Voltaire’s “Men of Letters”(Gens de Lettres)

It is undeniable that the very point of the ‘printed word’ is to provide humanity with an educated basis by which it will propel itself beyond the constraints of nature, thus, ruling mastery over it through comprehension and knowledge. Nothing can better evidence this particular process than Voltaire’s own cultivated “Men of Letters”, whose presence within the “Enciclopédie” entails its own acceptation of the growth of humanity, through earnest and abundant education. In this case, Voltaire merely demonstrates the effective sense of the phrase “Men of Letters”, but more importantly gives evidence to the ample purpose of the “Encyclopédie” of distributing knowledge- ready for critical analysis which can better the condition of individuals, and above all nations.

Principally, Voltaire depicts the “Men of Letters” as individuals whose purposes and passions do not merely lie in the sciences of grammar, but branch out to meet the wonders of philosophy, history, law and all the other written arts. These ‘men’ were thus part of the modern clique of intellectualism, who unlike their ancient counterparts exercised the wide array of subjects. It is here, that the “Encyclopédie” held its fortitude in the hearts and minds of those like Voltaire. The ‘men of letters’ were the participants and promoters of the “Encyclopédie” and its transmission of knowledge. Thus, Voltaire’s main purpose, through this article, is to further promote the idea of intellectualism as not something based on specificity, not even dichotomy, but the segmentation of many ideas, subjects and genres to formulate an individual, whose education was as wide as his ‘mind’. It is for this reason that Voltaire so gallantly proposes that these men must not only be able to analyze mathematics, but they must also understand the “flowers of poetry”. This is further bolstered, by his insistence on the progression, or more appropriately said, evolution of the men of letters, from their simplicity of the ancient times, to the complexity of 18th century intellectualism, due to the ever changing process of history and social conditions. In the centuries before Voltaire’s contemporary, the men of letters preoccupied themselves with the problems of grammarian analysis, while Voltaire’s peers prospered in the success of the “philosophical spirit”. In short, Voltaire’s insistence on this intellectual ‘process’ is indicative of his encouragement of intellectuals to ‘raise’ themselves, through written mechanism such as the “Encyclopédie”, by natural scholarly evolution.

Perhaps the most considerable attribute, by which Voltaire humbles all who would disapproves, is the importance that is placed on the critiques of philosophy and human nature, rather than the one merely concentrated on languages . In this, he describes, one can find the reason the ills of nations, such as ignorance and magic, have ultimately disappeared. This is due to the fact that intellectuals no longer wasted their time on the critique of grammar, but moved to analyze politics, ethics and society itself. In essence, Voltaire exhibits his belief that the progress of nations lies in the formation and articulation of philosophic critical analysis, as derived from intellectualism. This is a rather resolute statement as to why all intellectuals should aspire to become ‘men of letters’, and more importantly, as to why they should promote their own education in order to criticize philosophy for the future of the state. It would not be wrong to assume, that his argument alludes to the position of the “Encyclopédie” and its vast importance not only to individuals but to the future of the nation.

Beyond the terse definition of “Men of Letters”, Voltaire exerts a few instances of personal dogma to balance and personify this article, and thus promoting his more daring ideals. He claims that although the independence of these men is, on average, beyond other individuals they should, by no means, be confused by people of wit, as it implies the satirical, yet intellectual, aspect of the educated process. Thus, ‘a wit’ cannot be a ‘man of letters’, nor could the latter acclaim the former “brilliance”. It is obvious that Voltaire brings light to this distinction for the purpose of showing the viewer the importance and seriousness of these ‘men’ not only to the societal structure but to all men. Moreover, he goes as far to state that, on average, these men showed higher degrees of independence, as ushered by his Royal Majesty Louis XIV who sanctioned them even more intellectual liberty. Therefore, it is of no surprise, that he refers to these “men of letters ” as the judges of society, and the rest as the judged. This Voltarian mannerism puts an end to the article, and yet again is suggestive of the almost ‘cardinal’ importance of acquiring and transmitting education through critical analysis.

While it may be presumptuous to highlight the importance of this article, in the “Encyclopédie”, it is undeniable that it is a product of the general educative impression of Voltaire’s time, which asserts the gravity placed upon the ‘printed word’. With this in mind, it is also evidence of the complexity of intellectualism that was promoted by the medium of print, which hoped to free the masses from the chains of ignorance. It for this reason why, Voltaire, and his peers hoped that the “Enciclopédie” could be used as a compass to guide towards advancement, and more importantly, the realization that universal human knowledge is not attainable, but it can be diversified and ultimately cultivated by ‘men of letters’.


Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.

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