Voltaire’s Letters on England is a collection of written documents that Voltaire wrote between 1726 and 1729 on his experiences he had while staying in England. After its publication in French in 1734, many people of French ethnicity saw it as a bashing of the French government, and even a little bit on the Catholic religion. Voltaire does seem to be fairly favorable towards the English in his letters, which is understandable after he was exiled in his homeland of France multiple times. In many cases Voltaire saw in England what he wished to see in France. In England,
Voltaire saw a land with a more tolerant government, and freedom of religion as compared to France, which he saw as cruel and oppressive. Voltaire goes into detail, comparing multiple aspects of life in his letters on the English culture compared to how he perceived life in France. Voltaire talks about religion, politics, trade and commerce, medicine, famous Brits, art, and finally philosophy. Voltaire’s Letters on England tell us Just as much about life in France and what Voltaire thought needed to be done in order for France to grow as a nation as it does about life in England.
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These letters provide an insight to one of the most cunning and intelligent men of the era, and what he thought needed to be done in order to shape French government and religion. Before diving farther into Voltaire’s letters, I would like to provide a little background information on Voltaire himself. Voltaire was born on November 21, 1694 in Paris, France by the name of Francois-Marie Arouet. Voltaire, a famous writer during the enlightenment era was one of the most versatile writers of all time. Voltaire wrote plays, poems, novels, essays, historical works, and scientific works. In other words Voltaire basically did it all.
Voltaire wrote more than 20,000 letters (like the ones in Letters on England) and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. Voltaire’s writings often got him into trouble with French law. His writings often critiqued French government and its intolerance of freedom of religion. These writings led to multiple arrests and even exile. Although his father wanted him to study law to be a more respected man in society, Voltaire continued to write on what he believed in. Today Voltaire’s writings are considered to be some of the most influential of his time period, many of which led to a change in French attitude towards politics and eligion.
Voltaire’s first seven letters in Letters on England all focus on the aspect of religion. Letters one through four focus on the Quakers, followed by the Anglicans (5), the Presbyterians (6), and finally the Socinians (7). Voltaire first begins with the Quakers. He talks about their customs, beliefs, and history of their religion. Voltaire is very intrigued by the Quakers in his writings especially in the simplicity of their customs. He is surprised to find out that the Quakers don’t baptize their youth, they don’t have priests, and that they even dress differently Just to remind themselves to ot resemble other religions.
The Quakers were so simplistic that they weren’t even allowed to hold positions of office because they would be forced to swear an oath, “Quakers cannot be members of Parliament nor hold any office because it would mean taking an oath, and they will not sear. They are reduced to the necessity of earning money tnrougn commerce. ” I nese Ideas ana DelleTs were new to voltalre. They were something that he would not have seen in France with the Catholics, and it seemed almost refreshing to him to see a group of people not obsessed with the fascination of wealth and power.
In letter five Voltaire talks about the Anglicans, which he compares to the French Catholics. Voltaire does not look at the Anglicans as favorably as he did of the Quakers. The Anglicans and the role that they play in the English government remind him too much of the Catholics and their role in controlling the French government. mfou cannot hold office in England or Ireland without being one of the Anglican faithful, and this, which is an excellent proof, has converted so many Nonconformists that today there is less than a twentieth of the nation outside the bosom of the dominant Church.
Voltaire was a big believer in separation of religion and state, so it is easily understood why he would not like the idea of one religion having such a dominant hold public office. This is one of the many issues brought up in Letters on England that the French took as a slight towards themselves after the letters were published. I believe that Voltaire was so firm on his belief ofa separation of religion and state because he himself was not a follower of any said religion. Although Voltaire was not an atheist as many believed him to be. Voltaire did not believe that a person did not have to be involved in any one religion to elieve in God.
