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  • Voltaire and the ‘Parlements’ of France
  • Edward Ousselin
Voltaire and the ‘Parlements’ of France. By James Hanrahan. (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 2009:06). Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2009. xi + 265 pp. Pb £55.00; $85.00; €65.00.

James Hanrahan analyses Voltaire’s politics through the prism of his representations of, and dealings with, the parlements of France, which were, of course, what passed for judicial institutions during the Ancien Régime. The author’s starting point is that Voltaire has too often been depicted as simply an unwavering adversary of the parlements, owing to their penchant for censorship and for religious oppression, and as an equally unwavering supporter of royal authority (albeit enlightened). Hanrahan finds instead that Voltaire, especially during the early part of his career, pursued a more pragmatic approach in his dealings with one of the few institutions that managed to provide a counterweight to monarchical absolutism. Divided into three parts (each comprising two chapters), Hanrahan’s book provides a chronological examination. Part I stresses Voltaire’s early links to the parlementaire milieu and includes his reaction in the aftermath of Damiens’s attempted assassination of Louis XV in 1757. Part II, which includes a close reading of the Histoire du parlement de Paris (1769), shows Voltaire waging his anti-parlementaire campaign in the context of the executions of Calas and the chevalier de La Barre. Part III is devoted to the philosophe’s support of Chancellor Maupeou’s 1771 judicial reforms, and to a re-evaluation of Voltaire’s politics, which is partly at odds with Peter Gay’s classic 1959 study of this subject. Hanrahan convincingly argues that the parlements (a component of a power structure that included the clergy and the crown) were not Voltaire’s main polemical targets during the early part of his career. He shows the author of the Lettres philosophiques (1734) trying to anticipate the reactions of royal as well as ecclesiastical censors: ‘Voltaire’s inclusion of the letter on Pascal could well be seen as a tactical choice designed to divide the censorship authorities on the question of the orthodoxy of his work’ (p. 61). Hanrahan provides an impressively detailed account of Voltaire’s evolving views regarding the parlements after the execution of Calas in 1762, for instance by comparing how the king and the parlementaires are represented in the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (1768) and in the Histoire du parlement de Paris. As is perhaps less than surprising in a volume about an inveterate polemicist, Hanrahan repeatedly overstates the impact of his reassessment of Voltaire’s politics, thereby adding a needlessly argumentative undertone to an otherwise admirable book. Many authors are driven to stress the originality of their approach, which can lead to simplifying or caricaturing the works against which they are positioning themselves. In this case, Hanrahan seems to be engaged in a battle with outdated concepts when he asserts that ‘the Enlightenment is still seen by many as a battle between light and dark, between forces for human progress and the privileged traditionalists who opposed it’ (p. 244). Similarly, few serious readers of Voltaire’s works would take issue with the notion that his political goals led him to support ‘absolutism, but not absolutely’, as Hanrahan puts it in the title of Part III (p. 175). [End Page 347]

Edward Ousselin
Western Washington University


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