Vendredi Voltaire – Mapping the Universe of Letters


Voltaire was an epic correspondent.

The “Republic of Letters” project at Stanford [rol] is analyzing Voltaire’s letters and building relationship maps. It’s a pretty cool idea though I’m not sure what we learn from it other than:

1740 letter to Frederic of Prussia

  • Voltaire wrote a lot (we already knew that)
  • Voltaire read a lot (we already knew that)

He certainly had wide reach and, when you build maps of who wrote to whom, the entire enlightenment is like a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” except it’s “everyone who was anyone is two hops from Voltaire.”

I love the letter to Frederic – since Voltaire never did anything by accident, I assume that the sizes of the lettering was deliberate: Frederic the person’s name is jammed in between a great sandwich of puffery “TO HIS MAJESTY” Frederic “THE KING OF PRUSSIA” Voltaire’s relationship with Frederic was stormy; since this letter from 1740 would have been from before his captivity tenure at Potsdam (1750-1753) we probably shouldn’t infer about their relationship at that stage.

There are several different map-building tools that render Voltaire’s communications as heat-maps. So we can see that apparently he never exchanged letters with Benjamin Franklin, though they met once shortly before Voltaire died. It doesn’t sound like it was much of a meeting – mostly a pro forma enlightenment fist-bump so Franklin could fan-boy: “I met Voltaire, once.”

Did I mention that Voltaire was a prolific writer?

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I still have not gotten an answer as to whether or not Voltaire did his own manuscript. I am fairly sure he did. If you google image search for “Voltaire letter” there are many scans and the handwriting looks the same. Which, now, gets me to thinking it’d be fun to have a Voltaire font made. [buzz] Seems like a bit of tedious cut and paste in photoshop but it ought to be doable. I have Sidney Lanier and HP Lovecraft fonts that I use for labels on chemistry bottles.

The Stanford Project has a lovely banner that evokes the whirlwind of Voltaire:

It would be pretty easy to extract this kind of information from an archive of emails, though spam would (as it always does) clutter things up.

The police state is developing a lot of these technologies so they can semantically map networks of messages to determine who started a meme, or who started planning for a protest. At this time, the granddaddy of them all is Palantir (though Raytheon’s Silent Runner goes back to the early 90s)

Palantir: “drill down into subsets of data”

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