The Voltaire Foundation threw a birthday party with a difference in New York this week. The birthday boy? French Enlightenment writer Voltaire. It is believed that he was – possibly - born on this day (21 November) in 1694.
As well as celebrating Voltaire’s birthday, the event was held to ask for support for Oxford University's Voltaire Foundation’s publication of the first ever critical edition of Voltaire’s History of the Reign of Louis XV (the Précis du siècle de Louis XV).
Professor Nicholas Cronk, director of the Voltaire Foundation, said it is “amazing” that this has never been published before. He said: “It is Voltaire’s history of his own times, a really important work in which Voltaire writes the history of France in his own day and, very remarkably, situates France in a global perspective – which gives the work a very modern feel.”
The New York Times attended the event. They reported with disappointment that no candles were blown out and no cake was cut. But their correspondent enjoyed Professor Cronk’s description of the uncertainty around Voltaire’s birth date as “fake news”. This uncertainty was deliberate on Voltaire’s part and probably a way of poking fun at his “slightly stuffy conservative father”, according to Professor Cronk. “People often lie about their date of birth to cover up a scandal,” he said. “What I love is he lies about his date of birth to create one.”
In his speech, Professor Cronk made a novel observation - that Voltaire predicted American global hegemony. When writing about the Seven Years War (1756-1763), Voltaire said: “If these colonies, remain united, there can be no doubt that this association will one day grow into the most formidable power.” “So it’s a work in which Voltaire predicts the future greatness of the USA!”, said Professor Cronk.
Professor Karen O’Brien, head of the Humanities Division at the University, attended the dinner. She said: "The name of Voltaire certainly connected well with our US guests who were well aware of the formative role his ideas played in the creation of the American Republic. Voltaire's lifelong commitment to a free, argumentative, socially responsible press certainly still resonates with the New York Times.
“The Voltaire Foundation is the leading global centre for the study of Voltaire and the Enlightenment. It is now nearing the completion of one of Oxford's great scholarly enterprises, the Complete Works. The works will soon all be available for generations to come in print, and, in the coming years, in digital format," she added.
“Voltaire's readers, even if they only read as far as Candide, continue to be inspired and energised by his vehement hatreds: economic protectionism, vested privilege, religious intolerance, superstition, fanaticism, cruelty, torture, expansionist warfare, intellectual complacency and (as he often added) boredom."
Miles Young, Warden of New College and a member of the Voltaire Foundation Board, also spoke at the event. Other guests included VF Board member Dr Sarah Thomas, who heads the Harvard Library, and Dr Paul LeClerc, Voltaire scholar and former President of New York Public Library.