French Enlightenment: The Pierre Conlon Collection

Pierre ConlonIntroduction

The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural movement of the 18th century. The word "enlightenment" is an English translation of the French word "lumières", meaning "lights". It refers to both an intellectual climate and to the people who were creating it. The scientific revolution of the 17th century had created the basic intellectual milieu in which the Enlightenment was born, and it provided a new model for how problems could be solved through rational thought and experimentation. Enlightenment first appeared in England during the 17th century, inspired by discussions surrounding the theses of deism. Philosophers, such as John Locke and Isaac Newton, provided the impetus for this change which relied on something other than the authority of religion or the views and opinions of ancient thinkers.

Border ImageIn France, Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1696) stands as the supreme achievement of one of the seventeenth century's most prominent men of letters. Based in Rotterdam, Bayle animated intellectual discussion in Europe through his work as editor and author and as a prolific correspondent. His Dictionnaire historique et critique grew to be an exemplary work of critical methodology. The Bayle Dictionnaire was pillaged and re-edited throughout the eighteenth century by believers and sceptics alike who gathered ammunition for philosophical argument in the work's recondite notes. In addition to the eight French editions published in a span of fifty years, the Dictionnaire was translated into English (two versions, 1709, 1734-1741) and German (1741-1744).

In the eighteenth century France saw an increase in prosperity and literacy. The energy and genius of the Enlightenment was celebrated in its controversial writers: Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot and the "Encyclopedists". The diverse and contradictory nature of 18th-century Enlightenment thought, known as the Age of Reason, saw the development of the philosophe movement in France. The philosophes fully articulated the values of the European Enlightenment, including deism, religious tolerance, and political and economic theories that would dramatically change the face of European society. This movement was the most emphatic statement of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the bible of its philosophers is to be found in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, published between 1751 and 1765 by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. In this work, Diderot expresses the optimistic belief that knowledge might lead to virtue which would in turn result in happiness: ‘que nos neveux devenant plus instruits, deviennent en même temps plus verteux et plus heureux.' Diderot and d'Alembert enlisted many important writers in this project. The philosophers combined their efforts to propose a general overhaul of understanding on behalf of a shared commitment to the values of the rising bourgeoisie. Diderot was enormously influential in shaping the rationalistic spirit of the 18th century. With the Encyclopédie, censors were mainly concerned with the threat of subversion to the state, or of blasphemy or unorthodoxy to the Church.

Border ImageEighteenth-century French literature is not only a vehicle for the Enlightenment but also a composite of movements which variously accompany and diverge from it. It was a time when writers felt assured in their capacity to improve their lot, to think on their own feet, to identify and to vilify enemies, to write and to be right. At the same time, they were aware of the fundamental difficulty and fragility of human existence and its insufficiencies. Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, poet, novelist, playwright, historian, scientist and philosopher was the key figure of the French Enlightenment. He was a great polemicist, who denounced the hypocrisy of the ruling class and the Catholic church. A tireless campaigner against injustice and an advocate of religious and social tolerance, he led an arduous life of intellectual campaigning and was the most widely-read of the spokesmen known as the philosophes. Much of the work in this exhibition is focused on Voltaire and his influence.

The frequenting of Salons by the philosophes made a profound change in the semination of the critical spirit. By the 1760s, the Parisian salons, already at the centre of Parisian social and intellectual life, had become centres of Enlightenment, pursuing a variety of intellectual interests: scientific, mechanical, literary and philosophical. It was through the salons that people acquired an understanding of reforms, liberty and philosophy and in knowing what the philosophers did and what they published.

Professor Pierre Conlon's superb collection forms a substantial addition to McMaster's own collection of French authors, but surpasses the existing collection of French literature in its concentration on the Enlightenment philosophers. There are over 160 books in the collection concerning the views and critiques of the dramatic, sociological, political and religious writings by the philosophes : Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot and Helvétius and the anti-philosophes, such as Louis Mayeul Chaudon. Through the influence of books such as those exhibited here, for the people of eighteenth-century France, we can say that philosophy did have a role in transforming minds, in making people question tradition, and for making them reflect upon democracy and revolution. The imprint of many of the books, in places such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Rotterdam, Geneva, are a testimony to the censorship laws in 18th-century France. Many of the authors who are represented here suffered at the hands of the censors. Pierre Conlon's collection is reflected in his own scholarly works, in particular his magnus opus, Le siècle des lumières: bibliographie chronologique (Geneva:1983 -2007), a work of 25 volumes commencing in 1716, with the death of Louis XIV and ending in 1789, the year of the French revolution.

This work was preceded by his 6 volumes entitled Prélude au siècle des lumières en France: répertoire chronologique de 1680 à 1715 (Geneva: 1970-1975). McMaster's eighteenth-century collection of French literature was developed in response to the strong research and teaching interests of the university's French department, particularly in the area of French drama, comedy and opera. The library's collection, representative of all the genres, includes 1,500 French seventeenth and eighteenth-century plays by playwrights, such as Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire, Marivaux, Picard and Favart. Pierre Conlon's excellent collection also highlights the dramatic works of this period.

Renu Barrett