Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A narrative of public affairs. It was at the beginning of the seventeenth century that this useful practice was suggested and established at Venice, at the time when Italy still continued the centre of European negotiations, and Venice was the unfailing asylum of liberty. The leaves or sheets containing this narrative, which were published once a week, were called “Gazettes,” from the word “gazetta,” the name of a small coin, amounting nearly to one of our demi-sous, then current at Venice. The example was afterwards followed in all the great cities of Europe.

Journals of this description have been established in China from time immemorial. The “Imperial Gazette” is published there every day by order of the court. Admitting this gazette to be true, we may easily believe it does not contain all that is true; neither in fact should it do so.

Théophraste Renaudot, a physician, published the first gazettes in France in 1601, and he had an exclusive privilege for the publication, which continued for a long time a patrimony to his family. The like privilege became an object of importance at Amsterdam, and the greater part of the gazettes of the United Provinces are still a source of revenue to many of the families of magistrates, who pay writers for furnishing materials for them. The city of London alone publishes more than twelve gazettes in the course of a week. They can be printed only upon stamped paper, and produce no inconsiderable income to the State.

The gazettes of China relate solely to that empire; those of the different states of Europe embrace the affairs of all countries. Although they frequently abound in false intelligence, they may nevertheless be considered as supplying good material for history; because, in general, the errors of each particular gazette are corrected by subsequent ones, and because they contain authentic copies of almost all state papers, which indeed are published in them by order of the sovereigns or governments themselves. The French gazettes have always been revised by the ministry. It is on this account that the writers of them have always adhered to certain forms and designations, with a strictness apparently somewhat inconsistent with the courtesies of polished society, bestowing the title of monsieur only on some particular descriptions of persons, and that of sieur upon others; the authors having forgotten that they were not speaking in the name of their king. These public journals, it must be added, to their praise, have never been debased by calumny, and have always been written with considerable correctness.

The case is very different with respect to foreign gazettes; those of London, with the exception of the court gazette, abound frequently in that coarseness and licentiousness of observation which the national liberty allows. The French gazettes established in that country have been seldom written with purity, and have sometimes been not a little instrumental in corrupting the language. One of the greatest faults which has found a way into them arises from the authors having concluded that the ancient forms of expression used in public proclamations and in judicial and political proceedings and documents in France, and with which they were particularly conversant, were analogous to the regular syntax of our language, and from their having accordingly imitated that style in their narrative. This is like a Roman historian’s using the style of the law of the twelve tables.

In imitation of the political gazettes, literary ones began to be published in France in 1665; for the first journals were, in fact, simply advertisements of the works recently printed in Europe; to this mere announcement of publication was soon added a critical examination or review. Many authors were offended at it, notwithstanding its great moderation.

We shall here speak only of those literary gazettes with which the public, who were previously in possession of various journals from every country in Europe in which the sciences were cultivated, were completely overwhelmed. These gazettes appeared at Paris about the year 1723, under many different names, as “The Parnassian Intelligencer,” “Observations on New Books,” etc. The greater number of them were written for the single purpose of making money; and as money is not to be made by praising authors, these productions consisted generally of satire and abuse. They often contained the most odious personalities, and for a time sold in proportion to the virulence of their malignity; but reason and good taste, which are always sure to prevail at last, consigned them eventually to contempt and oblivion.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01