Nicholas Cronk est professeur de littérature française à l’Université d’Oxford, directeur de la Voltaire Foundation, président de la Société des Études voltairiennes et chercheur associé à l’ITEM (CNRS/ENS). Ses recherches portent sur l’époque des Lumières et sur Voltaire en particulier. Il dirige le projet d’édition des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire et participe actuellement aux recherches en cours concernant deux grandes œuvres voltairiennes, les Lettres philosophiques et les Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.
Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1733/1734) are a masterpiece of the early Enlightenment and a pivotal text in the standard narrative of how English thought shaped eighteenth-century French culture. Yet the standard critical edition of this text, by Gustave Lanson, is outmoded both in its scholarly assumptions and its ideological approach.
My project is therefore to prepare a new critical edition of the Lettres philosophiques, to appear in two (or three) volumes in the definitive Oxford Complete works of Voltaire published by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford. This edition will take full account, for the first time, of all versions of the text and will be accompanied by extensive annotation. The interpretation of the text will constitute a volume in itself, and will in effect be a separate monograph (which could be published independently).
This study of the text will explore in depth the genesis of the work and the nature and extent of its influence. It is necessary to re-examine the importance of English thought for Voltaire, from the perspective of modern interpretations of the Enlightenment. The Lettres philosophiques are not simply a satire against Ancien Régime France written for a French readership; the work is also aimed at a broader European readership, and makes a pivotal contribution to the growth and nature of the European Enlightenment.
The Lettres philosophiques are not simply a work about England, they should also be studied from a historiographical perspective. It is in the Lettres philosophiques, in the context of the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, that Voltaire begins to develop his thinking about the history of cultures, and my research will focus therefore on the decisive importance of the journey to England for the evolution of Voltaire as a historian.