In D’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie, there is an article named History which is written by Voltaire. Voltaire has a strong, lingering shadow in the realm of historiography having written great historical accounts like The Age of Louis XIV and Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations. They are good accounts because they do away with old conventions of writing histories by focusing more on practical manners and the truth rather than focusing on what he would call in his article a “history of opinions” which he equaled to “the collection of human error.” However I believe that Voltaire only is focused on the physical aspect of history, or what he calls monumens, which are physical proofs of an event happening. He neglects the mental side; the side that I would argue is the basis of all our knowledge and understanding of the world, which is synonymous with history. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Samuel Johnson’s essay “Rambler No. 60” will be used as a frame for Voltaire’s statement to see how much opinions are essential to history.
It might be best to begin with one of the authorities of the Encyclopédie, D’Alembert, who wrote this in the Preliminary Discourse: “These three faculties form at the outset the three general divisions of our system of human knowledge: History, which is related to memory…” Already before one starts reading the encyclopedia, they are introduced to history being essential to knowledge and that it stems from memory. This statement almost agrees with what Voltaire wrote: “almost all actions were attested only by witnesses,” however Voltaire bemoans this state of history because it is not written down, which writing would be the equivalent of one of Voltaire’s “historical monuments.” D'Alembert writes in contrast to this: "Thus memory, reason (strictly speaking), and imagination are the three different manners in which our soul operates on the objects of its thoughts." In other words, history, which is just a recording of physical objects, is that which we take into our understanding, that which we mull over, and then we may write it down as a physical artifact. The worry in Voltaire’s thought is that memory is a fickle thing which is true, but ultimately it is what the original Greek sense of history meant: I observe, I inquire. History was an oratory act, much like literature, and it was passed on from generation to generation just as a parent would part their knowledge on children.
I think of history as a pursuit of knowledge or an accumulation of it since after all one’s experiences and observations are the basis for understanding, which this thought is Lockean in origin. Even Sterne makes a similar statement in his book when Tristram writes of Locke’s Essay upon the Human Understanding: “It is a history.—A history! of who? what? where? when? Don’t hurry yourself.——It is a history-book, Sir, (which may possibly recommend it to the world) of what passes in a man’s own mind.” In one of Hannah Madonia’s essays on Philosophers she comments upon D’Alembert’s focus of knowledge: “The whole purpose of the primer [Preliminary Discourse] was to instill in readers the belief that the circulation of knowledge in the Encyclopédie was an honorable and important endeavor.”1 If one connects this statement to the idea that knowledge is no more than the accumulation of history or experience than it would follow that observation and memory/opinion are imperative in the pursuit of understanding the world. I believe that Tristram Shandy is very much of that thought that opinions are what constitute a history because for one the original title is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen and two because the piece proclaims itself as an autobiography of its namesake which he calls it in the book a “history of myself.” This is to say that a history is primarily a mental action, because while one may leave remnants of their achievements behind it still does not tell others the life/history. Even Sterne’s book falls into this because while the reader is given a massive amount of information about the events surrounding Tristram’s life, there is still much of that history unsaid and remaining in the mind of Tristam.
And although Tristram Shandy is filled to the brim with events happening outside of him that make up part of his history, I would argue that it is his thoughts or opinions over certain matters that are the meat of the history because it is through them that the reader has a true sense of Tristam’s character. In Cristina Crowley’s essay on Education, she makes the claim that the writer, Marsais, is arguing for the education of one’s self when she writes: “We need the base knowledge of our senses, but we can only satisfy our minds and achieve our full potential as a citizen through study,”2 which I think can be turned into a phrase like if we have a basic understanding of our senses then we are able to form opinions over matters through the use of sense which once these opinions are gathered constitute a history.
However, it would seem the Voltaire is almost against the act of writing about a person rather than an event when he writes: "In [the writing of] history, should one insert harangues and construct portraits? If, on an important occasion, a general [or] a man of state has spoken in a singular and strong manner which characterizes his genius and that of his century, then it is necessary to report his discourse word for word. Such harangues are perhaps the most useful part of history." This statement almost leaves no room for the common person to write about their opinions or insights because they were not the catalyst of a great historical event. This goes against all things biographical, which Samuel Johnson saw utility in when we wrote in the “Rambler No. 60”: “no species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful.” And by useful Johnson meant all of man’s “mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients.” And while Tristram Shandy is a fictional autobiography, its ideas and opinions should be considered valid because we have taken much wisdom from fictional stories.
On the writing style of a history Voltaire writes: “The modern historian is required to furnish more detail, more certifiable facts, precise dates, authority, greater attention to customs, laws, morals, commerce, finance, agriculture, and population,” which is a good way to write histories of events but not as applicable to biographies because Voltaire’s opinion seems focused on providing a clear, chronological order to events, which a reader of Tristram Shandy will note that that concept is completely disregarded. In fact, some may argue that such a style is distracting and detrimental to learning anything about the character because it seems details always get delayed but I have to agree with what Johnson wrote on the chronology of biographies: “more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.” This is in contrast to what Victoria Peterson wrote on Language: “Without order to one’s language, there is no sense of consistency to the organization. That is why Lady Montagu’s letters are in chronological order from when she wrote them,”3 which I for one do not believe there need be consistency in writing because I think what matters is that upon reading one should have a revelation or to have learned from someone else’s opinions. This jumping around from different narratives or different matters in Tristram Shandy works greatly in its favor of presenting a person’s life and opinions because it resembles how we go from thought to thought and are constantly distracted by other mullings which in turn help us form opinions. Much like in imitation of Johnson's advice, Sterne uses this unconventional structure to show the many dimensions of Tristram and other characters the revolve around him. Whenever he would be close to finishing a narrative up he would quickly moved to another one with the promise that he would return to it, which gave the book the great effect that you were talking to a overly-excited friend sharing their life.