Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


This is a title very different from that of historian. In France we commonly see men of letters pensioned, and, as it was said formerly, appointed to write history. Alain Chartier was the historiographer of Charles VII.; he says that he interrogated the domestics of this prince, and put them on their oaths, according to the duty of his charge, to ascertain whether Charles really had Agnes Sorel for his mistress. He concludes that nothing improper ever passed between these lovers; and that all was reduced to a few honest caresses, to which these domestics had been the innocent witnesses. However, it is proved, not by historiographers, but by historians supported by family titles, that Charles VII. had three daughters by Agnes Sorel, the eldest of whom, married to one Breze, was stabbed by her husband. From this time there were often titled historiographers in France, and it was the custom to give them commissions of councillors of state, with the provisions of their charge. They were commensal officers of the king’s house. Matthieu had these privileges under Henry IV., but did not therefore write a better history.

At Venice it is always a noble of the senate who possesses this title and function, and the celebrated Nani has filled them with general approbation. It is very difficult for the historiographer of a prince not to be a liar; that of a republic flatters less; but he does not tell all the truth. In China historiographers are charged with collecting all the events and original titles under a dynasty. They throw the leaves numbered into a vast hall, through an orifice resembling the lion’s mouth at Venice, into which is cast all secret intelligence. When the dynasty is extinct the hall is opened and the materials digested, of which an authentic history is composed. The general journal of the empire also serves to form the body of history; this journal is superior to our newspapers, being made under the superintendence of the mandarins of each province, revised by a supreme tribunal, and every piece bearing an authenticity which is decisive in contentious matters.

Every sovereign chose his own historiographer. Vittorio Siri was one; Pelisson was first chosen by Louis XIV. to write the events of his reign, and acquitted himself of his task with eloquence in the history of Franche-Comté. Racine, the most elegant of poets, and Boileau, the most correct, were afterwards substituted for Pelisson. Some curious persons have collected “Memoirs of the Passage of the Rhine,” written by Racine. We cannot judge by these memoirs whether Louis XIV. passed the Rhine or not with his troops, who swam across the river. This example sufficiently demonstrates how rarely it happens that an historiographer dare tell the truth. Several also, who have possessed this title, have taken good care of writing history; they have followed the example of Amyot, who said that he was too much attached to his masters to write their lives. Father Daniel had the patent of historiographer, after having given his “History of France”; he had a pension of 600 livres, regarded merely as a suitable stipend for a monk.

It is very difficult to assign true bounds to the arts, sciences, and literary labor. Perhaps it is the proper duty of an historiographer to collect materials, and that of an historian to put them in order. The first can amass everything, the second arrange and select. The historiographer is more of the simple annalist, while the historian seems to have a more open field for reflection and eloquence.

We need scarcely say here that both should equally tell the truth, but we can examine this great law of Cicero: “Ne quid veri tacere non audeat.” —“That we ought not to dare to conceal any truth.” This rule is of the number of those that want illustration. Suppose a prince confides to his historiographer an important secret to which his honor is attached, or that the good of the state requires should not be revealed — should the historiographer or historian break his word with the prince, or betray his country to obey Cicero? The curiosity of the public seems to exact it; honor and duty forbid it. Perhaps in this case he should renounce writing history.

If a truth dishonors a family, ought the historiographer or historian to inform the public of it? No; doubtless he is not bound to reveal the shame of individuals; history is no satire.

But if this scandalous truth belongs to public events, if it enters into the interests of the state — if it has produced evils of which it imports to know the cause, it is then that the maxims of Cicero should be observed; for this law is like all others which must be executed, tempered, or neglected, according to circumstances.

Let us beware of this humane respect when treating of acknowledged public faults, prevarications, and injustices, into which the misfortunes of the times have betrayed respectable bodies. They cannot be too much exposed; they are beacons which warn these always-existing bodies against splitting again on similar rocks. If an English parliament has condemned a man of fortune to the torture — if an assembly of theologians had demanded the blood of an unfortunate who differed in opinion from themselves, it should be the duty of an historian to inspire all ages with horror for these juridical assassins. We should always make the Athenians blush for the death of Socrates.

Happily, even an entire people always find it good to have the crimes of their ancestors placed before them; they like to condemn them, and to believe themselves superior. The historiographer or historian encourages them in these sentiments, and, in retracing the wars of government and religion, prevents their repetition.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25