Chapter

Making the “Philosophe”

in The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780226749457
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226749471 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226749471.003.0006
Making the “Philosophe”

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The text that triggered Voltaire's transformative initiatives was his Lettres philosophiques, which appeared in the spring of 1734 and was canonized as the first bomb thrown against the ancien régime. The text triggered a scandal that established Voltaire as the first Enlightenment philosophe. It also launched an unprecedented philosophical campaign in which Voltaire and his followers, employing the ideas introduced in this “manifesto of Enlightenment” (another label often attached to the Lettres philosophiques), attempted to transform France socially, culturally, and intellectually. This chapter argues that Voltaire opened the French Enlightenment in 1734 by defining and asserting a new intellectual persona: the philosophe. It also contends that his strategic use of Newtonianism in the Lettres philosophiques, when situated within the context of the Cartesian/Newtonian debate already underway in France, played a decisive role in initiating this outcome.

Keywords: Voltaire; Lettres philosophiques; Enlightenment; philosophe; manifesto of Enlightenment; France; Newtonianism

Chapter.  21233 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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