Voltaire believed in a higher power one supreme, intelligent being but not in any one particular religion. Although there are aspects of the Anglicans that Voltaire does seem to disapprove of, he does believe the Anglicans to be more virtuous than the French Catholics; another insult to the French people. “In morals the Anglican clergy are more virtuous than the French, and this is why…. They are not called to the higher positions in the church until very late in life and at an age when men have no other passion than avarice, when their ambition has little to feed on. “
He goes on to talk about how positions in England rewarded for long services in not only the church, but also the army. He talks about how all of the clergy are educated at Oxford or Cambridge, far away from the corruption of the capital, which I can only assume he means the capital of France. In Letters six and seven Voltaire continues his talk of religion in England compared France. Although Voltaire has his issues with the Anglicans and their dominance in English government positions, he does recognize the fact that English religious tolerance is much greater than in France, something that Voltaire is eager to point ut. 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. ” Once again Voltaire is able to compare English tolerance to France and once again it is in English favor. Voltaire although speaking of English religion, seems to really be talking about the French and the Catholics need to dominate the country not only religiously but politically as well. In letters eight and nine Voltaire talks about the English Parliament.
Voltaire compares English government to both Rome and France. Like religion he has both positive and negative highlights on the way England runs its government. Although he praises England for the fact that they are more tolerant of religion in his first few letters, England’s history has shown that it has not always been tolerant of other rellglons, ana It Is Tor tnls reason tnat voltalre does not see tne comparlson Detween English government and Roman government. “The members of the English Parliament like to compare themselves, as far as the can, to the ancient Romans…. confess I see nothing in common between the majesty of the English people and that f the Romans, still less between their governments…. Besides, the two nations seem to me entirely different, both in good and evil. The horrible madness of wars of religion was quite unknown to the Romans. ” Although Voltaire faults the English for these religious wars, he praises them for the fact that they served liberty over tyranny. Voltaire praises the English for their ability to not be ruled by Kings.
Although there have been Monarchs in England and to continue to have that tradition even today, they did not have absolute power which is what Voltaire is impressed with. When Voltaire compares the English government to the French overnment, he praises the English Judicial system. He compares the English court process as compared to what he says were absolute murders of Henry Ill and Henry IV of France. Voltaire goes on to talk about the use of trade. He praises the English for their use of the trade system and the benefits that it brings to their nation.
Voltaire talks about how it is trade that gave the English people its power and its ability to become a naval power house. He also criticizes the French for disregarding trade. At the end of letter ten Voltaire asks the question (and I’m paraphrasing), what is more mportant, the nobleman who knows what time the gets up and goes to bed? Or the businessman who enriches his country and contributes to the well-being of the world? Although Voltaire puts this into question, I think that it is fairly obvious that he believes that the ladder is better for a nation.
Once again Voltaire is questioning the way the French government operates, and based on his arguments it would be hard to take the side of the French. In letter 11 Voltaire talks about English medication and more specifically inoculation. Inoculation is the practice ofa preemptive strike on a disease. It would be compared toa flu shot in todays time period. Voltaire praises the English in such matters. The English would give their children small pox at an early age, when their bodies were strong enough to handle such a disease in order to prevent them getting it at a later time in their life when it could be more fatal.
In 1723, France had a small pox epidemic in which 20,000 people or so were killed. I think that this letter was once again meant for French officials; to let them know that inoculation is a good thing and is another thing that the French could pick up from the English. Letters 12 through 17 focus on some of the more famous and influential people that the English had to offer during the enlightenment period, and what they had accomplished. Voltaire talks about Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Voltaire spends most of his time focusing on Isaac Newton (four letters), especially on his comparison between Newton and Rene Descartes.
Voltaire talks about how everyone in England knows Newton and Descartes. He discredits the English by saying that nobody reads either of their works, but that they all like to talk about them. He states that the English give all the credit to Newton and disregard verything that Descartes did. Although Voltaire seems to agree with the English that Newton was a great mathematician and deserves a lot of credit, he also states that w nou Descartes mayoe Newton Isn’t aDle to accompllsn wnat ne accompllsnea, stating that: “the man who set us on the road to the truth is perhaps as noteworthy as the one who since then has been to the end of the road. Voltaire’s last few letters speak of art and the contributions people like William Shakespeare had brought to England, but I do not believe that these letters portray to France as much as some of the others. Voltaire is able to really slander French in any different areas of politics and religion without being completely direct about what he was doing.
I believe that although Voltaire is writing these letters about what he had learned from the English he is at the same time, and even more so writing about what the French need to learn from the English in order to become a better nation politically, economically, and religiously. To me I think that it is pretty obvious that Voltaire has a lot of issues with France, and rightfully so, but I do believe that he wrote this in the hopes that France would learn from its mistakes and become the nation that it was capable of becoming.