Commentaire Historique sur les Oeuvres de l’Auteur de l’Henriade, &c. Avec les Piéces originales & les preuves. Basle, Héritiers de Paul Duker, 1776.
First Edition. 8vo, (193 x 115mm), pp. iv, 282, in contemporary mottled calf, flat spine gilt in compartments, yellow and red morocco labels lettered in gilt.
An important source for information on Voltaire’s life, the Commentaire Historique was published when Voltaire was eighty-two. Written in the third person, it was dictated by Voltaire to his secretary, Jean-Louis Wagnière. It is the first autobiography of an author to be published in his lifetime: ‘Jamais encore on n’avait vu une “histoire d’auteur” écrite par l’auteur lui même, et publiée de son vivant’ (André Magnan, Dictionnaire Voltaire, p. 293). Some fifteen years earlier, Voltaire had left unfinished his Mémoires which contained a brief sketch of the main events of his life, but these were not published until 1784.
Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire is very sketchy on his early life. No mention is made of his time in the Bastille or of his exile and there is only a little information on his stay in Prussia. The main focus of the book is on the last twenty years spent at Ferney and on his stand as the herald of human rights. His actions during the Calas and La Barre affairs are well documented as are his various stands against intolerance, superstition and injustice, such as abusive clerical taxation and the selling of state functions. He claims to have abandoned the power and influence derived from acquaintance with the Royal Court in favour of the power of public opinion. He makes a very interesting case for the militant intellectual as a counter-power to the establishment.
The letters which form the second part of this work are of particular significance. Chosen by Voltaire, and in some cases printed with the replies, they include correspondence to and from Linguet, Horace Walpole, Hamilton, Chesterfield and Caylus.
Cioranescu 64527; BN Voltaire Catalogue 4350.