Wednesday, July 31, 2013


AM | @HDI1780

"...on lit encore les anciens, mais on ne les étudie plus" — Gibbon

Why do so many works of the Enlightenment yield so few references, quotes and footnotes? Histoire des deux Indes is a case in point. Raynal does cite some of his sources, but the harvest is far from plentiful, considering the enormous size of his ouvrage. Some big names are acknowleged, both from Anciens (Thucydides and Polybius) and Modernes (Locke and Montesquieu). Vanity, no doubt, played a major role. In some cases, prudence dictated a considerable dose of discrétion with sources. Helvétius, for one, told Hume that fear of censorshisp had prevented him from quoting the Scottsman more often in De l'esprit. The same principle is clearly at work in Río de la Plata prior to 1810.

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But here's a complementary hypothesis: many authors wanted to avoid the stigma attached to what young Edward Gibbon called "le nom flétrissant d'érudit". In his Discours préliminaire, d'Alembert notes that "[le] mépris est aujourd'hui retombé sur l'Erudition". This is surely the reason why Turgot's well-known latin verse about Benjamin Franklin —Erupuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis— is quoted in French, while its author is not even mentioned:


In his youthful and remarkable Essai sur l'étude de la littérature (1761), written in French, Gibbon takes the side of érudits, and blasts d'Alembert's notorious suggestion that there should be an annual stock-taking of the annals of the past, with the rubbish being committed to the flames:

Remarque sur une idée de M. d'Alembert. LIII. Ne suivons point le conseil de cet écrivain qui unit, comme Fontenelle, le savoir & le goût. Je m'oppose, sans crainte du nom flétrissant d'érudit, à la sentence, par laquelle ce juge éclairé, mais sévère, ordonne qu'à la fin d'un siècle on rassemble tous les faits, qu'on en choisisse quelques uns, & qu'on livre le reste aux flammes. Conservons-les tous précieusement. Un Montesquieu démêlera dans les plus chétifs des rapports inconnus au vulgaire (p. 72).

The half-polémique Gibbon-d'Alembert is thus a useful reference for those who wish to understand the paucity of quotations in Histoire des deux Indes and other books (*). And although Mariano Moreno's reasons are somewhat different —he rejected scholarship in order to create a republican vocabulaire—, he too felt the weight of d'Alembert's rejection of scholasticism.

(*) See W.B. Carnochan. Gibbon's Solitude. The Inward World of the Historian (Stanford University Press, 1987); Roy Porter. Gibbon. Making History (London: Orion Books, 1988, pp. 54-57); "The Enlightenments of J. G. A. Pocock": Two reviews of John G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Vol. 1 The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon and Vol. 2 Narratives of Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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