Voltaire and the Necessity of Modern History

Force, Pierre

This article revisits what has often been called the "naive presentism" of Voltaire's historical work. It looks at the methodological and philosophical reasons for Voltaire's deliberate focus on modern history as opposed to ancient history, his refusal to "make allowances for time" in judging the past, and his extreme selectiveness in determining the relevance of past events to world history. Voltaire's historical practice is put in the context of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, and considered in a tradition of universal history going back to Bossuet and leading up to nineteenth-century German historicism. Paradoxically, Voltaire is a major figure in the history of historiography not in spite of his presentism (as Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay have argued), but because of it.

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Modern Intellectual History

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Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Published Here
February 12, 2010