Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Letters on England by Voltaire.

Portrait of Voltaire by
Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1735).
1779 edition of Letters.
Letters on England, also known as Letters Concerning the English Nation, Letters on the English, and the French title Lettres philosophiques is a series of essays about (as the title suggests) the English nation. It was written by Voltaire and published in 1733.

In May 1726 Voltaire arrived in London having fled France: he had challenged an aristocrat, the Chevalier de Rohan (Guy Auguste de Rohan-Chabot), to a duel. Taking this as an insult more than anything, the Chevalier ordered his men to beat up Voltaire, and then obtain a warrant for his arrest. So, from 1726 to 1729 Voltaire stayed in England (on Maiden Lane, in Covent Garden, London) to escape a second imprisonment in the Bastille (the first was in 1717 because of his poems), in which time he learned English and about English culture, and how it differed from France. His thoughts and philosophy is recorded in Lettres philosophiques.

Covent Garden Market and St Pauls by Balthazar Nebot (1737).
The book is divided into twenty five short essays or letters which cover:

Religion (Letters 1 - 7):

Here Voltaire writers about the Quakers (letters 1 - 4), Anglicans (5), Presbyterians (6), and Socinians (7). He observes,
This is a land of sects. An Englishman, as a free man, goes to Heaven by whatever route he likes.
And later writes,
If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.
Throughout he compares the religious way of life to that of France, appreciating the simplicity of the Quakers, the clergy of the Anglicans compared with that of French Catholics, and the intellectual tradition of the Socinians (such as Isaac Newton and John Locke), writing,
The members of this sect are, besides, too few to be indulged the liberty of holding public assemblies, which, however, they will, doubtless, be permitted to do in case they spread considerably. But people are now so very cold with respect to all things of this kind, that there is little probability any new religion, or old one, that may be revived, will meet with favour. Is it not whimsical enough that Luther, Calvin, and Zuinglius, all of them wretched authors, should have founded sects which are now spread over a great part of Europe, that Mahomet, though so ignorant, should have given a religion to Asia and Africa, and that Sir Isaac Newton, Dr. Clark, Mr. Locke, Mr. Le Clerc, etc., the greatest philosophers, as well as the ablest writers of their ages, should scarcely have been able to raise a little flock, which even decreases daily.
The Presbyterians, he writes, are too strict and intolerant, and he compares them with Anglicans:
A Church of England minister appears as another Cato in presence of a juvenile, sprightly French graduate, who bawls for a whole morning together in the divinity schools, and hums a song in chorus with ladies in the evening; but this Cato is a very spark when before a Scotch Presbyterian. The latter affects a serious gait, puts on a sour look, wears a vastly broad-brimmed hat and a long cloak over a very short coat, preaches through the nose, and gives the name of the whore of Babylon to all churches where the ministers are so fortunate as to enjoy an annual revenue of five or six thousand pounds, and where the people are weak enough to suffer this, and to give them the titles of my lord, your lordship, or your eminence.
Politics (Letters 8 - 9): 

A View of the grand Palace of Westminster / Vüe du Palais Episcopal de Westminster (1750).
In these letters, "On Parliament" and "On the Government" Voltaire begins by arguing that the members of the English Parliament compare themselves to Romans, however, Voltaire argues they have no business to do so:
In my opinion, the majesty of the people of England has nothing in common with that of the people of Rome, much less is there any affinity between their Governments. There is in London a senate, some of the members whereof are accused (doubtless very unjustly) of selling their voices on certain occasions, as was done in Rome; this is the only resemblance. Besides, the two nations appear to me quite opposite in character, with regard both to good and evil. The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious wars, an abomination reserved for devout preachers of patience and humility. Marius and Sylla, Cæsar and Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, did not draw their swords and set the world in a blaze merely to determine whether the flamen should wear his shirt over his robe, or his robe over his shirt, or whether the sacred chickens should eat and drink, or eat only, in order to take the augury. The English have hanged one another by law, and cut one another to pieces in pitched battles, for quarrels of as trifling a nature. The sects of the Episcopalians and Presbyterians quite distracted these very serious heads for a time. But I fancy they will hardly ever be so silly again, they seeming to be grown wiser at their own expense; and I do not perceive the least inclination in them to murder one another merely about syllogisms, as some zealots among them once did. 
Later he writes about the Magna Carta, selecting parts of interest, particularly with regards to justice and taxes.

Commerce (Letter 10):

Voltaire writes that trade, success, and the freedom of the English are intrinsically linked: "As trade enriched the citizens in England, so it contributed to their freedom, and this freedom on the other side extended their commerce, whence arose the grandeur of the State." He then goes on to write about attitudes to tradesmen in France and the necessity of tradesmen to the good of the world:
In France the title of marquis is given gratis to any one who will accept of it; and whosoever arrives at Paris from the midst of the most remote provinces with money in his purse, and a name terminating in ac or ille, may strut about, and cry, “Such a man as I! A man of my rank and figure!” and may look down upon a trader with sovereign contempt; whilst the trader on the other side, by thus often hearing his profession treated so disdainfully, is fool enough to blush at it. However, I need not say which is most useful to a nation; a lord, powdered in the tip of the mode, who knows exactly at what o’clock the king rises and goes to bed, and who gives himself airs of grandeur and state, at the same time that he is acting the slave in the ante-chamber of a prime minister; or a merchant, who enriches his country, despatches orders from his counting-house to Surat and Grand Cairo, and contributes to the well-being of the world.

Medicine (Letter 11):

In this Voltaire writes in favour of inoculation, a practice viewed with great mistrust in the rest of Europe:
It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil. The English, on the other side, call the rest of the Europeans cowardly and unnatural. Cowardly, because they are afraid of putting their children to a little pain; unnatural, because they expose them to die one time or other of the small-pox.
Famous Britons (Letters 12 - 17):

Voltaire writes on Francis Bacon (Letter 12), John Locke (Letter 13), and Isaac Newton (Letters 14 - 17). 

