Peter Wagstaff


Widening horizons exemplify the spirit of the eighteenth century. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, the adventure of travel, both beyond and within borders, is matched by the philosophical and epistemological adventure that accompanies broadening knowledge and an enhanced sense of relativism. The aphoristic irony of Pascal's earlier "vérité au deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au delà" is given weight by texts as diverse in form and content as Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques, Prévost's Manon Lescaut, and De Graffigny's Lettres d'une Péruvienne, which, like countless others, all bear witness both to an awareness of geographical, spatial difference and to the need for an analysis of that difference and its impact on previously unquestioned assumptions and beliefs. The revaluations which are thus brought to bear reflect virtually every aspect of human experience: religious, scientific, moral, political, philosophical, and social. Further, the French espousal of the empirical rationalism of Locke and subsequently Hume, which can be seen as the basis for the Enlightenment assertion that the human mind is formed by the sense impressions it receives from the world around it, lent substantial weight to the importance of experience and environment in the development of personality. Human beings could be seen as existentially, rather than essentially determined: where and when they lived their lives mattered.