In 1726 Voltaire in trouble with the French authorities fled to England where he lived for almost three years.
During that time he learned English and got to know many of the luminaries of the English literary scene, he also got to know the English political system rather well. After he return from England he wrote a short book about England and various philosophical issues called Lettres Philosophiques translated into English as Letters on England.2 Because Voltaire used England as a foil to criticize French social and political practice this work got him into trouble again and he had to go again into exile.3
In this work Voltaire uses the technique of writing in the form of expository letters to the reader on various issues and subjects and he starts with four letters on the Quakers, which he regards as a harmless if slightly cracked religious sect.
For example Voltaire states in Letter 1 that a particular Quaker does the following:
That is how our saintly man rather speciously manipulated three or four passages of Holy Writ which seemed to favour his sect, but with the best faith in the world he forgot a hundred that destroyed it.4
Voltaire then discusses religious toleration in England, making an implied contrast with the significantly less tolerant attitude in France.
This is the land of sects. An Englishman, as a free man, goes to Heaven by whatever route he likes.6
When they hear that in France young men notorious for their debauches and appointed to bishoprics through the intrigues of women, make love in public, find fun in composing tender love-songs, give long and exquisite suppers every night, and then go straight to pray for the light of the holy Ghost and brazenly call themselves the successors of the Apostles, they thank God they are Protestants. But, of course, they are wicked heretics fit to be burned with all the devils, as Master Francois Rabelais says, and that is why I don’t get mixed up in their affairs.7
If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism, if there were two they would cut each other’s throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness.8
No doubt liberty has only been established in England at a heavy cost, and the idol of despotic power has been drowned in seas of blood, but the English do not feel they have paid too high a price for good laws. The other nations have had no fewer troubles and have shed no less blood, but the blood they have poured out in the cause of their liberty has only cemented their servitude.9
In the detestable times of Charles IX and Henri III the only question was whether one should be a slave of the Guises.10
Voltaire contrasts the attitude of the English nobility with the French nobility’s attitude:
The rest of the letters talk about various aspects of life and literature in England, with Voltaire basically presenting to a French audience aspects English culture that most of his readers would know little or nothing about. After a brief letter about inoculation with smallpox,13 which Voltaire thinks is a good idea the rest of the letters are concerned, with one exception, with English, literary and Scientific figures, which Voltaire is introducing to his French audience.Yet I wonder which is the more useful to a nation, a well-powdered nobleman who knows exactly at what minute the King gets up and goes to bed, and who gives himself grand airs while playing the part of a slave in some Minister’s antechamber, or a business man who enriches his country, issues orders from his office to Surat or Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.12
Thus we have letters on Comedy and Tragedy.14 Other Letters on Francis Bacon, John Locke, Several letters on Isaac Newton.15 Some letters on the poets like the Earl of Rochester, Waller, and Pope.16 and a letter on English educational institutions.17
Even in the latter sections of this work Voltaire critiques French society as in this passage:
The English have even been reproached for going too far in the honours they award to mere merit. They have been criticized for burying in Westminster Abby the famous actress Mrs Oldfield with nearly the same honours that were paid to Newton. It has been suggested by some that they had effected to honour the memory of an actress to this extent in order to make us appreciate still more the barbarous injustice they reproach us with, namely of having thrown the body of Mlle Lecouvreur on to the garbage heap.18At the time, in France, actresses with regarded as little better than street walkers, no matter how accomplished, and frequently even denied burial in cemeteries. Voltaire regarded such treatment and attitudes as simply scandalous.
The book ends with a letter, standing out like a sore thumb, on the French, Mystic, Theologian and Philosopher Pascal.19 It seems as if it was put in to pad up the book. It is also basically a polemic. Perhaps I will discus it another time.
In this rather engaging book Voltaire critiques his own society by describing another society. That being his purpose he largely ignores the failings of English society and government.
1, A complete listing of his output would be tiresome here are some samples, his plays Oepius, Irene, History of Charles XII, his stories Zadig, Candide, his Philosophical Dictionary, his poems The Maid (La Pucelle), Henriade. For good translations of his stories and novellas see Voltaire, Voltaire: Candide, Zadig and Selected Stories, New American Library, New York, 1961. For a short introduction to Voltaire’s philosophy see Durant, Will, The Story of Philosophy, Washington Square Press Inc., New York, 1952, Chapter 5, Voltaire and the French Enlightenment, pp. 199-252.
2, Voltaire, Letters on England, Penguin books, London, 1980, pp. 7-19, Voltaire, 1961, pp. vii-xiv.
4, Voltaire, 1980, p. 29.
5, IBID. Letter 4, pp. 32-36.
6, IBID. p. 37.
7, IBID. 39.
8, IBID. p. 41.
9, IBID. p. 45.
10, IBID. p. 46.
11, IBID. pp. 47-50.
12, IBID. p. 52.
13, IBID. Letter 11, pp. 53-56.
14, IBID. Letters 18-19, pp. 92-100.
15, IBID. Francis Bacon Letter 12, pp. 57-61, John Locke Letter 13, pp. 62-67, Isaac Newton Letters 14-17, pp. 68-91.
16. IBID. Letters 21-22, pp. 103-114.
17, IBID. Letter 24, pp. 115-119.
18. IBID. p. 112.
19. IBID. Letter 25, pp. 120-145.