Peter France, 2 December 1982
The French Enlightenment? Think of Huber’s famous picture of the dîner des philosophes: there is Voltaire, one arm raised to heaven, and alongside him, around the well-provided table, on elegant chairs, sits the periwigged company of older and younger Enlighteners, D’Alembert, Diderot, Marmontel, Condorcet, La Harpe… Two familiar images come together here. Eighteenth-century France as a place of refinement, good taste and witty conversation, a haven of the ‘civilisation’ celebrated long ago by Clive Bell. But at the same time the dynamic new France, in which great thinkers shake the foundations of traditional society and prepare the way for the Revolution and the modern age – such is the view propagated in different guises by the French republican tradition.