Art and Literature (Letters 18 - 24):

Although I enjoyed all of Voltaire's letters, this section was by far the most enjoyable, I suppose because I felt I could engage with it a little more; everything so far was unfamiliar, even unknown to me. In this section he writes about tragedy (condemning all English tragedians before Joseph Addison, arguing "His Cato of Utica is a masterpiece in diction and beauty of verse"). On Shakespeare he writes of Hamlet, referring to the gravediggers scene as "stupidities", and also on Othello, writing,
You know that in the tragedy of the Moor of Venice, a most touching play, a husband strangles his wife on the stage, and while the poor woman is being strangled, she shrieks that she is dying most undeservedly.
William Congreve by Godfrey Kneller (1709).
In Letter 19 he writes on comedy, praising, in particular, William Congreve (author of The Old Bachelor, 1693, The Double Dealer, 1694, Love for Love, 1695, The Mourning Bride, 1697, and The Way of the World, 1700), saying these few plays "are all excellent of their kind".

In Letters 20 - 21 he writes of "noble lords who cultivate literature", and in Letter 21 he refers to the letters of the Earl of Rochester and Edmund Waller. In Letter 22 he writes on the poetry of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and in Letter 23 he argues that the English show far more respect and reverence to their men of letters than the French do for theirs:
The English have so great a veneration for exalted talents, that a man of merit in their country is always sure of making his fortune. Mr. Addison in France would have been elected a member of one of the academies, and, by the credit of some women, might have obtained a yearly pension of twelve hundred livres, or else might have been imprisoned in the Bastille, upon pretence that certain strokes in his tragedy of Cato had been discovered which glanced at the porter of some man in power.  
Finally, in Letter 24 he compares he Royal Society of London with the Académie Française. He concludes,
As for the Académie Française, what a service it would render to literature, the language and the nation if instead of printing compliments year by year it printed the really good works of the age of Louis XIV, cleansed of all the flaws of language that have crept into them. 
Philosophy (Letter 25):

This is the final letter, which was not included in the first editions of Letters on England. In it Voltaire writes on Blaise Pascal's Pensées (1670), criticising various points and putting forward his own ideas on the condition of man and mankind.


That, then, is a brief synopsis of Voltaire's Letters on England. It was an immensely enjoyable read. I'm still new to Enlightenment literature and philosophies, but I'm gradually introducing myself to writers (so far only Voltaire and Diderot) and I've learned a lot, particularly from Voltaire about both England and France during this period. Reading about one's own country from an "outside" perspective is naturally very intriguing. Although I was, as I said, unfamiliar with some subjects, and admittedly other subjects in this work do look a little dry they are far from it. Voltaire writes with great energy and wit, even making "inoculation" an entertaining and illuminating read. I have read Candide, Voltaire's 1759 novella, but it may be time for a re-read. I also plan on reading a biography, Voltaire Almighty by Roger Pearson (2005) very soon.

Further Reading


  1. Right now I am reading Rousseau, and he explains that Voltaire inspired him write. He expected him to start a revolution in France. Rousseau and Diderot were friends, too.

    I have never been interested in reading philosophy-type books, BUT this one sounds worthwhile. Another one for the TBR list.

    1. As of last night, after reading through Book 9 of The Confessions, well, it seems like Rousseau and Voltaire had some contradictions and actually challenged each other through their works and ideas. So Voltaire may have initially inspired Rousseau to write, they never were not on friendly terms. And uh, as for Diderot...while Rousseau claims to have loved him, they had a lot of jealousies and conflict between themselves. So, so much for that little trivia.

    2. I mean, "never were on friendly terms."

    3. I need to re-read Confession - I loved the beginning, but I think I lost my way with it a bit. I might find it more engaging now I know a tiny little bit more :)

  2. This is a most useful book. Helpful with 18th century England, and helpful with Voltaire. For example, he makes it clear enough why no one reads Voltaire's own plays anymore, doesn't he? Ha ha ha!

    1. Actually I didn't even know Voltaire wrote any plays until I read this! Not sure I'll be rushing to check them out quite yet, though... :)

  3. I've read so much literature from an English perspective that it's really interesting to read something from an outside perspective. This sounds like a useful source on both 18th Century England and France.

    1. Yes, I do think it is. It's so easy to read as well. As I said, listing things the way I did might make it look a bit dry but it's far from it!

  4. I'm reading Rousseau along with Ruth. What I've learned is that these Enlightenment thinkers are particularly touchy, even less forgiving, and seem to think that their ideas are always right. They squabble and squabble and squabble some more.

    I can see how the French system had a certain rigour and expectations that may have been difficult to always get right, something that it even exhibits today. I imagine England would have seemed freer to Voltaire, or at least, less demanding and less judgemental. I've yet to get to the part in Rousseau's Confessions where he is exiled (I think) to England but if he write about it, it will be interesting to compare their impressions. Rousseau is such a man of habit that I can't see him enjoying himself there, but perhaps I do him a disservice. We will see ......

    1. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Confessions. And yes, Voltaire found England to be much freer to France. What I found quite funny (and this is probably not going to make you or anyone laugh but I did!) - in the very short biography at the beginning (just a paragraph long) whoever wrote it said Voltaire returned to France exhilarated and full of ideas - it just made me laugh because I could easily imagine someone, having been exiled, creeping back in all apologetic, but sounds like Voltaire was quite the opposite :) I can imagine him re-entering and declaring "It was so good I'm going to write a book about it!" Being exiled was not quite the punishment some might have hoped it would be :)


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