Letters on England, a collection of letters written by Voltaire while living in exile in England, comprises Voltaire’s observations on English politics, governance, religion, science, and literature. Coming from a country where its citizens are constantly suppressed and that they live practically under the thumb of the monarchy, aristocrats, and clergy, Voltaire was most appreciative of the freedom and liberty enjoyed by the British commoners. This is of course on a relative level. One mustn’t misunderstand that there was a full liberty for citizens in England as we understand the word today. Comparatively, however, it was a much freer society to Voltaire coming from an oppressed one.
First and foremost, Voltaire was struck by the amount of religious freedom and tolerance exercised in England. “This is the land of sects. An Englishman, as a free man, goes to Heaven by whatever route he likes” says he, which is a total contrast to France where Catholicism dominated to the elimination of any other religious sect. The dominant Catholicism was intolerant of other religious views and was often cruel and unjust to them. According to Voltaire intolerance, injustice, and cruelty were the three most unforgivable sins. Voltaire, however, was an intelligent and a practical man and he understood that where there is one dominant religion, it is impossible, in any society, to achieve the sort of peace and harmony which he envisaged. “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.” And in these satirical terms, Voltaire expresses the extent of religious harmony in English society. “Go into the London Stock Exchange…Here Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt”!
Voltaire was full of praise for the governing system in England. “The English nation is the only one on earth which has succeeded in controlling the power of kings by resisting them, which by effort after effort has at last established this wise system of government in which the prince, all-powerful for doing good, has his hands tied for doing evil. The House of Lords and the Commons are the arbiters of the nation, the king is the super-arbiter.” He believed that no other country in Europe, not even Rome, had steered a nation like England towards unity and good governance. And he expresses himself thus: “The outcome of civil wars in Rome was slavery, and that of the troubles in England liberty”. ” What becomes a revolution in England is only a sedition in other countries.”
Voltaire was also impressed by the freedom enjoyed by English scientists and how unlike in France, didn’t depend on a higher patronage. It was obvious from his letters that he simply adored Sir Isaac Newton, for nearly one-fifth of the letters are dedicated to him and explaining his theories. “If true greatness consists in having received from heaven a powerful genius and in having used it to enlighten himself and others, a man such as Newton, the like of whom is scarcely to be found in ten centuries, is the truly great man…It is to the man who rules over minds by the power of truth, not to those who enslave men by violence, it is to the man who understands the universe and not to those who disfigure it, that we owe our respect.”
Voltaire’s take on the literary men was most interesting. Of the great Bard, he writes: “He had a strong and fertile genius, full of naturalness and sublimity, without the slightest spark of good taste or the least knowledge of the rules.” While thus dismissing Shakespeare, Voltaire proceeds to praise Congreve in these terms: “He only wrote a few plays but they are all excellent of their kind. The rules of the theatre are rigorously observed; the plays are full of characters differentiated with extreme subtlety, you don’t encounter the slightest coarse joke, everywhere you find the language of well-mannered people with the actions of rogues, which proves that he knew his world and lived in what is called good society.” This, coming from the man who later wrote Candide, was quite amusing. It seems that this younger Voltaire was somewhat a moralist. 🙂 The praise on Alexander Pope was quite welcoming to me. Being absolutely in love with his translation on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I was happy to hear Voltaire sing his praises: “Pope who is, I think, the most elegant, the most correct and, what is much more, the most musical poet England has ever had. He has reduced the harsh blarings of the English trumpet to the soft sounds of the flute.”
Voltaire admired the status enjoyed by the scientists and literary men in England, whereas in France, the scientists and literary men had to play second fiddle to the nobility and clergy. “In England as a rule people think, and literature is more honoured than in France. This advantage is a natural outcome of the form of their government.”
Through his letters, Voltaire exposes many areas in which France needs improving. However, these letters shouldn’t be taken as observation of a young impressionable Voltaire. He was not biased. There are areas in England that hadn’t escaped his critical eye. But on the whole, and comparatively, he was impressed by the amount of freedom enjoyed by his fellow men across the channel.