarrel between the "Ancients" and the "Moderns" was coming to a head. He wanted to describe the expansion of commerce, with an emphasis on what he saw as the necessity for luxury, along with the need for religious toleration and for the weakening of superstition. Among the traits of modernity he counted the revival of classical aesthetics, scientific discoveries, the Cartesian and Newtonian revolutions. These were themes which he had already discussed in his Lettres philosophiques (1733), but he thought they could be crystallized in the form of a history of Louis's reign.

He began with the premiss that France under that monarch had achieved a fourth "Age of Perfection" after that of Pericles, Augustus and the Italian Renaissance. France, his nation, rather than the monarchy itself, was destined for greatness on a universal scale. Despite innate weaknesses and the indisputable contributions made by other nations such as the English, the Italians or the Dutch, that French achievement remained supreme. Because Louis XIV's reign had been so long, it was possible to ascribe to it almost a century of time, and to dwell on that French century, "Le Grand siecle", rather than on the monarch himself, although he often appeared as central to it. The task of writing this history as it presented itself to Voltaire was challenging, even daunting. Historiography had to be recast in content as well as in form.

Such is the view of the experienced French scholar Diego Venturino, who has himself faced a similar challenge in producing a definitive edition of the Siecle de Louis XIV as one of the final works in the Oeuvres completes brought out by the Voltaire Foundation. The price of the seven-volume set and its significance as a work of reference indicate that its likely destination will be national and university libraries or research centres. The text of the Siecle itself takes up four volumes (for at least a century, ordinary readers have had it at their disposal in a single volume, as in the Firmin-Didot "Classiques Frangais" unannotated edition...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A650247110