"Truth is an abstract word which most men use indifferently in their books and judgements, for error and falsehood." 1
"let us refuse our belief to every historian, ancient and modern, who relates things contrary to nature, and to the general character of the human mind." 2
"The qualification in which historians are commonly defective is a true philosophical spirit ; most of them, as they now are, instead of discussing matters of fact with men, content themselves with telling tales to children." 3
"Take care of extraordinary stories of all kinds." 4
"There is no certainty, except when it is physically or morally impossible that the thing can be otherwise." 5
"If you had asked the whole earth, before the time of Copernicus, Has the sun risen ? has it set to-day ? All men would have answered, We are quite certain of it. They were certain, and they were in error.Witchcraft, divinations, and possessions, were for a long time the most certain things in the world, in the eyes of society. What an innumerable crowd of people who had seen all these fine things, and who have been certain of them ! At present, this certainty is a little shaken." 6
"Historical truths are but probabilities." 7
"He who has heard the thing told by twelve thousand ocular witnesses, has only twelve thousand probabilities equal to one strong one, which is not equal to certainty.If you have the thing from only one of those witnesses, you are sure of nothing—you must doubt. If the witness is dead, you must doubt still more, for you can enlighten yourself no further. If from several deceased witnesses, you are in the same state.If from those to whom the witnesses have only spoken, the doubt is still augmented." 8
I learnt of most of the above from Scottish historian John Bennett Black's book The Art of History: A Study of Four Great Historians of the Eighteenth Century, original published in 1926, and in which he wrote:
"According to Voltaire, the outstanding weakness of previous historical books lay in the thoroughly unsound and unscientific data : they failed to discriminate clearly between the true and the fabulous. All other departments of secular knowledge had yielded, or were yielding to the inroads of the scientific spirit ; history alone remained the stronghold of of credulity, obscurantism, and tradition. The consequence was that the record of the past was encumbered and distorted by all manner of absurdities such as only immature minds could be expected to swallow. "The majority of historians," he remarks, "instead of discussing facts with men, tell stories to children." This defect, he thought, could only be remedied by importing a healthy scepticism into history, or pyrrhonisme, which would draw a meridian line once for all between the provinces of fable and history proper." 9
1. Entry: 'Truth'. A Philosophical Dictionary From the French of M. De Voltaire Vol. VI. London: John & Henry Hunt. 1824. p.295.
2. Preface to History of Charles XII, King of Sweden (1731) cf. Smollett, T. et al. The Works of M. De Voltaire. Translated from the French. With Notes, Historical and Critical. Vol. X. London: J. Newbery et al. 1762. p.55.
3. Ibid. p.4.
4. Entry: 'Diodorus of Sicily and Herodotus'. A Philosophical Dictionary From the French of M. De Voltaire Vol. III. London: John & Henry Hunt. 1824. p.6.
5. Entry: 'Certain— Certainty'. A Philosophical Dictionary From the French of M. De Voltaire Vol. II. London: John & Henry Hunt. 1824. p.119.
6. Ibid. p.120.
7. Entry 'Truth'. Dict. Vol. VI. opt. cit. p.296.
9. Black, John Bennett. The Art of History: A Study of Four Great Historians of the Eighteenth Century. NY: Russell & Russell. 1965. p.51.