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The Idea of Europe

 | 
Catriona Seth
, 
Rotraud von Kulessa

11. History and Political Interests

Texte intégral

1Since Pierre Bayle at the end of the seventeenth century, lexicographers have often slipped subversive truths into seemingly innocuous encyclopaedia entries. This article titled ‘Academy of History’ is no exception, since it tackles the question of how history is written and denounces the insidious suppression of the truth in various western nations.

Figurative system showing the arborescence of human knowledge in the Supplément à l’Encyclopédie (1776), engraved by Robert Bénard.i

  • ii This scientific term, which was not lexicalized at the time, and which is calqued on the Latin, de (...)

2No country, no prince has yet thought to found an academy of history, whose principal aim would be to observe the different states of the nation carefully, to transmit events to posterity with the most sincere truth, and to perfect the science of morality and legislation, whose sole bases are historical facts, just as natural phenomena are the sole basis of physics. But knowledge of the former is all the more useful, since it matters a great deal more to a State to know which are the best laws to banish laziness and to inspire in its citizens a love of their country and of virtue, than to know what laws observe the movements of the four different satellites of Jupiter. Why then abandon the writing of history, which we are right to call the eye of the future, as well as that of the past, and the torch of life? Why not follow the example of the Chinese, who have excelled so strongly in morality and in legislation? They have founded a tribunal of history in which they keep a register of all that happens under the reign of each emperor with the same exactitude as we note in our academies the appulsionsii of the moon to the stars, the eclipses and all that occurs in the Heavens. After the death of the emperor, the record is divulged to serve to instruct his successors, and as a guide for public happiness. In several European States, there are offices for historiographers, and public chairs of history. That is a start towards the academy of history that we propose, it would be easy to extend these beginnings and to form from them a fixed establishment from which we might draw great benefits for the good administration of the States and the happiness of the people, which must always be the supreme law.

3We must observe, however, that knowledge of moral causes does not demand as much wisdom as does knowledge of natural causes. Perhaps Europe has no need of the former, of an academy of savants, or a tribunal of mandarins, necessary for China, where the human spirit seems to be less active. Moreover, the dose of liberty, which can be found in several European governments, naturally moves all men to seek out the true causes of historical facts, and to publish them; which may be done without danger, in England above all, where they still enjoy happy times as the Romans had under Trajan. Whereas in China, where despotism has raised its throne, no-one would dare to speak the language of truth, if, in the interest of the public good, the government had not accorded this privilege to a tribunal before which the emperors are summoned after their death. Thus what appears at first glance to be in China the pinnacle to which legislation might be taken, is perhaps only its correction. That may be so, but have we no need of this correction in several of our European governments, where the truth is too often held captive, and where indistinct and hidden despotism is all the more arbitrary, whereas that of China is truly a legal despotism.

4‘Academy of History’,
in Supplement to the Encyclopédie (1776).

Read the free text in the original language (1776 edition):
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Notes

i https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Encyclopédie-_Diderot’s_Tree_of_Knowledge.tif

ii This scientific term, which was not lexicalized at the time, and which is calqued on the Latin, denotes the convergence of celestial bodies found in conjunction with one another, but without an occultation or eclipse occurring.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figurative system showing the arborescence of human knowledge in the Supplément à l’Encyclopédie (1776), engraved by Robert Bénard.i
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/4299/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 290k